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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Teaching Advocacy Across the Curriculum

Not long ago, Hugh Selby suggested that one way to encourage guest blogging would be to select a "Topic of the Month" that might help stimulate thought and discussion. With a new law school semester just around the corner, this month's topic is Teaching Advocacy Across the Curriculum.

Many readers of this blog teach trial advocacy courses in law schools, either as full-time or adjunct faculty members. And of that group, many teach additional courses as well. For example, I teach first-year criminal law, evidence, and a military law seminar.

There are many opportunities to help teach students advocacy skills in a traditional "doctrinal" legal course. Successfully doing so requires advance planning and a commitment to creating learning opportunities that go beyond the Paper Chase-type moments where we flay students alive with unanswerable questions using the Socratic method. The rewards, however, are well worth it: students enjoy class more, they understand difficult legal concepts better in the context of making trial and appellate arguments, and they develop an interest in advocacy they might not otherwise have had.

Over the years, I've had wonderful colleagues and mentors who have shown me the possibilities in this method of teaching. When I taught at the Army JAG School, then-Lieutenant Colonels James Garrett and Patricia Ham directed a curricular overhaul of our basic criminal law course for newly minted military attorneys. I became intimately familiar with the process as the project officer assigned to design the plan. Lieutenant Colonel Garrett gave me just one piece of guidance initially: figure out what you want the students to know, and what you want them to be able to do, and then restructure the curriculum according to that. Lieutenant Colonel Ham, his successor (the process took about two years to implement), directed me to use an actual case file as the structure for the course. We called it Anatomy of a Court-Martial, and we tied all substantive instruction to the various phases of a court-martial. For example, a class on pretrial confinement procedures would be tied to an actual pretrial confinement hearing. The course ended with the students trying the case they'd been working on for the previous several weeks.

The revamped course was successful far beyond our initial expectations. For the first time, the students were able to tie the complex doctrines and procedures of a court-martial to an actual case. They understood in context, not just theory, and it improved both their skills and their grasp of the theories.

When I left the military and started teaching at Southern Illinois University School of Law, I found tremendous support for including advocacy teaching in my doctrinal classes. In fact, my dean and mentor, Peter Alexander, had been doing innovative things in this area for years. He'll be writing a post this month on the mini-trials based on children's fairy tales that he integrates into his evidence class.

So--what are some things I do? When we begin a new case in my first-year criminal law class, the student I call on must give an opening statement for the prosecution, beginning with the words, "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." I then call on another student to give an opening statement for the defense. Only then do we begin a more traditional discussion of the case.

In my evidence class, every rule and concept includes an application exercise in which the students perform a courtroom task appropriate to that rule of evidence. They draft jury instructions, argue motions, conduct examinations and make objections. I have students play the roles of counsel and the judge, and the entire class serves as a court of appeals. This approach has worked well for me, and it forms the underlying structure of my forthcoming evidence textbook, Evidence and the Advocate: A Contextual Approach to Learning Evidence, which will be published by Lexis later this year.

I firmly believe that integrating advocacy training in a doctrinal class confers a great benefit on the students.

So--this is a guest-blogging topic for the month. If you do similar things, please blog about them. If you disagree with the approach, write a blog post and let us know.

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