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Dean's Desk: Truly integrated experiential education

November 19, 2014

dean-cummingsLegal education has lost its way. The Langdellian model of legal instruction does not adequately prepare law graduates for 21st century law practice. Reform is coming quickly to legal education and in some cases, it is already here. While many law schools seek to update and modernize their approach through the adoption of some required skills instruction and the addition of clinical experiences for more of their students, a significantly more aggressive approach is necessary to reform legal education fully and prepare law students to enter the practice of law today.

At the Indiana Tech Law School, we are successfully integrating experiential education across our curriculum and our students are benefiting immeasurably. At inception, our goal was to become a law school that provided experiential learning opportunities in most every course offered while quickly becoming a national leader in student-focused, collaborative, experiential education. If the Langdellian tradition has proven ineffective, then wholesale adoption of a better model seemed obvious to us. The results of our early efforts appear promising.

To begin, every first-year-subject professor at Tech Law is committed to providing blended skills-based exercises into his or her theoretical training. This is expected of all our professors, and all are enthusiastically on board. Our Civil Procedure professor, for example, introduces a challenging skills-based exercise during the first semester, five-credit, Civil Procedure course. Directly after introducing students to the Twombly and Iqbal complaint pleading standard, and grappling over the elusiveness of the “plausibility” requirement, the professor invites a District judge into the classroom. As a guest lecturer, the federal judge delivers insightful commentary into how he interprets the “plausibility” standard introduced by Iqbal/Twombly in his courtroom (even providing examples of his issued orders) and then joins with the professor in introducing a complaint drafting exercise where the students are challenged to draft a complaint that will meet the “plausibility” standard and survive a motion to dismiss in federal court. After the complaint is drafted by the students, it is then graded as a formative assessment by both the Civil Procedure professor and the Legal Writing professors for both substance and legal writing clarity. This complaint drafting process then becomes a cornerstone piece of the 1L first semester experience. Examples such as this occur in every first-year course taught at Tech Law.

Additionally, in seeking to offer truly integrated experiential learning, the first-year professors conceptualize and adopt a “cross-curricular hypothetical” that is used across the curriculum as a baseline for many of the practical skills that are introduced in the first year, including the Civil Procedure complaint exercise described above. For example, this year a hypothetical plaintiff named Kirsten Smith was introduced in a four-page fact pattern during the first few weeks of law school. This protagonist experiences several unhappy circumstances that lead to a robust integrated learning opportunity for our students. First, in connection with their Criminal Law class, the students conduct a “client interview” of Kirsten Smith. The interview allows the students to seek criminal elements in the case and begin to learn the skill of client intake and assessment. The interview is recorded, and the students are given feedback on both the list of questions they were required to draft in advance of the interview and on the interview skills exhibited during the client interview.

Next, in connection with their Contracts class, the students draft a retainer agreement for Kirsten Smith to sign. The contract is graded by the Contracts professor for substance and by the Legal Writing professors for clarity and writing skill. The cross-curricular hypothetical then continues in the Lawyering Skills sections, where the students engage in substantive legal research and writing, in connection with Kirsten Smith’s now identifiable claims. A memorandum is prepared by the students assessing the law in the areas at issue, and this memo draft is graded and serves as the primary drafting assignment in all Lawyering Skills sections. Finally, the cross-curricular hypothetical culminates in Civil Procedure where the students draft a complaint for Kirsten Smith and, as described above, must draft it according to the Iqbal/Twombly plausibility standard as introduced to them by the federal judge.

By the end of the first semester of law school, Indiana Tech Law students will have conducted a client interview, drafted a contract, written a substantive legal memo after conducting relevant research, and drafted a complaint. Each of these exercises will have been formatively assessed and graded – providing early feedback as to student performance – and will have been evaluated for content, substance and clarity. This cross-curricular exercise requires commitment and tightly constructed organization from each first-year professor and allows our students to engage in simulated law practice in their first semester of law school. The response from the students has been overwhelmingly positive.

I have only mentioned our first-year integrated experiential curriculum to this point. Our upper-level curriculum requires the same level of experiential and collaborative commitment from each of our professors, including adjuncts. We expect that each course will provide our students with meaningful experiential opportunities coupled with both formative and summative assessments. In addition, we are beginning to ramp up our soon-to-be plentiful clinical opportunities and our externship program, which includes our Semester-in-Practice opportunity. Every law student that matriculates at Tech Law will have the chance to engage in a clinical experience or spend a semester practicing law under the supervision of a judge or governmental/nonprofit practitioner. We will introduce another cross-curricular hypothetical into our second-year classes next academic year as we continue to integrate our experiential learning across the law school curriculum.

In sum, we believe that legal education continues adrift. The focus for most law schools has become so professor-based that we are seeking to return the focus to the students and their ultimate success in practicing law or pursuing the career path of their choice. Bold and innovative steps must be taken to change the course of legal education and anchor it in practical skills training blended with deep theoretical understanding. We believe that the innovations we are adopting, some of which are described above, represent a very substantial step in the right direction.•

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Interim Dean and Professor of Law andré douglas pond cummings has been with the law school since August 2012. (Note: He prefers his name spelled in lowercase letters.) The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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