Legal education has come a long way since Christopher Columbus Langdell instituted the case method. Plainly, Langdell’s idea of teaching law through analysis of appellate opinions remains invaluable and will continue to play a major role in helping students learn to “think like lawyers.” But teaching students to be great lawyers and leaders calls for a variety of methods; we need to offer students skill sets beyond those honed by the Socratic method.

My last column highlighted the role of interdisciplinary study in preparing our students for the challenges that await them. This time I want to talk about another imperative: clinical education. Law schools must recognize what other professional schools have long understood—that proper training requires closely supervised, pedagogically driven opportunities to work with actual clients. Experiential learning is and ought to be an essential part of every student’s legal education. It provides a crucial bridge between the classroom and the courtroom or boardroom. As our alumni who have worked in clinics often say, traditional classes taught them to think like lawyers, but clinical courses taught them how to act and feel like lawyers. 

We cannot and should not rely on employers to provide this vital component of a proper legal education. That’s our job, not theirs. Law firms and agencies are set up to serve clients, not teach. They do not choose cases for their pedagogical value. Nor can they purposely maintain low case-loads to ensure that each case is used as an effective teaching tool. No law firm has a weekly seminar in which lawyers meet to reflect on the practical and theoretical lessons gleaned from their work with clients. 

Stanford has seven clinical programs providing our students a range of opportunities to work on cases under the supervision of an extraordinarily talented clinical faculty. The law school takes immense pride in their accomplishments. Some of our clinics handle more high-profile cases than others, and in recent months a number of our clinics have made national headlines. But the measure of a clinic’s work is not whether it handles newsworthy cases or even whether its clients prevail. The measure of our clinics’ success is their educational value to students, which is immense. 

We must not rest on our laurels, however. One of the law school’s key priorities during the next several years is to enhance the scope and excellence of our clinics: by adding programs in new areas, by increasing staffing so we can make our clinical offerings universally available, and by improving and expanding our physical facilities.

My optimism about what we can achieve in the clinical arena stems, in large part, from confidence in the vision and leadership of professor Larry Marshall, the new David and Stephanie Mills Director of Clinical Education, who will become our first associate dean for clinical education and public interest programs. Larry has accomplished extraordinary things, having founded and directed the world-renowned Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. He has bold and exciting plans for the Stanford clinics, and I am excited about working with him to develop and implement them. [See story p. 14.]

One of those plans recognizes that our current clinics all focus on litigation, despite the fact that most of our students are destined for careers that will not take them into court. Within the next year, we hope to launch a clinic that represents small businesses, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit organizations that cannot otherwise afford high-quality legal counsel. This clinic will not only provide vital practical training for our students, it will also drive home the lesson that there are plentiful opportunities for pro bono work in nonlitigation settings. We hope that our graduates take this point to heart and that their experience in this, as in all our clinics, will generate a lifetime commitment to pro bono representation.

We have also begun work on renovating our clinical space to make it an effective environment for teaching students and serving clients. The revamped space will allow us to launch several new clinics within the next several years. Construction should be completed this fall, and I hope you will stop by for a tour when you next visit the campus.

Achieving our goals in clinical education will take great effort from many of our constituencies. The same low teacher-student ratios (generally 8 to 1) that make clinical teaching so effective also make clinics very expensive. For many years, law schools concluded that they could not afford to operate robust legal clinics. The truth is, we cannot afford not to.