November 25, 2011 4:28 pm

US school profile: Northeastern University School of Law

Law school is notorious in academia for housing type-A-personality students, interested only in a fast track to partnership and the fat pay cheque that comes with it. But this is not the case at Northeastern University School of Law. The school, located in Boston’s Fenway neighbourhood, prides itself on collegial students who take seriously its curriculum grounded in social justice and experiential learning.

“We are deeply committed to the idea that every lawyer needs to understand the importance of law in furthering the public good,” says Professor Emily Spieler, dean of the school. “Our goal is to give them the skills, knowledge and values to be great lawyers.” Not every Northeastern student becomes a public-interest lawyer, but Prof Spieler says most graduates are “idealistic pragmatists” who have thought hard about “issues of social disparity and how the law affects different people in different ways”.

Instead of alphabetic or numeric grades, students get written evaluations. There is no class rank or grade-point average, although students may receive “honours” or “high honours” for outstanding academic performance.

Without a rank to compete for, students are more likely to work together to solve problems, according to Prof Spieler, a graduate of Yale Law School, which also eschews grades and rankings. The notion that ranking law students cultivates a competitive spirit that will become an asset to their careers is, she says, “complete hogwash”. “Students need the ability to work together. Increasingly, large firms have come to understand that having the capacity [to well work in teams] is an important part of success.”

A central tenet of Northeastern’s programme of study is its co-operative legal education scheme, launched in 1968. The programme provides students with four internships, which are full-time and not only expose students to different realms of the law and possible career paths but also help them to apply lessons they have learned in the classroom. “The students here are more engaged because there is a sense of immediacy of what they’re learning,” says Prof Spieler. “They have a much more sophisticated set of questions about what things mean.”

The co-ops also give students a leg up in the job market. “We have lawyers who are ready to go when they graduate,” says Luke Bierman, associate dean for experiential education. “They’ve learned how to navigate a [legal atmosphere].”

Prof Bierman says Northeastern students “mature faster” than students in traditional programmes because internships force them to contemplate their long-term professional prospects.

Job prospects for newly minted lawyers are grim, but for Northeastern’s class of 2010, 92 per cent secured employment within six months of graduation. Statistics for the class of 2011 have not yet been compiled.

Kate Richardson, a third-year law student from Michigan, was attracted to the school because of its emphasis on real world learning. She worked as a paralegal in San Francisco before law school and has done internships at agencies in the US, and a stint in Tanzania at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The co-ops, she says, provide a “real-life component” and counterpoint to traditional learning in lecture halls. “You’re constantly going out into the field,” she says. “It illuminates the areas you might want to work on.”

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