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Law Student Outlook: Experiential learning puts traditional legal education to the test

April 17, 2019

Law Student Outlook By Francesca Camione and Amanda VaughnMost law students have experienced the case method of teaching in their legal education. It is a cornerstone of the “traditional” law school experience and is how the vast majority of doctrinal classes are taught. The case method is where students read appellate cases and participate in-class discussions about how the court applied the legal principles at hand.

The Socratic method is often used as a complement to the case method. Professors who apply the Socratic method in their teaching ask questions of a student to help guide them through the ideas presented in the case. This is where the dawning cold calls arise. In a “traditional” legal education, professors would randomly choose one student to focus their Socratic method questions to, often creating a sense of immense pressure in the classroom.

While the Socratic method is still used, and some professors still maintain a “traditional” cold call system, there is now more diversity among classrooms. Some professors implement a panel system or go alphabetically so you know in advance when you will be “on call,” while others skip the cold calls altogether and rely on student volunteers to help the class along. In our experience, different students have different preferences. Some prefer the unknown because it creates a sense of pressure to prepare for class that the student wouldn’t have if not for the external pressure. Others prefer knowing exactly when they will be responsible to discuss often complex topics in front of their peers, sometimes because they want the ability to take extra care reading the material or because they need to mentally prepare for the stress they experience speaking in front of a large group of people.

As time has passed, professors have moved away from the harsh classroom environment, as seen in “The Paper Chase,” and moved toward a more supportive and educational classroom setting. Along with that change, law schools have begun to place a significant value on experiential learning.

In practice, experiential learning in law school comes in a wide variety of forms. For instance, at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, a student can fulfill the mandatory “skills” graduation requirements by taking six credits of skills courses, which include transactional drafting and mediation, to name a few. Another way a student can fulfill the requirement is by participating in the wide array of clinics, or by participating in moot court competitions and externships. Through these experiences, students get real-life training and experience that allow them to approach their future jobs with more confidence while also bringing more to the table for the benefit of their employer and, ultimately, their clients.

In addition to the benefits of gaining know-how and confidence, many students find experiential learning courses and opportunities to be a refreshing and rewarding change of pace. Instead of merely reading for class and preparing an outline for finals, these types of courses require students to get out of the classroom and interact with people outside of their classmates and professors. Further, for many, it is a welcome opportunity to ditch the heavy casebook and put legal reasoning skills to use in settings with tangible outcomes.

While many schools take the same or a similar approach to that of Maurer School of Law, some schools are redefining legal education to emphasize and prioritize hands-on experiential learning. For example, Case Western Reserve Law School overhauled its curriculum to expand experiential learning opportunities. This overhaul includes a “residency program” for select 1L students to assist upperclassmen working in the clinics. Further, for 2L and 3L students, most work full-time for one semester or part-time for two semesters, or alternatively work in legal settings abroad. While this is just one example of a law school re-gearing its curriculum to suit the changing needs of the legal profession, it is by far not the only school to do so. Many other schools are following suit to adopt similar approaches.

While some students may prefer the classic case law learning model, for others the confidence gained from actually putting the knowledge and skills required to “think like a lawyer” to work is much more enlightening. Skills-based courses are especially helpful in that they give the opportunity for gaining insight on both a student’s strengths and weaknesses, further helping the student tailor curriculum that will enable them to become well-rounded and better suited for the legal career that awaits them. While the traditional method of learning is a great way for students to gain exposure to the doctrinal aspects of the law as well as to judges’ decision-making processes and the history behind the law, experiential learning offers many distinct benefits that should not be ignored.•

Francesca Campione and Amanda Vaughn are second-year law students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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