Law school to underscore personalized education

When he dialed up new students this summer, Dean Paul Schiff Berman had fewer calls to make due to the smallest incoming GW Law School first-year class in at least a decade.

But in each call, he said he wanted to emphasize one thing: The law school will be “less one-size-fits all” and allow for “more personalized pathways.”

As 400 first-year law students met in small groups to listen to health and energy law experts during orientation last week, they heard about how the law school will expand resources for students to put their own stamp on their legal education and get a head start on finding a job.

The push to cater programming to student interests rings in a new age when law schools across the country must justify fewer legal job placements and soaring tuition costs.

“There is a perception that the legal profession demands more specialization than it used to, and I think that’s a real perception,” Berman said. “We’re not trying to change the focus on a general legal education, but we are trying to create some opportunities for people to have a more tailored approach.”

While specialties in typical fields like international, intellectual property and corporate law are still in high demand, the school is also raising money for its growing programs like health law, energy law and cybersecurity, he said.

“For me, a specialized law degree is about being attractive to the employers for whom you wish to work and finding the kind of work you are interested in,” said first-year law student Gillian Wener, who is interested in specializing in environmental law. “As a student, I know more about what I think and want than an employer does.”

The law school also unveiled a revamped student life model last week, organizing first-year J.D. students into 50-to-100-person groups for three years to foster academic and networking opportunities. Students will be paired up with advisers and mentors that target specific fields — a plan that piggybacks off Berman’s broader plans to reform the law school’s academic and extracurricular programs.   

“It is the case that clients are looking for law students, or graduates of law schools, to have a little bit more substantive expertise right from the start than they used to,” Berman said. “Therefore, students feel more pressure to angle themselves in a particular direction.”

First-year law student Brian Kaviar said he has not decided on a special focus yet, but would like to work for the Department of Justice as an appeals litigator.

Kaviar, who wants to intern with a judge in D.C., said he was impressed with the school’s efforts to find out student interests and hoped to use the law school’s new mentoring program to make connections.

“Someone might get an interview through one of these [mentors] that they might not otherwise get,” Kaviar said. “That might be something in the back of people’s minds.”

Though the law school has always allowed students to work toward a law specialization through elective courses and internship opportunities, Associate Dean for Academic Development Renee DeVigne noted that new programs will help students “connect the dots.”

“The new element now is how coordinated it is,” said DeVigne, whose position was created this year. “We are trying to offer the programs in a way to make it easy, accessible, fun. That way, students can feel even more prepared to compete in the job market.”

Fewer students applied to law schools across the country this year, many scared off by a sagging job market.

In the U.S. last year, only 55 percent of 2011 graduates were employed in legal jobs nine months after completing school. GW graduates fared much better, with 81.3 percent reporting that they were employed nine months after graduation – the 10th best rate in the nation for law schools, according to the American Bar Association.

Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book “Failing Law Schools,” said law schools across the country have tried to hype specialization as giving students an edge. But without a recovered job market, he added, the buzz may be little more than a gimmick.

“Students come to law school wanting to engage in international law practice. But in your second or third year, you’ll get whatever jobs you can land,” Tamanaha said. “You have to balance out not just what gives you a leg up in [your] desired field, but also what helps for other positions should that not work out.”

He said it’s not unusual for a law school like GW to suggest concentrations for students, and it’s not a bad plan, but pegging it as a novel idea was unique. Still, he added, “There’s very little law schools can do in such a tough employment market.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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