Northwestern Forum Maps Legal Education Shifts

Northwestern University School of Law

Northwestern University School of Law

In today’s environment, some law schools struggle to scrap up what interested applicants they can find. Others, however, press on, without worry, innovating along the way. Northwestern University’s School of Law falls into the latter category.

About a year ago, under the leadership of Dean Daniel Rodriquez, the school created a strategic planning task force to keep up with the unstable legal climate. A piece of that effort is the Center for Practice Engagement and Innovation (CPEI)—described on it’s website as “an incubator for legal education innovation.”

“It’s a curriculum incubator in the truest sense of the word,” says Professor James Lupo, the center’s director. “We’re looking at the issues that are facing new graduates. What can we do, re-imagine, or add to the curriculum to produce students with the strongest potential?”

The broad goal of the Center is to shift curriculum at Kellogg to prepare students for a legal profession that has been shaped by smaller legal budgets and increasing use of technology. The first major step towards innovating the curriculum came in the form of a CPEI-hosted forum yesterday (Sept. 21) on Northwestern’s campus and offers a potential glimpse into what future legal education might look like.

“Our charge was broad,” Lupo says. “We recognize there are a lot of drivers manifestly changing the practice of law. The role of technology’s relationship with the practice of law and relationship changes between lawyers and clients are areas we are responding to at Northwestern.”


Lupo says the idea is to approach curriculum changes in an “entrepreneurial” way. “When we think about innovating a process or design in the modern world, we don’t think about one discipline base,” Lupo explains. “We bring skills, knowledge, and leaders and we work models. That’s how you get the best possible design.”

A differentiator of the forum and Center, according to Lupo, is the emphasis on gathering marketplace information from a diverse set of individuals involved in the legal profession and using it to instruct and train students. “The school is looking at what’s going on, designing changes and taking them into the marketplace,” Lupo explains. “We needed to change that dynamic. We need to integrate information from the marketplace into the law school. The people on the outside will inform our thinking on curriculum innovation.”

The first of those people were 35 individuals who participated in the forum. Operating in a “design charrette,” the participants were separated into five small groups, depending on their background and relationship with the legal profession. The five groups were senior attorneys, junior attorneys, attorney talent development, clients, and an alternative service group, which was made of representatives from tech companies offering alternative service platforms or (as Lupo describes) “People on the cutting edge of how law will go in the future.”


Each group was given three broad questions. What does it mean to have sound legal judgment? What does it mean to have an effective, strategic partnership with a client? And what does it mean to be a leader of law?

The answers varied from developing project management and quant skills and understanding organization behavior—similar to business education—to becoming more familiar with tech applications. But a few broad trends emerged, suggesting where innovations in curriculum innovation might go. Participants expressed the need for law students to be trained in an entrepreneurial mindset, improve relationships with clients, and develop creativity—or “intellectual nimbleness.”

Lupo was “reluctant” to go into specifics or predict how the school will attempt to prepare more entrepreneurial, strategic, and “intellectual nimble” graduates. However, he explained that they will probably manifest themselves in the forms of additional clinics, experiential learning, and opportunities for students to creatively solve problems in the safe space of law school. Or as one participant described it: A need to exercise “creative muscle memory.”

Another clue to possible changes could come from law schools taking a page from the MBA playbook. “What kept coming up was a large-scale determination we need to teach project management,” Lupo says. “We’re not talking about asking our colleagues at the business school to teach a project management course—that’s not what we’re after. It would be closer to design a course specific to understand how project management is contextualized in a legal setting and how law is practiced today.”


Indeed, it remains to be seen just what will come of the Center’s work.

“How all of this translates into the curriculum is the next phase of work,” Lupo says. Similar questions will be sent to current 3Ls and recent grads, with the feedback then being compiled for the next stage. “We’ll identify something discreet and manageable and take groups of knowledge experts and work over a few months to design a new way of approaching the curriculum.”

Still, Lupo insists there will not be large-scale curriculum changes. “It won’t be fundamentally changing the traditional curriculum,” Lupo insists. “We’re going to do as good or better at teaching legal reasoning, like we always have. Core faculty members are embracing it a recognizing a different way of thinking about content will not change the absolute content.”

But there are some broad outcomes that point to an altered way of instructing future lawyers. “Again, I’m reluctant to predict outcomes, but I could see an increase in large format experiential learning, clinics, externships, and increase in elective courses that provide simulation opportunities.”

Lupo did mention NUvention, an inter-disciplinary experiential learning program between the law, business, engineering, and medical schools, as an example of what law schools might begin to see more of.

“A lot of schools are doing different specific things,” Lupo claims. “But this is the beginning of how Northwestern will respond to fit more into the changing profession.”