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Learning to Think Like Your Clients:

Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer discusses the leadership behind the university's new law curriculum.
University Business, Jan 2008

During his first year as a dean of the Stanford Law School, Larry Kramer spent most of it talking and listening to people-students, faculty, alumni, venture entrepreneurs, the various "consumers" of the school's "product," its graduates. It was out of this intensive dialogue that the seeds for the new plan for Stanford's "three-dimensional degree program" emerged. The plan, that has already stirred intense interest in the higher education and legal communities, was announced in November 2006. It is described as transformative, combining "the study of other disciplines with team-oriented, problem-solving techniques and expanded clinical training that enables students to represent clients and litigate cases-before they graduate."

Clearly it will be years before this new plan can be fully implemented and judged for its effectiveness. Stanford Law School's approach to strategic change, however, has great relevance for the leadership of law schools and other professional schools that want to remain abreast of their rapidly changing professions. Our extensive work with professional schools in search of new positioning and value propositions has taught us the importance of the planning and development phase. Asking the right questions, re-defining the conceptual framework, tools and starting point in a search for new solutions are among the most critical factors for its success. In a recent discussion with Dean Kramer, we tried to understand the thinking behind the new plan: the most urgent questions asked; the considerations and objectives that drove the vision; and the process by which a transformative new strategy is being implemented in a complex institution.

"Stanford's innovation," an internal communications document reads, "is being driven by the new demands on modern lawyers, which are fundamentally different from those present when the law school curriculum was formed." Several law schools have also recognized changes in legal practice, and have responded to new needs with clinical and curricular innovations. Most planning processes, however, are driven by internal assessments and designs. What is different in Stanford's planning process is the customer-and market-driven framing at the onset of the planning. Kramer and his team focused on three major areas of dissonance between training and practice, identified in their discussions with "customers"-students, alumni and legal employers:

Declining Student Engagement "Students are bored after the first year," Kramer asserts. "The problem with legal education," he maintains, " is in the second and third year and consists mainly of failing to keep students engaged by offering them something of equivalent educational and intellectual value to what they got in the first year."

Unmet Needs of Legal Employers. To varying degrees, law schools have recognized that legal expertise alone is no longer adequate to advance in a legal career path. Additional competencies, such as problem-solving skills, are essential. Kramer sought to define this gap more precisely, and utilized specific employer cases to focus the curriculum toward simulated or actual solutions and create a client-focused learning culture.

For example, a corporate client asks its lawyer about a particular deal and the lawyer says "no, you can't do this because the law won't allow it." Well and good, and the client should be pleased to avoid liability. But when the client turns and asks the lawyer to help figure out a legal way to do the deal, the lawyer will need to know more than just doctrine. The lawyer will need to understand how the deal works, will need to know how to evaluate the risks and benefits, and will need to be able to work with the client to find a solution...I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken to since becoming dean who have said to me something like the following: "The problem with lawyers is that all they ever do is tell me 10 reasons I can't do what I want. I need lawyers who, after they've done that, can help me find a legal way to get it done.'"

"Until approximately 20 years ago international law was extremely marginal in the curriculum," Kramer notes. "Only two or three U.S. law firms even had international practices, much less offices abroad. All that has how changed. Where only a tiny number of graduates used to practice law across national borders, today only a tiny number do not. International law has gone from the peripheries to the center, and law schools have been scrambling to adapt."

To develop graduates who are versed in the language of global economy, international law becomes an integrated focus in the new program, rather than a side line. "The international law our graduates will practice," Kramer explains, "is in the private sphere... It's about cross-border transactions between private parties. It's about international business and international trade, international procedure and arbitration, international tax, and, critically, international investment and development."

Instead of isolated curriculum improvements and projects, the design process was focused on integrated and systems-based solutions to key areas of dissonance between training and practice. We highlight solutions to three problems in particular:

The anchoring piece of Stanford's curricular transformation is its emphasis on the second and third year-a departure from the tendency to focus change on the first year in most law-school re-designs. Larry Kramer finds it "puzzling to see not just Harvard, but most schools that think about curriculum reform focus all their energy on changing the first year." He justifies Stanford's approach as follows:

The problem is that legal education has traditionally involved teaching one skill (thinking like a lawyer), and doing so for three years. The second and third year curriculum is thus best described as "more of the same." The fields of law are different, but what students do in their second and third year classes is mostly just what they did in their first year classes. There is, to be sure, a bit more variety: opportunities to take some seminars and write papers, and opportunities to do clinics and externships. But at most schools these are a haphazard feature rather than a systematic part of the curriculum, and the core curriculum remains focused mainly around doctrinal field surveys. Students take these other sorts of classes to relieve the monotony or to have a chance to "do some good" or have some fun while earning their degree. They are not an integral part of a consciously constructed upper level curriculum, and for most students the upper two years still consist mainly of more conventional law classes, with a handful of alternatives thrown in.

One of Stanford's first reforms was to make it easy for students to take courses outside the school and earn joint degrees. Joint degrees are not new to Stanford, but current design both expands such degrees and focuses them on specific client needs.

Yet thinking like a lawyer is not the only skill necessary to be a great lawyer. Far from it! Knowing how to analyze helps lawyers help clients identify legal problems and avoid liability or secure a remedy when problems occur. But it doesn't help lawyers help clients solve the problems the lawyers have spotted. To do that, you need also to understand what the client does. And you need to know how to work as part of a team, one that most often includes non-lawyers, because that will be a critical part of your professional life after graduation no matter what you do.

Though joint degrees and interdisciplinary concentrations are being increasingly featured in law school curricula, Stanford's program is both expansive in scale and intrinsic to its overall pedagogy and strategy.

Key to its development was conceptualizing the university in terms of competencies rather than degrees and departments; and understanding where value could be extracted from a range of intellectual assets, to benefit the outcome of the law school. "When I tried to think of the competencies that would help our graduates solve client problems and become leaders in their professions, I realized that all were there; within easy reach, right on our campus: engineering, business, medical...," says Kramer. "What does the university do, after all, except train the people you will work with and for your future clients and colleagues?"

There are currently 20 joint degree programs in place, encompassing 27 separate joint degrees, and several more are planned. Because of the large scope and centrality of this interdisciplinary focus, sound business strategy was required, in addition to sound pedagogy. To implement this vision it was necessary to forge substantial collaborations, and achieve organizational alignment and process re-designs across schools and departments. The Law School, for example, has decided to change its academic calendar-a traditional law school semester system-to match the rest of the university, which operates on the quarter system. Strategic collaboration and alignment among key schools has resulted in combining course requirements so that many, if not most, joint degrees take the same amount to complete as a traditional JD degree.

While alignment has to be a continuous process, it appears that a framework for on-going co-development, collaborative learning and re-design has been put in place.

A pivotal element of Stanford's transformation is its emphasis on clinical education and, in general, practice-focused experiences, as integral components of the educational experience. A key innovation is that "thinking like a lawyer" is no longer the sole objective that drives both the pedagogical principles and their applications. Instead, the experiential dimensions of the new curriculum serve to help students learn to "think like their client."

While this may sound like a simple semantic twist, in reality it represents a monumental paradigm shift; one that mirrors shifts in legal practice and, in general, the customer-based nature of professional service delivery today. A senior partner in the law firm, Arnold & Porter, discussed with us recently the problem of poor understanding of client service that most recent law school graduates displayed. He explained that the problem was deeper than training in a specific set of skills. He needed lawyers who "had a service ethic and mindset; more than what a course or two could deliver." He wondered if the non-customer oriented mindset was "because schools, themselves, look down on service, so that this attitude is not cultivated in students." Developing the problem-solving lawyers of tomorrow involves more than mastery of techniques. It is rooted in the ability to see the world from the eyes of the client. It is nurtured by a value system that prizes and rewards service, a customer-focused culture and experiences that develop a range of nuanced capabilities and instincts.

"Thinking like a client," Kramer explains, "is not a single skill, much less something that can be taught in a three-week session on problem solving." Both clinics and a range of other experiential programs serve to provide living laboratories for exposing students to situations and challenges that allow them to learn what it takes to solve a client's problem. What is significant is that they are driven by the same cohesive set of competency-needs, gleamed in conversations with customers that drive the larger curricular transformations.

A case in point is the use of clinical programs and multidisciplinary, team-oriented, problem solving courses to develop problem-solving skills, team work and inter-disciplinary capabilities in their graduates. They were designed jointly by the faculty of the law school and other Stanford schools. "Rather than pretend to teach students problem solving by lecturing abstractly about methods," Kramer explains, "these courses bring students and faculty from different disciplines together, assign them actual problems, and require them to work through to a solution."

For example, in a course on expert witnesses, law students and students from the natural sciences work together through simulated exercises to prepare a witness to testify in a patent infringement case. New negotiation classes unite students from law, business, and engineering in exercises with "clients" as well as "opponents." A new clinical course has law students working with medical students to address "patients' full needs in both domains."

[1] "Customer" is broadly defined to include all those who make use of, and derive benefit from, the intangible assets of an institution: research, competencies, human capital, reputation etc. In that sense, students, alumni, benefactors, research sponsors and employers are "customers."

Clinics are not new for either Stanford or other law schools. The difference lies in creating a systematic approach, as opposed to what Kramer sees as "the haphazard nature of clinical programs of the past and at many other schools, which are less programs than an assortment of separate projects with no overall definition or mission." Rather than regarding clinical education as marginal, or "something to keep students occupied," Kramer explains, "we regard it as a central part of our pedagogical mission and curriculum, something every law student should experience. And it means developing clinics that reflect the same multi-disciplinary world that lawyers face."

Stanford was among the first to establish clinical programs in the 60's but dropped them later on. They were re-established under Kathleen Sullivan's deanship. Kramer credits David Mills, senior lecturer in law and managing partner for Harbourton Enterprises, Larry Marshall, professor of law, and Stephanie Mills, director of clinical education, as the architects of the current plan for the centrality of the clinical experience.

Kramer and his group carefully examined the successes and failures of many clinical programs, including Stanford's own early efforts. They concluded that the previous Stanford programs had failed because of lack of faculty support. The reason was faculty perception of clinical programs as pedagogically unsound; "more of a 'feel good' program, staffed by people who were considered 'second class citizens'; not qualified on the basis of the same criteria used for non-clinical faculty." Kramer also points out that on the whole "clinics were, in the early years, less about teaching than about providing legal services. And, as such, they started out as, and at most law schools have remained, marginal." The new clinical programs are designed on the basis of sound pedagogy and learning objectives, and are seamlessly linked to the broader academic strategy.

"Every other profession except law already requires a serious clinical experience before giving someone a license to practice," says Kramer. "Imagine graduating a doctor who had never been in a hospital ion a structured teaching setting." Drawing, in part, from medical education for models, Stanford has designed "a kind of "clinical rotation," where students take only a clinic during a particular quarter. The clinical rotation, scheduled to start in 2009, will enable the school to deliver a much more intensive experience, including a better professional ethics component and a deeper research and writing component. It also permits the school to operate clinics in a greater variety of settings-including overseas.

Kramer sums up curriculum innovations simply, as a bridge between tradition and the demands of the new knowledge age service delivery: "The traditional curriculum remains strong, while new opportunities are being created."

"Economics was not a factor that drove these changes," asserts Kramer in response to my question on business objectives. Neither was direct competition with perceived rivals. "We have a model that works." Instead, the primary motivation for change was opportunity, with the fuel provided by the university's entrepreneurial culture:

"We can take chances at Stanford. We do not have to fear about keeping up with the Jones. We have the opportunity to be innovative without the risk of losing anything. We must not be complacent. There is an entrepreneurial culture at Stanford that discourages complacency. It is a different culture from that in most universities in the East." The collective vision that Kramer catalyzed and harnessed behind the Law School's changes is one of "innovation in kind not degree: an approach to legal education that embodies what is different and makes a case for the Stanford difference."

His goals include:

"Developing a model that works not only for Stanford but other law schools as well."

Attracting students who are ambitious, creative, entrepreneurial. Stanford's graduates do not follow traditional legal careers. They do interesting things. We want to become a hub for this kind of students-those who make a difference around them not simply perform job functions.

While competitive threat was not a major incentive for the change, competitive positioning was a consideration. "Competitive positioning, however, is a concern for students. In that sense, yes, maintaining our highly competitive position is important for our relationship with students and alumni." Innovation and differentiation, consequently, have business related benefits for alumni loyalty and engagement, as well as attracting the kind of students and faculty that perpetuate innovation.

Bringing about any change within a larger, conventional and change-resistant organization has been a major challenge for many progressive academic leaders. Translating innovative strategy into action is usually hampered by conflicting policies, governance structures and practices. With this in mind, I asked Dean Kramer about the factors that contributed to the success of the school's implementation of plans, especially those that involved university-wide changes, such as the inter-disciplinary degrees.

Kramer credits the school's administrative and budget structure, known as "One University" budget model, for eliminating the usual obstacles to inter-departmental collaboration. Starting in the 90's, Stanford established a "consolidated budget" model that takes into consideration both the unrestricted and the restricted revenues and expenditures of all parts of the university. This model enables both academic and business leaders to track expenses and revenue generation throughout the university. It provides an institution-wide basis for strategic decisions on investments and allocations, and allows the university to identify and support areas of priority, rather than only react to crises.

From the perspective of deans, this budget structure makes collaborations possible without penalizing the parties. "Budget allocations are independent of tuition and other sources of revenue," Dean Kramer explains. "It is not dollar for dollar. If students from one school take courses in another school, neither school has to give up anything. The same applies to faculty members teaching in another school or department for a while."

The importance of internal systems that support, or at least do not conflict with, strategy is made especially poignant by Kramer's career experiences. As a faculty member at NYU, before coming to Stanford, he attempted a similar collaborative model as Stanford's. This time, however, NYU's budget structure and policies made it impossible to implement.

Kramer cites three measures for assessing the success of this undertaking in the future:

Graduates who make a difference in the long term

Accomplishing the goals we set internally

Seeing our model adapted and used by others

He recognizes that they are still at the beginning of a transformation that will take years to be fully implemented and have impact. Yet the Stanford team relishes the learning and development process which they see as a constant in their entrepreneurial culture.

Anna Caraveli, Ph.D., is senior consultant at Kaludis Consulting, a higher education strategy consulting firm since 1977, ( in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at