Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Contracts: A Context and Practice Casebook by Michael Hunter Schwartz and Denise Riebe

Contracts: A Context and Practice Casebook by Michael Hunter Schwartz and Denise Riebe is one of the new type of casebooks that combines doctrine, skills, and professionalism into the same course. This book does this very successfully, and it can serve as a model for future casebooks.

The book is basically organized like any other contracts casebook with the expected chapters on contract formation, consideration, contract defenses, etc. The one departure from the norm is that the concluding chapter contains a number of problem solving exercises, including several think-aloud exercises, which I mentioned last week were good for developing problem-solving skills.

It is on the chapter level that Schwartz and Riebe depart from the usual model of casebooks. While each chapter still largely consists of edited cases, the authors have added other materials on problem solving and other miniskills. Each chapter begins with a real-world problem, which the student is required to solve at the end of the chapter. The solution can be an exam answer, an office memo, a client letter, contract clauses, etc. Unlike traditional casebooks, each chapter introduces the subjects of that chapter, often with visual aids that help the students organize the doctrine. The authors organize each subtopic around cases. They ask focused questions before each case and have follow up questions and exercises afterwards. The exercises are hypotheticals, synthesis exercises, and problem-solving exercises. Each chapter ends with professional development reflection questions. (Where better to teach contracts ethics than in contracts?) Not only do these questions deal with contract ethics, they include questions and exercises on student well-being.

After having thoroughly studied this casebook over the last few weeks, I believe that it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Not only does it train students in doctrine, it teaches the students to apply that doctrine, a skill that many law school classes don’t teach. It also teaches professionalism, a neglected skill in the first year. Most importantly, it provides contracts teachers with a tool they can use to change their teaching methods without a great deal of work.

According to Professor Schwartz, his methods have had the following outcomes:

"In 2002, the year after I first made wholesale changes to how I teach Contracts, I administered the same final exam I had given the previous year. My 2002 students, whose entrance credentials were indistinguishable from those of their 2001 peers, scored an average of 10% higher on the multiple-choice test and 33% higher on the essay test. In 2004, I designed and participated in a study comparing the law school performance of two sections of law students, one trained to be self-directed learners, and one that did not receive the extra training. The students trained to be self-directed learners had weaker entrance credentials than the students who were not so trained. Nevertheless, on their first semester exams, they scored 20% higher on a civil procedure multiple-choice test and 3% higher on a criminal law essay test. By the end of the year, the cumulative GPA of the students in the experimental group was 20% higher than the cumulative GPA of the students in the control group."

(Scott Fruehwald)

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