ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Teaching Contract Law (and More) to Legal Masters Students - Part 3: Avoiding the Simulated Law Practice Paradigm

Simulation Matrix

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

(Part 2 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 (footnote numbering changed).

Course Design Principle #2: Avoid premising problems and writing assignments on simulated law practice.

Legal masters programs typically accept the proposition that writing and are a need and a value within the curriculum. The value exists both where courses are primarily skills oriented and also where writing is a method of formative assessment in a principally doctrinal course. This noncontroversial premise can lead to difficulty in its execution. The baseline starting point for many law schools’ curriculum development in the area of analytical writing skills, not surprisingly. is that with which they are already familiar: the 1L legal research and writing course that already exists in some form in every J.D. program in the United States.[1] That legal analysis and writing course is quite appropriately grounded in expressing the application of actual law to simulated facts in a setting where students play the role of a lawyer. Writing assignments in doctrinal courses, while usually not playing as dominant a course role as their skills-course counterparts, nevertheless follow the same paradigm. The problems are premised on assuming the role of a lawyer who is practicing law.

Is-this-a-simulationSimulated law practice is the problem. The crucial value added in a J.D. course setting is, in fact, a distraction to the masters students, sometimes to the point of detriment. Why would this be so? The programmatic and course outcomes for masters students do not contemplate their representation of clients. Time and instruction spent on the underlying assumption of taking on the lawyer’s role undermines the developing professional identity of the affiliated non-lawyer professional by, in effect, forcing it through a level of translation. While students whose goals include taking the bar exam and representing clients are well-served by assignments prompting the imagination of themselves in the role of the attorney,[2] other professionals are not. If we in legal education believe, as we certainly should, in the crucial role that J.D. legal education plays in formative professional development, then recognizing the need for analogous development of the professional identity of legal masters students is but a small step.

A related and ever-present issue in a legal masters program is discouraging the unauthorized practice of law. A well-designed program will build in training and frequent cautioning against unauthorized practice of law throughout the curriculum. Perhaps the most important aspect of any such training, however, is repeated emphasis on the bright-line prohibition against non-lawyers taking on or advising clients on legal matters. All United States jurisdictions share this rule in some fashion, despite their variance on numerous other questions of what does and does not qualify as unauthorized practice.[3]  Accordingly, a further problem with the pedagogy of simulated law practice is that it actively engages legal masters students in doing the one thing above all others that they are expressly prohibited from doing.

If the lens of simulated law practice is where a fundamental disconnect occurs between masters curriculum and its students, then it requires a pedagogical replacement to fill the hole in problem analysis and legal writing. Though the replacement lens could take several possible forms, the most useful descriptive category is simulated client practice. What would such a simulation look like and what would it seek to elicit from the student? Consider three examples from the Legal Analysis and Writing for Clients (LAWC) course at Texas A&M. In all three examples, goals include the teaching of legal concept and communications, but doing so from the perspective of a client rather than a lawyer.

The first LAWC example is tied to the course unit covering basic legal analysis and introducing, by example, the traditional legal memorandum. The memo, however, is not the end goal; rather, it serves as an illustration of the paradigmatic means by which lawyers document and support their analysis of a legal problem. The unit is tied to understanding why lawyers do what they do, and, most critically, recognizing work product in which lawyers are employing traditional analysis, such that a client can be empowered to take predictive analysis into account.

The summative assignment for this unit involves giving the student a legal case file, much like in a 1L course, except that the case file already includes what would be the J.D. course final product—a predictive memorandum. And that is because the actual assignment is still to come. Accompanying the case file is the actual assigning memorandum, which is addressed—not to “Junior Associate” at a law firm—but the “Assistant Risk Manager” at the client company. The risk manager must read the case file, the legal memorandum, and additional facts regarding the company’s business situation. These documents form the basis the ultimate assignment: Write a report to a supervisor that (1) summarizes the legal findings, (2) summarizes the business situation, and (3) makes recommendations for the company in light of the combination of both the legal analysis and the business reality. The legal prediction and the business facts frequently do not point the same direction. For example, a memorandum predicting that the client company could win a breach of contract lawsuit may ultimately be offset by the probable negative impact of burning the business relationship with the prospective defendant. Ultimately, the legal masters student is accounting for the lawyer’s role, but is accomplishing something quite different with her report.

A second example from the LAWC course arises from a unit on understanding common and foundational litigation documents, particularly pleadings and motions. In the underlying simulation, the students are given access to selected documents from the docket of an actual case. For federal court cases, the raw PDF documents are available through the PACER, which most legal educators can access through Bloomberg Law.[4] The real case is not random, of course, but is one selected for its relevance and application to the final project, which is (again) an internal company report. Out of the wealth of real and comparatively recent federal cases that are no longer active, the instructor should select and carefully curate one involving a business dispute and parties that can serve as background for a new simulation.

Consider, for the present description, the use of a breach of warranty lawsuit regarding the quality of commercial building supplies. For the new assignment hypothetical, the company employing the masters students as risk managers happens to have a similar problem with the seller who is a defendant in the previous litigation. Upon learning that the seller had been sued before, the company president obtains the key lawsuit documents from the longtime outside counsel, who provides them as a favor to a valued client. The president then tasks the risk manager (the student) with reviewing the documents and preparing a report in light of information about the company’s present situation involving the same seller. The report assignment requires the student to provide (1) a summary of the underlying dispute from the prior litigation, (2) a summary of what—procedurally—occurred in the prior litigation, and (3) an identification of potential problems that may arise in a new lawsuit against the seller. In essence, the students are required to demonstrate literacy in litigation documents sufficient to recognize possible business concerns and cautionary tales. In one version of this assignment in the Texas A&M program, the students could discern that the seller operates as several, similarly-named entities, some of which were not subject to the court’s personal jurisdiction. The students could also report on potential causes of action from the previous litigation. In the end, the students are able to make a low-cost evaluation of their company’s situation in advance of incurring the cost of bringing in outside counsel—a worthwhile contribution to the cause of client autonomy.[5] Once again, the purpose of the assignment is not to simulate the role of the lawyer; rather, the goal is to simulate the role of a legally-literate business professional—a potential client in the making.

The third assignment example from the LAWC course at Texas A&M involves contract drafting; more specifically, it involves the intersection of contract drafting and working effectively with lawyers. The assignment  is, again, not directed to a junior attorney, but to a company “Contracting Officer” who is provided the details on either a preliminary deal or an area in which her employer needs to create a form contract. In initial substance, the assignment packet has much in common with what one might find in a J.D. contract drafting course.[6] In the lead-up to the assignment, the students receive instruction in contracting literacy, including typical document structures, purposes and examples of boilerplate, and methods of presenting substantive terms. The shift away from the J.D. framework comes in the ultimate assignment. The students are provided with specific business goals and concerns that the company wants dealt with in the final contract, and the student assignment is to prepare an annotated first draft contract to be sent to the company’s general counsel. “First draft” in this context does not mean a rough draft. It means a polished product that is nonetheless understood to be a precursor to the final product.[7] Perhaps the most important aspect of this document is that it is annotated. What does annotated mean in this assignment? The comment-bubble notes are (1) explanations of why the initial drafter did what she did, and (2) questions for the general counsel that arose in the drafting process.

For learning purposes, the annotations are more important to this assignment than is the actual contract text. The masters students are achieving two critical learning outcomes with this assignment. First, they are developing legal literacy with regard to working in and around contract documents. Business decision makers ought to be able to understand the private-law agreements to which they are or might be bound. Contending otherwise is antithetical to the purpose of private law autonomy, which is empowering parties with a modicum of legal control over their own destinies.[8] Second, the students are developing the skill of effective collaboration with lawyers, a skill that involves and requires a recognition of when and how to ask questions. Legal issues do not always show up on a company’s doorstep in the prepackaged form of a citation and summons. The contract-creation assignment provides an opportunity for initial issue spotting by the client at a far more subtle level, empowering the client with greater facility in knowing when to bring in a lawyer.[9]

All three of these example assignments teach legal-interaction skills but do not place them in the developmentally counterproductive context of simulating the practice of law. The replacement model is simulated client practice. Legal masters programs should not only address students where they are, but courses should be constructed around the imagination of where they will be. Although these examples are drawn from a skills course, their underlying philosophy should impact a doctrinal course as well. The problems and hypotheticals grounded in a call of the question like, “How would you advise your client?” should be replaced with the client-side perspective, ranging from “What legal risks concern you here?” to “What would you do?” realizing that answers to the latter question will more than occasionally include the phrase, “I’d consult a lawyer regarding . . . .”


[1] See ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2018-2019, Standard 303(a)(2), misc/legal_education/Standards/2018-2019ABAStandardsforApprovalofLawSchools/2018-2019-aba-standards-chapter3.pdf (requiring that the J.D. program of legal education at an ABA-accredited law school include “one writing experience in the first year and at least one additional writing experience after the first year, both of which are faculty supervised”).

[2] William M. Sullivan et al., Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law 185-203 (2007). See also William M. Sullivan, After Ten Years: The Carnegie Report and Contemporary Legal Education, 14 U. St. Thomas L.J. 331, 334 (2018) (advocating greater support by law schools in training future lawyers by “providing entrants to the field effective ways to engage and make their own the ethical standards, social roles, and responsibilities of the profession, grounded in the profession's fundamental purposes.”).

[3] See Leonor E. Miranda, Finding A Practical Solution to Bridging the Justice Gap for Immigrants in the United States, 30 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 163, 183 n.135 (2015) (“All 50 states have rules and laws prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law, mainly to protect consumers. Non-lawyers are generally prohibited from practicing law; however, what constitutes the ‘practice of law’ or the ‘unauthorized practice of law’ is by no means uniform, even within the same jurisdictions[.]”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

[4] Although it is a comparative latecomer to the commercial online research arena, Bloomberg Law has carved a recognized niche in its expansion of academic access to federal court dockets and documents. See, e.g., UCLA School of Law Hugh and Hazel Darling Law Library, Dockets and Court Documents in Bloomberg Law: Getting Started, (“Bloomberg Law is an excellent alternative to PACER. It provides access to all dockets available in PACER, and there is no charge to search dockets or to retrieve court materials from Bloomberg Law.”).

[5] Accord Anthony J. Sebok, What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Control?, 82 Fordham L. Rev. 2939, 2959 (2014) (“[T]he fear that nonlawyers will use control to influence the reasons that clients receive concerning legal decisionmaking, while genuine, needs to be balanced against client autonomy: loyalty to clients may require lawyers (and nonlawyers) to allow clients to hear opinions from whomever the client chooses.”).

[6] See, e.g., Tina L. Stark, Drafting Contracts: Why Lawyers Do What They Do (2d ed. 2014).

[7] Perhaps oddly, this situation is analogous to legal writing practices that predominated among many lawyers before the widespread adoption of word processing technology. See Lucia Ann Silecchia, Of Painters, Sculptors, Quill Pens, and Microchips: Teaching Legal Writers in the Electronic Age, 75 Neb. L. Rev. 802, 846 (1996) (“A legal writer in this earlier environment would be concerned primarily with ensuring that a first draft was relatively polished, given the practical difficulties in editing. . . . A lawyer in the pre-electronic age would, most likely, write with the expectation that there would be less rewriting and revision than is possible today.”).

[8] Cf. Mark Edwin Burge, Too Clever by Half: Reflections on Perception, Legitimacy, and Choice of Law Under Revised Article 1 of the Uniform Commercial Code, 6 Wm. & Mary Bus. L. Rev. 357, 380–81 (2015) (“Proponents of choice-of-law autonomy thus find it foundational that in the absence of third-party effects, the parties to the transaction should be permitted to choose the applicable law through contract without reference to any limiting test. In this view, law is not and should not be different from any negotiated and fully private contract term: let law be part of a marketplace.”) (internal cites and quotations omitted).

[9] Such empowerment on the client side would also arguably support a client-centered approach to representation by the lawyer. See Katherine R. Kruse, Beyond Cardboard Clients in Legal Ethics, 23 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 103, 127 (2010) (describing the client-centered approach as “directly responsive to the problem of legal objectification” in that it “urges lawyers to unlearn the professional habit of ‘issue-spotting’ their clients and to approach their clients as whole persons who are more than the sum of their legal interests.”).

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