Stanford’s Law School Revolution

Question: How is Stanford revolutionizing legal education? 

Larry Kramer:  So, what we’ve done, I mean the writ large, is largely to reconceptualize the way to think about the three-year program.  So the traditional understanding of the three-year program was, we’re going to teach you this one skill, and you’re going to do it by serving various fields of law.  And in each of them, we’ll put you through the paces, you know, what’s the problem, what about this?  What about that?  The whole Socratic method thing, which is a great way to teach people how to spot problems and analytically break them down.

As I say, it had the very tangential connection to actual practice, it didn’t give them a whole lot of skills that they needed, but it is essential.  So the first thing is, you have to take care of business first.

One of the, you know, well-known facts about law school is it never took three years to do what we were doing, it took maybe two years at most, maybe a year-and-a-half.  And it’s not that students are good at it after, you know, even after three years, they’re not good at it.  But what we’re contributing by what we do in class is become, has really fast diminishing returns.  And so third year students have been notoriously bored out of their mind.  I found a letter written by the first dean of Stanford Law School in 1891, six years after the law school has formally started and which he’s already complaining about the fact that the third year students are completely disengaged, it’s a crises, what are we going to do about this?  And the answer was, nobody ever did much of anything.

And so, so the first step was to say we need to take care of business, but we can do that in a lot less than three years and that means we have a lot of time left in which, you know, we can actually begin to do the other things that need to be done to prepare a lawyer really well.  So I’m actually opposed to the idea of decreasing law school, say from three to two years, that’s not a bad solution if we want to continue producing badly-trained lawyers, we might as well produce badly-trained lawyers in two years rather than three years and save them time and money.  But instead, it makes sense to use the time to do other things that will make them, in fact, better lawyers, that we probably should’ve been doing all along.

So we start by saying the first year is the year in which we’re going to concentrate exclusively on that traditional skill of how to think like a lawyer.  And so we’ve kept a very traditional first year, in fact, we’ve actually toughened it to some extent, because we really want to lay a very solid foundation.  But instead of thinking of the first year as a year that prepares them to be lawyers, because it doesn’t, we think of it as the year that prepares them to be second and third year law students.

And so now we’ve got a two-year period in which we can really begin to train them to be lawyers.  And what do we want to do with that period.  And, you know, you can break it down into, I mean, a piece of it is, of course, they’re not completely done with the traditional legal education, so a piece of the second and third year will obviously continue to be focused on developing their core legal analytical skills, but there’s a whole slew of other things that we need to do in order to really change the education in a way that prepares them.

So they fall into a bunch of categories.  One of them, which actually seldom gets attention, is we need to actually help them think about what kind of lawyer they want to be, because that matters.  It didn’t matter in traditional system because, in fact, they had this four-year apprenticeship to wander around and they could figure that out then.  And so, you know, when students came to law school, they were told basically, you know, take the three years, it’s like liberal arts in law, doesn’t make what you take.  Just take lots of classes, you’re really, you’re developing this thinking like a lawyer skill and it doesn’t matter what classes you take for that.

The second piece was to think about what are the other kinds of skills that they need in order to be a lawyer.  And this is really the most complicated piece because, you know, one of the things that makes law so interesting and so attractive to so many people, it’s what drew me into the profession, is law touches on everything.  Right?  I mean, it’s, there is no domain, no activity within society that is not in some way regulated by law, in which law structures the environment, and which there’s not a role for lawyers to play.

And the problem is then, there’s not a generic skill set that you need, it really depends on what kind of lawyer you are.  So if you think of traditional legal education as teaching people how to spot problems, how to identify what the problems are, what we never did anything about was teaching them how to solve the problems.  You talk to any lawyer, any lawyer today who’s been in practice and they will say, “You know, lawyers are problem solvers, that’s what we do, we solve problems.”  And that’s absolutely true, it is what, you know, what a good lawyer does.  It’s just that legal education never did anything to teach anybody anything about how to solve a problem.  So how do you do that?

There are some people who sort of conceptualize this as there’s a generic set of problem solving skills, too, that we can teach people and I think that’s just wrong.  The kinds of problems a lawyer needs to solve depend on the kind of lawyer we’re talking about.  So what an environmental lawyer needs to solve the problems of his or her clients is just different from what, you know, a business lawyer needs, an intellectual property lawyer needs, a social services lawyer needs, government attorney, whatever it is.  So you need to be able to give them the kinds of problem solving skills that they need for the kind of practice that they’re interested in moving into. 

We’ve added on top of that, a series of classes that are designed as problem solving courses.  So, you know, if you think of the traditional classes, we’re just going to present you the material across the area, so you know what all of the issues and problems are.  Those are important, that’s how you lay a foundation, but how do you use that?  And so you create a set of classes in which you put the students into teams and you give them actual problems to work on together and solve and it helps them bring what they’ve learned in the other classes to bear in a way that, you know, helps them comprehend how it actually plays out.  And teaches them how to work with others and how to communicate the law to the person from the other discipline and how to learn from the person who has the other discipline, what they need to, you know, to understand and then to work together to figure out a solution to the problem, and so on.

So as I said, there’s a whole shift in the courses which changes the conceptual and analytical tool kit that students leave with.  So they have not just the one tool, how to think like a lawyer, but they’ve got other ones as well. 

Then the last piece, once you’ve done all that, is now you want to give them some sense of how to deploy it, in a real context.  And that’s really the central function of all the different forms of experiential learning that have folded into the law school.  So we’re not set up and can’t quite do what medical schools do in terms of rotations, but we can do something like that with a strong clinical program, where you can give students an opportunity to have real client representation under close supervision but where they’re the lawyers, they have to make the choices.  And so it gives them a chance to take all the things that they’ve learned in their classes and learned through their research and now have to make the choices.  And, you know, it’s one thing to have a given set of facts presented to you and say, “Can you spot the problem,” blah, blah, blah, it’s another thing when actually the facts aren’t given, you construct them, you have to figure out how to do that.  Once you create the case as you go along, you have to make the choices because there’s always choices to be made and you discover, you know, it’s not as easy as just this analytical process.  I mean, I’ve got a client who has needs, how do I take care of those?  I’ve got resource limitations, I’ve got ethical obligations.  I’ve got too many choices, I don’t even know how to think them through.  So practical judgment skills in the problem solving context are an essential part, that is something you can learn, you know, in practice and you learn by doing.  But we can, in a controlled environment, set you up so that you’ll be able to do that much more effectively when you’re on your own.  Right?  We can help you identify and name the kinds of problems so that you see them.  And we can walk through the process with you in the controlled environment so that, you know, you can begin to see the kinds of mistakes that you’re going to avoid when you are on your own, and so on.

So, you know, you put it all together and what you’re talking about is a very traditional first year that prepares you for a second and third year that just has a completely different mix of classes, of research opportunities, of experiential learning opportunities, that has you as part of the university so that you’re taking advantage of all that, and that as a result, you know, put you in a position where you really can hit the ground running when you get into practice and be prepared to work with clients, if not immediately, very quickly. 

Recorded May 5, 2010

Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

As dean of Stanford Law, Kramer is trying to reconceptualize the three-year law program, emphasizing more practical skills lawyers will need.

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