Law school to revamp student life

The GW Law School will implement big changes to student life this fall to improve the way it prepares students for the legal field and create a friendlier environment in the high-pressure school.

Professional advisory boards, vocational meetings and peer groups will start for first-year law students as part of a series of new programs designed to help students zone in on the practical skills they will need at law firms, and also to connect students with their peers to work out stress that simmers “below the surface,” Dean Paul Schiff Berman said.

“I think this is a major statement,” Berman said. “This is a top law school that has decided that the combination of creating even better student community, better student social life, addressing wellness and emotional concerns and addressing core professional development and career training issues is something that should be a core part of the law school experience.”

The plans have taken shape after Berman called last fall for a committee on student well-being and professional development to spend the academic year consulting outside groups, faculty and students on how to improve students’ mental health and career prospects.

Todd Peterson, a law professor who spearheaded the changes as the committee’s leader, presented the details of the initiative to faculty Friday. The reforms do not require faculty approval because they do not involve curriculum changes.

The changes are part of broader law school reforms Berman has eyed in his first year as dean. He entered with an agenda to boost the school’s experience-based learning initiatives and job placement success. The law school’s other two committees – on its marketing and curriculum – have also spent the year considering changes but have not finalized plans.

First-year students will be grouped into sections of 50 to 100 of their peers, where they will stay for all three years and draw on a network of advisors made up of clinical and research faculty, outside professional development experts and upperclassmen. Some groups will consist of students with similar lifestyles, like those who take night or part-time courses, but most will not “rigidly divide the student body around any preconceived line,” Berman said.

The groups, named “Inns of Court” after the historical societies of British lawyers, will help students foster a professional identity and forge closer connections inside and outside the law school, Peterson said.

In the past, law students were grouped into separate sections, where they took classes together in their first year before they broke off, Peterson added. With the new approach, the “Inns of Court” assignments will be permanent and include more advising on job and academic opportunities.

“The idea is to give them a sense that they are apprenticing for a real profession, that they’re not coming here for purely academic reasons. They’re coming here to learn how to be professionals and be trained as professionals,” Peterson said.

Students will also attend weekly sessions during which they will get more advice and networking opportunities with alumni and lawyers from their respective fields.

Eventually, Peterson said, these weekly sessions will become more frequent and could evolve into a yearlong, six-credit professional development course for law students.

Law schools across the country have sought to better prepare students for a dwindling legal job market that demands budding lawyers be ready to jump into practice.

The push to bring students closer also addresses calls for administrators to take on mental health issues that have swept law students nationwide.

Nicholas Nikic, a third-year law student and the outgoing Student Bar Association president, lauded the changes and said they fall in line with advocacy efforts from student leaders over the past two years to start wellness programs at the law school. Last January, the law school launched “Wellness Wednesdays” as stress-relief outlets for students, including cooking and trivia competitions, as well as Wii Sports tournaments.

“GW is by and large a friendly, happy, community-focused place already,” Nikic said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that law students across the board exhibit dangerously high levels of depression and that legal professionals have unbelievable rates of alcohol and other substance abuse.”

–Matthew Kwiecinski and Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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