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Learning to Think Like Your Clients

Publication Date: 
January 14, 2008
University Business Magazine
Anna Caraveli

University Business Magazine ran this feature on Dean Larry Kramer and the law school's efforts to transform legal education:

During his first year as a dean of... Stanford Law School, Larry Kramer spent most of it talking and listening to people-students, faculty, alumni, venture entrepreneurs, the various "consumers" of the school's "product," its graduates. It was out of this intensive dialogue that the seeds for the new plan for Stanford's "three-dimensional degree program" emerged. The plan, that has already stirred intense interest in the higher education and legal communities, was announced in November 2006. It is described as transformative, combining "the study of other disciplines with team-oriented, problem-solving techniques and expanded clinical training that enables students to represent clients and litigate cases-before they graduate."


"Stanford's innovation," an internal communications document reads, "is being driven by the new demands on modern lawyers, which are fundamentally different from those present when the law school curriculum was formed." Several law schools have also recognized changes in legal practice, and have responded to new needs with clinical and curricular innovations. Most planning processes, however, are driven by internal assessments and designs. What is different in Stanford's planning process is the customer-and market-driven framing at the onset of the planning. Kramer and his team focused on three major areas of dissonance between training and practice, identified in their discussions with "customers"-students, alumni and legal employers...


The anchoring piece of Stanford's curricular transformation is its emphasis on the second and third year-a departure from the tendency to focus change on the first year in most law-school re-designs. Larry Kramer finds it "puzzling to see not just Harvard, but most schools that think about curriculum reform focus all their energy on changing the first year." He justifies Stanford's approach as follows:

The problem is that legal education has traditionally involved teaching one skill (thinking like a lawyer), and doing so for three years. The second and third year curriculum is thus best described as "more of the same." The fields of law are different, but what students do in their second and third year classes is mostly just what they did in their first year classes. There is, to be sure, a bit more variety: opportunities to take some seminars and write papers, and opportunities to do clinics and externships. But at most schools these are a haphazard feature rather than a systematic part of the curriculum, and the core curriculum remains focused mainly around doctrinal field surveys. Students take these other sorts of classes to relieve the monotony or to have a chance to "do some good" or have some fun while earning their degree. They are not an integral part of a consciously constructed upper level curriculum, and for most students the upper two years still consist mainly of more conventional law classes, with a handful of alternatives thrown in.


One of Stanford's first reforms was to make it easy for students to take courses outside the school and earn joint degrees. Joint degrees are not new to Stanford, but current design both expands such degrees and focuses them on specific client needs.