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Monday, April 1, 2013

The Holy Grail of Legal Education - Competition Teams and Legal Education

Dear Friends:

Competition teams, and the structure that we impose to train them, contain many of the prescriptions for what ails legal education at many universities today. Why? Because if you look behind the curtain of any truly successful advocacy program what you find is a commitment to combining understanding and application of the law for the benefit of a client or cause, while simultaneously teaching professionalism before the court. This is the Holy Grail of Legal Education in today's world, and we have been quietly and effectively doing exactly that for years. At some schools it has been a subversive movement, others, like mine, have embraced it as a core value. All of us need to move more in that direction.

Sometimes faculty fear this core commitment to teaching substantive law practically. I have found that some of the best coaches you could ask for began as professors who were afraid that "coaching" would somehow dilute the quality of the law they were teaching. To a person they have always come back to me afterwards and shared how amazed they were to learn that coaching actually becomes an upper level class in the substantive law contained within the problem. An upper level class that also requires a command of the relevant procedural rules, ethical rules, and persuasion theory. This is what our students must master to become practicing attorneys and it is what many law schools are currently searching for as they attempt to create "capstone" and "practicum" courses. We, as a profession, could take the lessons learned from coaching teams and apply them to curriculum development. Imagine what we might produce.

Quality competition programs have gone far beyond the false dichotomy of skills v. doctrine and embraced the reality of practice - both must be understood and mastered, in tandem, to successfully become a lawyer.

If you talk to any of the advocacy program directors, who, year in and year out, are recognized for their excellence you will quickly find that they spend more time teaching substantive law than they ever do teaching the skill of presentation. In fact, the manner of presentation is driven, in whole or in part, by the understanding of what the substantive and procedural law will allow. So how might you increase the quality of your programs? The answer lies in teamwork.

Identify subject matter experts on your faculty. Team them up with persuasion experts (usually trial lawyers or appellate lawyers who are in the fray) and provide a structure for them to work together to teach their young lawyers how to try the case, make the argument, negotiate the deal. The secret sauce is in the proportional mixing of the substantive law, procedural rules, and persuasion techniques. When done right you see phenomenal growth on the part of the student, a great deal of personal satisfaction on the part of the subject matter expert who helped, and a better result at the competition. You also create a friend of your program when you need one.

There is, of course, nothing particularly exciting or novel about this approach. You can find it on any good sports team. You have coaches by position, with specific expertise based upon study and experience. The same thing occurs in the arts. Truthfully it is what makes us human - the desire to learn and to teach.

I would love to hear your ideas about how we might tap into that very human need to share as we work to create the best 21st century lawyers, and law school, possible.

All the best,


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