By: Professors Jenean Taranto and Rosemary Queenan
Among different academic variables, a student’s “Lawyering Skills Grade” is “the strongest predictor of law school success.” That is the conclusion Leah M. Christensen, Associate Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, reached in her article “The Power of Skills Training: A Study of Lawyering Skills Grades as the Strongest Predictor of Law School Success (Or in Other Words, It’s Time For Legal Education to Get Serious About Skills Training if We Care About How Our Students Learn.” Christensen reached this conclusion based on her study, which sought “to explore the relationship between law students’ achievement goals and their success in law school,” by asking “157 law students to respond to a survey about their learning goals in law school.” Responses by the students “were correlated to different academic variables, including class rank, LSAT score, Undergraduate GPA (UPGA) and Lawyering Skills Grade.” Christensen’s results found that the “Lawyering Skills Grade was the strongest predictor of law student success . . .” and “the LSAT was the weakest predictor of law school success.” Christensen’s study also concluded that “law students who did well in their Lawyering Skills classes tended to be mastery-oriented learners, and that law students who were mastery-oriented learners were more successful in law school overall.” Christensen notes that the correlation between success in the Lawyering Skills course and mastery-oriented learners exists because “Lawyering Skills classes appear to emphasize mastery-goals.” Skills classes tend to encourage mastery-oriented goals by teaching students “reasoning skills ‘such as issue spotting, fact identification, fact analysis, rule identification and application of rules to facts . . . .’” Additionally, the “concepts of advocacy, negotiation and client counseling” help to promote mastery-goal orientation.
Her study articulates a premise that has been recognized by the Albany Law School Lawyering program for approximately twenty years. Albany’s Introduction to Lawyering program integrates theory with practice by engaging first-year students in problem solving and client-centered practice along with research, reasoning, and extensive legal analysis, and writing. Students are assigned to “firms” representing parties in a year-long simulated legal dispute and are introduced to the legal system, ethics, and the skills and values of the profession in a practice-based context.
In the course of representing a client throughout two semesters, students begin fact development by interviewing clients, learn to research by finding the statutes and cases relevant to the client’s situation, and learn analytical and writing skills by producing legal documents needed to represent the client. The skills introduced through highly structured research and writing assignments in the first semester are honed in the second semester as students engage in fact development through a discovery-like process that emphasizes the relationship between law and fact. Students further conduct independent legal research, and write and re-write the relevant legal analysis first in a trial court memo and then in an appellate brief. Through this process, students receive a thorough grounding in statutory analysis, rule synthesis, and analytical legal writing. By participating in settlement negotiations and appellate arguments, students also develop their analytical skills through oral communication exercises that reinforce the written assignments. The program exemplifies that teaching Lawyering in context results in greater understanding of the relationship between legal research, writing, theory, and practice.
Christensen correctly points out that teaching skills in this way fosters greater mastery-goal orientated learning and less performance-goal learning. By introducing skills and theory from an integrated learning perspective, students have no choice but to become mastery-oriented learners because, in the context of a “real life” legal problem, students seek to achieve the best outcome for their client, working with a purpose that teaches them to ask questions, read authority critically, and focus on fact development with greater depth. Critical thinking is further encouraged in Lawyering skills classes by support and guidance from professors who assess student performance based on multiple assignments throughout the course of the semester and year, meeting individually with students in conferences, providing productive feedback throughout the course of the year, and allowing for collaborative learning exercises. Christensen notes that the Carnegie Commission agrees by suggesting that “‘[t]he dramatic results of the first year of law school’s emphasis on well-honed skills of legal analysis should be matched by similar skill in serving clients and a solid ethical grounding.’” The commission findings further note that “‘[i]f legal education were serious about such a goal, it would require a bolder, more integrated approach.’”
Once students learn to approach problems as mastery-goal learners, they inevitably become stronger students overall and, ultimately, better lawyers.