My January 21 blog entry about how to best reach, and teach, the “miillennials” in law school, an issue raised in the fall 2013 article by Professors Benfer and Shanahan, highlighted several attributes of these students. While noting that these students’ preferences are particularly well-suited to clinical education, I neglected to mention other aspects of the law school curriculum to which the students’ inclinations are well-suited. Their orientation toward service, desire to contribute to the greater good, comfort with frequent and multiple forms of feedback, and enthusiasm for using real life opportunities for learning suggest that we can build into our curricula productive classroom engagements through a variety of experiential collaborations. At UMass Law, we are taking advantage of these possibilities through a pilot course entitled “Community Research Project,” which satisfies our third semester Legal Skills requirement. During the pilot semester this fall, Professor Shaun Spencer guided students to develop their lawyering skills and values in a real-world context. Students in the class worked in teams to plan, organize, and complete a legal research and writing project involving constitutional, statutory, and empirical questions in support of an effort to amend the Massachusetts involuntary commitment statute. Through this collaborative effort, students enhanced their skills in legal research, analysis, and writing; and developed skills in problem solving, interviewing, professionalism, and teamwork (they worked both on their own and in groups).
Many of the suggestions made by Benfer and Shanahan can be tested in such collaborative projects. First, students’ experience in an ongoing process, requiring give-and-take with the “client” organization, can challenge their focus on short-term achievement (grades) rather than long-term success. They can experience critique of their work product not as destructive or insulting but as a way to help them become better lawyers by learning the importance of attentiveness to their clients’ needs. They can experience the internet as just one of a number of tools to be used in their own law practices, learning over time that instant answers are often insufficient to help them develop the necessary lawyering skills of critical thinking.
Courses such as the Community Research Project undoubtedly raise many issues for faculty, including how to choose the partner organizations, “who’s in charge?” — experiential learning/legal writing/skills directors/others, grading/assessment policies, students’ rights to object to subject-matter of projects, appropriate student preparation, use of journaling, and more. Our faculty will be considering these issues soon as it decides whether to permanently incorporate this course into the curriculum.
For those interested in learning more about this project, Shaun and I will be discussing at a conference session, “Bringing Outside In: Social Justice Collaborations in the Legal Writing Curriculum,” this June 29 in Philadelphia during a one-day workshop on Social Justice Collaborations in the Legal Writing Curriculum, just before the start of the Legal Writing Institute Conference.
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