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Succeeding in the Modern Legal Classroom

February 11, 2021
Succeeding in the Modern Legal Classroom

The law school experience of today’s students is unlike any generation of lawyers before them. From the tremendous impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their learning environment to the rapidly changing professional world awaiting them after graduation, law students are seeing the scope of their education shift to better equip them for success.

Bloomberg Law spoke with top legal educators from Columbia, Georgetown, USC, and UCLA about how they are helping students thrive in a virtual setting, embrace legal technology, develop leadership skills, and prepare to practice.

[Find more law school advice and support on our resource page.]

Standing Out in a Virtual Setting

Arguably the biggest change in today’s law school experience is the prevalence of remote learning. When the coronavirus pandemic forced her classes online “from one day to the next,” Columbia Law School Professor Katharina Pistor quickly developed an approach to virtual teaching centering on mutual respect, clear expectations, and interactivity. One area she found herself even more attentive to in an online environment was class participation.

“Speaking about the materials that we learn is just as important as just listening to it,” she said. “It’s a different way of learning, to articulate your own ideas.”

Pistor divided her class of more than 170 students into smaller panels that would take turns being “on call” – cameras on, introducing themselves during roll call, asking and answering questions throughout the lecture, and reporting back on breakout sessions. Not only did this allow Pistor to keep a closer eye on participation levels and bring more students into the fold, but it also added a vital human element to the virtual learning environment for both professor and students alike.

Another benefit of online classes? Hanging around afterward. Instead of rushing out the door to a faculty meeting or making room for the next class, Pistor said she would stay online for an extra 20 minutes or longer to be more accessible to students. She found that a much larger group of students took her up on these informal sessions than the few who braved deskside discussions in person, allowing her to further connect with students and clear up any confusion on topics or assignments.

“If you can clarify questions right after class, before wrong things or misunderstanding[s] settle in the minds of the students, that can be really very effective,” Pistor said.

Much like technology plays a role in facilitating legal education today, it is also transforming the ways practicing attorneys do their job. Beverly Rich, lecturer in law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said it is critical for law students to become familiar with legal technology tools and the types of problems they can help solve.

While e-discovery tools are widely used and technologies such as blockchain and smart contracts still have a way to go, Rich said most of today’s legal technology developments are centered around machine learning. To better understand how machine learning can complement the work of an attorney, she encouraged students to think about the legal tasks that involve a predictive component.

“When you think about it as a prediction problem, it should trigger a little thing in your brain that says, ‘Hey, this might be something that will eventually be automated using machine learning,’” Rich said. “Thinking about the future of legal technology in that way, framing it around, ‘Machine learning solves prediction problems. What are the prediction problems that I face in my job?’… I think it’s a helpful tool for law students and law professors to think about as they consider legal technology in teaching and in practice.”

In addition to a foundational knowledge of the tools they can leverage in practice, Rich said attorneys will also benefit from a broader understanding of the technology industry and the culture of innovation that fuels it. She noted that many of today’s law students will find themselves working on deals that involve a technology company – and speaking their language is a critical part of building successful client relationships.

“It’s not just understanding the legal tech tools, it’s understanding specifically what the client’s needs are in the tech industry … and then subsequently being able to deliver the best representation possible based on understanding the frontier technology that’s out there and the industry dynamics that exist in the tech industry and in some of the startup communities,” Rich said.

Learning to Lead

Sharp legal skills aren’t the only thing students need to acquire during their time in law school. Taking a page from business school curricula, leadership development is becoming an increasingly crucial piece of legal education.

At Georgetown University Law Center, Dean William Treanor and Associate Dean of Strategy Hillary Sale developed a class for the fall 2020 semester called “Lawyers as Leaders,” which quickly became the most enrolled course in school history. The class featured candid conversations with star faculty at Georgetown detailing their career arcs – with a particular emphasis on overcoming setbacks.

“What we wanted to do was to give our students a sense of, how do you think about a career? How do you think about what you want to achieve? How do you go about doing it?” Treanor said. “And then also to get them to realize that life is not smooth, that everybody has bumps, everybody has losses. It doesn’t work out for anybody the way that they wanted to. How do you bounce back?”

Sale, who is also on the faculty at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, said adapting business school cases for a law school context can help students understand what great leaders do and what their qualities are. Ultimately, the goal is to empower law students to think more strategically about how to own their careers.

“The more we can help our students actively focus on how to develop their careers and live their options, the happier and healthier they will be and the better able they will be to grow into great team players and leaders, no matter what choice they make,” Sale said.

Sale’s additional leadership courses for law students are focused on things that aren’t seen as often in the law school curriculum – students working in teams on an ongoing basis to produce projects and outcomes by conducting research and developing strategies for change.

“Our philosophy is, ‘Leaders don’t whine, they roll up their sleeves and get to work,’” she said.

Preparing to Practice

Today’s law school curriculum is undoubtedly packed with critical legal knowledge, but does that include how to practice law? It depends whom you ask.

“There is an intellectual or academic component to learning law and learning how to be a lawyer, but there’s also a craft element where you learn how to interact with clients, how to interact with courts, how to document transactions, how to interact with your colleagues, how to interact with opposing counsel,” said UCLA School of Law Professor Dan Bussel, who is also a partner at KTBS Law LLP. “All of those skills that are part and parcel of what lawyers do every day and that’s not really taught in law school. Those skills are learned in practice.”

So how can students gain practical experience in the classroom and bridge the gap between academia and associate? For Bussel, the most effective approach to exposing students to a practice-like environment is through simulation-style experiential education. He puts students in roles and gives them complex hypothetical problems to negotiate and litigate in a simulated court setting, often with a local bankruptcy judge or partner at his law firm acting as judge to up the ante.

“You have a lot more scope to push the students to their limit in the simulation environment than you do in a live client environment,” Bussel said. “To me, that’s an opportunity that we have in law school that they don’t have in law practice – that’s where we have a comparative advantage because we can put them in the partner role and they can learn what it’s like to be the senior lawyer on the file, and it takes years to get to that point in a law firm setting.”

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