Friday, February 24, 2006
I was chatting with my dean, Ellen Suni, last night; and she made an important observation we should all take to heart. She pointed out a tendency among struggling law students to abandon the "artificial world" of law school in favor of the "real world" of law firms. Given that tendency, it is paramount that ASP programs make clear at every opportunity how the strategies we are providing to students correspond to the skills real lawyers must employ in that "real world" beyond the law school walls.
Ellen has observed over the years that students whose grades are not particularly stellar make an understandable adjustment in the focus of their energies. Because their grades may not impress future employers, they must make their impression by working as clerks in whatever firms will give them summer and part-time employment. They give up on improving their grades in favor of creating a track record in “real-world” legal work in the hope of impressing a part-time employer enough to be kept on after law school. As a result, they walk away from ASP help because it seems irrelevant to what they consider more realistic, attainable goals.
The effect of that choice is, ironically, that the students miss the best opportunities to learn the skills essential to effective practice because they see no correlation between law school study skills and professional practice skills. The problem is exacerbated for some because they find themselves working on projects that do not require the higher-level skills they will need when clients and cases are their own and there is no one else around to do the more sophisticated work.
Therefore, ASP professionals need to make the case explicitly and repeatedly that we are actually teaching them practice skills disguised as academic skills. We need to draw directly the correlations between specific academic skills and specific practice versions of those skills.
For example, the ability to recognize during an exam alternative interpretations of facts or unstated but reasonable possibilities springing from the stated facts is a skill they will use daily in the world of law practice. An ASP professional might present a hypothetical concerning a college student who is party to a contract and coax students to see the possibility that the college student was too young at the time of the contract formation to have had capacity to be bound. A law school exam might contain such facts, and the professor might expect her students to pick up on that very real possibility and address it.
Practice presents those situations every day. No one in practice assumes that what the client says is all that is relevant to the analysis of the client's situation. Every good lawyer thinks beyond what the client sees, the opponent sees, the witnesses see, even in terms of facts, before settling into an analysis of the issues facing that client.
But students often miss that connection. We have to provide it for them if we expect them to redouble their efforts in law school when their efforts thus far have produced problematic grades.
For each skill we present to students, we should think carefully about its relevance to the practice of law. We should brainstorm all the ways each skill is used in law practice and draw those parallels explicitly from day one of our programs so that students see our programs as relevant beyond the academic confines of law school. (Perhaps we should drop the term “academic” from our programs and call them something that suggests more accurately and fully what we – and our colleagues on the faculty – are really doing.)
Do you draw those parallels for your students on a regular basis? If not, you might consider the power those connections hold not only for motivating students but for making their efforts pay off long term in ways critical to the competent practice of law. (dbw)
 During our chat, Ellen suggested this hypothetical as an example, so I freely steal it here for my own purposes.
My co-editor, Dennis Tonsing, is a master at making those connections. His text, 1000 Days to the Bar: But the Practice of Law Begins Now, is an excellent resource for anyone looking for the parallels between the study and practice of law.