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Should law schools put more of an emphasis on practical skills?

This LPS post is by Doyle Murphy, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2018.

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

If you asked a law student to describe a normal class, most would probably give you very similar answers: do the assigned reading, take notes in class while the professor goes through the material using the Socratic Method, which can be fuel for nightmares or much more relaxed depending on the professor, and a final exam that determines your grade for the class. Sometimes the professor may use class participation as a way to adjust your grade up or down slightly. The Paper Chase is a movie about a 1L at Harvard and gives a peek at his experience in law school. The Contracts class, which is the focus of the movie, is conducted in a similar manner to how I just described the majority of law school classes. The Paper Chase came out in 1973. It is forty-four years later, the world and legal landscape are much different, yet the way law school professors teach has, for the most part, remained the same.

While the Socratic Method and traditional law school classes have their benefits, it doesn’t always translate to practically preparing you to practice law. This semester in Legal Problem Solving we simulated working in-house for a music streaming company on a Master Service Agreement. We worked in groups of four, randomly assigned, and used Slack and Google Docs to communicate and work on the agreement. Cat and Franklin Graves also acted as other employees in the company that we could go to with questions. I didn’t enjoy this assignment at all while we were actually working on it. At first I was really confused by the assignment because it seemed like something that was very unrelated to what we had been doing; I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to do or who we could ask questions to and what those relevant questions even were. This wasn’t like anything I had done in law school before. Once our group got over our initial frustrations we started to figure out what questions we needed to ask Cat and Franklin so that we could go forward and get the agreement done correctly.

While I didn’t like the assignment, it turned out not to be as difficult as I originally thought once we were able to ask the right questions to Cat and Franklin. Even though I didn’t enjoy the assignment in the moment, I still thought it was a valuable experience to have. I would much rather have the experience of not having any idea what to do and having a mini freakout in the setting of a law school assignment where there isn’t as much on the line. Also, if you have an assignment like the Master Services Agreement in law school then you’ll probably handle a similar situation at a law firm as a summer or junior associate much better.

Using the Socratic Method to teach in law school has its benefits; students learn through inductive reasoning while reading cases, which helps students learn how to think like a lawyer. Law schools can’t teach its students every law so they want their students to be able to think like a lawyer so they know how to analyze laws they’ve never seen when they get out into the real world. I do question whether the benefits of the Socratic Method are actually realized though. For better or for worse, grades are the biggest part of the equation as to what type of employment a law student gets. If the exam is the sole determination of a law student’s grade, I’m not as confident that law students are getting the benefits of the Socratic Method. While the Socratic Method has its benefits, I don’t think it is beneficial enough to justify having it dominate classes in law school.

Practical courses have entirely different benefits to law students: they teach you tangible skills that transfer to your post graduate work. One of the negatives of practical courses is that they’re overly specific and might only translate to tasks in certain jobs. There is a good chance that I never see a Master Service Agreement again. However, I still think it was valuable to get used to being in a position where I have no idea what I’m doing and have to ask questions to figure out what I need to do. Part of the allure of the Socratic Method is it teaches students to think like a lawyer and learn to analyze laws so that they will be able to do this when they encounter a law for the first time while practicing. Practical law school classes have a similar benefit. You can’t learn every practical skill that you are going to need when you go out into the working world, but learning how to figure out how to get through a project you’ve never worked on before will help you when you encounter a similar situation in your job.

Another benefit of practical law school classes is that they lend themselves to group assignments than the traditional method of teaching in law school. Law school is also generally an individual endeavor. You do the readings, take notes, and write the final exam on your own. Sure most people will get together in study groups when preparing for exams but I don’t really consider that working together in a group. On the other hand, once law students graduate and start working, they’ll be doing a lot more working in groups. More group work could help with the emotional intelligence of law students before they go to work in the real world. In pretty much every Legal Problem Solving class this semester, we’ve been put into random groups so you’re working with new people for almost every assignment. Early on in the semester I thought it was annoying because it was always a little bit awkward at first. As the semester went on I got used to always working with new people and actually enjoyed it because you got to know a lot of new people in class. I thought working in random groups was good preparation for the real world because you’re not always going to be able to choose who you work with, especially at the beginning of your career.

I’m not sure what the right mix of Socratic Method law school classes to practical law school classes should be but I do think that law students would benefit from more offerings of practical classes.