LawWithoutWalls: A Glimpse into the Future of (Legal) Education, Contributed by Michael Bossone and Michele M. DeStefano, University of Miami School of Law
Is Conventional Wisdom Wise?
Every year, around eighty-five thousand people apply to American law schools. If they have thoroughly done their research, they have read a few books, spoken to countless friends and relatives, browsed hundreds of law school websites, and attended a few forums, all in an effort to determine where they want to go to law school.
Conventional wisdom tells them that if they scored well enough on their LSAT and earned a high enough GPA from a rigorous enough undergraduate institution, they will be welcomed into a law school of their choice. With that invitation will come the full resources and reputation of that school: recognized faculty, bright students, myriad clinics, robust student services, and perhaps most importantly, a name and alumni network that carries great weight with the law firms, government agencies, non-profits, corporations, and judges for whom these prospective students will someday want to work.
Using US News and World Report (and similar publications that claim to be excellent judges of law school quality) as their guide, they make their list of “stretches,” “reasonables,” and “safeties,” and begin dreaming of the “elite,” hoping for the “excellent,” prepping for the “good,” trying to avoid the “alright,” and dreading they don’t end up settling for the “bottom tier.” And if they don’t make it into a law school whose national reputation makes them marketable around the country, they know they will be limited in job options because the marketability of degrees from schools with strong regional and local reputations lessens exponentially the further they move away from those schools.
So the majority of prospective law students do what conventional wisdom tells them to do, and when the application process comes to an end, they choose to attend “the best school they got into,” the school that is highest up on “the list.”
But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong? In an age where law schools continue to spend incredible amounts of money on glossy publications and flashy websites to entice students to bring their credentials and tuition dollars “here” instead of “there,” what if the emphasis on the individuality and differentiation of each particular law school is misplaced? Instead, what if the collective emphasis from all players in the law school world (presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni) was on the learning experience provided to students, regardless of where their tuition dollars go and what institution’s name appears on their diploma? What if law schools around the world united to embrace a spirit of collaboration and a culture of sharing, to sublimate their individual interests to the interests of law students, to shift their energy and resources to the development of lawyers who are prepared for the new world order of legal practice, and to engage in a robust global enterprise to utilize quantum leaps in technology to overhaul the mission, scope, and execution of legal education?
Are these naïve wishes for an unattainable utopia? A well-intentioned but unfeasible dream for radical but long overdue change? Perhaps. But perhaps not, or at least not entirely.
A Brave New World
Imagine the following. Twelve law schools from across the globe join together to form an educational community whose values, goals, brand, and pedagogy are wholly independent from their individual institutions. Each law school offers to this community a professor who is committed to excellent teaching, excels in engaging with students in the classroom, is knowledgeable about the radically changing landscape of legal practice, and does not fear change. These professors scan the globe and invite equally open-minded and courageous legal practitioners, judges, business professionals and entrepreneurs to join them in this innovative community. They reach out to their school’s student bodies and invite their most intellectually curious, risk-taking, entrepreneurially-minded students to join. This community then chooses an exciting location somewhere in the world to meet together for a weekend to get to know each other, build camaraderie and the foundation for teamwork, engage in interactive and creative idea generation exercises, and set themselves up for a semester of great success. During the rest of the semester, the entire community utilizes the latest and greatest in technology to meet in real time on a weekly basis in a virtual space (with live audio, video, and chats) to engage in lively, interactive discussions with invited thought leaders from around the world. They form structured teams where individuals from different experiences, cultures, and stages of their careers put aside their egos and titles (even calling each other by first names) and work together to identify a specific problem in legal education or practice and then develop a creative solution, ideally even forming a business idea that they could take to market. In the process students develop and hone the business, legal, and professional skills that employers are looking for and that the lawyers of tomorrow will need in order to add value to institutions and entities. And then, at the end of the semester, the entire group reconvenes in another exciting location to share and assess their novel ideas, celebrate the relationships that they have developed virtually, and commit to remaining a part of this community for years to come.
Sound exciting? Sound like the law school experience law students around the world wish they were having? What if this was possible, not years in the future, but right now?
Well welcome to tomorrow. Welcome to LawWithoutWalls.
Last year, individuals at the University of Miami School of Law pioneered the very program described above (www.LawWithoutWalls.org), and eleven schools from around the world have joined them in this groundbreaking enterprise: Fordham Law (New York, New York), Harvard Law (Cambridge, Massachusetts), IE Business School (Madrid, Spain), Indiana Law (Bloomington, Indiana), New York Law School (New York City, New York), Peking University School of Transnational Law (Shenzhen, China), Stanford Law (Palo Alto, California), Sydney Law School (Sydney, Australia), University College London Laws (London, England), Universidad de Los Andes Facultad de Derecho (Bogatá, Colombia), and University of St. Gallen Executive School of Management, Technology and Law (St. Gallen, Switzerland).
Together the community determines a series of hotly debated topics that, right at this moment, are changing the fabric of both legal practice and legal education. Last year’s topics included third party litigation funding, alternatives to the billable hour, emotional intelligence training for law students and lawyers, and teaching business skills to law students. This year’s topics feature publically held law firms, ever-increasing law school debt, the role of women in the law, and creating the 21st century career services model. Each week during the semester, all students virtually participate in a live video conversation with the best and brightest from varying fields to explore these topics. These Thought Leader sessions unveil how explosive the current legal climate really is, bring to life the inescapable intertwining of business and law, and provide students with the opportunity to engage and exchange ideas with those currently on the front lines of these battles.
At the onset, each topic is assigned to a team which consists of two to four law students (from different schools and countries), an Academic Mentor and Practitioner Mentor (who will guide the students as they narrow their topic to a very specific problem and then work to develop a practical solution to that problem), a Subject Expert Advisor (a recognized leader in their topic area who will provide insight and expertise and connect students with individuals and/or organizations to be interviewed or researched), an Entrepreneur Advisor (a lawyer entrepreneur who will help them devise a plan for branding, marketing, and possibly monetizing their creation), and an Alumni Advisor (a former LawWithoutWalls student who will offer invaluable advice on how to make the very most of the experience and navigate what can be very complex waters). The team of students, mentors, and advisors video Skypes each week in collaborative brainstorming sessions. And the students are in constant contact with each other (through various virtual tools) as they research, write, experiment, create, fail, recreate, compromise, fail again, create again, and together learn how to truly innovate. The team forms its own unique identity and dynamic, and together strives to reach their ultimate goal: the students’ presentation of their Project of Worth (a business plan or action plan for a viable solution to a problem) to the LawWithoutWalls community at the end-of-the-semester ConPosium.
To Infinity and Beyond
The fruits of last year’s labor were extraordinary, as evidenced by a sampling of the Projects of Worth: a multi-level video game concept designed to teach law students financial analysis and case recovery calculation skills; a multimedia website to provide information, resources, and tools to help pro se clients better present at trial; a masters degree program model for students who want to enter the legal process outsourcing field; a business plan that helps Chinese law firms embrace technology to increase efficiency, productivity, and the quality of legal services; and an aesthetic consultancy model that designs beautiful space to better enable the public to access law’s power and potential, and therefore maximize its impact on institutions and society.
After this extremely successful first year garnered national and international press, LawWithoutWalls will begin its second year with a KickOff event in St. Gallen, Switzerland in mid-January 2012. Because much of the beauty and success of LawWithoutWalls is the intense mentoring each student receives and the relationships formed, participation in LawWithoutWalls is limited and highly competitive. Although students are only eligible to participate if their school is one of the partner schools, interested students should encourage their schools to reach out (through the LawWithoutWalls “Get Involved” webpage). Moreover, this year the number of students increases from 23 to 36, and there are plans to introduce a fall semester component to enable many more students to have a LawWithoutWalls experience, albeit different in scope.
The impact of LawWithoutWalls on students and their futures is immeasurable. Students gain knowledge about the hottest issues that are changing the legal landscape in both education and practice. They learn how to effectively collaborate with others, networking with professors and practitioners around the world that are dedicated to changing the way law is practiced and taught. Students practice taking risks in a safe environment while developing an entrepreneurial mindset, discover new cultures and appreciate the importance of embracing differences, and gain the confidence to work and present as peers with their mentors. And not only do students benefit by adding all of these valuable skills to their toolbox, but in the toughest job market anyone can remember they have made themselves incredibly attractive to potential employers. In a legal profession that is changing by the minute, LawWithoutWalls students are not only keenly aware of where the legal world has moved, but are also thinking hard about where it’s headed and quickly become fluent in the language of law’s future.
The only thing more exciting than what the 100+ global players that make up LawWithoutWalls are now doing is what they have the potential to do in the future. Though their current work is radical, experimental, and bold as contrasted with legal education as it has been taught for many decades, this international team views its work as just the very beginning of the revolution. They aspire to continue to push the boundaries and challenge all those with a stake in law’s future to become advocates for the new and innovative. Right now LawWithoutWalls is offered to students as a single course, but its prime movers recognize its potential to become a comprehensive model for educating law students. Imagine a new kind of law school that fully embraces the LawWithoutWalls philosophy. Imagine using these vast global resources to allow students (without having to relocate) to take first year foundational courses with the best teachers in the world, engage in clinics and practice based courses with no geographic boundaries, explore niche areas of the law in seminars led by each field’s leading scholars, be mentored by top practitioners and judges from around the world, and even prepare for any state’s bar exam. Most importantly, imagine paying a fraction of the cost for an even more relevant and rewarding law school education that relies far less on brick and mortar campuses and more on collaboration among partner institutions that puts students first.
And there is no reason to limit the impact solely to legal education. The LawWithoutWalls model could also revolutionize the study of any field that relies upon conversation-based communication and would benefit from providing students easy access to experts from around the globe. The possibilities are endless.
It is part of the very nature of law students to be critical of their law school education, and sadly this is often dismissed by those in law school administration and the legal academy as an immature response to those who know much by those who do not yet know enough. Perhaps the time has finally come to recognize that student critiques are, and have for some time been, right on the mark. LawWithoutWalls has been developed in unison with students and their wants and needs. As such, it has the potential to revolutionize legal education (and perhaps education much more generally). But for that to happen and to actualize this boundless potential, all willing players must, in the spirit of LawWithoutWalls, reach new levels of collaboration, partnership, and teamwork while setting aside ego and self-interest. The call has been made by students around the world and it is time for educators to listen: the future is here . . . it is time for a new dawn.
Michele M. DeStefano is the founder and co-creator of LawWithoutWalls and an Associate Professor of Law at Miami Law. In addition to spearheading and continually recreating LawWithoutWalls with Michael Bossone, Michele teaches courses about the legal profession, ethics, professional responsibility, and civil procedure. Before joining the Miami Law faculty, she was a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where she was previously the Associate Research Director of the Program on the Legal Profession. Prior to law school, Michele had a career in marketing. Michele earned a J.D., magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School, and a Bachelor¹s degree from Dartmouth College.
Michael Bossone’s career has been dedicated to building and sustaining human connection; developing life, leadership, and professional skills in others; and incubating institutional cultures that breed success. He is the co-creator of LawWithoutWalls and the founder of the Student Development Initiative, a whole new model for law schools to more fully engage with their students. For a decade he was Assistant Dean at ASU Law and is currently Special Advisor to Dean Patricia White at Miami Law. Michael received his B.A. in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. from New York University School of Law.
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