Lawyering Skills Course

Learning By Doing With the Help of Wisconsin Lawyers

The Call for More Realistic Law Practice Training

The ABA’s MacCrate Report challenged law schools and bar associations to develop curricula to better train lawyers in the fundamental skills of lawyering. But can a law school classroom realistically simulate law practice? In the Lawyering Skills Program at the University of Wisconsin, the answer is an emphatic "yes"--and we've been doing so for nearly 50 years! The ingredients are a carefully designed, skills-based curriculum, a strong partnership between the law school and the practicing bar, and a group of upper-level law students who are motivated to learn what law practice is really like and what is needed to succeed in that practice.

Course Background and Objectives

Law students often complain that law school does not prepare them for the "real world" of law practice. The Lawyering Skills Course is an optional upper-level, semester-long program that integrates what students have learned throughout law school to the core skills needed for effective law practice and emphasizes the skills they will need in the early years of practice.

A comprehensive course taught by practitioners, the Lawyering Skills Course reveals the day-to-day work of practicing lawyers. The course has been part of Wisconsin’s law school curriculum since 1948, with the mission  to develop a skills-based course of instruction that provides students the opportunity to practice and learn fundamental lawyering skills.

The course simulates law practice situations in which students practice the following skills:

  1. negotiating;
  2. interviewing and counseling clients;
  3. drafting legal documents;
  4. strategic case planning;
  5. problem solving and decision making;
  6. public speaking; and
  7. self awareness and assessment.

Throughout the course, students also examine how practicing lawyers address difficult ethical and professional problems, conduct pre-trial discovery, manage their law practices, provide quality service, act professionally, and balance their professional and personal lives.

Faculty Selection and Training

The Lawyering Skills Course is unique in how practicing lawyers participate in teaching the course. During the semester, more than 60 practicing lawyers and other professionals spend from a half-day to a week at the law school engaged in teaching the course. Separate teams of four practicing lawyers teach each of eight subject matter segments of the course. These segments include criminal proceedings, estate planning and probate, counseling business clients, law practice management, family law, real estate, administrative/local government matters, and pretrial advocacy. Although there is ample interaction with the substantive law, the course is focused on learning and using practice skills. Additional units deal with alternative dispute resolution, guardian ad litem practice, problem solving and professional judgment, effectively using practice resources, marketing legal services, time management, and lifetime learning.

The course director is the lead teacher for the course. She is a full-time faculty member, has extensive law practice experience, and is active in bar activities relating to improving the legal profession. In addition to teaching many units of the course, she develops the curriculum, recruits and trains the practitioner faculty, coordinates the instruction and monitors the development of the students. The Program staff also includes a program assistant who skillfully juggles the needs of the course’s large cast of players, coordinates the many learning units, and manages the preparation and distribution of written materials to students and faculty.

Classes meet for three hours each afternoon in both large groups and in four small discussion groups. The faculty devotes considerable time each morning to commenting on students' written assignments, meeting with students and preparing for classroom instruction. The Lawyering Skills Course faculty is selected to reflect the diversity of individuals within the legal profession and includes practitioners from a wide range of practice settings, of different ages, personal styles, and backgrounds.

The Wisconsin Bar has a long tradition of experienced lawyers mentoring and training younger lawyers. Consequently, many skilled, experienced, and enthusiastic lawyers are available and willing to teach the course. Many lawyers have taught the course several times. However, a continuing effort is made to identify and recruit new teachers. Each unit of the course is usually taught by a combination of veteran and new teachers. Prospective teachers have varying degrees of teaching experience. A number have taught substantive legal topics, especially in CLE settings, but few have taught law students. Many have mentored young lawyers in their law firms, but fewer have taught practice skills in a disciplined classroom setting. Training lawyers to teach the course is an essential and, fortunately well-received, aspect of the director’s responsibility. Teacher training unfolds in a number of sequenced steps.

When selected to teach, each faculty member receives a resource book that explains the objectives and learning methods of the course and provides specific suggestions for particular teaching situations they may face. Topics include preparation for teaching, teaching through demonstration, techniques for leading group discussion, team teaching, oral critique, and providing feedback on student’s written work.

Six weeks before undertaking their teaching responsibilities, each teacher receives a comprehensive workbook that contains all course materials, a detailed teaching plan for their unit of instruction, and specific faculty role assignments. Additional materials regarding teaching methods are also provided. Questions, comments or suggestions for incorporating additional material are handled through telephone conferences with the director or occasionally among members of the teaching team.

The Lawyering Skills Course staff and the faculty for each course unit participate in a 3 hour teachers’ meeting on the first day of each unit. The teaching plan is reviewed and discussed thoroughly. Questions are resolved. More senior teachers provide peer instruction to newer teachers on finer points of teaching the course. Changes to the teaching program that improve coverage of issues, accommodate specific faculty interests or recent law changes may be made. Occasionally, faculty members adjust teaching responsibilities to accommodate for unexpected professional conflicts that may arise for one of them. The teachers’ meeting provides a relaxed, but professional, atmosphere in which faculty can renew old friendships or come to know new colleagues. The professional and personal relationship among the faculty for each week affects the success of the teaching. More importantly, it provides students with excellent role models of professional collegiality. Throughout their teaching time, there is a constant dialogue among the lawyers and the Lawyering Skills Course staff about various issues relating to the curriculum, teaching methodology, and individual students.

Teaching Methods

The heart of the course's teaching method is "learning by doing." Students are given two to four assignments per week. These assignments may ask students to draft a will or a client letter or to interview a client in preparation for a negotiation to occur in class the next day. Written assignments are completed and turned in by the following morning so that faculty can provide individual written comments on the work before that afternoon's class. Thus, students receive quick and meaningful feedback on their written work. Assignments are geared to help students learn how to identify and evaluate a client's legal problem, devise workable solutions, and translate solutions into action on behalf of the client.

About half of the course takes place in small discussion groups that provide ample opportunity for students to interact individually with the faculty. The course downplays lecturing as a teaching method. Practitioners perform demonstrations, participate in panel discussions, facilitate small-group exercises and discussions, evaluate student work, and act as resources for students’ questions about aspects of law practice. The class meets for eleven of the fourteen weeks of the semester. The work load of the course for students is substantial. The "breather" periods are essential to permit students (as well as the Lawyering Skills Course staff) to attend to other responsibilities.

Practitioners also serve as role models for students who aspire to practice law as a career. The career plans of students who take the course are as diverse as the faculty who teach it. Recent graduates of the course regularly participate in the course by relating their experiences as new practitioners, playing the roles of clients in simulation activities, and on occasion serving as part of the faculty in areas of their own emerging practice expertise.

Teaching Materials

The teaching materials include nine subject-matter texts each devoted to one of the substantive areas covered in the course. Each teaching team focuses on only one text. A special feature of most texts is a simulated case file of the type that might be found in a lawyer's office. Students thus get a feel for the problems and materials lawyers deal with in daily practice. These case files provide fact situations that the faculty use in their demonstrations. The course materials also include outlines, checklists, and brief articles that describe important aspects of law practice. In addition to the course chapters, students receive background materials for each of the practice skills taught in the course and professional responsibilities materials.

Intensive Training Week

A capstone training component of the course is a Skills Intensive Training Week which enables students to put to use, in one integrated and carefully supervised experience, the practice skills they have learned in the course.  More than twenty lawyers participate as faculty in a two-day exercise in which students represent clients on both sides of a comprehensive legal transaction. The students draft legal documents, interview and counsel clients, plan case strategy, negotiate, and orally argue the client's position in a court hearing. Throughout this activity, students must identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own and their adversaries’ cases, secure the facts necessary to act on behalf of their clients, evaluate the reliability of information obtained, communicate effectively, plan case strategy, and solve problems that arise in managing the case file. Professional responsibilities and practice management issues that commonly arise in law practice are built into the case file. Students representing each side also meet as a group, with their senior partners, to evaluate the progress of their case, discuss alternative courses of action, and plan strategy.

Attorney instructors provide highly individualized oral and written critique to each student performance based on predetermined criteria for each activity. In this unit of the course, each student receives individualized feedback from six different practitioners on his or her own performance of the various activities, as well as detailed written feedback on their written work. A half-day training seminar for the faculty on the critique method of skills training precedes the instructional program.

Looking Forward

The cornerstones of the Lawyering Skills Course are the preparation, experience, and commitment of its practitioner faculty and staff, the coordination of resources by the staff, and the dedication and enthusiasm of its students.

New learning about skills-based learning continues at this Wisconsin Law School program despite the inevitable limitations of time and resources. The course remains a "work in progress." Significant changes have been made to the subject matters, materials and teaching methods of the course over the years.  Each year new learning experiments are undertaken and evaluated. After testing, many, but not all, prove sufficiently well-grounded to incorporate into the curriculum. Measuring overall success, at least in quantitative terms, is illusive. However, comments by students, faculty, graduates of the program, and members of the bar are very positive. Students consistently express having gained confidence in their ability to engage in the practice of law. Faculty describe students as demonstrating surprisingly mature levels of skill and judgment. Graduates report back that the skills and strategies they learned in the Lawyering Skills Course were invaluable to their professional development, especially in the first few years of practice. Employers are pleased with the relatively "practice ready" quality of graduates and many encourage their law clerks to take the course.

As we develop a learning by doing program of legal education, we have and will, of course, make mistakes. Mistakes are the by-product of taking on educational challenges. From time to time, our mistakes become apparent to our students. Those moments are not embarrassments, but are valuable learning opportunities. Learning from mistakes is a central lesson for our students. The prospects are good that the Lawyering Skills Course will be making mistakes, learning from them, and helping develop able lawyers for a long time to come.

For additional information: contact Prof. Gretchen Viney, Director, (608) 262-8048;; Lawyering Skills Program, University of Wisconsin Law School, 975 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706; Fax (608) 263-6365.

Rev: 5/2015

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