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The Liminality of Legal Education
Design Your Delta No. 2
Law school is traditionally and intentionally designed as “a voluntary displacement”: we require students to embrace “thinking like a lawyer,” often with the express purpose of replacing other ways of thinking.
As a result, these other ways are displaced, immediately and often absent meaningful explanation, through a series of rituals that begin in the 1L year. This is what students sign up for. Even if they don’t know it.
Voluntary displacement is a form of liminality. Liminality, as you may recall, is that space in-between what has been and what will be. A period of transition marked by ambiguity, uncertainty, and often fear of the unknown (and perhaps unknowable).
And, as we examined in our last post, the Liminal Age of Legal may be conceived more accurately as an involuntary displacement. Even so, there is a connection between these liminal experiences. Consider the liminality of law school to be a microelement of the Liminal Age of Legal, and many possibilities emerge.
If we acknowledge law school as a period of liminality (and we must), how might we embrace this understanding to better support the transformation of our students into lawyers who thrive professionally and personally and contribute meaningfully to our legal systems in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and beyond)?
Let us start with the rituals.
Liminal periods are marked by rituals: their creation is how humans navigate the ambiguity and uncertainty of liminality, to emerge on the other side transformed, something more than we were before. And, traditional legal education is full of rituals, some good, some bad, some neutral.
We all need to consciously spend time at the thresholds of our lives, and we need wise elders to create and hold such spaces for us.
-Richard Rohr, Oneing: Liminality
Knowing this, we seek to understand how we “wise elders”—those of us responsible for educating tomorrow’s lawyers—can create and facilitate meaningful rituals throughout the law school experience that contribute to the holistic development of our students. And prepare them to be the leaders we need, to guide our profession through the Liminal Age of Legal.
Because how law students learn in the liminality of law school informs how they will emerge into the practice, ready for the Liminal Age of Legal. Or not.
Currently, the prevalent traditional law school curriculum fails to prepare law students holistically for the transformation they face, both within the law school experience itself and once they enter the practice. We’ve created this liminal space without creating the requisite rituals to guide students effectively.
We’ve known this for decades. Just look at the often-cited reports published by the American Bar Association and Carnegie Foundation stating that legal education fails to adequately prepare students for practice (see MacCrate, Carnegie). Or research demonstrating that the LSAT and subsequent law school assessments fail to accurately predict success (see Shultz & Zedeck).
And worse, these rituals place unnecessary barriers to the profession for historically marginalized populations.
In essence, we have created rituals that more closely resemble hazing, where individuals (at least those fortunate and privileged enough to be admitted) “emerge on the other side transformed,” yes, but only marginally prepared. We admit them across the threshold based on false assessments and without the found clarity or guidance to navigate their careers. The result? Among the many (many) challenges we face, too many leave the profession, and too many of those who stay experience mental health and substance abuse issues.
And, this is where the Delta Model comes in. The Delta Model reimagines the purpose of legal education from one of single-mindedly focusing on “how to think like a lawyer” to a more holistic endeavor focusing on the whole lawyer. We also believe this more holistic approach can lower the unnecessary barriers placed on black applicants. And once admitted to law school, we’re creating a framework to help law students navigate the liminality with purpose, to take agency and make informed choices amidst the ambiguity. And to emerge prepared to thrive in the Liminal Age of Legal.
We aren’t the first to advocate for changing the legal education system. And we aren’t the only ones currently exploring how. But we think the Delta Model might build upon these efforts and provide the necessary framework to move the ball forward.