Faculty Post: A Reflection on the Future of Legal Education

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

The Northeastern University School of Law Class of 2014 will graduate at the end of May, leaving the members of this class with just one more quarter to spend as students at the law school.  Some of these students are completing their last classes as they prepare to head off to co-op.  The rest of these students are starting to appear in the Dockser Commons as they return from co-op for their last classes before graduation.

This group of students arrived at the law school in August 2011, shortly after I began working at Northeastern.  They appeared here full of enthusiasm and excitement and certainly a tad nervous.  In this way, we shared the usual emotions in beginning a new endeavor.  As these students now complete their adventure through the rigorous experience that is Northeastern University School of Law and I watch them go through their various “lasts,” I find myself simultaneously wistful and wishful – a bit sad for the passage of productive and happy times we spent working together yet very hopeful in seeing the results of the students’ professional maturation and preparation.

I am struck, from the perspective of three years hence the students’ matriculation, by just how different the students are, and concomitantly how similar they are.  The students came in smart, idealistic, energetic and ambitious and they leave demonstrating these characteristics albeit sharpened by their experiences so that they now seem more savvy, more aware, more focused.  Of course, they think and talk and act more like lawyers, which is the inevitable consequence of not just three years of law classes but a full year of practical experiences while out on co-op essentially being lawyers, or as close as you can be without actually being one.  They do not seem to have set aside their individual personalities, as the pranksters and artists and athletes and writers and cooks and travelers remain evident when we spend time together.  But they seem wiser about the world and how to participate in it in more meaningful ways.  They seem more attuned to the nuances of activities and how they might interact in ways that are significant in causing effects.

And, of course, these observations serve as a mirror upon my own professional activities, for you can’t spend as much time as we spent together and not catch some of that reflected haze.  This has been a time of profound upheaval in legal education, with a dramatic drop in the number of prospective students and an equally dramatic rise in the attention given to experiential learning.  It is noteworthy that when I arrived at Northeastern, the number of those who shared a title like mine could be counted on one hand; now there are more than 50 of us.  Aside from being among the first to recognize the importance of experiential education with a dean solely and fully committed to practical education, Northeastern remains the only law school in the country that requires of and makes available to each and every JD student a year of full time practice experience before graduation.  This immersive and iterative experience, which also is integrated into the classroom experiences, sets this law school apart from each and every other law school and there is mounting evidence that this educational experience accelerates the students’ professional development.  That is why we like to think that Northeastern reflects the future of legal education, and has for almost 50 years.  And that is why the students who are completing their time at Northeastern look like they did three years ago, but better.

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