Elon Law dean: Bigger ideas needed in legal education

"Audacious is Not a Four Letter Word: Is Bold Big Enough for Legal Education?" by Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman in The University of Toledo Law Review encourages law schools to "develop a culture of distinctiveness" to address legal education's concerns about relevance, sustainability and value.

Elon University School of Law’s efforts to increase experiential learning opportunities, reduce student debt, and improve performance on the bar exam were shared this winter by Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman in a special issue of The University of Toledo Law Review.

In doing so, Bierman encouraged other law schools to think creatively about their own approach to educating students in an era of demographic and cultural upheaval in legal education and the legal profession.

“Audacious is Not a Four Letter Word: Is Bold Big Enough for Legal Education?” appeared in the law review’s Winter 2019 special issue as part of its Leadership In Legal Education Series. Deans submit articles for the series an ongoing effort that culminates with publication biennially in even-numbered volumes that address topics pertinent to legal education.

“Survival will depend on the law school’s ability to establish a unique character that will be attractive to the next generation of students,” Bierman writes, citing stronger connections to practicing attorneys, technological innovations, and the introduction of new specialties as a few possibilities. “Through these distinctions, a law school might demonstrate the kind of innovation and nimbleness that will carry it through the highly competitive market for law school students that currently exists and is likely to continue if not exacerbated for the foreseeable future.”

Since taking the helm of Elon Law in 2014, Bierman has worked with faculty to adopt a distinctive curriculum that integrates traditional classroom instruction with highly experiential components, including a required full-time residency-in-practice with a judge or attorney for academic credit. The 2.5-year curriculum has reduced by 20 percent the amount of debt accrued by Elon Law students before graduation.

In the article, Bierman points to other ideas worth exploring: online learning, new and creative approaches to the admissions process used by law schools, and a reexamination of the way states assess readiness for legal practice apart from a bar exam.

“As we cannot prepare for a future we do not know, we must be thinking about how to prepare this generation of lawyers to be ready for anything,” Bierman writes in his conclusion. “We learn in Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory’ that in the 1920s Bell Labs was motivated by its audacious goal to connect every person on the planet. In the 1920s when cars were still novelties navigating ruts and cow paths and planes were still novelties falling from the sky, Bell Labs undertook to create innovations and inventions that over a century led to devices that accomplished their audacious goal.  

“Perhaps what legal education needs is some audacious rethinking of its goals and principles.  Perhaps it is time to take inspiration from outside the enterprise to remind us that to improve ourselves, we must reimagine our enterprise’s work and purposes in new ways. Perhaps it is time to think audaciously.”

Before joining Elon Law in 2014, Bierman served as associate dean for experiential education and distinguished professor of the practice of law at Northeastern University School of Law.

He also served as general counsel for the Office of the New York State Comptroller from 2007 to 2010, was executive director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University where he held the rank of associate professor of political science, founded the Justice Center and directed the Judicial Division at the American Bar Association, and served as chief attorney for the Appellate Division, Third Department, of the New York Supreme Court in Albany where he also clerked for the court’s presiding justice and an associate justice.