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When Old Meets New: A Different Approach to Legal Education

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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.

This LPS post is by Reem Blaik, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

Fashioned over a century ago, much of America’s legal education system has remained untouched. The traditional law school system places an emphasis on reading and briefing lengthy court opinions in preparation for a recitation of facts in class. Many law schools claim that this process teaches students how to “think like lawyers.” This blog post will explore a few approaches that law schools can take to better prepare their students for practice.

Based on my academic experiences thus far as 2L, as well as my very limited exposure to the legal profession, I think Vanderbilt Law does a good job at teaching its students how to doctrinally think like lawyers. To date, all of my professors have largely focused on teaching Black Letter Law. Some go a step further by encouraging thought-provoking conversations. My favorite professors challenge their students to argue for and against the parties of real and hypothetical cases.

Of course, these teaching approaches are desirable because they appeal to the theoretical aspects of lawyering. But most, if not all, fail to explicitly acknowledge the original force behind why the cases we read came to be: clients. When students are taught to approach legal ​problem solving in a manner that does not consider the various needs and wants of clients, two problems can arise: (1) students will evolve into uninformed practitioners and (2) the legal products that clients receive will be void of value. As such, the legal field as a whole could benefit greatly if law school systems explored a curriculum that not only teaches students how to think like lawyers – but also teaches students how to act like lawyers that take a client-centric approach to practice.

This past summer, I worked my first legal job. And, like many law clerks and junior attorneys, my work excited me. However, there were only two instances where I was able to draw directly from the materials I read and briefed in the course of my 1L year. During my first few weeks of work, I applied the McDonnell Douglas framework to an employment research memorandum. The second time was when I applied a case I reviewed in my torts class to the facts of a personal injury research memorandum. Besides my knowledge of these two cases and the skills I learned from legal writing/analysis, that was really all that was familiar to me. I was fortunate enough to have a solid support system that helped me learn things a lot quicker than I would have on my own. But I was surprised by ​the amount of times supervising attorneys told me things like, “this is something they won’t teach you in any class” and “legal practice is entirely different than legal education.” If this really is the case, what can law schools do to better serve their students? What can they do to better serve legal service consumers?

Besides the law school systems’ struggle with establishing a truly practical curriculum, law schools have largely failed at laying the foundation that our clients should be at the center of our legal analysis and service delivery. This approach is more practical and relevant to legal problem solving. Approaching a legal issue by first reflecting on the client’s circumstances and their ultimate goals is key to consumer satisfaction. The importance of this was made crystal clear in an article titled “How Smart Lawyers Solve Problems.” The author drew attention to the fact that clients sometimes experience difficulty when expressing what they really want to lawyers. Lawyers also contribute to this issue by failing to probe or adequately investigate the demands of their clients. The article used divorce proceedings as an example of how a client’s desire for an apology can snowball into unnecessary lawsuits. Such a situation can leave a client unsatisfied with their legal experience. This does not mean that lawyers should be expected to double-down as mind-readers; however, an integrated legal education program can make such situations more approachable.

There is no singular method that will solve all legal education problems. Rather, a combination of methods is needed. Massaging a client-centered approach into the law school curriculum could supplement the system we have all come to know and love (or otherwise). The idea is not to gut the entire system, but to expand traditional programs and methods. Doing so would not only pay homage to the importance of teaching students the skill of how to think like a ​lawyer, but also encourage students to use this skill and apply it in ways that place clients at the center of legal services.

The following is a non-exhaustive deck of learning lessons law schools can incorporate into their curriculum to better serve their students. Many of these ideas were inspired by Professor Slobogin at Vanderbilt Law. One way professors can help law schools move towards a more practical and client-oriented system is by taking a different approach in writing books and assigning student readings. Instead of assigning long opinions and expecting students to analyze facts in a vacuum, professors can assign casebooks that reduce opinions down to relevant facts, reasoning, and holdings. For example, Professor Slobogin consolidated hundreds of cases and studies into a roughly 700 page book (many casebooks near 2,000 pages). Such condensed materials give students important jurisprudential context, while making room for activities that help students apply practical, client-centered thinking.

As such, students can be assigned to work in conjunction with their peers to develop better teamwork skills. Such projects can require students to work through scenarios that implicate legal, social, and moral questions. These practices can help students consider the very lives of the people they are representing, and even the situations of those people or entities they oppose.

For instance, imagine an exercise where a pair of students are asked to play the roles of a defense attorney and a prosecutor. The students are tasked with negotiating a hypothetical plea bargain. In doing so, each party will have to consider the established demands of their clients – be it the government or the defendant – and grapple with cognizable human issues. Is it moral to withhold exculpatory information from opposing counsel? How about criminalizing information? What are the social and personal consequences of sending an innocent defendant to prison for one year? How about ten years? These are important questions law students should be equipped to confront before dealing with real-world clients.

Similar exercises can be created for civil litigation and transactional classes. Particularly, groups and individuals can be assigned projects that ask students to draft legal documents that they would likely encounter if practicing in the particular area of law the class is teaching. In order to incorporate the client-side of the equation, one student can be assigned to play client role. Tough decisions can be planted in such activities. How far should you take a settlement conference? What long-term effects will the terms of your contract draft have on your client’s business?

In the article “How to Tackle Your Toughest Decisions,” the author used a layoff as an example of a tough decision that many managers will have to face. The author stressed that such issues are multifaceted and as a result – there are often more to these problems than meets the eye. For example, in a situation where an employee is failing to serve their clients – a boss is likely to think this issue is happening because the employee is simply a failure. However, a deeper dive can reveal that the manager is failing to manage his/her employee, which in turn is causing the employee to fail to serve their clients. The same mindset can be used in legal practice when managing personnel and cases.

If law schools can balance traditional ways of thinking like a lawyer, with practical class exercises that apply these ideas, students will be one step closer to better serving their clients. Such an expansion of the law school system will likely create more consumer satisfaction and, as a result, a more sustainable legal system.