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November 12, 2013

Unbundling legal education

by Dan Rodriguez

The ever growing strategic focus on legal education for non-lawyers builds on an emerging insight about the nature of legal education.  I would describe this as follows:  Legal education consists of three large sticks in a general bundle; one is the development of lawyerly skills, what has long been described as educating students to “think like a lawyer.”  Circular on its own terms, to be sure, but the idea captures the admixture of reasoning, communication, and advocacy that is characteristic of professionals who work in the legal domain on behalf of clients (using “clients” here broadly to include, as well, public service and law reform activities).  Training lawyers requires a coherent sense on the part of educational providers of what mix of skills is encompassed in this category of lawyerly skills.  What, in short, does a young lawyer need to know to be able to “think like a lawyer?”

Next is the development of skills essential to engaging in the practice of law.  Experiential learning is at the heart of this; yet, much of what we aim to do throughout the curriculum, including the so-called doctrinal classes, is (or at least ought to be) channeled in the direction and service of enhancing the ability of students to practice law.  (These include, although I won’t say anything more about this here, the development of a professional identity and an ethical compass tied to the lawyer’s profession, all of which are properly encompassed in “skills training”).

Finally, we aim to provide substantive content, starting with the foundation laid in the first year and extended, cumulatively, through the coursework provided, sometimes required, sometimes elective, in the upper division.  In short, we expect our graduating students to know some law, and be able to draw upon their best analytical skills to reason in the law as they tackle, first, the bar exam, and, next, the demands of the fields in which they engage and practice.

What our efforts to train non-lawyers do, in essence, is to unbundle legal education.  We look at ways of developing some relevant skills in individuals who will not practice law, but who will deploy law and work with lawyers on accomplishing their professional objectives.  This is skills training to be sure, but it is the training in skills that map not only legal practice, but onto the professional domain in which these non-lawyers operate and function.  Moreover, we aim to give these individuals substantive legal knowledge, knowledge which can and ought to be applied in settings in which law and the legal environment matters to their field, to their performance, and to their enterprise.  None of them are truly taking the place of lawyers; rather, they are accumulating knowledge which enables them to engage and work with lawyers, on behalf of their objectives and with the newly acquired benefit of a common vocabulary and a more fruitful pathway to important objectives.

“Thinking like a lawyer” is not a part of this enterprise except in the very broad sense that non-lawyers can learn in the unique environment of a law school how lawyers reason and analyze.  Unbundling legal education in the sense I describe it here means providing not “law school lite” for these students but, rather, a coherent structure of training that is suited to the goals and tied squarely to the objectives of the professionals who operate in a space in which law is relevant and, indeed, omnipresent.

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