Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Legal education is being transformed before our eyes. In part, this transformation has been so gradual that it has gone unappreciated. I routinely read critiques of legal education that seem to be based on the assumption that we all still teach like Professor Kingsfield. I know of very few people who still use that sort of strict Socratic method. Most doctrinal law teachers that I know teach through a mix of soft Socratic method, lecture, problems and discussion. But a great deal of the curriculum at most law schools is now dedicated to skills training, externships, co-curricular activities (moot court competitions, trial advocacy, journals, etc.) and of course clinics.
In the face of blistering criticism of legal education, law schools have been striving to demonstrate a commitment to reform, often by bolstering, highlighting or simply re-packaging existing programs. But to the extent that real change is occurring, it is often based on our intuitions about what ought to work for our students rather than on actual evidence of what works. As Holmes tells Watson, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” But the partnership that produced Teaching to Every Student: Explicitly Integrating Skills and Theory into the Contracts Class bridges the gap between theory and facts. Deborah Zalesne is a contracts scholar at CUNY law and David Nadvorney is the director of academic support programs at CUNY. They have worked together for years to make certain that their pedagogical strategies actually work for their students
Introducing new approaches to the legal curriculum involves teaching old dogs new tricks, because law schools have to work with the faculties they’ve got. I consider myself a moderately old dog. I cannot easily abandon my doctrinal/theoretical approach to focus in my doctrinal courses on skills training and bar preparation. I need guidance to help me work on my approach. Nadvorney and Zalesne provide such guidance for contracts profs in Teaching to Every Student. The book is slim and affordable (under $30 on Amazon), and I think its approach is unique – or at least highly unusual – in that the authors insist on incorporating theoretical perspectives while also highlighting their very practical, skills-based approach to teaching first-year contracts.
Their approach to teaching contracts focuses on three areas of training: academic training, which includes everything from case briefing to exam preparation; legal reasoning, which includes the traditional skills set that enables students to learn how to issue spot and apply rules to unique factual situations; and theoretical perspectives, which encompasses learning theory, identifying and critiquing theoretical approaches, and integrating such approaches into advocacy.
The book can be a wonderful supplement to any casebook (or whatever other materials one chooses to use). It comes complete with in-depth sections on each of the three areas of training mentioned above, exercises, sample syllabi and some edited cases.
Even if one chooses not to adopt the book, I recommend it to law professors interested in looking for new stimuli that will enable them to shake up their approaches to teaching