Injecting Transactional Skills Into the First Year
American legal education is biased toward litigation. In response, and to give our students a taste of the kind of experiential education that Temple is known for, we launched a new first year course last fall: Introduction to Transactional Skills. Now that the dust as settled, and I’ve had a chance to push a few writing projects down the road, I thought I’d blog a bit about ITS, and our experience in bringing a skills course into the first semester of law school.
Some basics. We launched ITS as an intensive, two-week, “mini-course” smack in the middle of the fall semester. It was mandatory for all first-year students, and graded pass/fail (with students receiving transcript notations for extraordinary effort). ITS mixed lectures (delivered by course co-leader Ed Ellers), and simulations (largely designed by co-leader Eleanor Myers). Each simulation was devoted to a skill – interviewing a client, negotiating an agreement, drafting a contract – and taught in a small group of around 20 students. (Faculty members volunteered to lead these small groups, without receiving teaching credit. More evidence in support of this post.) We paired the students in each small section – they negotiated “against” another team of two from a different small section repeatedly during the simulation.
As the snapshot to the right illustrates, we used a custom-designed webpage to organize the course. Students got their assigments online, read background materials, and submitted their contracts using web forms, making quick feedback (typically, 8 hours to turnaround) possible.
We framed ITS around the legal foundations of a small business: a restaurant. Students represented either a chef or an entrepenuer. After interviewing their client (played by an upper-year student) students negotiated and then drafted a term sheet for the partnership, and then an employment contract. On the last day, lawyers from downtown Philadelphia judged the students in a surprise negotiation exercise. The video below provides a snapshot of the experience.
Overall, the course worked well at accomplishing its main goal: exposing students to transactional lawyering. It also (for many students) significantly increased their interest in taking additional transactional courses, built their confidence and skills, and gave them a concrete idea for professional development opportunities during their summers. The best reviewed day – by far – was the final day’s negotiation in front of lawyers. Given the added pressure of an outside presence, the students rose to the occasion and shined. Outside evaluation also helped to combat the fatigue that students felt from the compressed environment, and the demotivating effects of the pass/fail system.
What didn’t work well? The timing. It came too late in the semester (because of the ABA’s
re-education re-accreditation site team visit.) Second, we could have provided less time in lecture and more time in skills training (the ratio was about 30:70, but it could have been 20:80). There were some hiccups with the submission system. But the biggest problem from my perspective was scale. Because we decided to launch this for the entire first year class (220 day students, and we replicated the whole course this spring for our evening division), the project was unwieldy to organize, and it consumed a ton of time and law school resources. Scale also prevented us from providing individualized written comments on every submitted contract. But such problems are to be expected if you want to teach to the whole schoolhouse.
Notably, the course would have been plainly impossible to put together on the fly if Temple didn’t already have a well-established second and third year program of transactional education — the Integrated Transactional Program. ITP was a model for the skills exercises, provided us with the experience in drafting client scripts, and was our recruiting ground to land seasoned students to play the chefs and entrepreneurs.