A Cool Course Assignment and A Scholarship Opportunity

This post suggests that you might want to assign your students to interview a lawyer about an actual case and it provides some materials you could adapt if you are interested.  I realize that it is probably too late for you to incorporate this into your courses this semester, but you might want to do so in the future.

This idea grew out of a symposium I organized at the University of Missouri Law School about improving negotiation theory.  Two of the speakers, David Matz and Adrian Borbély, wrote an article arguing that too little negotiation theory is based on detailed analyses of actual negotiations.  I wrote a short essay agreeing with them and suggesting, among other things, that academics interview negotiators to collect and analyze detailed accounts.  Then it occurred to me that law students could do this as a course assignments.  I am particularly interested in research about negotiation, though you could use the same process to do interviews about virtually any aspect of legal practice.

Although this assignment might seem particularly appropriate for courses focusing on practical skills, it could be valuable in one focusing more on legal doctrine.  As an illustration, Stewart Macaulay’s classic article, Non-Contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study, was based on his interviews with automobile executives who helped him understand how real-world business often deviated from what Macaulay taught in his contracts class.

You could require each student to interview a lawyer for up to an hour about a recent negotiation.  You could set the parameters of the assignment in terms of the types of cases, questions to ask lawyers, and content of the summaries.  These assignments could be fairly short papers that count for a small portion of a grade or longer papers that count for more.  Indeed, if you want to make this a bigger part of students’ learning, you could require students to do several interviews.

This assignment would have several benefits.  First, it would give students experience learning about actual cases that lawyers have handled, advancing the goal of preparing students for real-world practice.  Second, students would get a chance to practice interviewing, a difficult and critically-important generic skill.  Lawyers regularly interview people about sensitive matters and must develop rapport to get the candid information they need.  Third, it would give students a chance to practice protecting confidentiality.  Students would need to assure the lawyers they interview that they would not disclose certain matters, and then students would convey key information in their assignments while avoiding disclosure of unauthorized information.

Using Student Interviews for Your Research

Although most faculty would do this purely as a course assignment, you might want to use these papers as the basis for your own scholarship.  Many law faculty are curious about how people act in real-life legal situations, as distinct from principles from black letter law, theoretical analyses, anecdotes, “common sense,” etc.  They are tempted to do some empirical research, which they often assume requires surveys with large samples.  Not so.

As explained in my post, What Me – A Social Scientist?, this is a common misconception.  Moreover, doing good survey research is much, much harder than most novices realize – and is likely to produce less useful data than they expect.  The good news is that you can do very valuable research involving relatively small samples of semi-structured interviews like the ones described above.

If you assign students to conduct these interviews solely as a class assignment, presumably you would not need to get this approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at your school because it would not be considered as research.  Of course, if you do plan to use these papers for your research, you would need IRB approval.  If in doubt, check with your IRB.

I described these ideas in more detail in a post on the Indisputably blog.  In a later post, I provided documents you could adapt for this assignment.  These documents include the assignment itself, guidance for students in conducting and writing up interviews, and model solicitation letters and should be useful in getting IRB approval.  Although you shouldn’t need IRB approval if this is purely a course assignment, these documents are useful in any case because they reflect good, ethical research practice.












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