It’s that time of year when elementary and secondary students’ standardized test scores arrive in the mail. The scores should, ideally, correlate to the school’s stated learning outcomes. Elementary and secondary schools are veterans of the push for learning outcomes, and law schools are now required to determine their learning outcomes as well.
Specifically, the ABA requires law schools to develop and publish learning outcomes in a number of areas including written and oral communication:
A law school shall establish learning outcomes that shall, at a minimum, include competency in the following:
(a) Knowledge and understanding of substantive and procedural law;
(b) Legal analysis and reasoning, legal research, problem-solving, and written and oral communication in the legal context;
(c) Exercise of proper professional and ethical responsibilities to clients and the legal system; and
(d) Other professional skills needed for competent and ethical participation as a member of the legal profession.
Interpretation 302-1 For the purposes of Standard 302(d), other professional skills are determined by the law school and may include skills such as interviewing, counseling, negotiation, fact development and analysis, trial practice, document drafting, conflict resolution, organization and management of legal work, collaboration, cultural competency, and self-evaluation.
Interpretation 302-2 A law school may also identify any additional learning outcomes pertinent to its program of legal education.
Thus, outcomes related to “written and oral communication” are mandatory. The law school must also set outcomes for “other professional skills needed for competent and ethical participation as a member of the legal profession.” But determining those other necessary skills stands within the law school’s discretion.
Posted learning outcomes on law school websites show a wide variation, reflecting different preferences in how general or specific outcomes should be. On the streamlined end, the University of Chicago Law School’s Learning Outcomes would fit on half a sheet of paper:
The Law School’s program of instruction is designed to train superb lawyers who will be leaders in all parts of the profession. To that end, the Law School expects that all students by the time of graduation, will:
- Be familiar with the general approaches to the study of law and legal reasoning;
- Demonstrate the ability to identify and understand key concepts in substantive law, legal theory, and procedure;
- Have the ability to write a competent legal analysis;
- Demonstrate the ability to conduct legal research;
- Demonstrate communication skills, including oral advocacy;
- Demonstrate familiarity with the rules of professional ethics;
- Demonstrate professionalism consistent with the legal profession’s values and standards.
Does U. Chicago expect students to be able to listen effectively in a legal context? Item 7 lists oral advocacy—and only oral advocacy—as a specific example of expected communication skills. But standard statutory construction tells us that “including x” does not mean “meaning only x.” Other skills such as listening aren’t excluded, but also aren’t mentioned. U. Chicago’s learning outcomes suggest that oral advocacy holds a special although not exclusive place of honor among communication skills.
On the more specific end of the spectrum, Washburn Law School’s JD outcomes have categories with related goals. The communication category includes not just reading, writing, and speaking, but also listening:
3. Graduates will communicate effectively.
3.1 Students will write in a clear, concise, well-organized, professional manner that is appropriate to the audience and the circumstances.
3.2 Students will speak in a clear, concise, well-organized, professional manner that is appropriate to the audience and the circumstances.
3.3 Students will demonstrate active listening in communications with others, including legal professionals and laypersons.
Washburn Law also mentions fact investigation and interviewing as core legal practice skills:
4. Graduates will demonstrate competency in legal practice skills.
4.1. Students will demonstrate the ability to conduct legal research.
4.2. Students will demonstrate the ability to conduct a factual investigation.
4.3. Students will demonstrate the ability to interview and counsel a client.
4.4. Students will demonstrate the ability to negotiate and advocate on behalf of a client in appropriate circumstances.
4.5. Students will demonstrate the ability to draft documents used in legal practice.
Even more specifically, NYU Law School has published a detailed scheme of goals for its curriculum, including eight separate goals for its 1L lawyering class alone. Among those goals is interviewing, with several specific references to listening:
Effective interviewing of a client or fact witness or other individual requires familiarity with the following skills, concepts and processes:
(a) Communication skills and processes:
(i) Listening, and impediments to listening;
(A) Choices and effects of question formulation (open and closed questions, leading and non-leading questions, consecutive and non-consecutive questions, etc.);
(B) Choices and effects of question sequence;
(C) Effects of formulation, sequence, and the context of the interview on shaping (consciously or inadvertently) the narrative and the opportunity for the client or witness to tell her or his own story.
(D) “Active listening” and similar techniques;
(E) Precision in questioning and answering:
(I) awareness of imprecision, ambiguity, omission, in one’s own communications and others’;
(II) techniques for systematic control of levels of precision;
(iii) Analysis of the possible dimensions of description and inquiry;
(iv) The psychology of perception, memory, conceptualization, and articulation;
(v) Analysis of the factors that may affect interpersonal dynamics, including those that may arise in cross-cultural and multilingual communications;
(vi) Non-verbal communications.
The ABA requires law schools to post these learning outcomes. But in terms of reporting student progress on the outcomes, a detailed quantitative individual report like what elementary and secondary students receive for standardized tests seems unlikely to be required or volunteered by law schools.
The closest I’ve heard to such an option is more student-driven: individualized skills trackers for student use, in particular Nebraska Law’s Build Your Character app. The app is based on the Shultz and Zedeck factors for successful lawyering in eight categories: intellectual and cognitive; research and information gathering; communications; planning and organizing; client and business relations; working with others; and identity. Among other features, it helps students choose classes that match up to skills they want to develop and build an online portfolio for employers.
I’m genuinely curious about additional ways law schools are reporting to students (or the ABA) the students’ individual or collective progress on stated learning outcomes. Please share in the comments or on social media.