ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, September 16, 2019

Teaching Contract Law (and More) to Legal Masters Students - Part 2: Focus on Structural Legal Literacy

Map - Old World Compass

(Part 1 of this multi-part post is available here).

Adapted from Mark Edwin Burge, Access to Law or Access to Lawyers? Masters Programs in the Public Educational Mission of Law Schools., 74 U. Miami L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available here or at (excerpt footnotes omitted).

Course Design Principle #1:  Focus legal text comprehension on structural legal literacy.

Understanding the general meaning and structure of legal texts—especially cases, statutes, and regulations—is a critical goal for professionals who will deal with lawyers or be the first line of defense for an organization’s legal compliance. The baseline level of this comprehension should be structural legal literacy—a broad-based ability to recognize and identify a legal text’s design features. For cases, this recognition would cover judicial rule statements, analogies to precedent, and ultimate holdings. For statutes and regulations, the identification of elements, factors, and code-defined terminology (such as definitions) would likewise be a core competency. Such parsing of legal text is an early focus of J.D. legal education, but there it builds out toward more advanced concepts like the temporal development of common law and the discernment of legislative intent. For masters students, the structural comprehension is not merely a means to other ultimate goals; rather, it is itself an ultimate goal.

That distinction between being an end rather than a means to an end is a substantive one: It impacts fundamental pedagogy. Most significantly, the signal, historical pedagogy of legal education—the Socratic method—is ill-advised for masters-type legal education. As others have observed in the J.D. context, Socratic method has some significant educational value, but it is inefficient for teaching the law. Indeed, the Socratic method’s purpose, in the very real articulation of the famous-but-fictional Professor Kingsfield, is not to teach the  law, but rather to train students to think like a practicing lawyer. While “thinking like a lawyer” is a time-honored and worthy goal in the halls of the legal academy, it is inapposite for students in a program that, by definition, is not designed to turn them into lawyers.

In the masters program setting, accordingly, the primary purpose of reading a case involving contract law primarily is to learn the contract law—both in its abstract, black-letter sense (the rule) and in its applied-example sense (the immediate story of how the rule operates). The top-level goal is not to discern procedural nuances and the murky role of dicta, nor is it to construct the historical development of doctrines like consideration or promissory estoppel. Consequently, the students would seldom benefit from “hide the ball” type classroom engagements as those detract from the principal task of top-level legal literacy. Likewise, the study of statutes or regulations requires focus on navigating and discerning the meaning of rule texts, including integrated codes. It can rightfully exclude excessive focus on ambiguity, drafting errors, and legislative history. Hypotheticals directed toward teasing out absurd results of statutory canons may well be fun, but they are beside the point. A non-lawyer needs a working level of comfort with assimilating legal texts, the vast majority of which whose meaning is not in both serious and consequential question. The more complex—and frankly more rare—arguments over legal meaning can (and should) be brought to the lawyers.

[Continued in Part 3]

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