Northwestern Law Announces Accelerated JD, Other Proposals

June 20, 2008

Northwestern University School of Law will offer an accelerated JD program starting in 2009 as one of the initiatives of a major new plan to maximize its graduates’ success in the changing worlds of the legal profession and the clients it serves.

Northwestern Law will be the only law school among top-tier institutions to offer an accelerated two-year JD program as well as the traditional three-year JD program.

The accelerated JD and the other new initiatives will offer innovative ways for students to develop the foundational competencies that are at the heart of the plan.

The competencies -- in communication, teamwork, strategic understanding, basic quantitative skills, cross-cultural work, project management and leadership -- will be emphasized in ways that complement the traditional law school focus on case law analysis.

“In other words, the plan stresses competencies to which most law schools pay little attention but industry leaders agree are critical for success in today’s legal careers,” said David Van Zandt, dean, Northwestern University School of Law. “Twenty-first century lessons about what it means to think like a lawyer will be combined with programs that instill critical core competencies to allow our students to work with others and help their clients and their organizations as never before.”

As an initial vehicle for developing the targeted competencies, the accelerated JD program will require the same number of credits as the traditional three-year JD program but will minimize opportunity costs and maximize learning for high achievers eager to resume their careers. Accelerated JD candidates will be required to have at least two years of post-undergraduate, full-time work experience in keeping with Northwestern Law’s current admissions emphasis on substantial work experience. (More than 80 percent of the students already have two years or more of post-college work experience, more than 60 percent have three years or more and 95 percent have at least one year.)

In a compressed five-semester period, participants will receive the same summer job and permanent employment opportunities and benefits afforded the three-year JD students. 

The plan proposes that two new courses and one existing course be required for both the two-year JD and, ultimately, the three-year candidates. The two new courses would be devoted to quantitative analysis (accounting, finance and statistics) and the dynamics of legal services behavior (involving social networks, teamwork, leadership and project management); the other course focuses on strategic decision-making (improving students’ ability to understand the strategies pursued by their clients and organizations).

“Competencies that will be stressed in the accelerated JD as well as all of the plan’s initiatives are central to the ways lawyers work today -- whether at a law firm, a business, a government agency, a nonprofit or varying combinations of all the above,” Van Zandt said.

“Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for the Changing World” recognizes that most Northwestern graduates will have multi-job careers that will require work with lawyers and non-lawyers alike in teams that cross organizational, institutional and global boundaries.

The plan is based on extensive research on industry trends and input from leaders whose decisions affect those trends. Managing partners, general counsel and other leaders of the top law firms, corporations, government offices and nonprofits shared their perspectives in focus groups that took place throughout the United States and in London.

Northwestern is the only law school that has undertaken such a comprehensive effort to understand the legal market by listening to those who employ and work with its graduates.

Other Plan 2008 initiatives:

Communication efforts to ensure that students graduate with the ability to communicate in the different settings in which lawyers work. A strong focus will be placed on basic exposition, legal reasoning and analysis, drafting of simple contracts and business exposition (or effectively communicating advice to clients). Writing competency will be screened for in the admissions process and then stressed and tested throughout each year of law school, with the goal of certifying abilities in this area.

Teamwork infused extensively into existing courses and programs. Law school candidates will be favored for their project management experience and teamwork abilities in the admissions process. Faculty will be supported and trained to facilitate teamwork efforts.

Globalization efforts that prepare students to be effective and strategic working in cross-cultural situations and across jurisdictions -- essential, experts repeatedly emphasized, to excelling in a global environment. The focus will not be on merely requiring courses that have “international” in their titles, a traditional path of law schools. Rather, the emphasis will be on working across borders and on multi-cultural teams to gain non-U.S. experience and to heighten cross-cultural sensitivity. The school will provide non-U.S. internships, strive to expand its non-U.S. JD student presence and integrate JD students with LLM students, who typically are residents of other countries. In addition, the International Team Project (ITP) course will be expanded. 

Intensive experiential opportunities that will intensify the third-year experience and put into practice prior learning. Students will have the opportunity to participate in a range of faculty-supervised experiences that involve full-time concentrated effort for an entire semester. They could spend the intensive experiential semester representing clients in the 11 programs and centers of Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic; or at practicums or internships at nonprofit, non-governmental or government agencies in the U.S. and abroad; or in apprenticeships with non-U.S. law firms, particularly in the U.K.; or, for those considering academic careers, in the Owen S. Coon/James A. Rahl Senior Research Program or the new Law Scholars Program, working with individual faculty members on in-depth research.

 • Feedback that will improve the learning experience. The goal is to provide multiple feedback opportunities throughout course work and programs to encourage students and track their progress, rather than, as usual in law school, rely primarily on final exams to gauge achievement goals.

Top law schools do a great job of selecting the brightest applicants and teaching them how to analyze and provide relevant law to new problems, Plan 2008 stresses.

“But most law schools fall short in preparing their graduates to work with clients and lead teams at a time when clients expect immediate business-appropriate responses from all of their attorneys,” Van Zandt said.

“We now are in a better position than ever to select students for competencies that legal leaders told us are necessary for success and to develop those traits in ways that will mimic how our graduates will work throughout their careers.”

The proposals of “Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for the Changing World” were developed by a working group, consisting of faculty, students, alumni and staff and assisted by Blaqwell, Inc., a prominent legal consulting firm, before they were submitted to industry leaders in focus groups.

The plan builds upon the law school’s 1998 strategic plan to basically provide students with an understanding of the nature of today’s global law and business environment and the wherewithal to manage their careers. The model begins with an admissions process that seeks substantial post-college work experience and relies on an interviewing program to recruit mature students whose communication and interpersonal skills are as excellent as their LSAT scores.

“We have been fine-tuning our model for the last 10 years,” said Van Zandt. “And now following our deep look at industry trends and frank talks with industry leaders, we are confident that we have a plan to maximize our graduates’ success in an environment in which law penetrates businesses and other organizations in unprecedented ways and law operates like a business as never before.”  

Media contact: Pat Vaughan Tremmel at (847) 491-4892 or


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