Innovating the 2L and 3L years

How is listening taught in law school—if it is taught at all? Some wonderful work is being done, especially in the clinics. But even the strongest and most effective approach to listening typically found in legal education today seems to be based in individual courses. It seems possible that a given law student could graduate from a typical U.S. law school without working on listening skills at all.

That’s not the case in an innovative program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law that re-envisions the 2L and 3L years. A new report by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, describes the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program. Twenty-four students are selected at the end of their first year of law school to participate over the next two years. These students attend a careful sequence of subject-matter and skills classes. They receive frequent feedback (formative assessment) and must assess their own progress through a variety of reflection assignments. Upon successful completion of the program, students are admitted to the New Hampshire Bar without taking the regular bar exam, a fact touted in the New York Times’ recent article on bar-exam critics.

Listening plays an explicit role at the beginning, middle, and end of the Webster program.

The beginning: Getting admitted to the program

First, students are actually selected for the Webster program in part based on their communication skills. The report notes that during the program’s first year in 2005, student selection was based in large part on prior academic achievement. Now, selection is based on personal interviews with the selection committee and the committee’s assessment of a broader set of criteria. The criteria are grouped into four main categories: professional relationships, professional development, personal responsibility, and academic competence. A number of criteria in the professional relationships category relate to listening:

  • Have integrity and engage in honest discourse
  • Treat themselves and others with respect
  • Work well with others, acknowledging their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Show empathy and kindness to others
  • Listen attentively—know when to listen and when to contribute
  • Have humility—admit to mistakes and make apologies

And several criteria related to professional responsibility relate to listening as well:

  • Seek—and learn from—feedback
  • Are open to new ideas, seeing things from others’ perspectives, and sharing their views

The middle: Sequence of classes

Students in the Webster program proceed through a preset sequence of classes. Working with simulated clients appears to be required every semester. For example the first semester of the 2L year requires pretrial advocacy. The report provides benchmarks for that course. Some benchmarks address listening in the classroom: whether the student “actively and respectfully listens to peers and professor” and makes relevant comments that reflect, inter alia, insight about other students’ previous comments. Other benchmarks address performance on the skills such as taking a deposition (whether the student asks clear questions and uses effective body language and eye contact) and giving an oral argument (whether the student gives responsive answers to the judge’s questions and again uses effective body language and eye contact).

The end: Capstone class and standardized client interview

The Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Report is so enthusiastic about this program because graduating students in the program outperform new lawyers at least as measured on their client interviewing skills. The capstone class involves a “standardized client interview” in which students are assessed by the trained actor who plays the client. The assessment has two parts: (1) interpersonal and professional interaction such as whether the student listened to the client; and (2) skill at asking questions to glean specific facts necessary for the client representation. Appendix B to the Report contains the assessment form filled out by the trained actors/standardized client. It contains a number of questions regarding the lawyer’s demeanor and ability to gain trust and glean the correct information.

Question 2 on that assessment hits listening about as hard as you can hit it, with 1 representing “strongly disagree” and 5 representing “strongly agree”:

I felt the lawyer listened to me.

1            2           3           4           5

The students who completed this program, regardless of their LSAT scores and other entering credentials, outperformed lawyers with 1-2 years of experience who also completed a standardized client interview. They received higher scores (statistically significantly higher) on the criteria of their professional communication skills such as listening and building trust. They received significantly higher scores on their ability to glean the relevant information from the client.

The Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Report proclaims that these students are more ready to “hit the ground running” as a result of the program. The Report does, however, acknowledge obstacles to implementing such a program on a broader scale outside the context of the close-knit New Hampshire legal community. The Report suggests that the Webster program’s innovations could be unbundled and implemented in a more modular fashion, on a smaller scale. The key elements to preserve would be “the combination of formative and reflective assessment in a practice-based context and a focus on collaboration between the academy and the profession.”

A previous post about another initiative of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers can be found here.

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