One of the distinguishing characteristics of Stanford Law School is its relatively small size. And that gave M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean, an idea.

“When I came to Stanford, I was struck by the intimacy of the law school,” she says. “I thought we could take advantage of that by creating opportunities for small groups of students to interact with faculty members outside the classroom, in informal, intellectually stimulating environments that would foster the kinds of bonds that are difficult to forge at larger institutions.”

When Magill floated the idea with the faculty, the positive response was immediate. “We introduced the concept in early November and two weeks later we had eleven commitments for seminars,” she says.

Illustration for article
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

In step with the faculty’s enthusiasm, 180 students applied. Mark Kelman, James C. Gaither Professor of Law and vice dean, who helped launch the series, not only was pleased by the faculty and student reaction but was amazed by the law school’s ability to get the course up and running by January. “The dean of students, Cathy Glaze [JD ’85 (BA ’80)], and registrar, Kim Borg, did a remarkable job of pulling it all together. This would have taken years to implement at other schools,” says Kelman.

The new series is titled Discussions in Ethical and Professional Values, with each class focusing on those values, broadly defined. Indeed, the topics are wide-ranging, including for example The Ethics of Philanthropy taught by former deans Paul Brest and Larry Kramer, Human Rights and Film taught by James Cavallaro, professor and founding director of the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and director of the Stanford Human Rights Center, and Better Decision Making, Performance, and the Pursuit of Happiness taught by professors David Freeman Engstrom, JD ’02, and Nora Freeman Engstrom, JD ’02.

“We basically opened this to any topic or set of readings that would allow students to reflect deeply on the nature of the legal profession or on their professional identity,” explains Magill. “These are subjects that wouldn’t necessarily justify an entire, quarter-long class,” she says. “And they allow faculty members to explore material that is not necessarily within their core expertise.”

The seminars, which were oversubscribed and will be offered again this year, were each limited to ten 2L, 3L, and advanced degree students. Classes were taught by one or two faculty members, in their homes, for five evenings stretching across winter and spring quarters. Students received one unit of mandatory pass/fail credit.

Kelman believes that these conditions contributed to creating an ideal atmosphere. “I was surprised by how much better the energy was than in a typical small class. The students were relaxed, highly engaged, and completely prepared, and everyone participated,” he says. “It was a great opportunity for them to think about a set of really interesting issues and to speak without being afraid of the consequences, since there was no paper or final exam.”

Will Havemann, JD ’13, enrolled in Kelman’s seminar Can Philosophical Insights or Empirical Knowledge Help Us Make Hard Choices? to take one last class with Kelman before graduating. The course explored five “big” questions including, for example, the propriety of torture to elicit information that might arguably save others from a planned criminal/terrorist activity.

“The setting, at his house and in his living room, with just a small group of students and Professor Kelman, encouraged everyone to take part,” says Havemann. “Also, the subject matter was unlike anything we normally study in law school. It wasn’t doctrinal, so it felt more like a 
philosophy class and nobody worried about sounding silly or being wrong.”

Kendall Turner, JD ’13, chose Professor Robert Gordon’s seminar, Group Behavior, based on its description and the readings. It focused on how organizational and group cultures shape ethical choices and examined some famous psychological experiments (Milgram and Zimbardo), as well as studies about the Holocaust and corporate misbehavior.

Turner found the subject matter extremely thought provoking, but also appreciated the seminar’s informality and how easy it was to communicate with everyone. “This was a nice alternative to regular law school classes where I always felt that I had to be serious to be taken seriously. Also, not reading cases and having the class be mandatory pass/fail made this a completely different experience.”

Like Havemann, Turner appreciated the dynamics of being with a small group of students in a professor’s home. “And the setting was incredible. Professor Gordon’s wife is a competitive tulip grower, and the house was filled with tulips.”

Finally, Turner says that she had forgotten what it was like to interact with people in a professional setting. “That doesn’t really happen in the classroom. This was a great reminder that when you go out in the real world, one of the most important abilities is to be a good listener and have good conversations.”

Amalia Kessler (MA ’96, PhD ’01), Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies, and Jenny Martinez, Warren Christopher Professor in the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy, had the real world in mind when designing their seminar Searching for Balance. Both professors are the mothers of young children and so have firsthand experience in juggling professional and family life.

“We had sensed a real yearning from students to discuss these issues,” says Martinez, “but there was no forum available in the standard curriculum.”

The seminar provided the students and the professors with an opportunity to read both academic and non-academic literature on the subject, including current social science research, contemporary fiction, debate in the popular
media, and comparative studies of other countries. It also allowed them to discuss 
“balance” in a whole host of situations and from a variety of perspectives.

“We had an almost 50-50 mix of men and women, as well as LLM students from foreign countries in the class,” says Martinez. “This is a cross-cultural issue for both genders. And we weren’t just focusing on work-family balance. For some people, at least at this stage of their lives, the balance involves work and non-work, whatever that may be.”

Martinez, associate dean for curriculum, particularly liked the informal setting and getting to know the students in a different way. “They shared more personal things than in a regular classroom,” she says. “This wasn’t just an abstract discussion of ideas. Instead, we worked together to construct solutions to an issue that they all would face.”

A particularly poignant moment 
occurred during one meeting when a student approached Kessler and 
Martinez with a real problem: “She had a sick child, no babysitter, and her husband was unavailable the next day when she had scheduled a job interview,” says Martinez. “She asked us what we would do, and before we could respond, several classmates volunteered to babysit for her.”

That response touched, but did not particularly surprise, Martinez. 
“Stanford Law School is a small community of close-knit people who care about each other,” she says. “What surprises me is that we didn’t have these seminars until now. They are a natural extension of what this place is all about.” SL