Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Law Schools Should Teach Problem Solving in the First Year

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the importance of teaching problem solving in law school, mainly using ideas of Kathy Vinson. Today, I will show why it is important to teach problem solving in the first year, even if the law school offers extensive advanced skills courses.

Recently, many law schools have enacted advanced skills requirements, and there have been several proposals put forward to require advanced skills courses, one of which was adopted by the California bar. Even if all law schools offered extensive advanced skills courses, law schools would still need to teach problem solving in the first year because it is foundational, just as briefing cases or learning how lawyers think is foundational. In other words, problem solving prepares students for advanced skills courses.

Advanced skills courses do not teach basic problem solving. They use the skill, but advanced skills teachers generally assume that students already understand problem solving. However, as Kathy Vinson has noted (here at 14-15), students today come to law school with a deficiency of basic skills. Furthermore, general education researchers believe that students should be taught skills explicitly. (here at 109) Consequently, just like thinking like a lawyer, first-year courses should explicitly teach problem solving.

In addition, problem solving is basic to everything students do in law school and in law practice. As a group of researchers have written, "Lawyers, at their core, are problem solvers." Teaching Law Practice Prepaing the Next Generation of Lawyers 124 (Charles Cercone et al. eds., 2013). Similarly, another author has written, "Problem-solving is the single intellectual skill in which all law practices are based." Tracy A. Thomas, Teaching Remedies as Problem-Solving: Keeping it Real, 57 St. Louis U. L.J. 673 (2013). Problem solving also teaches law students to solve a problem from the beginning, which is how they occur in real life, instead of at the end, as the case method does. (here at 4). Therefore, law schools should be teaching this foundational skill early in law school.

I believe that law schools should offer a two-hour course in legal reasoning and problem solving in the first semester. This course would teach legal-reasoning miniskills, such as syllogistic thinking, analogical reasoning, distinguishing cases, and synthesizing cases, then at the end have a problem-solving unit like the one at Harvard. Simultaneously, the doctrinal courses should use problems as one of their teaching methods. (I have no objection to using the Socratic method or case approach in the first year as long as they are only one of several teaching approaches.) I think that these courses should have at least one problem at the end of every unit (at least once a week). Adopting the approach in this paragraph would better prepare students for advanced law school courses and practice.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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