Law School Teaching Methods Criticized in Report

Article excerpt

Every law student endures the exercise of having to "stand and deliver" a legal argument before a professor who seems hell-bent on reducing the hapless student to a puddle of flop sweat through question after question.

Known as the "Socratic method," it's the time-honored way law schools have taught students how to "think like a lawyer" for centuries. The idea is to guide the student, through directed questions, to reason his or her way through the often-complex issues encountered in the legal system.

However, a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching charges that law schools rely too strongly on this "case-dialogue" method of instruction.

Rather than concentrating this intensive analytical approach on first-year students, the report contends, law schools employ it throughout all three years of legal education, when second- and third-year students' time might be put to better use learning how to actually practice law and tend to clients' concerns.

"Unfortunately, despite some very fine teaching in law schools, often they fail to complement the focus on skill in legal analyses with effective support for developing ethical and practice skills," said William Sullivan, one of the authors of Educating Lawyers; Preparation for the Profession of Law.

The Carnegie researchers recommend an integrated law curriculum with a more pronounced focus on teaching practice skills and the ethical and social concerns that often surface in addressing clients' needs.

Oklahoma's law school deans say their institutions have taken steps to bolster students' opportunities for hands-on legal training.

"There's always been a lot of tension in the question of how much do you spend in training and how much do you spend in education," said Andrew Coats, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Coats sees a place for practical training, but describes himself as a "firm believer in the Socratic method."

He said this way of teaching is aimed at giving students the ability to think and express themselves analytically, to "see around the corner" in legal situations.

It's a skill that comes in handy in all types of law, he said, whether it's in private practice or in a boardroom as a corporate general counsel.

"The idea that they need to be able to articulate those ideas, I think, is part of the learning process," Coats said.

Coats said OU has a "lawyering" course that teaches second- and third-year students "the nuts and bolts of how to practice."

"We also do courses in ADR (alternative dispute resolution) and client counseling," he said.

Students who pass the professional ethics exam in their second year can assist staff lawyers at two clinics. As interns, these students can make presentations in court and deal with witnesses, Coats said.

Another program allows students to work with attorneys in pro bono cases, and students can also clerk for district judges or work with a federal agency for a semester.

Coats said he understands the viewpoint expressed by the Carnegie study, with a caveat.

"One of the problems we have is that the students are going to face the mother of all final examinations after about three years," he said. "They cover quite a number of courses. A student needs to take as many of those courses as they can, which limits to some degree their ability to do the other thing."

Dean Lawrence Hellman of the Oklahoma City University School of Law said the American Bar Association identified a lack of practical- skills training in law schools about 15 years ago, which the schools have been addressing.

"There's been a gradual evolution since then," he said.

At OCU, he said, there has been a conscious effort to present students with a blend between legal doctrine and practical skills.

Hellman said OCU's law school offers about 18 courses that address some area of practice, from introductory courses to client representation in mediation, negotiation and arbitration. …