Sunday, June 17, 2012

Harvard's Problem-Solving Workshop

Harvard Law School has dealt with the need to teach practical lawyering by having a Problem Solving Workshop in the three-week winter term of the first year.

Harvard describes the program as:

"All first-year Harvard Law School students take the new Problem Solving Workshop in the winter term. A uniquely structured offering, Problem Solving Workshop bridges the gap between academic study and practical lawyering.  Students confront client problems—framed from the clients’ and attorneys’ points of view and designed expressly for the Workshop—in the way practicing lawyers do, from the very beginning, before the facts are all known, before the client's goals are clarified, before the full range of options is explored, and before a course of conduct is chosen. Rather than teach law in the abstract, the course poses questions like these:  What sort of problems do lawyers solve?  How do they solve them?  What intellectual constructs do they bring to bear? What practical judgments? And, as students find the answers to those questions, they learn to combine their knowledge of the law with practical judgment to help clients attain their goals within the bounds of the law.

A key aspect of the Workshop (reflective of legal practice, but not of most first-year law school work) is the expectation that students work collaboratively and submit group work product.  Classroom activities and assignments vary, keeping students on their toes and actively engaged in the task at hand.  The required work product takes the form of the kind of memos, analyses, and advice written by practicing lawyers daily.  The deadlines are often tight, as they usually are for lawyers seeking to respond with immediacy to particular client problems. Through the expertise of the instructors, the collaborative exercises with peers, and exposure to some of the day-to-day elements of lawyering, students in the Workshop learn about the law in a new and exciting way."

Harvard further describes the course in an article in its Bulletin. Some excerpts:

"The Problem Solving Workshop, which Rakoff believes is the first course of its kind to be introduced into a law school curriculum, puts students in the position of real-life attorneys. Over a three-week period, it presents them with seven very different clients, from a multinational corporation with child-labor issues to a tenant facing eviction after the landlord has lost her home in foreclosure.  Working in teams, the students start each case from the beginning—when the client walks in the door—and gather facts, help the client figure out short- and long-term goals, devise a range of possible options, guide the client in weighing those choices, and negotiate with other parties.  This bottom-up approach mirrors what students will face in practice, and it’s an essential part of equipping them with tools they need to succeed in today’s legal world, HLS faculty believe."

"David Zucker ’12 says the course was “most valuable in the ways it was different from the ‘typical’ law school class”; instead of individual reading followed by professor-led class discussion, the workshop involved “hands-on engagement with the legal issues presented” through client interviews and classwide debates. Zucker learned the most from interactions with practicing attorneys, including the final exercise, in which the entire 1L class traveled with their teams to law offices across Cambridge and Boston to present their work on the final project to experienced lawyers. “I found that oftentimes an approach that may be suggested during a theoretical class discussion is not one that a practicing attorney would ever really employ; likewise, I discovered recommendations from the practicing attorneys that had never been discussed in class,” Zucker says."

"Law schools have long taught students to “think like lawyers” and to develop analytic skills through the study of case law. But practicing lawyers today depend on a variety of skills beyond the ones typically emphasized in law school curricula. Equipping students with additional skills—including generating creative options, managing media relations, negotiating and working in teams—is the purpose of HLS’s new Problem Solving Workshop." (emphais added)

"Professor Joseph Singer ’81 spent the past two years developing the workshop with Todd Rakoff ’75 and testing it on upper-class students. Instead of looking at a case at its end point—an appeals court decision—the workshop presents cases that begin with the initial contact between lawyer and client. “The students improved radically over the three weeks in their abilities to generate workable solutions, drawing on theories, facts, interests, ethics and relationships,” Singer says."  (empahsis added)

Finally, a Harvard student praises the program and states,

"Basically, each 1L section is led through a practical workshop that engages critical thinking skills through real-world problems. Each morning, monday through friday, my 80-student section meets to discuss a given legal problem. Then, for the rest of the day, we meet in pre-assigned groups of 4 or 5 team members to draft an assignment that’s usually due by 6 p.m. It looks and feels like real legal practice, but it’s all neatly packed into a compelling and relatively stress-free, pass/fail course. So far, we have covered everything from drafting a child labor policy for a multi-national corporation to helping to resolve a landlord-tenant dispute. OK, back to class for me!"

This workshop appears to be a wonderful course.  I agree that teaching problem solving in an intensive course is one option to improve legal education.  However, I should add one caveat: law schools need to teach problem solving throughout the curriculum.  Just like any other mental skill, students must practice problem solving over and over to become experts. (See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 238-39 (2011).  As I have stated before, the best method of education is to teach the doctrine and have the student apply the doctrine to problems (facts).  I don't mean that each course must have an extensive skills element, but, if students could do at least one short problem in each class each week, they would come out much better lawyers than is produced by traditional legal education.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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