Winter 2022

New Design Thinking Class Teaches Students to Advocate for Themselves

By Chelsea Liddy Pivtorak

Lecturer addresses class wearing a face maks
Bridgette Carr (left), Vivek Sankaran (right)

Dialogue, debate, and deliberation are words that are synonymous with the law school experience—but what about design? One of Michigan Law’s newest course offerings challenges students to apply design thinking and problem-solving skills to their own lives and careers in the law. 

Open to second- and third-year students and taught by Professors Bridgette Carr and Vivek Sankaran, Designing a Fulfilling Life in the Law uses a non-traditional approach to prepare students for a career in the legal profession. 

“Law school is three years of not just learning the skills you need but figuring out the type of lawyer and person you want to be. I think we do a great job on the skill component, but this is also a transition time for so many of our students, and they have so many questions, thoughts, and doubts about the type of lawyer they want to be. And this is the space for them to explore it,” says Sankaran, whose teaching focuses on children’s rights and public interest law, and who also directs the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic. 

“Our goal is to present strategies on how we can reshape and reframe how students approach this experience and beyond, and give them tools to thrive.” 

The course grew out of other experiential learning opportunities offered by the Law School, including the interdisciplinary Problem Solving Initiative (PSI), which has broadened the scope of a legal education into a more well-rounded and holistic curriculum. 

“For me, it was an obvious extension of the PSI program to say, ‘We don’t always have to look to external problems to tackle. We can use these skills on internal questions that we have as well,’” says Carr, the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic who also served as associate dean for strategic initiatives and led the PSI from 2018 to 2021. “We bring together students to teach them problem-solving skills, but the problem they’re tackling is how to know themselves well enough to have a life where they flourish. The ‘design your life’ concept started at Stanford University, but I’m not aware of any other law school that has decided to incorporate it.” 

“So much of what we do here is teaching students to apply the same skillset to themselves that lawyers often call upon to solve other people’s challenges,” adds Sankaran. 

Launched in Fall 2020, students utilize the iterative stages of design thinking, including exploration, ideation, prototyping, and realization to consider how they might maximize their own individual success and happiness in life. A typical class session might see students identifying their own core values, conceiving alternate career paths for themselves, and interviewing guest speakers about their own career trajectories. 

The class is structured around small group discussion, and students who have already taken the class act as peer mentors to help guide conversations. 

Current 3L Nicole McFarland says, “Professor Carr always tells us that there are so many unique opportunities out there, and if all goes well, our legal careers will be long and dynamic. This class has taught me how to think big but prototype small so that I am fully informed on what I want out of my career and know how to make it happen. I feel more confident and excited for my future now that I have the tools to craft it intentionally.” 

Tamar Alexanian, ’21, now a Skadden Fellow at the Children’s Law Center of California, took the class in her final year of law school and also served as a peer mentor. She calls the class a “breath of fresh air” that strongly influenced her decision making. 

“This class taught me to think creatively and differently in a profession that is notoriously prescribed. It was so useful in my 3L year, especially during a pandemic when I was questioning a lot about my future. All of us were helping each other reimagine what options are out there and think about ways we can bring our whole selves to our profession. As lawyers and at law school we need to train each other to be creative and find ways to be happy in our legal careers, which is not something that is often discussed,” she says. 

Mental wellness is an ongoing topic of conversation within the legal field, and many organizations have begun to be more vocal about the mental health challenges faced by lawyers and law students. “The ABA is now calling for law schools to offer classes on value development and professional identity. If teaching, research, and service are the trinity of the University of Michigan, I think part of our service to the profession is to start getting our law students to think about some of these issues so they don’t become lawyers who struggle with mental health challenges once they leave us,” says Sankaran. 

“One of the things that sets Michigan Law apart from other places is that we have a deeper connection and investment in students: who they are and who they’re becoming. And if that’s true, we have to create spaces for students to not only learn skills but also think about who they want to become.”