Most Innovative Law Schools

Chicago-Kent, Gonzaga and the University of Detroit Mercy are just a sampling of schools reinventing the law school model.

Staid. Boring. Predictable.

These adjectives describe what some people think about law school. Their opinions would change radically if they could see what a select group of legal institutions are doing these days. These law schools are shunning tradition and trying new, extraordinary methods to help their students jet to the top of their profession.

At the request of preLaw magazine, the nation’s law school deans nominated the schools, faculty and programs they felt were among the most innovative. Whether it is upgraded student services, creative clinics or radical coursework, these educators are taking law school to the next level.

“We want to train our students for the jobs of the 21st Century, the jobs that exist today,” said Mark Gordon, dean of the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law, one of the 10 law schools on preLaw‘s list. “And the traditional model of legal education is not geared toward training students to be 21stCentury lawyers as they could or should be.” Plus, the people running these ground-breaking programs say they are just plain cool – an adjective they would prefer to have associated with legal education. “I think when you’re having fun, it is the best way to learn,” said Mike Panter, a veteran trial lawyer and adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law. Find out what “cool” things these law schools are doing, from innovative curriculum to student services.

Chicago-Kent College of Law

When computers were just massive, data-crunching monsters, Chicago-Kent College of Law was already pondering how these new machines would affect the practice of law.

Decades later, the law school is still thinking about technology, only on a grander scale, explained Dean Harold Krent. Its award-winning Center for Access to Justice and Technology is changing the way students, faculty and the public utilize the legal profession. “We focus on how the law intersects technology,” Krent said. “It’s more than just reacting (to technology). We’re predicting what will happen.” Students can choose from electives covering topics such as e-commerce, electronic discovery, Internet law, biotechnology and nanotechnology. One of Chicago-Kent’s newest courses in litigation technology shows students how to use digital evidence and to manage technology during a trial.

One of Krent’s favorite examples is a group of students who recently took their knowledge and turned it into one of the most successful new courtroom technologies to date: the Self-Help Web Center. The Center is a kiosk system aimed at helping self-represented litigants become more familiar with the legal system. Users are guided through the process of creating documents like fee waiver forms or motions to extend time to move out in eviction cases. These Centers are found in state courts across the nation, Krent said, and they have proven so successful that they are now in a pilot program to go into federal courthouses as well. “By understanding how technology has changed the law, students will become better lawyers in the future,” Krent said.

DePaul University College of Law

Turnabout is fair play at DePaul University College of Law. A new course called Litigation Lab gives second and third year law students a chance to hear practicing attorneys arguing a case. Then, the lawyers give a listen to what the students have to say.

The result is a mutually beneficial learning environment, according to Mike Panter, founding director of the collaborative skills class. Panter, a DePaul graduate, managed his own litigation firm for nearly 30 years and is a newly appointed Circuit Court judge. Beforehand, one student project director works with the presenting attorney, collects the relevant materials and summarizes them for the class. During the case presentation, students analyze the case, the attorney’s approach and overall logic. They also learn about everything that goes into a real case from witness preparation to jury questionnaires to closing arguments. It also provides a true networking experience for students, who have been hired by some of the attorneys presenting to the class. “Students just completely love it. The lawyers love it. … I think it is amazing that DePaul was willing to try this,” Panter said. Students sign a confidentiality agreement, so everyone in the class feels relaxed enough to really go at it, Panter said. They can argue, debate and discuss to their heart’s content. Students develop trust, a respect for their own ideas and an understanding that instinct can be a lawyer’s best asset. “It gets students into lawyers’ heads,” Panter added. “It’s a safe place for students and for lawyers.”

Gonzaga University School of Law

When it comes to curriculum, most law schools agree with the cliché “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Gonzaga’s faculty took the opposite approach. In the spring of 2007, the law school agreed to do a comprehensive program review. The result was an overhaul that reinforces the school’s commitment to skills training but also elevates professionalism throughout the curriculum, said Dean Earl Martin. “This is a grand investment,” Martin said. “I’m so proud of our faculty for committing themselves to this.”

The new curriculum will go into effect in the fall of 2009. The most significant change is a fresh integration between every course, Martin said, touching on Gonzaga’s core values of imparting knowledge, professionalism and skill enhancement. For example, first year students will take a litigation skills lab in their first semester. This lab will focus on a case study following the life of a tort case. The goal is to take students through a series of skills exercises and professionalism problems. Students also will face ethical issues that may arise in this sort of representation. Then during their second year, they will refer back to the simulations from that lab experience during one of their legal research and writing courses. This will allow them to fully comprehend the issues brought up in the earlier session, Martin said. “We’re breaking down the silos (and) creating a curriculum that builds on itself,” Martin said. “This integration across courses will give students a real set of skills.”

New York Law School

Talk about resume building – a recent group of New York Law School students can tell potential employers how they drafted a bill that Vermont signed into law this past summer. Another group working on patent issues proved so successful that many received job offers from the law school’s partner companies, including IBM.

New York Law School is making history – and getting its students top-notch careers – through its academic centers, which focus on project-based learning. The idea, said Dean R Matasar, is to give students real-life skills such as team building, how to work on a deadline and the ability to respond to criticism in a positive way. “The beauty of (project-based learning) is it challenges students to engage in the project – and lets the whole world judge their work,” Matasar said.The students who helped draft the Vermont law were part of the law school’s Virtual Company Project, a course in the Institute for Information Law & Policy. Students helped write a bill that outlined how virtual corporations should be formed, and Vermont legislators embraced the idea, Matasar said.

The other example is from the Peer-to-Patent program, where second- and third-year students work with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Faculty members and students worked with the governmental office, private industry and other experts to help create a community patent system pilot that was put into practice. The program started with New York’s top-ranked students, but it has proven so successful that Matasar said he hopes to roll it out to the rest of the school within a year or two.

Saint Louis University School of Law

It may sound strange, but doing puzzles just might improve a person’s success in law school. That is because they are kinesthetic learners, so cutting up a document and arranging the pieces helps them feel how an analysis should be put together, explained Christine Rollins, director of Saint Louis University School of Law’s Legal Research and Writing Program. The law school recently committed itself to a program that changes how its professors teach based on their students’ learning style. While the results are still preliminary, Rollins said the law school sees great promise. “It’s hard to be creative after saying the same thing three or 400 times. This has made everything more enjoyable for us and brought the excitement back into the classroom,” Rollins said.

Here’s how it works. Incoming students take a 13-question online test. The VARK software lets students know their preferred method of learning based on the answers given, Rollins said. The results are: visual, audio, reader/writer, kinesthetic or a combination of several of these. During the first go-around, some 300 students or 85 percent completed the test. Faculty members, privy to this information, could then adjust their lesson plan to touch on as many different styles as possible. “Most of law school by design is a reader/writer or an oral approach because of the Socratic method. But those are not the only people who come to law school,” Rollins said. “We choose to present materials in more than one way to assure that more students get the concepts in their own language.”

Seattle University School of Law

Self-reflection rarely receives the time it deserves during law school. But that is exactly what the educators at Seattle University School of Lawwant their students to do. To that end, the law school is introducing a “professional formation portfolio,” said Vice Dean Annette Clark. The idea is to give students a framework to inform their choices of courses, volunteer activities, externships and other opportunities – and to assist faculty advisors in providing meaningful guidance.

The portfolio will outline the range of skills and proficiencies that represent the diverse experiences students will face as lawyers, such as writing, interviewing, negotiation and empirical reasoning. During their second and third years, as students pursue specific interests – such as immigration law or family law – they can also evaluate which courses or other activities will enable them to round out their portfolios.

“It’s a tremendous tool for students,” Clark said. “It makes our goals for our students transparent, and it highlights the notion of students being intentional about their own education.” Having an outline of their law school achievements also will be a benefit when they are ready to apply for jobs, Clark said. Students will have a laundry list of sorts to show what they learned and how that improved their skills set, and, more importantly, affects their character as a practicing attorney. The portfolios also will show the law school areas for improvement, allowing the faculty to alter or update their curriculum, Clark said. “We’re all about aspiration,” Clark said.

Syracuse University College of Law

If he had his way, Tomas Gonzalez would give each student at Syracuse University College of Lawtheir own personal chef. That is how important the Director of Student Resources believes good health, exercise and nutrition is to the law-school experience. So while he cannot hire Emeril Lagasse, Gonzalez offers students time with area chefs during what he has dubbed “Wellness Wednesdays.” Along with a quick lunch, the cooks show students how to prepare fast meals and set up menus that will give them the energy they need.

Gonzales feels his job as head of student services is to make law school a more personable experience. He also makes sure the law school offers students leadership development, knowledge about diversity issues and information about disabilities – all things they are going to need when they begin to practice their profession. His efforts begin even before students come on campus. His staff works with incoming 1Ls to help them define their learning style and adapt it to the rigors of law school. Gonzales also personally meets with every student and introduces them to the office, its mentors and services.

“Our staff actively engages the students from the beginning to make sure they’re comfortable and find the support they need on and off campus,” said Gonzales, who even brings in masseuses to help students relax during high-stress times. “The traditional law establishment may question our holistic approach, but that’s an attitude rooted in the old style. That’s not what we’re about,” Gonzales said.

Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center

Some law students go through three years of schooling barely stepping foot into a real courtroom. Not so at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. Thanks to two entirely original programs, Touro students are immersed in the courtroom and public advocacy from the moment they arrive, said Dean Lawrence Raful.

Its Public Advocacy Center is the first in the nation. Touro had some space within its new facility, so the law school decided to mix public interest legal service as well as pro bono legal assistance together. Now in its second year, the Public Advocacy Center is 16 offices that house agencies in areas such as housing, immigration, domestic violence and civil rights. Each tenant receives a rent-free office in exchange for one thing: a promise to use Touro students in advocacy services, research work and client relations.

“Students are able to work at various hours for the agencies because it’s all in one building, and students who are working there are telling other students of the significant progress they are making,” Raful said. Additionally, Touro has the benefit of being the only U.S. law school with two courthouses on campus. To take advantage of this situation, Touro launched its unique Court Observation Program and made it the cornerstone of its new curriculum. “Our students … watch trials, meet judges and lawyers, go through various types of courts and watch trials from arraignment to the penalty phase,” Raful said. “Students see good lawyers and maybe less than competent lawyers, and there is education in that experience, too.”

University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law

Just call him Flash – UDM’s new dean Mark Gordon swung into action from the moment he arrived on campus. He has turned a sleepy little law school into one making headlines across the globe. He’s doing it by creating unique learning and job opportunities for the law school’s students. For example, UDM is the only law school in the continental United States in which students can take up to one-third of their credits toward the JD degree in Spanish.

And while many law schools have environmental clinics, how many actually handle U.S. Department of Justice environmental enforcement actions? The clinic’s professor is a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, and the students have to undergo federal background checks before starting the clinic.

Then there is the much-lauded Law Firm program. Developed with lawyers from around the nation, the Program requires upper-level students to work on simulated complex transactions like large national firms handle. Each course is essentially a different department of the law firm, and the Program now has 15 different departments up and running. “Students in the Law Firm Program that become summer associates tell us they cannot believe how far ahead they are,” Gordon said. UDM also has gotten plenty of attention for its Mobile Law Offices – recreational vehicles that are firms on wheels. Recently, UDM sent students around the country to help veterans seeking federal disability benefits. So far, students and faculty have been to more than 35 cities in nine states, with many more to come.

Washington & Lee University School of Law

For those students who think the third year of law school is redundant, take a look at the new curriculum at Washington & Lee University School of Law. These fresh 3L courses are pushing out of the classroom and into the real world. The new focus is experiential, explained Dean Rodney Smolla, giving students a blend of simulated and actual practice experiences. The courses are in a pilot program this year with hopes of including all of the law school’s students by 2010.

While the courses have the traditional names (Corporate Law or Bankruptcy), they will focus on fictitious clients, cases and files that students will need to work through as young attorneys, Smolla said. He said an advisory board of working lawyers and alumni helped construct the new curriculum based on what they are seeing in today’s law firms and courtrooms.

Students also will have a year-long Professionalism Program that examines what makes modern-day lawyers tick, touching on everything from the profession’s traditions to firm economics to leadership issues. “The rational is that most law students become good by the end of their second year at legal doctrine and theory. What they need is practice at problem solving, counseling clients, advocacy on behalf of clients and all of the other aspects of practicing that make it so stimulating,” Smolla said. “The practice of law is not an essay or multiple-choice exam. The practice of law is dealing with people, businesses and organizations to solve problems,” he added. “We’re helping them to be lawyers and not just think like lawyers.”

This guest post was authored by Karen Dybis and published in the 2009 Winter issue of preLaw Magazine. Click here for the link to the digital issue of the magazine or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school.