[View Equipping Our Lawyers Series Introduction]
The third Equipping Our Lawyers recommendation addresses in part the age-old teacher’s dilemma: how to identify core competencies and teach skills to students with different existing skill sets and varied post-graduation intentions:
Law schools should continue to refine their lists of identified core practice competencies, recognizing that essential competencies will vary by stage of education and by practice area.
Reporter’s Comment: This recommendation refers to the core practice competencies referenced in Recommendation 2 above. Recommendations 11 and 12 below expand further on the need across the educational continuum to identify essential practice competencies as the basis for planning career-long learning objectives for lawyers.
When it comes to Torts or Civil Procedure, most law students probably have a roughly similar degree of knowledge of the material – that is to say, not very much. But when it comes to skills, students’ background and natural strengths vary more widely. For example, if I take an inventory of some of the skills I learned in law school in skills courses (Legal Research & Writing), clinical programs (Civil Practice Clinic & Legislative Clinic), student working groups (the Criminal Law Research Group), internships and externships (the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania State Senate Judiciary Committee), and in the course of editing a legal journal, it’s clear to me that I entered law school with innate strengths and weaknesses in different areas:
- Academic research – the ability to learn the Lexis & Westlaw databases and to determine whether an article topic will contribute something new to existing scholarship;
- Factual research – the ability to to pull out the relevant facts for a legal writing assignment and to track down and organize the key facts in a clinical case;
- Writing and editing– professional emails, memoranda, briefs, agreements, and legislative drafting;
- Oral communication – argument in front of mock judges and jurors, interviewing clinic clients and hearing their stories, trudging through a series of bureaucratic phone calls in the course of clinic cases, clearly explaining legal issues in the context of the Socratic method;
- Professionalism – working with other students, fitting into a temporary office during an internship or externship, interacting appropriately with supervisors, colleagues and staff, being organized and prepared for classes, meetings, and hearings.
In addition, students’ high-priority skills may vary depending on whether they intend to seek positions as law clerks, associates in large law firms, trial attorneys, or sole practitioners.
In refining law school core competencies, educators at each law school must determine which skills and skill levels to target at every student (the ability to write clear legal memoranda), which should be optional but made available to most or all students (the ability to interview clinic clients and devise case strategy), and which to offer to a select number of students to fulfill a special need. The latter can be accomplished, for example, by surveying 2Ls’ professional intentions and offering a course in legislative drafting to those who intend to work in politics after graduation or requiring the submission of a resume and letter of intent for the course.
Techniques for crafting a curriculum and developing a teaching methodology that will inspire all students are naturally exhibited by the most well-respected legal educators. In perusing the inspiring descriptions of the nominees for the Best Law Teachers in America, it’s clear that law students highly value instructors’ ability to make skills learning enjoyable, convey value, and make connections between exercises and real life. Law students recognize that it is challenging to make skills courses engaging and they respect and appreciate the instructors who take on this challenge with grace and enthusiasm.
The best legal skills instructors are singled out for:
- Inspiring students to seek the value offered in different kinds of research;
- Using practical problems to help students connect doctrine and practice and providing experiences that help students learn and remember concepts;
- Running an Advanced Legal Writing workshop that includes oral and written critiques, thus familiarizing students with the feedback and re-writes they will be faced with in practice;
- Organizing class like a law firm and giving students the responsibility to produce legal work product; and
- Giving students oral and written feedback tailored to their needs and continuously revising and updating the curriculum based on the latest research and trial and error.
The most inspirational skills teachers create an environment in which students do more than they expected, and in doing so prepare them for practice with both the skills and the attitude to succeed. When refining core competencies, law schools have the opportunity to establish the elements that will allow their graduates to later take charge of their continued skills development and provide value to clients and the legal community.