It is easy to talk about the growth of Stanford Law School’s clinical program by focusing on numbers. We now have 10 clinical programs; 10 faculty members leading clinics; 9 clinical instructors; 7 support staff; 130 students enrolled in clinics each year; and 20,000 square feet of dedicated clinical space. These numbers reflect staggering growth over the past decade. But the numbers themselves don’t tell the whole story. Rather, the significance of these numbers is what they say about the ways in which clinical education has emerged as a central part of our curriculum and our vision for what it means to educate our students.
How did this happen? How did the clinical program go from the periphery of the curriculum to such a core place? The answer lies in a rather dramatic reenvisioning of the nature of legal education generally—and in significant changes in the goals of our clinical program.
Our law school has played a leadership role in recognizing that the traditional case method of legal education is a wonderful tool for educating law students—but it has its limits after the first year. Lawyers need to understand how to read cases and how to think critically about legal issues, but that is by no means all they need to know. There are significant diminishing returns and great wasted opportunity costs in exposing students repeatedly to that one exercise more than 30 times during their law school careers. Law students need to develop expertise in problem solving, not just issue spotting. They need to cultivate their ethical constitutions and learn how a lawyer effectively deals with clients, adversaries, agencies, courts, and others. They need to learn about how clients think and what clients want and need from their legal counsel.
Together with many other aspects of our curricular reform, the clinical program plays a central role in implementing this expanded vision of legal education. Medical schools and every other professional school have long recognized that there are many aspects of professional training that can be accomplished only through experiential education in which students exercise real responsibility under close expert supervision. Our legal clinics have now developed a program that provides our students with the unparalleled educational opportunity of serving as the lead lawyers—with intensive world-class supervision—in a wide array of areas. This is, in all honesty, a change from the clinical model of earlier generations. To be sure, our clinics still serve the unrepresented in critical ways and help to promote important changes in the law, but they now do this in a model that puts pedagogical goals at the forefront. If a case will not provide a strong vehicle for student ownership and learning, we do not accept it. Our dockets are intentionally small—for each project is designed to serve as a teaching device.
This approach recognizes, more than anything, the critical impact of mentoring. Before the advent of formal legal education, that was the exclusive model of training lawyers. There were many good reasons to move away from apprenticeships and provide a rich, intellectually rigorous framework for educating lawyers. However, as with many reforms, the pendulum swung too far and we failed to recognize the vital role that experiential learning must play alongside the now-conventional classroom experience. Perhaps at one time we could rely on employers to provide this kind of hands-on mentoring, feedback, and teaching, but the economic changes in the profession—whether in law firms, in-house practices, government, or NGOs—have, by all accounts, massively reduced the extent to which senior lawyers are engaged in the time-intensive enterprise of methodically mentoring new lawyers. The responsibility for preparing lawyers lies squarely upon law schools, and we must rise to the occasion.
We have come a long way in this regard at Stanford. Students enrolled in a clinic now do so on a full-time basis; they take no other courses for an entire quarter, allowing them to immerse themselves completely in clinical practice. And, recognizing the wide array of areas in which our students will practice, we have created clinics that span the spectrum from trial work, to administrative proceedings, to sophisticated corporate work for nonprofit entities, to policy-oriented advocacy. We aim to have a clinic that is relevant and meaningful to the education of each and every student in the law school.
It is my view that we should now take the natural next step—and recognize that clinical education has become so essential to our students’ legal education that it should take its place within the other parts of our core (i.e., required) curriculum. At present, all students must take a set of first-year courses, a course in professional responsibility, and complete a number of upper-class research and writing projects. It is now time to acknowledge that a clinical experience is every bit as vital. We have the capacity to accommodate all of our students in our clinical program and we should continue our role as leaders in curricular reform by insisting that all students benefit from this experience prior to graduation.
During the course of 2011, I traveled across the country meeting with groups of alumni to discuss our clinical program and the goal of having each student partake in a clinic. The response was overwhelmingly positive. I heard from alumni that they love Stanford Law School and cherish the education they received, but they also recognize that there is room for improvement in all things and that our clinical program adds immense value to our students’ educational experience.
In one of those alumni meetings in Los Angeles, I was struck by a comment made by Ninth Circuit Judge Pamela Rymer, LLB ’64. Judge Rymer, who passed away last September (see our ”Remembrance“, “In Celebration of the Life of Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, LLB ’64″). She told the group that she had become reluctant to hire any law clerk who had not had the benefit of a clinical experience. Why, she asked, would she choose someone who had not been able to develop mature judgment, writing and analytical skills through actual lawyering under the mentorship of a gifted legal educator? Why indeed? SL
Read updates from SLS clinics on the Mills Legal Clinic Blog.
Categories: Clinical Education