The recent architectural addition to Northwestern Law School where I teach – a lovely, three-floor, glass-clad space with high ceilings – reflects a new direction of legal education. The first-floor has a café with fifty seats and a patio looking out on Lake Michigan. The next two floors are conducive to collaboration, consisting of study rooms and open spaces with comfortable chairs. The only classroom in this section has no rows of seats or even a lectern but is instead full of tables and audiovisual screens, suitable for negotiation and problem solving even at long distance.
The new space emphasizes an increasingly important part of elite education generally—the opportunity to network with other highly skilled individuals. One can think of higher education as providing three distinct services: transferring information and skills, signaling the quality of students to employers, providing professional networking opportunities for students.
Nothing better represents the decline of the first function than the plight of the university library. Historically, universities have flourished in part because of exclusive access to information, not just in the books they owned but also in the professors they employed. But their monopoly is fast eroding with the rise of the internet. Every year I have been at Northwestern, I have noticed fewer people in the library on my trip there. I now rarely cross its threshold myself: almost everything I need is available with a few keyboard strokes or mouse clicks. And, with its strict norms of silence and fragmented space, the library is not well-suited to networking. Our law library will be used even less given our addition.
Most of the substance of what law schools teach is also available on the internet. It is true that we chose what to emphasize and highlight in our courses, but now whole courses making those choices are available online. Fortunately, with the Socratic method we do still convey rhetorical skills that are hard to get online. I like to say that one of the most important things I teach is how to talk when you do not know what you are talking about.
The relative decline in the importance of imparting information makes it all the more crucial that law schools like ours optimize their networking opportunities for students. By admitting people of high intelligence and ambition, elite educational institutions control access to a platform that is hard to replicate. Students make valuable professional friendships that can last a lifetime, even perhaps finding someone to marry. They become aware of how to behave professionally in interacting with the peers and learn from those with the most successful interpersonal and negotiating skills. For the later enterprise the new kind of classroom we have built enhances such interaction even within the curriculum. Eventually technology may offer ways to displace the higher education from its preeminent place in such networking services as well, but for now Northwestern, like other similarly situated institutions, does well to make them as valuable as possible for the present.