Strategic Collaboration

The Benefits of Cross-Disciplinary Education

The George Washington University will celebrate its 200th birthday in 2021, and its march toward that remarkable milestone is sure to be an exciting one given the dramatically changing nature of higher education.

GW’s board of trustees, therefore, recently approved a 10-year strategic plan, “Vision 2021,” comprising four themes dedicated to providing students with a distinct educational experience: innovation through cross-disciplinary collaboration, globalization, governance and policy, and citizenship and leadership.

“The strategic planning process allowed us to emphasize themes and initiatives we have been working toward for some time,” says Steven Lerman, GW’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, who spearheaded the 18-month planning and development process.

GW Law is hard at work advancing all four of the plan’s components as it looks ahead to training the legal community’s next generation. Agility in working across the disciplines is a key strategy for both the Law School and the university at large. “The major issues and problems out in the world don’t lend themselves to being solved by focus on one discipline,” Dr. Lerman explains, citing health care, economic policy, and government as illustrations.

“I am a strong proponent of interdisciplinary education,” says J. Richard Knop, JD ’69, a member of the board of trustees’ Committee on Academic Affairs and GW Law’s Dean’s Board of Advisors who was involved in the development and approval of the new strategic plan. He is the co-founder of FedCap Partners LLC, a McLean, Va.-based private equity group focused on investing in small and middle-market companies in the federal contracting industry. “We want law students to understand how to work across disciplinary boundaries and not to see everything as a legal problem,” Dr. Lerman adds.

Studying Across The Disciplines

That ability to broadly evaluate key issues is now essential given how competitive the legal market has become. According to The Employment Report and Salary Survey for the Class of 2012, which NALP (the Association for Legal Career Professionals) released in June, the employment rate for new law school graduates fell to 84.7 percent, down from 85.6 percent in 2011 and 91.9 percent in 2007 (a 24-year high). It marks the fifth straight annual decline since 2008, and there have only been two classes with an overall employment rate below 84.7 percent: 83.5 percent in 1992 and 83.4 percent in 1993.

While 50.7 percent of employed graduates from the Class of 2012 obtained a job in private practice, up from 49.5 percent for the Class of 2011, the report highlights that for most of the 39 years for which the organization has collected employment information, the share of graduates securing law firm employment has generally been between 55 percent and 58 percent, dipping below 50 percent only once in 1975.

“In this job market, if you signal any uncertainty about yourself or your future, you are doing so to your own detriment,” says J. Zoë Beckerman, JD ’05, a partner at Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP in Washington, D.C. She recommends that students determine what they want to pursue early in their careers so that they can tailor their law school training to suit their goals.

Ironically, Ms. Beckerman was not even planning to go to law school. She was a theater major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then pursued a master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan before becoming a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institutes of Health. She went on to work at a foundation focusing on health care. “I was particularly interested in women’s health and realized that I wasn’t able to make enough of an impact, so I went to law school,” she says.

In addition to her law degree, she earned a certificate in health law and policy from GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services. “Certificate programs get you out of your home school and into other parts of the university so that things are not siloed,” she says. That background is instrumental in her work helping nonprofit organizations ensure regulatory compliance for federal grants. “Completing a dual degree, certificate, or course work is so important because the world is not compartmentalized or departmentalized the way academia is.

“Real life isn’t just law, public health, international affairs, or politics; the interesting issues of our time are at the intersection of these different pieces,” she says, noting that the strongest graduates are those who come out with some knowledge in numerous disciplines.

In fact, in a competitive market, there is no other option. “I have always thought that attorneys are at such a huge disadvantage if they don’t understand the financial aspects of the documents they are preparing,” says E. Taylor Woodbury, a director and treasurer of Woodbury Corp. in Salt Lake City, and a 2009 JD/MBA recipient. “I really feel as if I have been promoted faster because I had both areas of study.” During his first year of law school, Mr. Woodbury realized that he was also interested in business and finance, so he enrolled jointly in the GW School of Business the following year.

He was pleased to discover that the law and business school classes complemented each other. “It really balanced out the schedule,” he says. “The discussions and interactions I had with my business school classmates offered a new way of looking at key issues; it was very empowering.”

That empowerment is often the result of a holistic education that helps students solve problems and address issues more creatively. “Our students are training to be lawyers; most of them will need to know more than just law and legal analysis,” says GW Law Interim Dean Gregory Maggs. “To represent their private and government clients effectively, they need to know more about the subject of their clients’ business.”

Shandanette Molnar, a December 2013 JD/MPH candidate focusing on maternal and child health, recognized this early in her career. She was interested in becoming a midwife but wanted to influence public policy on the future of health care. “The dual-degree experience provides a different lens for looking at the law, and I can now see how law informs policymakers,” she says. “It allows me to see beyond the abstract.”

In addition to the course work, “I have established some important connections with organizations to whom I’d love to dedicate my professional time,” says Ms. Molnar. “Most people with whom I have networked express enthusiasm about what I want to do, particularly because I also serve as a doula and lactation educator within the community.” Despite the additional expense, scheduling challenges, and summer classes, “the joint degrees will be great tools to increase my resourcefulness no matter where I end up.”

The Practical Impact of the Plan

Of course, the educational paths available to students often determine the trajectory of their careers. As a result, part of the mission of the new strategic plan is to create a unified undergraduate educational experience by admitting undergraduates to the university as a whole rather than to individual schools. This process is likely to include designing a new core curriculum, expanding the global aspects of the course offerings, increasing the number of students from outside the U.S., and enhancing post-graduation opportunities, among others.

Dr. Lerman reports that some of the graduate programs could begin offering certificates that encompass three- to five-course sequences in a particular specialty. “While more expansive education is the wave of the future, we still need the rigor and history of established disciplines,” he cautions. “Ultimately, more classroom time will be spent doing things, rather than talking about them in a lecture style, including capstone and experiential service-based learning,” he predicts.

The university also expects to create eight to 12 cross-disciplinary institutes, hire 50 to 100 new faculty members in specific research fields, improve its infrastructure, and encourage policy research that addresses societal problems.

Professor Christopher Bracey, GW Law’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, who served on the university president’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion during the strategic planning process, reports that the Law School will strive to enhance opportunities that already exist, as well as explore new ideas. “In the near term, you will begin to see the fruits of our efforts at the Law School to promote cross-disciplinary interaction,” he says. As the Law School develops its own blueprint for the future, further changes are sure to come. “It is useful that the university has an approved strategic plan that can inform the Law School going forward given that we share the same vision,” he adds.

Building on a Strong Tradition of Holistic Education

In fact, while the Law School has always permitted students to enroll in courses taught by other departments on campus, the university’s new mandate is motivating a shift based on both student interest and market conditions. “What was previously just permissible is now being encouraged,” says Professor Bracey.

GW Law professors have always focused on interdisciplinary scholarship, he adds. For example, Robert Tuttle teaches an undergraduate religion course, Stephen Saltzburg teaches in the University Honors Program, and Robert Cottrol has an appointment in the university’s history department. “The contribution to the world of ideas made by our faculty is often interdisciplinary in nature,” he says.

Professor Bracey notes that the various formal joint-degree programs, e.g., JD/MPH, JD/MBA, JD/MA, and JD/MPA, as well as the relationship between the Law School and other schools on campus, reflect a long-standing commitment. “It is emblematic of the cross-disciplinary approach envisioned by the provost and the plan itself,” he adds.

The Law School, of course, has a rich history in this area, with its government contracts and cybersecurity programs serving as successful examples universitywide. “Cross-college collaboration is important for the Law School for the same reasons that it is important for all of the schools in the university,” says Interim Dean Maggs. “Looking at issues from more than one perspective, and with insights of experts from more than one field, tends to produce more informed and complete analyses.”

Mr. Knop led the effort to endow the Nash & Cibinic Professor of Government Procurement Law currently occupied by Professor Steven Schooner, and cites the university’s newly launched MS degree in government contracting as a true interdisciplinary partnership between the law and business schools. He also leads a new cybersecurity initiative to unify the university’s various efforts in this area, i.e., the Law School’s LLM in national security (which may soon offer a specialization in cybersecurity).

Along with maintaining existing cybersecurity-related courses, such as Law in Cyberspace, the Law School plans to develop courses that address the confluence of cybersecurity and government contracts and that incorporate aspects of the business school’s MBA in cybersecurity, the school of engineering’s MS in cybersecurity, and the school of education’s courses focused on the workforce of the future. “With all that is happening at the university, we want to be a catalyst as a neutral player to help forge public policy solutions,” Mr. Knop says.

It is those solutions that will usher in a new era of influence by the Law School’s students, alumni, and faculty. As they broaden their perspectives in their individual fields, they will enhance their ability to address unanticipated problems. Given the growing complexity of modern disputes and global challenges, this diverse aptitude has the potential to solidify GW Law’s position in the legal community while providing its students and alumni with unique advantages.

From government contracts to cybersecurity and from patents to international affairs, “recognizing the interdisciplinary aspects of the subject enriches your educational experience and makes you much more valuable in today’s world,” Mr. Knop says. “Graduates with an interdisciplinary education will have an easier time finding jobs.”

In addition to its dynamic curriculum, the Law School jointly sponsored a panel discussion in March 2013 with the GW Cybersecurity Initiative titled “International Challenges and Opportunities: Law and Policy on Cybersecurity.” And GW Law’s new health law program provides students with a broad view of administration and public policy in light of the Affordable Care Act.

“These are cross-disciplinary collaborations that accrue to the benefit of the students first and foremost,” says Professor Bracey. “The artificial barriers that have been erected between disciplines are breaking down because students want a deeper understanding of the issues they are studying,” he says, noting that universities across the country are trying to innovate and provide students with a comparative advantage.

GW Law has a particularly strong history of offering its students an edge. Its location in the nation’s capital gives them access to myriad opportunities not available to peers at other schools. In addition, its assorted clinical offerings and distinguished faculty provide a level of experience and perspective that is often unmatched. With alumni in leadership positions around the world in both government and private institutions, the degree abounds with benefit.

The Future of Collaborative Education

Deans across GW are moving toward expanding cross-disciplinary collaboration in their respective schools. “We want to encourage students to supplement their learning in disciplines that are outside of business, be passionate about it, and go deep in it,” says D. Christopher Kayes, interim dean of the School of Business. “Cross-disciplinary education pushes students to think more critically and with an open mind toward new ideas.”

While the business school confers the MS in government contracts, half of the curriculum is based in the Law School. “Part of the appeal of government procurement law is that it straddles many disciplines,” says Daniel I. Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies, who served as the administrator for federal procurement policy under President Obama. “It is at the crossroads of law, public policy, and business.”

“When we teach Formation of Government Contracts this fall, we will have in that class something like 60 combined JD and LLM students, as well as 15 or 20 from the School of Business,” he adds, noting that interdisciplinary collaboration improves the classroom experience as well as success at securing coveted internships.

GW’s strategic plan helps spur decisions universitywide about resource allocation—a priority also occurring at every level within the legal community. In-house counsel are pressuring law firms to devote an unprecedented amount of attention to project management and staffing efficiency; partners expect higher quality work in less time from associates; and courts, as well as regulatory bodies, have less patience for uncertainty in a technology-centric information age. Those lawyers who can combine their unique insights with a broad understanding of the concerns of their clients and adversaries will earn greater credibility.

“Interdisciplinary education should be a no-brainer,” says Associate Dean Gordon. “While some people may be reluctant to embrace it, I have found that my colleagues at GW Law are very supportive of it because it reflects our engagement in the real world, which is multidisciplinary.”

Ultimately, success requires that real-world understanding since on-the-job teaching is receiving less time and tolerance. Many corporate clients even reject bills that reflect time spent by first-year associates on items perceived as training exercises at their expense. Those who can demonstrate their value and understanding, however, typically make a more positive impression.

“Students have multidisciplinary interests, and the universities that are successful in creating an organization that works across disciplines rather than solely within them will thrive,” Dr. Lerman says. As GW begins to implement the vision its leadership set forth, there will be more programmatic options as well.

For example, GW’s new minor in sustainability may expand to become a major subject. Since sustainability is a combination of disciplines, five faculty members from five different schools teach the core foundational course. “The strategic plan must be more of a guide for the next decade and has to be a living document as the world changes, rather than a rigid blueprint,” Dr. Lerman says. “The key is to adapt the plan for what happens over time; you have to be humble and be able to pivot.”

Law students and lawyers who can shift quickly will be better prepared in a period of borderless transactions and digital communication. As the pace of change accelerates, the value of a multifaceted educational experience increases and the importance of implementing the new strategic plan grows.