Law Schools in the “Age of Accelerations”

How can law schools prepare students to enter what Thomas Friedman calls the “Age of Accelerations,” when new technologies, climate change, and globalization will likely reshape the planet, and the legal profession, for decades to come?  Friedman’s prescription for educators, contained as part of his eye-opening new work, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” suggests that higher education needs to become more student centered, student directed, and project based.  It must offer students opportunities for mentors who can guide them through their educational experience and internships that can give them exposure to real-world problems.  In an interdisciplinary course I teach at Albany Law School, together with faculty from the University at Albany, entitled “Law and Social Innovation: Creative Problem Solving,” my colleagues and I try to put some of Friedman’s prescriptions to the test.

In the class, law students and public administration students work in teams to provide high quality research support to local governments on a range of issues, most recently helping local cities deal with issues of urban blight.  The students work on projects that have them conducting field research and assisting local government lawyers and technology staff in bringing legal actions to combat the scourge of vacant and abandoned homes that impact many cities in Upstate New York.  The students assist those lawyers in working through the process of taking such actions and then make recommendations as to how the cities can streamline their processes to make them more efficient and effective.  In these ways, students learn not just how things are done in the cities and how to get things done, but how to work effectively in teams, to tap into their own creative sides, to engage in problem solving, and to communicate their ideas effectively.  The liaisons in city government offer them the chance to work closely with them in a real-world setting and mentor them on the realities of real-world practice.  My faculty colleagues and I also offer mentoring and individualized and customized support throughout the semester as our students explore their own capacities for creativity, leadership, and public service. In these ways, we tap into what Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”: intentional, focused attention to measured, incremental improvement on discrete tasks, leading to ultimate mastery.  We also glean insights on how knowledge workers can distinguish themselves in a time of automation and outsourcing, thanks to Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” and working in teams, from research on the functioning of groups at Google, as captured by Charles Duhigg in his work “Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.”

In short, I would like to think the students learn the skills and approaches that Friedman believes are needed generally in this Age of Accelerations, but also much of what is recommended by those in legal education specifically, like the Clinical Legal Education Association’s Best Practices efforts and the work of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers consortium.  I have written in greater depth about this class—its educational goals, the strategies we use to meet those goals, and the current state of the profession and the context in which students entering law schools currently find themselves—here.  Give the article a few moments of your time if you can spare them; I welcome comments and feedback on the class structure and approach and would be happy to share syllabi and thoughts on how the class can be adopted in and adapted to other contexts.

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