Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Guest Blogger Associate Professor Jonathan Todres: Incorporating Experiential Learning in Health Law Courses
As law schools continue to contemplate curricular reforms, health law courses offer a particularly rich area for exploration. Employers increasingly want new graduates to be “practice ready.” Setting aside the larger debates on legal education, I believe that the breadth of health law creates opportunities to foster the development of students’ skills for many types of law practice. Though clinics at many schools are an obvious space for that development, doctrinal courses can offer significant opportunities.
In my Public Health Law course, I incorporate two drafting exercises during the semester. Given the nature of topics we cover in the course (infectious disease outbreaks, tobacco, obesity, gun violence, bioterrorism, and others), the course lends itself to engaging students in legislative drafting exercises. These assignments further strengthen skills taught in other parts of the curriculum and foster the development of new skills. This week, I share a few observations from my teaching on the value of incorporating skills exercises into a doctrinal class.
Thinking like a lawyer. We say that teaching our students to “think like a lawyer” is a core skill that law schools nurture. Drafting exercises advance students’ analytical skills, while introducing students to components of legal analysis not typically addressed by the case method – analysis in transactional law settings. Transactional work requires lawyers to anticipate what might happen in the future and draft legal documents that account for that. Contracts and legislation, when well-crafted, anticipate and respond effectively to subsequent events. In the drafting exercises, students get to engage in thinking ex ante about legal issues that might arise. Doing so, builds a side of “thinking like a lawyer” that is often underdeveloped in law school.
Write, write, write. I have yet to meet a law professor who complains that we require students to write too much. Legal writing is one of the core skills needed for successful practice. Drafting exercises provide opportunities to do different types of legal writing. These exercises also teach basic drafting skills that are relevant whether a student ends up drafting legislation, contracts, or settlement agreements. In my class, we work on developing an appreciation for the precision needed to draft effectively. I don’t expect students to be experts after two exercises, but their growth from the first to the second assignment alone demonstrates that they quickly develop an appreciation for key drafting concepts, learn what they need to pay attention to when drafting, and have a better sense of how to draft with precision and account for unintended consequences.
Risk/Benefit Analysis. Drafting forces students to grapple with complex choices and analyze risk. Which party should bear the risk in a certain situation? Should legislation detail exactly what is or is not permitted, or should that authority be delegated to a board of health? Whether drafting contracts or legislation, decisions need to be made as to risk. Through these exercises, students gain experience identifying and assessing risk.
Risk/Benefit Analysis (for faculty). When incorporating experiential learning exercises in doctrinal courses, there is often a fear that substantive law must be cut to make room for the exercises. In my experience, it’s not a zero sum game. Legal concepts can be reinforced and even taught through drafting exercises. Due process and the void for vagueness doctrine are two areas that we grapple with in our drafting exercises. Even if you are confronted with having to cut some reading materials, the payoff still makes it worth doing. Every year, in mid-course evaluations (that I run), end-of-semester evaluations (run by the law school), and in feedback from former students in practice, students report that the drafting exercises were among the most valuable learning experiences. Students want to develop tangible skills, and drafting exercises are a fun – yes, I said fun – way to help them do so. Health law offers wonderful opportunities to engage students in drafting and other experiential learning exercises that enrich their learning.
-Guest Blogger Associate Professor Jonathan Todres