Thursday, February 20, 2014
Recently, three Harvard law professors posted a study concerning what business courses their students should take. What Courses Should Law Students Take? Harvard’s Largest Employers Weigh In by John Coates, Jesse Fields, & Kathryn Spier. Brian Leiter uses this article to attack experiential education proposals: "Here. Unsurprisingly, ‘experiential’ learning of the kind a minority is trying to force upon everyone does not loom large." (here) There are two problems with this statement. First, the Harvard study does not criticize experiential education; it supports it. Second, a majority supports experiential education in law schools.
Here is the abstract:
"We report the results of an online survey, conducted on behalf of Harvard Law School, of 124 practicing attorneys at major law firms. The survey had two main objectives: (1) to assist students in selecting courses by providing them with data about the relative importance of courses; and (2) to provide faculty with information about how to improve the curriculum and best advise students. The most salient result is that students were strongly advised to study accounting and financial statement analysis, as well as corporate finance. These subject areas were viewed as particularly valuable, not only for corporate/transactional lawyers, but also for litigators. Intriguingly, non-traditional courses and skills, such as business strategy and teamwork, are seen as more important than many traditional courses and skills."
The study was primarily of business methods courses currently offered at Harvard: "The survey focused heavily (but not exclusively) on business-methods courses (e.g., accounting), based on informal feedback from alumni and other practitioners that students should acquire basic business-methods skills while in law school."
The survey asked responders to rate specified business method courses and nonbusiness method courses on a scale of 1 to 5. The survey did not specifically ask about traditional experiential courses.
The open-ended comments did reflect the need for more practical courses and the development of skills. The authors wrote, "Among the open-ended comments, litigators tended to single out ‘writing’ or ‘persuasive writing’ as a key skill that can be lacking in new associates. Other respondents indicated that students should work on communications skills (public speaking and presentations)." One respondent commented, "I have to say that, surprisingly, my 3L class on large law firms was one of the most honest and helpful classes that I took, even though I’m much more of a core, lecture-based, bar-exam course type person generally." Moreover, "A litigation partner with ten to twenty years of experience also commented that ‘people skills’ are ‘underrepresented’ among new associates, and a corporate associate wrote that students would do well to take courses containing ‘leadership/teamwork training through group projects.’"
Significantly, "quite a few attorneys suggested that existing courses give more weight to transaction planning and documentation and less weight to caselaw." For example, "Several other corporate associates stressed the importance of hands-on experience with contracts (M&A contracts and loan agreements) and SEC filings, writing ‘Also, ... it could be hugely helpful ... if in the context of this type of workshop or another class, you could introduce students to the actual legal documents that govern these transactions....’" Likewise, "Another corporate associate with five to ten years of experience in a national law firm suggested that courses should: ‘Use real-life examples of what the process of a deal is from signing of letter of intent/memorandum of understanding until close, including due diligence process, negotiation and drafting.’" Finally, " In the same spirit, a corporate associate at a national law firm suggested that Negotiations could be taught around a potential deal: "The most useful thing ... to prepare ... to be a corporate lawyer would be ... the negotiation workshop, but instead of negotiation simulations, it would be deal (public and/or private) simulations. Having students role play ... what it is like to be on the buy-side, sell-side or financing side of transactions would be very helpful."
One comment said it all: "As an HLS alum who knew I wanted to practice corporate law before I came to law school, I was disappointed [that] ... 75% of the classes still seemed to have nothing to do with corporate law or the real-world practice of law firms. I took ... business strategy class one of the first semesters it was offered (I was a 3L), and it was wildly oversubscribed. I wish there had been more classes like that while I was there."
Although there were some dissenters ("I am skeptical that more ‘skills’ training in law school can really prepare students. . ."), the authors concluded that "The importance of offering courses better connected to actual practice was repeatedly emphasized."
In sum, Brian Leiter’s use of the Harvard study to attack experiential education is completely misplaced.