Published in Duke Law Magazine, January 2010
To meet the challenges of a less robust legal economy, our students must be more focused on precisely what they want and need from their education and from the first phase of their legal careers. And we at the Law School must provide them with the tools and qualities that they will need to hit the ground running, whatever ground they choose. Our graduates must be able to write and speak with precision and persuasiveness, to work in teams, to manage multiple assignments, to think strategically and to problem solve, to analyze complex legal and factual problems, and to bring to bear a range of knowledge and skills, some of which will come from other disciplines. They must have maturity and self-confidence, a strong moral compass and a sense of how they can contribute to our system of justice and society generally. This is a lot to learn and to instill in three years. How can we best prepare our graduates for the demands and the responsibilities they will face the day after law school ends?
In part, we do so by continuing to do what we have always done: building and maintaining core strength in the curriculum. Our first year is still the rigorous exposure to legal reasoning and analysis, to precision in legal writing, to demanding instructors employing some form of the Socratic method that makes it one of the most transformative educational experiences offered in any graduate program.
The second and third years expose students to a range of substantive fields while requiring them to master complex legal doctrines and theory. As students in a law school in a great University, they have the opportunity in upper-class years to learn how other disciplines intersect with legal issues and problems. These are the years when students develop judgment in addition to critical thinking. These are the years when we ask them to recognize the difference between passable and excellent legal work, between mastery and rote knowledge. To support and expand these efforts, we must continue to hire top-notch faculty who teach demanding courses in which students grapple with difficult substantive questions.
Keeping our core strong is critical to preparing our graduates for their lives in the law. But as the economy shifts, we are increasingly aware that our new graduates will be expected to perform at very high levels in their first positions, with little further guidance or training. To help them, we have begun to emphasize a multi-faceted model of integrated learning. This means adding professional skills training to the core but in a way that enriches the core itself. It means combining substantive law teaching with problem-solving in actual or simulated practice settings. And it means integrating into legal education some of the knowledge and skills taught in other parts of the University that can be of great assistance in certain kinds of careers in the law.
The idea of integrated learning is not new. Our clinics have taken an integrated approach for many years. Moreover, individual faculty have experimented with the approach in their courses in various ways. But we see an opportunity now for us to further build on our core. Through our new Duke in D.C. program, for example, students work full time in a government office while taking a course on federal policymaking and regulation. This experience is extremely valuable for students who will enter a business-oriented practice as well as those who are planning for a career in public service. Through our new “course-plus” model, faculty collaborate with practitioners in the teaching of core subjects, an approach that works particularly well with courses that have transactional applications. Through our new federal defender externship program, students appear in court, draft motions, meet with clients, and get feedback from the magistrate judges while taking a course in federal criminal procedure.
These and other programs combine academic inquiry with the mobilization of knowledge in ways that reinforce one another. This mutual reinforcement is what makes the integrated approach so powerful. From the demands of a practice setting, a student may see a research opportunity. From the parallel study of substantive law, the student may come to a much better understanding of the legal issues presented in practice. And there is the motivation and excitement that comes when a student must take responsibility for a real problem — when they must stand and deliver. Integrated learning strengthens our students’ substantive understanding of complex legal concepts and equips them with the experience, judgment and professional skills needed to apply that knowledge.
Our goal is to provide a flexible and rich curriculum that is capable of meeting the needs and goals of all of our students, whatever their career aspirations may be. Through integrated courses, externships, and clinics; upper-level writing courses; capstone projects; professional skills and simulation courses; interdisciplinary offerings; and more, students have the opportunity to dig deeply into the substance of the law while developing their problem solving, communication, and leadership skills. When they leave us, they will be ready on day one to do legal work of the highest quality.
All of this is a team effort, and our alumni play a vital role. Alumni members of our Board of Visitors and Law Alumni Association are providing leadership and insight into trends within the profession. Alumni are providing financial support that helps us contain tuition and student debt while developing and extending educational offerings. Alumni are advising students on career possibilities and providing externship and work opportunities. The helping hand extended across the generations has never been more important than it is today.
In the end, we will have a Law School that is as good as we collectively choose to make it. I thank all of you who help to make our future so bright, and I wish you a 2010 filled with possibility and optimism.