Friday, December 16, 2022
The goal of law school should be to prepare students to practice law competently and advocate persuasively upon graduation. Below are suggestions that will help to maximize students’ success in the legal profession.
1. Use the Socratic Method.
Some legal scholars have, for a variety of reasons, criticized the Socratic method. Such criticism, however, lacks merit.
The Socratic method teaches preparation. It requires students to learn how to read cases. Additionally, it requires them to discuss these cases in class, often before a large audience. In so doing, students are often confronted with difficult legal and policy questions, which tests their preparation, communication skills, and ability to think on their feet – all of which are essential to being a competent lawyer. That’s why doctrinal courses, particularly in the first year, are so important.
Furthermore, the Socratic method helps students cope with anxiety and uncertainty. Indeed, most students do not know if their professor will call on them in class and, of course, have no idea what questions the professor will ask. Although this may engender anxiety and fear among students, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In law practice, attorneys face anxiety and uncertainty when litigating a case or preparing an oral argument before an appellate court. Helping students to cope with these feelings in a healthy manner is essential to preparing them to succeed in law and in life.
Certainly, if used improperly, such as to embarrass students, the Socratic method can be counterproductive. And the Socratic method alone is not sufficient to prepare students for law practice. But when used responsibly, the Socratic method is an essential component of legal education.
2. Expand the legal writing curriculum.
Many law schools do not devote sufficient time to training students to be competent legal writers in the real world. For example, some schools only require two semesters of legal writing, in which students draft only a legal memorandum and an appellate brief.
But in law practice, students will not only draft memorandums and appellate briefs. They will be required to draft, among other things, complaints, contracts, motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, interrogatories, document requests, and requests for admissions, trial briefs, mediation statements, and settlement agreements. Given this fact, law schools should train students to draft and re-draft the most common litigation and transactional documents; in so doing, students will be more prepared to practice law when they graduate.
In fact, imagine if, over three years, students were required to represent a hypothetical client in a litigation that contains issues from all of their first-year required courses, and that required them to, among other things, conduct a client interview, draft a complaint and answer, file a motion to dismiss, draft discovery documents, conduct depositions, draft a motion for summary judgment and a trial brief, participate in a trial, and draft an appellate brief. And imagine if they had to do so in the order that it would occur in practice. That would truly prepare students to practice law, and it would teach students to learn by doing.
More broadly, law schools should focus on developing their students’ writing skills, such as in classes devoted to editing, rewriting, and revising, and requiring students to draft legal documents in a variety of contexts. Doing so takes time, and certainly more than two or three semesters.
3. Require students to enroll in at least two clinics.
Law students do not learn how to practice law by memorizing legal principles and regurgitating them on an exam. They learn by, among other things, applying the law to hypothetical and real-world fact patterns, addressing counterarguments effectively, reconciling unfavorable law and facts, and crafting compelling factual and legal narratives. Perhaps most importantly, they learn by practicing like lawyers, namely, representing clients, drafting briefs, performing oral arguments, negotiating with adversaries, and exercising judgment about trial strategy and settlement.
Clinics provide law students with the opportunity to acquire these and other real-world skills, and often in a context that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals who might otherwise lack access to legal representation.
For these and other reasons, law schools (and some already do) should require students to enroll in at least two clinics prior to graduation. After all, the only way to prepare for practice is to actually practice law (under supervised conditions, of course).
4. Require students to take multiple upper-level practical skills courses.
Most law schools give students the freedom to select most of their upper-level courses. This is certainly understandable, as students are interested in different areas of the legal profession and intend to pursue different paths in law practice. Having an elective-heavy curriculum, however, need not dispense with a focus on practical skills instruction, and theory and practice need not be considered mutually exclusive.
The problem with some upper-level electives is that they have no relationship to practice. For example, courses focusing on comparative jurisprudence, the original meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause, or the death penalty, are certainly instructive and probably quite enjoyable. But how do they prepare students for law practice? At the very least, such courses should include practical components, such as the drafting of a complaint, motion, or brief, to merge theory with practice.
After all, in medical school, students are not taking courses on the origins of contraception. They are learning how to practice medicine. Law students, too, should learn how to practice law.
5. Use “high-pressure” assignments.
The legal profession is demanding and stressful. Partners and clients have high expectations. And in many instances, lawyers are under intense pressure to produce high-quality work under severe time constraints. Indeed, many lawyers can relate to the unfortunate and all-too-common situations (often on a Friday afternoon or holiday weekend) where a partner says, “I need you to draft a motion for injunctive relief immediately and, at the latest, by Monday morning.”
For that reason, law schools should train students to excel under and cope with pressure and high expectations. For example, in upper-level courses, a professor can present students with a distinct legal question and require them to draft a memorandum or prepare for an oral argument within twenty-four hours or require them to draft a response to a motion to dismiss within forty-eight hours. Sure, this will be stressful for the students, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Training students about the realities of law practice will help them to become better lawyers, and to develop the mindset and mental toughness necessary to excel under pressure.
6. Focus on developing the intangibles, or soft skills.
A high IQ, an excellent LSAT score, a perfect law school GPA, or the best score on the MBE does not mean that a law graduate will be successful in law or in life. Rather, to be a good lawyer, you need the intangibles, or soft skills, that complement raw intelligence.
For example, great lawyers have emotional intelligence. They work harder than almost anyone. They have excellent judgment. They are efficient and organized. They can handle adversity and criticism, and persevere through difficult times. They know how to cooperate and collaborate with other people, including those that they do not like or who have different viewpoints. They know how to communicate with a colleague, a client, and a court. They are humble and honest. They have empathy. And they want to win.
Without the intangibles or soft skills, law graduates will likely not find success in the legal profession – or in life. As such, law schools should focus on developing the intangibles, and this can be accomplished in, for example, clinical courses, where students are required to be part of a team and represent clients in actual cases.
7. Focus on mindset development – and mental toughness.
In the legal profession and in life, students will encounter substantial and unexpected adversity. They will face unfairness and injustice. They may have to deal with the death of a family member or friend, an abusive colleague, the break-up of a relationship, or an unexpected medical emergency. These and other events, although we all hope to avoid them, will happen.
But law students are not victims. They are not oppressed. They are not powerless. Rather, they have the power – and the choice – to overcome whatever adversity they face because their choices, not their circumstances, determine their destiny.
Of course, as with developing intangible or soft skills, teaching mindset and mental toughness does not necessarily require a separate course. Rather, these lessons can be incorporated into any law school course by a professor who devotes a little time in each class to the mental, not merely the intellectual, aspect of law.
8. Have high standards.
It’s important to have empathy and compassion for students, and to support them in every way possible as they navigate the difficulties of law school. But that does not mean coddling students, which is one of the worst things an educator can do, or dispensing with high – even very high – standards. Challenging students to be their very best, offering constructive criticism, and demanding excellent work is the hallmark of a great teacher. And invariably, students will fail to meet these expectations. But failure is good thing. It presents students with an opportunity to learn and grow. Most importantly, high standards prepare students for what they will face in the real world.
9. Teach students to respect diverse viewpoints.
Diversity is a critical component of any educational institution. And among the most important aspects of diversity is teaching students to respect different viewpoints and engage in civil discourse with those with whom they disagree.
For that reason, professors should create a safe and constructive classroom environment in which all viewpoints are welcomed and respected, and where a diversity of perspectives is encouraged. One of the worst things that educators can do is to reveal their political and personal biases in a classroom (and worse, try to ‘indoctrinate’ students) because doing so stifles debate and diversity.
After all, in the real world, students will encounter – and have to work with – people that they disagree with, that they don’t like, and that have backgrounds and experiences entirely different from their own. If they cannot work with and respect such individuals, and realize that their views aren’t necessarily ‘right,’ their path to success – and humility – will be much harder.
Ultimately, traditional legal education is not broken. The Socratic Method has served students very well over the years. But a few adjustments can be made to ensure that theory and practice merge in a cohesive manner that prepares students to think and practice like lawyers, and to be good people.