Brooklyn Law School will roll out an innovative new curriculum—with practical opportunities for new students to research, write, and build their professional identity.
By Jen Swetzoff
“By the time our students graduate,” said Maryellen Fullerton, interim dean and professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, “they should all be able to tell a clear story about who they want to be as a lawyer. That conviction is really how the idea for our new curriculum started.”
The art of storytelling is influencing all industries today, including the legal industry. As law school enrollment continues to rise, the job market for lawyers has become increasingly competitive. Candidates who effectively communicate a narrative about their interests, goals, and motivations will stand out.
With this in mind, several faculty members began talking about how they might reimagine legal education. In 2017, Fullerton, a longtime advocate for curricular reform, offered to lead the group as they explored possibilities for change. The group—comprising faculty members and the registrar—has spent the last two years brainstorming creative ways to transform the traditional 1L teaching model. Now the Law School is ready to implement their vision. The new curriculum will be rolled out to 1L students beginning in the 2019–20 academic year. It will enhance both the basics—Building the Foundation in the 1L Year – and the advanced goals—Developing a Professional Identity in the 2L Year and Specializing and Transitioning to Practice in the 3L Year. It features many more writing and research opportunities, more robust academic advising, more exposure to the types of law practice that are available, and more intellectual stimulation in 3L seminars and faculty-led reading groups.
Starting this fall, the Law School will increase its legal writing requirement in the first semester of the 1L year from two to three credits. The additional credit will boost the research component and will incorporate opportunities for students to draft professional correspondence to clients and supervisors, a form of legal writing not currently taught in the program. “New lawyers need to be able to research and write well starting on day one of their legal careers,” said Heidi K. Brown, director of the legal writing program and associate professor of law. “We need all our students to emerge from law school already knowing how to research and write well. Students have access to so many digital grammar and citation tools now, but the foundation for good written analysis starts with us, with the faculty teaching the curriculum. I’m appreciative of Dean Fullerton’s forward-thinking vision and of the board’s support on this initiative.”
In spring 2020, the Law School will launch what is perhaps the most ambitious component of the revised J.D. program. The current legal writing requirement will become the new four-credit Gateway to Lawyering course, in which students dive deeper into one of four areas of law to help them focus their studies and potential area of career interest. The course will feature intensive research and writing as well as more engagement with statutory materials.Students will have the option to concentrate in one of four areas:
- Law and business
- Law and information
- Law and social change
- Law and individual life
“Becoming a lawyer is about acquiring both substantive academic and practical knowledge,” said K. Sabeel Rahman, associate professor of law and the president of Demos, a public policy organization focused on ensuring equality in the American democratic process and economy. “The Gateway series is a great opportunity for students to start making choices and exploring their various interests. No matter what subject matter they study, they will get a taste of something new, and they can start considering if it’s the right professional path for them or not.”
Each of the new Gateway courses will focus on a statutory framework in that particular subject area. This curriculum is designed to expose students to a wider range of legal writing competencies than the Law School’s previous traditional legal writing courses. Students will complete three types of written assignments:
- A descriptive piece of writing, answering a client’s legal question through reading, parsing, and applying a complex statutory framework
- A transactional document, such as a contract or settlement agreement related to a hypothetical client scenario
- A substantial, persuasive advocacy piece, such as a brief or a position paper, using case law to further interpret the statutory rule.
Students will learn oral communication skills as well. The class sessions and assignments will explore professional ethics issues and involve simulations and other forms of skills training and interactive learning. Alumni practitioner panels will be integral to the courses as well to educate students about the practical aspects of the Gateway areas and provide networking opportunities.
The faculty also enhanced 2L and 3L students’ upper-level writing requirements and experiences; students must complete a legal writing requirement in both the 2L and 3L academic years. Traditionally, the Law School required only one upper-level writing requirement—a faculty-supervised assignment.
“We cannot wait until the third year to assess our students’ writing skills again,” Brown explained. “Students need to be writing during each year of law school. One main goal is to help students take charge of their own legal education—from the beginning and then continuing through the arc of their multiyear experience at Brooklyn Law School. Exposing them to various types of writing in each year of their law school journey builds a foundation of skills. Students can continue developing professional skills in their second year as they evolve as legal writers. They can take upper-level drafting courses and seminar courses or write an independent research paper. Alternatively, they might satisfy the additional upper-level writing requirement through written work performed in summer jobs, with the approval of their supervisors and faculty. Our goal is to make sure that all Brooklyn Law students walk into their first job feeling confident about their research and writing skills.”
ROAD MAP TO THE FUTURE
Beginning with the class entering the Law School in fall 2020, students will develop a comprehensive online portfolio checklist. Although this aspect of curriculum reform is still in development, students will eventually be able to access a checklist that will help them track the development of their strengths, competencies, and values in five categories:
- Effective communications
- Information gathering
- Problem solving
- Building a professional identify and a career plan
- Technological proficiency
Starting in their 1L year, students can use this road map to track their progress as they navigate their personal journey through law school—ensuring that they garner the skills necessary to provide effective, ethical, and responsible legal services in everyday practice. When students are applying for admission to the New York State Bar, this checklist also will help them demonstrate they have satisfied all their requirements.
“This portfolio will be an essential tool to engage all students, mobilize our resources, and build a stronger legal community,” said Fullerton. “It also puts the arc of legal education directly into the student’s hands. Each student will see an array of opportunities to learn doctrine, develop skills, and delve into specialized areas, as well as lists of all requirements, so the students can make intentional choices as they choose their courses and externships each semester.”
In time, the checklist likely will include more than coursework and will incorporate lawyering skills and activities. Brown hopes it eventually will be used as a holistic guide for students to navigate law school, with a framework for well-being initiatives, professional development, and networking experiences in addition to academics. Fullerton noted that optional reading groups led by faculty members may be included in the future.
“This initiative,” said Brown, “is, first and foremost, a way to help students structure their academic life. But we also see it potentially as a way to help structure their extracurricular life, their career pursuits, their interpersonal skills, and development of their lawyer personas, which includes categories like well-being that have not been traditionally emphasized or focused on in legal education. We want students to ask themselves, do I have the resources I need to make sure I can be a healthy lawyer, and not just a successful but stressed-out lawyer?”
In addition, students following the new curriculum will have an array of opportunities to create a portfolio of high-quality writing samples that dovetail with their academic and professional interests. This process will help students better articulate their experiences and the strengths they will bring to their career, whether in the private, public interest, public service, or business sector—and give them a solid collection of writing samples to share with potential employers.
“As teachers,” said Rahman, “it’s our job to set students up for a successful trajectory in law school—and beyond law school. This new curriculum is meant to do that, and it’s very exciting. I think it’s a real testament to the values and the creativity of the faculty and the administration at Brooklyn Law School. We want to do everything we can to make sure that students leave fully prepared.”
SUPPORT CURRICULAR INNOVATION
To ensure that the goals of this comprehensive curriculum initiative will be achieved, Brooklyn Law School has created a Fund for Curricular Innovation, which will provide the necessary support and resources to implement the plan. Strong supporters of the Law School and student success, Denise Faltischek ’00 and Kenny Faltischek ’00 are investing in this initiative as inaugural donors.
“When Interim Dean Fullerton came to speak about her vision for curriculum reform, it was clear to us that this was something we wanted to support,” said Denise Faltischek. “These changes will differentiate the Law School as an innovative leader in the legal market. We are proud to be affiliated with such an important endeavor.”
To learn more about becoming an investor in the Fund for Curricular Innovation, please contact Caitlin Monck, Interim Director of Advancement, at (718) 780-0322.