Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Practicing Practicing the Law

After teaching Contracts for ten years, I'm giving it up to teach Torts. I recall the best law profs of my 1L year cycling through the "Big Three" common law courses (Contracts, Torts, and Property), and I've long wanted to emulate that example. Unlike those, my academic heros, however, I plan to put my students to work practicing practicing the law.

I'll miss teaching Contracts, I admit. Over the years, I've worked up lecture notes, sample exams for student review, and lots of supplementary handouts. I've even written a song about contract law! I've worked up a lot of stale jokes, too, and probably more than a few unchallenged misconceptions. Teaching Torts will give me a well-needed kick in the, uh, assumptions.

Teaching a new course has already inspired me try out some new teaching ideas. I taught Contracts in a fairly traditional manner, assigning casebook readings and using a mixture of lecture and socratic questioning in class. With Torts, I want to encourage my students to try practicing such lawyerly virtues as careful study, clear exposition, and teamwork.

How? By assigning student teams the job of starting each Torts class with a summary of the prior one. I'll form the teams randomly (in practice, you don't always get to choose your co-counsels, after all) and will expect each team member to present part of the review (in practice, you do not always have the luxury to skip speaking before an audience, after all). Each review team will have to produce a one-page written summary, which I will copy and distribute to their fellow students, and will also have answer questions after their oral report.

Some administrative details: Each team's effort will receive a pass/fail grade, worth 10 class participation points per person (which will work out to about 3% of each person's course grade). I will not police disputes among team members, and so will leave to them the problem of dealing with free-riders. I will, however, deny all 10 points to any team member who fails to present part of his/her team's review. Regarding that obligation I will, like a typical court clerk enforcing a filing deadline, accept no excuses.

My wife, who runs the Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of San Diego Law School, helped me iron out those administrative details. She remains a bit dubious about this idea, though: Let the students vote on whether a review team deserves a grade of "pass" or "fail." In my model of how this "practice practice" should work, after all, the students represent the client (I'm only the managing partner). Do those student voters risk evaluating a review team's efforts based on arbitrary or even irrational standards? Perhaps so. But clients risk doing the same to their attorneys.

What do you think? Should I let the student-qua-pretend-clients grade the students-qua-pretend-attorneys? Or should I, like a partner determining year-end bonuses, grade the review teams myself?

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, and MoneyLaw, and College Life O.C.]


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Honestly, I think it sounds like a bad idea. Students will be probably be loathe to "fail" one another, and if they do, there will be bad blood that could really affect the class. Nothing about this can be excused by saying that clients behave arbitrarily as well -- nor, for that matter, do clients perform a similar function, with an exactly parallel knowledge base, as you are asking of the client students.

Then again, I don't understand the need to dress this up as a firm/client/managing partner model anyway. Why not simply say it's good practice and allows them to test their understanding of the material?

Apart from that, I'd be a little concerned about the amount of class time this will take, but that seems to me to be much more within the realm of reason.

8/05/2008 11:25 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

A friend of mine tried something similar to this and Ani is right about what the students did. I admire your effort, though, and hope it works out. I feel so pressed to get through the material in 4 credit hours that I am unable to bring myself to involve the students at this level

8/05/2008 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the idea of graded presentation and have some experience with it. I taught a legal writing class as an adjunct in which the program required class participation was 10% of the grade.

What I told my students was that, regardless of the professional path they took after law school, much of their effectiveness would be measured by how they managed informal and formal presentations, and that they should view class participation as a good way to develop these skills. I urged them to prepare concise observations or questions they thought would further discussion.

Having said that, I agree with Ani that student grading could be arbitrary and conflictual. It could also be stressful for first years who often are challenged enough by the novelty and difficulty of law school.

I also agree with the "time scrunch" problem observed by Jeff and Ani.

Good luck with this.

8/06/2008 12:31 PM  
Blogger Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, all, for those thoughtful comments.

What Ani predicts, and what Jeff's experience teaches, about students being too easy on each other, is exactly what I would expect. So perhaps student voting would prove a waste of time, always resulting in a "pass" grade. I imagine I'd almost always give "pass" grades, too though, as you almost have to try to get an F in this sort of exercise.

I've long offered my own summaries at the beginning of each class, and have to admit that they sometimes run over-long. I figure, though, that it still constitutes good pedagogy and that, on net, it take no extra time. After all, the time that I lose in class n to reviewing class (n-1), I'll just make up when I review n in (n+1)!

8/07/2008 6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prof. Bell,

What a fantastic idea.

The voting part is a wash. This does sound like the kind of assignment that is easy to pass, therefore, I wouldn't be too concerned about voting on improper grounds.

But, the entire concept is fantastic. Last semester, I toyed with similar ideas, but I couldn't really nail down the best way to do it. This is just fantastic.

8/17/2008 9:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home