Stanford Law School practicums offer real-world lessons

Professor Mark Kelman meets with Stanford Law School students Lauren Harding (middle) and Marta Belcher from the Improving Bone Marrow Donation practicum. Photo by Linda Cicero.

Even before they graduate, Stanford law students are taking their educations to the streets on high-profile policy issues – and making a difference.

In the Stanford Law and Policy Lab, Stanford Law School students work with clients under the guidance of faculty experts to develop policy solutions. Some describe it as a “policy incubator” for law students, the kind that gives them the tools to become leaders in their fields once they graduate.

The idea is not only to train students to become excellent lawyers in the Stanford tradition, but also to teach them how to shape law and policy at local, state, federal and international levels.

Bone marrow progress

The Improving Bone Marrow Donation practicum is an example of one that has already yielded results. Its origins date from October 2013 when Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of social psychology, tragically died because she could not get a bone marrow transplant in time.

Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, was a friend and colleague of Ambady, working with a Stanford center called “SPARQ” – or Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions – to help Ambady find a bone marrow match.

Because Eberhardt was uncertain of the range of laws, especially regarding privacy, that would govern bone marrow recruitment, she suggested connecting a law school practicum with SPARQ.

As Alana Conner, SPARQ’s executive director, put it, thousands of people die because they are not matched up with a stem cell donation.

“Some of the inefficiencies in the donation process arise because of a lack of understanding in what is and is not legally permissible in recruiting and retaining donors. This practicum helped shed light in an often misunderstood space,” she noted.

During the past year, three law students enrolled in the practicum, which was co-led by Stanford Law Professors Mark Kelman and Larry Marshall. They worked with two psychology grad students on campus.

Kelman explained that people do not initially volunteer for bone marrow donations at the time they fill out a form; they volunteer only to be “typed” and registered in the bone marrow registry. Later on, they would have to agree to donate after going through a number of other steps if they were matched to a needy patient who had no other donor sources. That’s what a registry does.

Facilitating matches

Kelman said the most concrete outcome so far has been the creation of a new form for people who volunteer for bone marrow donations, to be filled out when they first register, so that they might be matched quickly in the future with patients in need.

“We believe that fairly subtle shifts in the wording of the form will increase the degree to which people who initially agree to be typed will stay committed to donating, and will ultimately donate if matched,” Kelman said in an interview.

He added that he and the students are conducting a double-blind experiment in which some volunteers get the “old form” and some the revised form.

For Kelman, the biggest challenge was making sure they found a client interested in improving the system for recruiting and retaining potential donors, and that was not an easy task.

“From the vantage point of the law school participants, we were particularly interested that some of the resistance to change came from a misapprehension of legal regulatory limitations,” he added.

Marta Belcher, a law student, said the bone marrow policy lab gave her a chance to work on a national policy issue she felt passionate about.

“I felt personally connected to the cause,” she said, adding that outside of law school, she runs a nonprofit that organizes programs for teens with life-threatening illnesses. While many of the teens she’s worked with have received life-saving transplants, some have died while they were still waiting to find a match.

She said the policy lab helped Stanford social psychologists develop a legally and ethically sound way for the client – an international bone marrow registry – to increase the number of registrants who ultimately donate.

“Our deliverables included a legal opinion memo for the client regarding the proposed social psychological intervention, and a public memo aimed at other bone marrow donation centers outlining the legal regimes that govern bone marrow donation,” Belcher said.

Interdisciplinary nature

Now in its second year, the policy lab had 137 students enrolled in 22 practicums taught by 57 faculty members during 2013-14. This year 159 students enrolled in 22 practicums led by 49 faculty.

The practicums focus on a wide range of issues, including international security, copyright law, patent trolls, wildlife trafficking, medicine and health, energy and the environment, social and urban policy, utilities regulation, crime and policing, and net neutrality. According to Stanford Law School, no other law school in the United States offers students this type of policy experience on this scale. 

“Many of our graduates will be leaders in policy arenas, and all of our graduates will need to solve problems and work on teams,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, dean of Stanford Law School. “What better place than Stanford, with its focus on interdisciplinary study and solving real-world problems, to practice these important skills?”

In keeping with Stanford’s interdisciplinary nature, about half of the practicums include students from other disciplines than law on campus.

Faculty and students work in small practicum teams – the average student-faculty ratio is 3:1 – so they can customize their policy analysis to the specific needs of each client and issue.

As such, it represents an opportunity for students to engage directly with clients and produce tangible results. Clients include the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Copyright Office and Register of Copyrights, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Wildlife trafficking

In another Stanford Law and Policy Lab practicum, students produced recommendations that helped the Obama administration develop an effective implementation plan for addressing the U.S. role in combatting the wildlife trafficking crisis. (Read more about it in this 2014 Stanford Report story.)

Led by David J. Hayes, a visiting distinguished lecturer at the Stanford Law School, the wildlife trafficking practicum focused on how the U.S. government could approach the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants and rhinos in Africa, and the illegal sales of ivory and rhino horn in the United States and other nations which are fueling the killings.

Hayes said, “The U.S. government adopted many of the specific recommendations made by the students’ 69-page submission in the official wildlife trafficking implementation plan that the White House released on Feb. 11 of this year.”

Law student Laura Sullivan said the experience gave students a bridge between the academic and policymaking worlds.

“I learned how to think like a policymaker,” she said, “how to frame and present the issues in a way that will maximize utility, and how to tailor my writing for the intended audience.”