No Law Student Left Behind

By Tacha, Deanell Reece | Stanford Law & Policy Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

No Law Student Left Behind

Tacha, Deanell Reece, Stanford Law & Policy Review



For the better part of a generation, the public discourse on education has, to some extent, swirled around the general theme of "no child left behind," a moniker drawn from President George W. Bush-era federal legislation focused on elementary education standards. (1) In my admittedly naive and uninformed understanding, the debate has focused on themes of the cost of education, uniform standards, minimum knowledge requirements, classroom and testing prescriptions, teacher and student competencies, and the like. This discussion began with elementary students and schools and has now made its way to legal education! Although I have not seen others refer to the current debate in legal education as related to this lengthy national discussion, I think there are many ways in which the themes are the same, and we need to carefully avoid overgeneralization or exaggeration in the important evaluation that must occur in the legal profession about the role and character of legal education in the future.

I am actually energized by the long overdue focus on preparing the lawyers of the future for the new and evolving roles they can, and must, play in the next century. The legal profession is, in many ways, far behind the curve in scrutinizing itself and adjusting its models. Law schools largely follow the same model that has prevailed in modern legal education since the emergence of law schools as professional schools--either free-standing or attached to multi-disciplinary universities. (2) The Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln models of learning at the elbow of great lawyers and judges receded from the landscape in favor of institutional law school classes followed by course-specific bar examinations. The mentor model has re-emerged to some extent in the form of clinics, externships, internships, and clerkships, but I think most would concur that these experiences rarely replicate the idealized model of the student working very closely in a fertile environment for mentoring, professional formation, and learning. Similarly, until the economic crisis of the last decade smashed some of the models, the profession itself has taken little note of, and certainly not adapted to, the change that is now so obviously inevitable. So, I say whatever the debate is titled, it is important; it must be thoughtful; it must resist overgeneralization; it must recognize those aspects of legal education and the legal profession that have served society so well; and it must begin with the understanding that the models that emerge may be significantly different from the old models.

First, I begin with full self-disclosure. I was one of those people for whom legal education and practical experience in the legal profession have made all the difference. I chose to go to law school at a time when law was not on the aspirational horizon for most women completing an undergraduate education. I had never really known a lawyer, and, so far as I can remember, had never met a judge. I chose to go to law school for the same reasons that I suspect most lawyers over time would recite. I wanted to "make a difference" and during the middle of the last century, had been aware of, and watched with respect, the amazing impact that good lawyers made in their service to society. I observed that lawyers had skills that allowed them to persuade, educate, communicate, and generally focus public discussion and controversies in a way that ultimately led to orderly resolution, I had a deep reservoir of what could best be described as patriotic awe for the legacy of freedom and self-government in this nation and knew intuitively that a flourishing private bar and an independent judiciary have a lot to do with preserving that legacy. …

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No Law Student Left Behind


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