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First Day at Northwestern Law for Accelerated JD Students

Last May Armand Musey made the climb of his life, arriving in darkness and bitter 40-below-zero cold at the top of Mount Everest, the highest summit in the world. 

At that moment he, with his frostbitten toes, joined the rarefied group who have conquered the world’s “seven summits,” the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.   

Almost exactly a year later, today, May 18, Musey, who spent ten years on Wall Street, joins another elite group, the first class of students in Northwestern University School of Law’s accelerated JD (AJD) program on their first day of law school.

Musey, who climbed up the Wall Street ladder with a focus on finance and the telecom sector, is one of twenty-seven students enrolled in the pioneering JD program, which will take only two years, rather than the usual three, to complete.

All of the AJD students have scaled great heights, in one way or another, to make it into the program, designed for high achievers eager to learn from each other as well as their professors.

Announced last June with great media fanfare, the AJD program is a central outcome of Northwestern’s exhaustive analysis of what is needed to succeed in today’s rapidly shifting legal environment.

Almost all involved in the analysis, dubbed Plan 2008 -- including law partners, general counsel and other legal leaders who met in focus groups throughout the United States and London -- agreed that the third year of law school could be used more effectively.

A key result of that thinking, the AJD program allows students with resumes that already sing to interrupt their careers for only two years, rather than three, in a detour designed to ramp up their considerable capabilities.

Elana Dawson, who began her career in theater management and production touring with the National Theater of the Deaf, liked everything she read about the AJD program. But the feeling that the program was custom designed for her really came to life during a few goose-bump moments at the Northwestern Law luncheon for admitted students and in subsequent e-mail exchanges with the group. 

“I very much value what I can learn from others as well as from formal education,” Dawson said. “The luncheon brought home what an incredibly accomplished group I am part of, and I couldn’t help but be honored.” 

The experiences and smarts of the group strongly reflect the competencies stressed in Northwestern Law’s newly launched plan to prepare students to truly be ready to be a lawyer, 21st-century style, on day one.

“Most of today’s law school graduates likely will work in multiple sectors as well as for multiple employers,” said David Van Zandt, dean, Northwestern University School of Law. “And employers are much less willing to pay for time to teach them on the jobs -- especially in this economy.”

The qualifications of this first crop of AJD students exceed expectations, Van Zandt stressed. “Their experiences already strongly reflect the competencies targeted in our analysis.”

“To varying degrees, they already know, for example, how to lead and work on a team, manage a project, use basic finance and accounting principles, operate globally and communicate complexity clearly and concisely across formats and organizations.”

The AJD students’ test scores are among the highest, and 59 percent have advanced degrees, including four with Ph.D.s and five with MBAs. The median number of years they have worked is six, and 44 percent are students of color.

They hail from the nonprofit sector, finance, banking, consulting and technology/science arenas. One founded Cinderella’s Closet (prom dresses for the underprivileged). Among their experiences, they have worked as a teacher in China, a director at Solomon Smith Barney, a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch, the president and CEO of Windy City Builders, a manager of Ernst & Young, a senior biometrician at Merck and an information systems manager of the Airports Authority of Jamaica.

Dawson’s career in theater management and production ultimately brought her to the Alley Theater, where she worked with Broadway designers and Tony-award winners, doing what she does best, helping artists realize dreams within the harsh realities of resources.

Her theater experiences, she believes, complemented her lifelong interest in the law. In high school, she frequently visited the local courthouse where she scrutinized criminal trials and befriended judges. She also worked at law firms before going on to study criminal justice in college, where an unexpected detour in her curricular path led to theater management.

Her current leaning toward a career in labor law, she believes, grows out of her experiences supervising employees, writing benefits manuals, working on contracts, and dealing with OSHA issues combined with her interests in law, the American Disabilities Act and civil rights. Now blazing a trail as one of the first AJD students, she is managing an inevitable dream of her own.

The opportunity costs of the AJD program are paramount to the ever-adventurous Musey. Eager to continue his career climb, he ultimately would like to help telecom companies optimize their spectrum holdings. “At this point in my career, time is extremely valuable,” he said. “Time is far more expensive to me than the cost of tuition.”

In a compressed period, five semesters, rather than six, the AJD students will complete the same number of credit hours that are required for the traditional three-year JD students. Their curriculum also will include all the same basic core courses that focus on legal reason, writing and analysis.

The difference is the AJD students also are required to take additional required courses. One will enhance understanding of the contexts in which lawyers and their clients operate and cover strategic approaches to business and organizational problems and decision making. Others will develop negotiation abilities and provide the social science research foundation to organizational effectiveness and teamwork.

Another AJD course will develop a fundamental understanding of the principles of accounting, finance and statistics to give context that attorneys need in deciding legal issues. “No matter which sector a lawyer practices in, law is no longer for people who ‘can’t do the numbers’,” Van Zandt said.

Northwestern Law’s “outside-the-box” approach to legal education was a big draw for Roshan Shrestha, who came to the AJD program from his job as a research scientist at Los Alamos National Lab. Venturing into uncharted territory in science, he, with his team, worked toward the realization of an economy where hydrogen can be used to power cars and businesses.

“There were no textbooks or manuals,” he said. “Our cross-functional team of scientists, from seven countries, worked closely extending collaborations beyond political borders to address the world’s energy needs.”

Shrestha would like to leverage his Ph.D. in chemistry with his AJD to work in the field of intellectual property.

Hua Wang, who worked on healthcare strategy at Accenture, isn’t certain about how she will use her AJD, but she is sure that the program and the network that comes with it will go a long way in satisfying her strong interest in law and business. She cited the AJD classes and Northwestern’s long-time emphasis on business and post-college experience. “I’m very attracted to a student body that is a little bit older and to people with substantial work experience,” she said.

Musey mirrored those sentiments. He is eager to rub shoulders with like-minded people in learning how to think like a lawyer about the regulatory issues that come up so routinely in the telecom and finance sectors. This time his intense focus is aimed at increasing effectiveness for reentry into the business world. Who knows? Maybe he will climb another mountain in the meantime.


Posted: May 18, 2009