August 27, 2010
Merging Skills and Doctrine in the Classroom: One Professor's Modest Beginning
The AALS Annual Meeting bulletin arrived in my mailbox today, reconfirming that curricular reform, new forms of assessment, and the need to bring skills into the class are hardly new topics of conversation for most faculties. From the Carnegie Report to Best Practices, there seems to be an emerging consensus that more skills and professional training are necessary for law students. What is not always clear is how to do it.
A number of schools, including University of Detroit Mercy and Washington & Lee, have transitioned to full programs that seek to modify the way students experience law school, especially in their third year. Whether the new programs actually achieve their goals remains to be seen, but such programs certainly provide an interesting new method of one part of legal education.
Of course, not every school has the resources, consensus, or personnel to make such a change (often, all three are probably lacking to some degree). But that doesn't mean nothing can be done. As we consider how best to update and evolve our curriculum at the University of North Dakota School of Law on a school-wide basis, a number of us have also looked at what we can on a micro level to build on our current offerings.
To me, helping student be come more practice ready is an essential part of our mission. The emerging importance of teaching students skills is one major part of this. I believe that this means having a concerted effort of the full-time faculty to at least consider integrating skills into their courses and providing new learning experiences for their students. Despite the often highly specialized and superb talents of many adjuncts, we cannot rely only on non-full-time teachers to handle such a critical part of learning to become a lawyer.
While it is not realistic to expect that we can prepare law students to handle "partner-level" work on day one of practice, we can do a better job of preparing students to handle life in practice from the moment they join the firm, start at the prosecutor's or public defender's office, or hang out a shingle. This means giving them a taste of what it's like work think and write in a practice setting.
For my Business Associations I class, which usually has between 55 and 85 students, I use some exercises and share real-life documents to help provide connections to practice. Beyond that, though, I haven't found a way to make this a highly skills centered class. I am okay with that, because I don't think every course needs to (or should) be skills focused in the same way I don't think every class should be taught by, for example, a lecture with a single comprehensive exam at the end.
In my Labor & Employment Law class, however, I do something a little different. This is my second time through this iteration of the course, and my students (and I) enjoyed it in the first year. Here's the plan: I run the course as a small law firm, where everyone works with me. Enrollment is capped at 24. I use the Case and Controversy files, which are formerly the CaseFile Method, (available here) as the primary materials, and I have created a number of my own materials, especially for the labor-related issues I cover. Below the break are some excerpts from my syllabus and course overview. I welcome questions, comments, and/or suggestions (via comments to this blog or my e-mail, which can be found on the left bar of this page).
Labor & Employment Law Course Overview and Syllabus (excerpts)
Course Introduction:Welcome to Labor and Employment Law. By enrolling in this course, you have just joined a virtual law practice, Dewey, Servem & Howe, P.C., in which you and your classmates are entry-level associates. As such, my expectations of you will parallel to those found in the workplace. For example, our classroom will be a casual “office,” but professional dress is expected during times where it would be in the law firm (e.g., a client meeting). Your reading assignments are provided in this syllabus. However, your writing assignments, which are part of how you will be assessed in this course (described in detail below), will be provided via e-mail in the same way you would likely receive assignments in practice. Those assignments will explain your overall audience, such as the client, opposing counsel, or legislators, but at all times you will also be writing for me as your assigning partner. Below you will find a description of the course materials, objectives, and expectations, and a syllabus. I look forward to working with you. Course Overview and Expectations Objectives:
Upon successful completion of the course, students should be able to
• Recognize issues and argue legal positions related to labor and employment law problems, including an understanding of employment markets; hiring, firing, and dispute resolution processes; and contract interpretation and negotiation.
• Write, reason, and deliver writing projects on deadlines similar to those found in legal practice.
• Present legal ideas in a clear and cohesive manner for a variety of audiences, including other attorneys, current and potential clients, opposing parties and counsel, judges, arbitrators, and mediators.Attendance and Participation: For the Case and Controversy materials to be effective, students must attend class regularly and must be prepared for class. Students must be prepared to discuss the cases and other materials and support their clients’ positions, as well as explain the counterarguments. Students will be permitted one opportunity to “pass.” Beyond this, additional “passes” will be counted as an absence. That said, the course is designed to be less formal and have the discussion flow naturally. As such, the goal and expectation is that there will be little need for anyone to “pass.” To be clear, incorrect answers are never a problem in this course. No response or uniformed guesses are a problem. There will never be sanctions for trying in this course, only for not trying. Students are expected to attend every class. Students are permitted to miss up to four classes for other obligations without explanation. This number is to include all absences (except those for religious observance, which are separate), including sickness, out-of-town interviews, etc. If classes in excess of four are missed, to avoid withdrawal from the course a written explanation may be required, including the reason for missing additional classes, the student’s plan to ensure the materials covered in the missed classes will be learned, and the reasons the student should be permitted to continue in the course. Please contact me or Dean McLean with any questions about the attendance policy.
Evaluation/Grading: Because of the course and assignment structure, grading in this course is not anonymous.
Short Writing Assignments – 60% of the course grade (3 assignments at 15% each and 3 rewrites at 5% each) For each segment of the course, students must pick three Files upon which to complete their writing assignments. Students may be asked to write a short memorandum, draft proposed legislation, suggest contract language, or craft other practice-related documents. These assignments will be 2-4 single-spaced pages addressing the issues related to the relevant File. Rewrites and/or corrections to the assignments are also required. Once signed up for an assignment day, the specific assignment will be provided by e-mail between 48 and 96 hours before that class. More detailed requirements for these assignments will be provided during the first class meeting.
Class Participation/In-Class Assignments – 10% of the course grade In-class assignments will be distributed in some of the classes. Some of these assignments will be completed in small groups and others will be individual assignments. These assignments, along with the contributions to the class, will be part of the grade. The expectation is that each student will get all the available points in this segment of the course, assuming each student makes an effort to participate and engage in the discussions. Obviously, regular (but not perfect) attendance is necessary.
Student-Led Review – 5% of the course grade After the materials for each the Employment Law section of course is completed, there will be two days of review that will be student led. Each student must present a portion of the course (5 minutes) related to one of the CCFs. Students may choose to work in groups of two, if they wish (groups of two would have 10 minutes of presentation time). A sign-up sheet will be provided during class to assign each student a case or group of cases for review.
Course Material Presentation – 15% of the course grade Each student will be required to teach a portion of one class (15 minutes) in the last third of the semester. The student will be provided the materials to teach and will be responsible for presenting a portion of that day’s materials.
“Exit Memos” – 10% of the course grade (5% mid-term, 5% end of course) After the review for each portion of the course is completed, students will be asked to write an Exit Memo of 1-2 pages. The Exit Memo is designed to be self-reflective and will explain what the student has learned during that section of the course, what was most important to them in that section, and what they believe is likely to be the most significant impact on the law and practice of law. A detailed description of the exit memo will be provided.