How to think like a lawyer without changing career paths
Larry Kramer teaches a session of Thinking Like a Lawyer, a new course designed to offer graduate students outside the field of law a window into core legal concepts. Kramer is one of a dozen Law School faculty members, with areas of expertise ranging from torts to intellectual property, who are co-teaching the course.
BY AMY POFTAK
Rebecca Goldman does not want to go to law school or be a lawyer. But as a student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources who hopes someday to develop policies for sustainable land use, she would like to know how lawyers approach land disputes.
Frederick Antwi is a second-year business student who, when he goes to work for an investment firm, wants to better understand how securities laws are structured.
This quarter, both Goldman and Antwi are getting a chance to explore these subjects thanks to Thinking Like a Lawyer—a new Law School course designed to offer graduate students outside the field of law a window into core legal concepts. Taught by 12 Law School faculty with areas of expertise ranging from torts to intellectual property, the course draws graduate students from a wide cross-section of disciplines.
Of the 63 enrollees and 15 auditors, 43 hail from the Graduate School of Business, with the remainder coming from the schools of Earth Sciences, Engineering, Education and Medicine, as well as from the departments of Philosophy, Political Science and Physics.
"Law is more art than science," said Law School Dean Larry Kramer, who helped to develop the class. "It's like learning music. In music, there are a limited number of foundational notes and chords that one learns to combine in ever more complex ways to create different melodies and different styles of music. So, too, in law there are a limited number of concepts and forms of argument that law students learn to use and that make up the underpinnings of different fields of law."
It's a rare opportunity to learn from top legal scholars without having to take the LSAT. Peer inside the class and you might find Pamela S. Karlan, who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, examining constitutional issues, or Robert Weisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, walking students through a criminal case. Kramer, who holds the Richard E. Lang Professorship for the Dean of Stanford Law School, is teaching two sessions on litigation and dispute resolution.
The idea is to explore essential questions in the legal field, said Mark Kelman, the James C. Gaither Professor of Law and vice dean, who came up with the idea for the course and oversaw its development.
"We're not trying to teach law lite. We're teaching law in a reduced and intense way, focusing on the essence of a particular subject area and addressing key conceptual issues that come up again and again," Kelman said.
Another central goal of Thinking Like a Lawyer is cross-disciplinary understanding.
"Most people will have to interact with lawyers during some point in their professional lives, whether it's doing a business deal or forming public policy," Kramer said.Learning outside the box
Thinking Like a Lawyer comes at a time when the Law School is seeing an influx of non-law students taking law courses—from fewer than 20 per year in the late 1990s and early 2000s to more than 70 in 2006-07. At the same time, there's been a 10-fold increase in law students venturing to other parts of campus for courses. In the past decade, law students registered for 30 classes outside the Law School in a typical year. In 2006-07, there were 305 such registrations.
This increase is, in part, due to lowered administrative barriers. As part of the Law School's push to educate students more broadly beyond the traditional legal curriculum, the school is aligning its academic calendar with that of the university to make it easier for law students to enroll in courses outside the school—and, likewise, open the school to non-law students. In anticipation, the school has dramatically expanded its formal joint degree program offerings to cover more than 20 possible degrees.
"Students should take courses and degrees outside the law school in order to develop the intellectual capital they need to practice law today," Kramer said. "At the same time, we're broadening our program to include more cross-disciplinary opportunities for non-law students."
Chris Golde, associate vice provost for graduate education, thinks the numbers hint at larger shifts across campus. "We're seeing two trends," said Golde, who is auditing Thinking Like a Lawyer. "Students taking courses more broadly and schools teaching more outward-facing courses aimed at non-specialists in other fields."
That these changes are happening is not necessarily surprising, given the university has made interdisciplinary learning a key priority. Thinking Like a Lawyer represents one model of cross-school interaction for graduate students that the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education is working to expand, Golde said.
To be sure, it fits in the outward-facing course category. So does the Business School's Interpersonal Influence and Leadership (offered winter and spring quarters), which focuses on teaching students from various disciplines how to build more effective working relationships.
The idea of enabling graduate students to go outside their discipline is not new, of course. The School of Education, for example, requires its doctoral students to obtain a master's degree or minor in another department. And other schools have similarly created programs that integrate various disciplines, such as the School of Earth Sciences' Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources, which blends environmental science, engineering and policy.
Then there are offerings that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration—such as Biodesign Innovation, in which budding lawyers, engineers, doctors and business people work together to develop ideas for medical technology, or the Law School's Expert Witness class, in which law students work with peers from the natural and social sciences to prepare for mock trials.
"Being able to borrow tools and ideas from other fields can lead to breakthroughs," said Golde, whose office is creating an online clearinghouse of interdisciplinary opportunities for graduate students (http://vpge.stanford.edu/students/id).Legal lessons
As for non-specialists Goldman and Antwi, they say Thinking Like a Lawyer offers a unique perspective on how lawyers frame problems, as well as how law professors approach teaching.
"Coming from a science background, I'm looking for the answer," Goldman said. "In law it's about making a case—not necessarily about right or wrong answers."
"It's much more pedantic than [Business School] classes. I like how they use the Socratic method," said Antwi, who adds that he finds the idea of being able to interpret "lawyerly talk" appealing.
For Goldman, the class is not only informing her doctoral research—one class session is devoted to a land use case—it's preparing her for life after Stanford.
"I'm going to be sitting at a table with lawyers discussing land-use contracts, policy and other issues," she said. "This course gives a breadth of understanding so I can communicate with them and understand the complexities that go into their work."
Amy Poftak is assistant director of communications at Stanford Law School.