What are Today’s Law Students Learning?

Law students working with professor on legal education topics

Today’s legal profession demands a practice-ready generation of new legal talent. To meet this demand, legal education has found itself pivoting to provide innovative curricula and expand learning options for students.

The next generation of lawyers requires more than substantive legal knowledge when entering the profession, as concepts such as the Delta Model Lawyer (a three-pronged competency structure that includes The Law, Business & Operations, and Personal Effectiveness Skills) demonstrate.

Although the “big five” classes—civil procedure, contracts, criminal law, property, and torts—still make up the foundation of law school education, today’s law students can also pursue courses in legal writing, business skills, project management, technology, data analytics, leadership development, professionalism, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

The Socratic Method remains a stronghold in legal education, but new opportunities have emerged to enhance the way the law is taught. We explore some of these below.

Prepping Tech-Savvy Lawyers

In the current legal landscape, law and technology increasingly intersect. With advancements in technology come new legal issues and the creation of growing fields of legal study. Partnerships in engineering, science, and medicine are now commonplace in law and serve concerns ranging from intellectual property to privacy.

Nevertheless, even the general practitioner must be conversant in technology to deliver competent legal services, as the ethical rules demand it. With social media platforms on the rise, the use of apps to control your finances, and the music industry going completely digital, work in these areas is endless, and the laws surrounding them are consistently changing.

To meet these new demands, law schools have expanded their curriculum to train tech-savvy attorneys. There are now courses, clinics, journals, and even J.D. certifications dedicated to innovation and technology.

For example, Chicago-Kent College of Law offers a J.D. Certificate Program in Legal Innovation + Technology built around its Law Lab—an interdisciplinary teaching and research center devoted to legal futurism that examines the intersections of law and technology, mathematics, science, and engineering. Electives include Artificial Intelligence + Law, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency + Law, and eDiscovery.

Prioritizing Professionalism

For today’s law students, the commitment to professionalism starts before they step into their first core course.

All nine Illinois law schools require students to participate in a professionalism orientation as in-coming 1Ls. During the orientation, they explore the core concepts of attorney professionalism and take a Pledge of Professionalism, committing to civility in all interactions.

A focus on civility and developing cultural competency can be seen in Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Professional Identity Formation (PIF) course. During the course, 1Ls examine the underlying historical and social issues that pervade the American legal and justice systems.

This first-of-its-kind curriculum has included topics like leveraging diversity, creating inclusive climates, leadership, interpersonal communication, teamwork, and cross-cultural and cross-generational lawyering, to name a few.

Professionalism programming at law schools also focuses on how prioritizing personal well-being makes students more well-rounded attorneys.

Jordana A. Confino, author of Where Are We on the Path to Law Student Well-Being?: Report on the ABA CoLAP Law Student Assistance Committee Law School Wellness Survey, writes, “Many law schools have made great strides in areas such as orientation programming, mindfulness and physical fitness offerings, and collaboration with Lawyer Assistance Programs … developing innovative courses and programs designed to promote holistic well-being, and devising creative strategies for engaging all members of the law school community in these endeavors.”

Getting Experiential in Legal Education

Law schools have ramped up experiential learning opportunities. They’ve incentivized these learning opportunities by implementing them into their curriculum and graduation requirements.

While clinics, externships, and pro bono opportunities all offer hands-on experience dealing with real clients and real cases, they differ in the incentives each one offers students.

  • Clinical programs allow students to work with clients through a program housed within the law school while gaining academic credit toward their degree.

Illinois law schools offer a range of clinical programs, like advocating for military veterans in civil legal matters at the University of Illinois College of Law to advising entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, authors, and inventors in protecting their creations at DePaul University College of Law.

  • Externships allow law students to engage in an off-campus experience without pay to earn academic credit toward their graduation requirements. Students may extern with for-profit companies, government, non-profit entities, judicial chambers, and other entities.

During externships, students find themselves immersed in the practice of law under the supervision of attorneys in all practice types including the unique vantage point of the judiciary.

Specialized externships can offer career pathways not otherwise available, such as the Bridge to Practice Externship at Northern Illinois University College of Law. In the program, students work full-time on policy issues in Springfield with a member of the state legislature or at a state agency. Class credit is provided.

  • Pro Bono Opportunities are something that some ABA-approved law schools have added to their graduation requirements to promote service to the underserved. For instance, Southern Illinois University School of Law students must complete at least 35 hours of pro bono work before earning a J.D.

The ABA states, “Pro bono programs help students develop professionalism and an understanding of a lawyer’s responsibility to the community.” Pro bono opportunities allow students to work for causes like access to justice, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs, and the ACLU without receiving course credit or compensation, but accruing pro bono hours that will count toward their graduation requirements.

While some things in legal education change faster than others, law schools are attempting to do their part. By updating the curriculum to keep students engaged and adapting their methods of instruction, today’s legal educators are veering slightly from traditional teaching methods to meet the needs of the next generation of lawyers.

One thing we know for sure is that as the world continues to change, so will legal education.

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