Teaching Materials for Practicum Courses
posted by Jessica Erickson
You would have to live under a rock not to know that law schools increasingly feel the pressure to teach practical skills. Law schools can no longer teach doctrine and count on law firms to teach new lawyers the skills they need. As a result, many schools are starting to incorporate practicum-style courses into the curriculum. These courses allow students to learn litigation or transactional skills in the classroom by working on simulated cases or transactions.
My sense is that many of us are interested in teaching these courses, but the practicalities are daunting. Two years ago, I set out to create a course that would teach students how to be corporate litigators. I had visions of teaching my students an array of practical skills, including how to untangle financial statements, read complex statutes, and draft various case materials. It looked so good in my head. Then I actually tried to put together the course. There was no textbook. There were no model exercises. There was no anything… I spent a crazy amount of time putting together a course packet, coming up with weekly drafting assignments, and thinking about how to teach the skills I thought my students would need. I hesitate to say exactly how much time out of fear of scaring away others, but I still have flashbacks of sitting at my kitchen table for days on end trying to come up with creative fact patterns and drafting exercises.
At the end of the day, I was able to put together the materials for a course called Corporate Fraud & Litigation. I have taught the course twice now, and I really love it. But the preparation continues. I still develop new graded exercises every year out of fear that last year’s students will pass on their answers to this year’s students. The end result is that I spend significantly more time preparing for this course than for my other two courses combined. I am currently contemplating a complete overhaul of my course, but I have to admit that the massive work involved gives me pause.
I wonder whether the reality of having to prepare these materials—and then prepare many of the exercises anew every year—is holding back the development of these courses. At some level, of course, this preparation is part of our job, and given how great the job is, we have no basis to complain. As someone who is obsessed with curricular issues, however, I have to think it is tough to roll out a new curricular model when preparing a class under the new model takes far longer than preparing to teach a traditional doctrinal course. If I went purely by my own self-interest, there is little doubt that I would opt to teach another doctrinal course rather than a practicum course. In fact, I might even opt to teach two doctrinal courses rather than a single practicum course!
The lack of materials for practicum courses also impacts what courses adjuncts teach. Many adjuncts are really well-suited to teach hands-on courses where students work through simulated cases or transactions. Adjuncts could also teach ethics courses grounded in specific doctrinal areas (corporate law ethics, family law ethics, etc.) that are taught using a problem-based approach. But it is hard to recruit good lawyers to teach these courses when they would have to spend significant amounts of time creating the materials and exercises from scratch.
As a corporate law professor, I am struck by the untapped market out there. In almost every curricular area, professors who want to teach practical skills have to reinvent the wheel. Many textbooks include some practice questions and exercises, but few books are based entirely around the practicum model. There are a few exceptions, including the new Business Planning book by Therese Maynard and Dana Warren and the Environmental Law Practice book by Jerry Anderson and Dennis Hirsch, but these books are few and far between. I would love to see the major casebook publishers devote more attention to this market niche. Ideally, I would even love to see the author/publisher offer new graded exercises every year, perhaps through a password-protected website. No matter how they are put together, however, it seems that there should be a market for practicum-style materials in a wide variety of curricular areas.
In the absence of a market solution, I am going black market. If anyone is interested in my course materials, just let me know. I am happy to share them. If you have developed materials for a similar course in another area and you are willing to share them, let me know. I am happy to serve as a clearinghouse for professors who want to chart a new path in other curricular areas.