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Fuel the flame sparked by your law school education with a legal certificate program


“Education is the kindling of a flame,
not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates

For those of you in law school reading this, let me start with an apology.

I’m sorry, but your legal education has only just begun. You likely already understand this, especially if you’ve had some summer work experiences and have seen how disconnected legal education is from legal practice. Truth: the actual work of practicing law is not what you learn in law school (for the most part).

(n.b. This disconnection is not all bad because much of what you learn in law school actually is fundamental to being a great lawyer, but the practical disconnection most certainly can be frustrating.)

To play off Socrates’ metaphor, law school simply lights the flame. After that, it’s all on you to maintain and grow your professional education going forward.

I’m 20+ years into law practice at this point and can confirm that a good lawyer never, ever stops learning. And in fact, a great lawyer makes continuous learning a priority, intentionally exercising what I call “humble curiosity” and creating meaningful opportunities for continuous professional growth and development.

What is “humble curiosity”? Quite simply, it’s a superpower mindset that allows great lawyers to understand that they will never, ever know everything they need to know to do great work and so they constantly engage with those around them to grown and learn. Fundamentally it’s self-effacing inquisitiveness and the opposite of the “I’m the smartest person in the room” know-it-all.

Of course, we’ve long had a professional ethical obligation to keep abreast of the law relevant to our practice. And this is of even greater importance now, more than ever. We no longer live with the luxury of simply keeping up with slow, periodic, methodical changes in the law. The things we now need to know, and the pace at which these things change, radically shifts how we must approach our ethical obligation to keep up. For example, more than 30 states now also have the express ethical obligation to keep abreast of the “benefits and risks associated with relevant technology,” having adopted some version of Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

The current reality: our profession faces unprecedented challenges and opportunities as we experience change at a rate and intensity that will only increase. Why? Because the legal profession is an integral part of a larger world experiencing the same phenomenon. And we lawyers have a choice: we can stand by and watch it happen, or we can take an active role in shaping it.

We live in a world that increasingly requires what psychologist Howard Gardner calls searchlight intelligence. That is, the ability to connect the dots between people and ideas, where others see no possible connection. An informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in emerging futures.” – Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche,
The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners (Harvard Business Review)

So, knowing that law school simply ignites the flame and that an ethical practice requires tending this flame through continuous learning (and a good dose of humble curiosity), what is a lawyer to do in this era of rapid change?

Traditional CLE courses?

Let us start with the one thing you can’t do: rely solely on traditional continuing legal education (CLE) courses, which anchor one end of the post-JD education spectrum. CLE is typically delivered in one-hour increments, often cobbled together based on what is available in your area (or online) and what fits in with your schedule.

And CLE is not without its critics. For instance, this article posits some valid reasons why you shouldn’t rely on CLE as it currently exists. This critique rings true based on my 20+ years of experience in earning and delivering CLE. While some CLE content can certainly be worthwhile, if you’re practicing in a jurisdiction with MCLE requirements, look for courses with these qualities.

Master’s programs?

At the other end of the post-JD education spectrum are master’s-level programs, which offer significant learning opportunities in many (but not nearly all) practice areas. Primary challenges with relying on this option? Time, cost, and availability. Both the time and financial commitments are quite significant. And while more programs are being offered online, geographical location and subject matter limitations are substantial barriers, as well.

An alternative: Certificate Programs!

Luckily for 21st century lawyers, another option on this spectrum of post-JD education exists: Certificate programs. While the concept of certificate programs in business executive education has proliferated over the past few decades, this offering is new in the legal profession – and far overdue, in my experience.

Certificate programs hit a sweet spot: offered by law schools that are uniquely positioned to bring together highly qualified instructors, the programs provide timely, cohesive learning experiences. The courses lie between typical CLE and master’s-level coursework in terms of both depth and expense, making this a significantly more meaningful option than CLE and, at the same time, more accessible and less expensive than master’s programs.

At Vanderbilt, we’ve just launched the PoLI Institute, an initiative of the school’s Program on Law and Innovation (PoLI). For the past five years, PoLI has offered courses in the areas of innovation, technology, and legal practice to JD students. With the PoLI Institute, we expand the offerings to bring this innovation programming to the post-JD level.

Legal professionals can earn a Certificate in Law and Innovation from Vanderbilt Law by completing any six Immersion courses in the PoLI Institute curriculum within a 36-month period. The curriculum currently includes eight courses — ranging from Legal Project Management to Legal Operations to Building #NewLaw: Biz Dev 2.0 — all delivered in two-day weekend Immersion learning experiences at Vanderbilt’s innovation center, the Wond’ry. The institute plans to expand the curriculum by offering a rotating selection of up to 10 Immersion courses annually.

Certificate students have flexibility to choose the courses of greatest interest and import to their work and to schedule the courses across an up-to-three-year period. While enrollment in the certificate program isn’t required to take any Immersion, those working toward the certificate receive a tuition discount and priority registration in the limited enrollment courses.

Beyond receiving a credential from a top-20 law school, those who attend the PoLI Institute receive additional benefits integral to a commitment to life-long learning: All Institute students become part of a cohort that remains connected post-Immersion via the PoLI Forum. The Forum, a cloud-based community platform, provides a point of connection, collaboration, and community for all Immersion cohorts — a way to stay connected and supported and have continuous access to current information and learning opportunities through Institute faculty.

The key is to find ways to connect and participate in knowledge flows that challenge our thinking and allow us to discover new ways of connecting, collaborating and getting work done faster, smarter and better.” – Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche, “The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners”

At Vanderbilt, we believe strongly that the need for an alternative learning experience post-JD is exigent to support lawyers’ ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the legal profession, and this belief guides the growth and development of the PoLI Institute. And we’re not alone — currently Suffolk Law, Harvard Law, Penn Law and Georgetown Law offer post-JD certificate programs, too.

We lawyers need richer, more diverse post-JD education options to fuel the flame of lifelong learning, and I hope more law schools will join us in creating programs that fall on the spectrum between CLE and master’s level programming.

Cat Moon Cat Moon is Director of the PoLI Institute and Director of Innovation Design at Vanderbilt Law School, where she teaches courses in the business of law, human-centered design, and technology. Cat shares curated resources and inspiration on innovating the law via Nota Bene, a weekly e-newsletter that you can sign up for here.