Experiential Learning: A Growing Trend in Legal Education

There has been a great deal of debate lately about whether the current law school experience and curriculum adequately prepares law students for the real world. Is it time to shake things up?

A growing number of younger attorneys strongly believe that the current law school requirements do not truly prepare students to become practicing attorneys. Rather, this “real world” experience is gained by way of legal employment throughout law school. Many students also see the third-year curriculum as the least beneficial, because it may have minimal impact on their decided-upon area of law.

Though a majority of students do choose to use legal employment throughout law school, these experiences are generally not mandatory. Rather, what remains mandatory are the age-old principals of common law, and not what has been coined “experiential learning.” As frustration grows over this traditional model—judged by some to be an antiquated system—many in the legal community have expressed a need for change, and some schools have even undertaken the waves of change themselves.

Across the country, the experiential learning trend is quickly on the rise. For example, New York Law School now offers a “clinical year” for third-year students, which consists of three 10-week, full-time rotations in various government and nonprofit legal organizations.1 By ensuring that students receive this practical experience, graduates of New York Law School are then ready to jump headfirst into the workforce. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, students are offered the opportunity to immerse themselves in various clinics, ranging from Child and Family Law to Business and Entrepreneurial Law.2 Through these clinics, students can act as student attorneys and tailor their coursework to their specific area of interest. The Child and Family Law clinic, for example, offers more than a dozen courses that are related to the representation of families and children.3

[pullquote]“As frustration grows over this traditional model—judged by some to be an antiquated system—many in the legal community have expressed a need for change, and some schools have even undertaken the waves of change themselves.”[/pullquote]

Experiential learning is on the rise not only throughout law schools across the country, but also within Colorado itself, home to both University of Colorado Law School and Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver.

Recognized by the National Jurist as earning “top honors” for practical training, both Colorado Law and  Denver Law excel at providing their students experiential learning opportunities.

In recent years,  Denver Law has expanded upon its emphasis on practical training, by allowing students to take at least 30 credit hours as experiential learning. This opportunity, which DU calls the Experiential Advantage Curriculum, consists of clinics, externships, and simulation courses.4 Denver Law also offers a Semester in Practice, an intensive externship for students interested in fully immersing themselves into the workforce prior to graduation.

Despite DU Law’s recent expansion of its practical training courses and offerings, experiential learning at DU is not simply a fad. Having established the nation’s first legal clinic in 1904,  Denver Law has been committed to experiential learning for more than 100 years.5

Colorado Law has expanded its experiential learning program in recent years, as well, offering several clinical programs that serve more than 700 clients per year.6 In addition,  Colorado Law strongly encourages students to participate in externship programs and explore courses that allow students to develop real-world skills. These courses include Deposition Skills, Motions Advocacy, and Courtroom Observation.7 It is undeniable that both  Colorado Law and  Denver Law recognize the importance of experiential learning and strive to provide their students a wide array of practical training options.

To be competitive in the workforce, today’s graduates are expected to have a grasp on basic practitioner skills. Employers often seek out candidates with a large amount of practical experience so that their new associate is ready to dive headfirst into the firm’s workload. This stems from the ever-evolving law school experience and its shift toward experiential learning.

The wheels are in spin and law schools across the country are changing their curriculum to better fit both students’ and employers’ desire for practical experience. Although it is unclear what the future holds in terms of law school curriculum and experience, it has become vastly evident that experiential learning is taking hold across the country, and will only continue its rise as an essential element of completing law school.

Headshotby Heather Coleman. Coleman is an associate attorney at Woody Law Firm, LLC in downtown Denver. Heather focuses her practice exclusively on family law matters. She can be reached at heather@woodylawllc.com.