Changing a country’s mindset is like taming a musth. But everyone seems to agree that it is the most important progression that is required in Pakistan right now. With a population of over 200 million, it sounds like a Sisyphean task. And the biggest question is where do we begin?
Changing the mindset of our legal professionals is a certain way to bring about that change by bringing lasting legal reforms in the country. In many countries, especially Pakistan, the next generation of legal professionals is being shaped by the legal education system that is in dire need of reform. All traditional law schools and institutes are using outdated teaching methods as well as textbooks years after years and students are culturally bound to use poorly written cramming guides to pass law exams; hence they usually obtain degrees with little or no learning. This not only degrades the value of law degree immensely, but also undermines any hope of producing lawyers who are ready to practice after they graduate. Undoubtedly an irreparable loss!
One woman has taken it upon herself to turn the tides. “We are disrupting legal education,” said Ujala Akram, the dean of Blackstone School of Law, (BSOL) in a recent conversation with me.
Based in Lahore, BSOL is providing legal education to students who are, or wish to be, enrolled into the illustrious University of London LL.B. (Hons.) Program.
Ujala believes that institutes fail if they fail their students’ expectations by failing to engage them in learning and appropriate training. Her passion for a quality higher education program took her on a years-long journey and a whole lot of training starting from her own legal education. Her LL.B. from University of London to LL.M. from Indiana University and now being a doctorate in law candidate (SJD) from IU McKinney Law School in the hub of Indianapolis, United States. Ujala most recently also served as Assistant Dean at Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, USA.
Emphasizing on the importance of engaging students in a student-centered learning environment every day in Blackstone School of Law, Ujala explained the revolutionary learning style they are introducing. “We are disrupting legal education through three unique ways: Work-Study Curriculum, where students earn as they learn as they work on various paid and law-related internships; Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE), where students come at the forefront of learning collaboratively in small groups instead of the teacher delivering a traditional lecture to a class of say a 100 students; and last but not the least ‘Flipped Classroom,’ where the classroom becomes a place for active learning, research and discussions whereas interactive lecture videos are watched outside of classroom.” A pioneer in the legal studies, this technique has not been taught in any other institute in Pakistan.
Ujala believes in equipping students with analytical skill and hands on learning instead of cramming the curriculum for just exams. The incorporation of work-study curriculum in the three-year law degree is already a hot topic amongst law students and prospects all over the city.
This Work-Study Curriculum is designed by the CEO of Blackstone School of Law, Irfan Mahmood, who also helped implement the similar curriculum, called the Bridges curriculum, at the University of San Francisco – School of Medicine. This program provides students a three-year head start by giving them hands on professional paid experience which they will start accumulating from the first day of their law school. Blackstone Law School’s students don’t just stand out in the crowd, they are at the top law graduates who have already started reforming the legal environment from the first day of their legal studies.
The Self-Organized-Learning-Environment and Flipped Classroom methodologies used by Blackstone School of Law are considered the most innovative pedagogies in education. Disruptive innovation in education is the need of the hour because what worked in the past will not work today. “We must challenge the status quo and compel educators to innovate and shift their thinking in a more growth-oriented way, because the world has changed dramatically in a short period of time” Ujala said.
She compared the two systems with interesting analogies. “The traditional lecture-based education system is like taxi-cab service in the times of Uber or say, DVD rentals in the times of Netflix.”
She continued explaining. “By employing these disruptive strategies, we can begin the process of creating a more relevant and rich learning culture for our students. What’s really cool about Blackstone School of Law is that you’ll see 17 or 18 year olds having a life-changing experience who were an ‘average’ student in the traditional school system and now have become researchers, change-makers, writers, and experienced legal professionals instantly.”
Ujala added proudly: “Our students are empowered, they feel in control of their education and knowledge they receive is showing incredible results. It is making both my educators and my students proud in themselves and each other.”
Ujala wants to make a lasting impact in the field of education. She wishes to develop a replicable model of the 21st century learning. “Instead of going to LUMS, UCL, TILS, or PCL come to Blackstone School of Law for an innovative learning journey; we’ll teach you everything you need to know in three years where you will get hands on experience working in various legal fields.”
Ujala has strong passion and an even stronger strategy for the new generation of law students and their education and empowerment – as strong as the resume she holds. Sitting in the heart of Lahore, this institute has distinctively taken a huge leap by passing the boring monotonous system to transform these prospect lawyers into fully equipped pre-eminent attorneys.