Faculty Post: The Art of Co-op

by Luke Bierman, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law

Cooperative Legal Education (“co-op”) is like art. Its beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. For each student, it’s the opportunity to create a canvas of professional development and achievement. For each member of the faculty, it’s the opportunity to make teaching more vibrant. For each employer, it’s the opportunity to identify and benefit from each student’s passion, enthusiasm and knowledge. For legal education, it’s the opportunity to rethink how to prepare lawyers to serve clients now and in the future.

My introduction to Northeastern University School of Law came a couple of years ago when I was exploring options for the next phase of my career. Having graduated from law school in 1982, I didn’t follow the usual path, which centered on progressive advancement in a law office of some kind with a capstone as a managing attorney or judge. Instead, I have gravitated between teaching and practice or policy work, back and forth. This unusual approach to a career, at least for someone of my generation, mirrors the co-op experience. Back and forth, back and forth, in a clerkship, in practice, in a Ph.D. program, in advocacy jobs, in universities, in government, in a law school, all the while integrating these activities and experiences into a fulsome palette of a career.

Little did I know that I was rehearsing for a job at the most innovative and interesting law school in America. Like so many things in life, I wasn’t expecting this opportunity at Northeastern. But I was prepared for it because I had developed skills and knowledge that were useful. The value of not just thinking but also doing has begun to infiltrate a broader spectrum of education but it is not news to Northeastern. And since my career has been built on thinking and doing, over and over, it made perfect sense for me to come work in that environment.

I learned quickly that something special was going on at Northeastern. Steve Subrin, of the founding generation of co-op, quietly explained to me that I’d love it at Northeastern because people are helpful in ways that other schools can’t emulate.  Steve didn’t describe it all to me; this is after all a place of experiential education.

So I’ve learned quickly that students are busy learning through classes and co-op and activities, focusing on coursework and co-op while simultaneously looking forward to co-op and coursework, instead of being overly competitive or overly harsh. Combining thinking and doing, integrating classroom and co-op, Northeastern students immerse themselves in the reality of law and its practice in all possible settings in service to the public interest. Northeastern’s community, rooted in experiential learning and social justice, truly practices what it preaches.

There is no doubt that there are many challenges in the legal profession. But with challenge comes opportunity. As the delivery of legal services changes, today’s students will be able to influence the development of our profession and the system of justice in which it operates. My generation had great ambition but many problems remain to be solved. This generation of law students can avail itself of all the new cultural, technological, economic and social developments to help address the challenges and solve the problems. And they will create art while doing good for themselves and those around them.

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