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