The Call for More REalistic Law Practice Training
Years ago, the ABA’s MacCrate Report challenged law schools and bar associations to develop curricula to better train lawyers in the fundamental skills of lawyering. The Lawyering Skills Program at the University of Wisconsin focuses on exactly that.
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.
The Lawyering Skills Course is an upper-level, semester-long program that integrates what students have learned throughout law school with the core skills needed for effective law practice and emphasizes the skills they will need in the early years of practice. The Lawyering Skills Course is truly Law in Action.
A comprehensive course taught by practitioners, the Lawyering Skills Course unfolds 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.
At the conclusion of the semester, students will be able to demonstrate skills and techniques that they will use during their first years of law practice, including:
- Client interviewing & counseling
- Participating in mediation
- Planning and processing case files
- Organizing and managing legal work
In addition to the skills and techniques that are essential to law practice, students will also learn to:
- Recognize and respond to basic, recurring issues in multiple areas of law
- Confidently approach a legal matter or client issue
- Communicate professionally and collegially with classmates and practicing lawyers
- Seek, receive, and process professional feedback
- Approach practice and ethical issues directly and successfully
- Access practice resources
- Create a list of professional contacts to use in the early years of practice
- Make realistic decisions about law as a career
The Lawyering Skills Course is an 6-credit, pass-fail course for 2L and 3L students.
Of these 6 credits:
- 5 credits apply toward the 60-credit Wisconsin rule
- All credits apply to the 64-credit and 90-credit requirements
The course sastifies the ABA requirements for experiential learning.
The course typically meets each day (Monday-Thursday), 1:10-4:00pm.
Each week, students typically work on written assignments and sometimes simulations. To receive credit for the course, students must meet attendance requirements and complete all written and simulation assignments.
Another unique feature of the Lawyering Skills Course is the broad scope of legal practice areas covered in a single semester. Students have an opporutnity to learn something practical about a variety of substantive legal areas from lawyers currently working in those areas. Some students have found that this sort of exposure to different practice areas has helped crystalize the direction they want to take their own legal career.
The current Lawyering Skills curriculum focuses on the following nine distinct practice areas:
- Local Government Proceedings
- Criminal Proceedings
- Residential Real Estate Transactions
- Divorce Proceedings
- Representing the Small Business Client
- Landlord-Tenant Proceedings
- Estate Planning & Probate
- Preparing a Case for Civil Trial
- Managing the Early Years of Practice
Additional stand-alone workshops round out the Lawyering Skills curriculum. The workshops may vary from year-to-year but generally deal with client counseling and interviewing, negotiations, practice resources, time management, and lifetime learning.
The "Learn By Doing" Method of Teaching
The heart of the course's teaching method is "learning by doing." Students practice real-world lawyering skills through written assignments and simulated role playing. 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. Students may draft a portion of a will, write a client letter, negotiate a marital settlement agreement, or interview a client. The visiting lawyers review written assignments and provide next-day written feedback. Thus, students receive quick and meaningful evaluation on their written work. Moreover, during in-class simulations, the visiting lawyers provide guidance and instruction.
At the beginning of the semester, students are divided into four small discussion groups. About half of the course takes place in small discussion groups that provide ample opportunity for students to interact individually with the faculty. 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.
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.
Lawyering Skills Faculty
The Lawyering Skills Course is unique in how practicing lawyers participate in teaching the course. During the semester, about 40 lawyers are engaged in teaching the course. Separate teams of four practicing lawyers teach each of the nine course modules. The course faculty includes practitioners from a wide range of practice settings and 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.
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.