Cheating or collaborating?

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All I can say is, I’d love to see the law school that tries to flunk a student for setting up a Facebook study group, as Ryerson University in Toronto did this week. Maybe this is a generational thing — I’m officially an X’er, though my leanings are more millennial — but I can’t see how an online discussion group does anything but facilitate learning, not circumvent it. And more to the point, how it’s any different from students gathering in an empty room on campus to do exactly the same thing. I expect Ryerson will change course within a matter of days.

What strikes me, though, is that the way in which we expect students to accomplish tasks in school is very different from how we actually accomplish tasks in our workplaces. If you’re working on a factum or a memo and you’re not sure about something you’re writing, do you head down to the library for an afternoon of thrashing through the authoritative source materials till you’ve learned what you need, “showing your work” as you go? No. You walk down the hall and ask a colleague who’s more familiar with the subject to explain it to you. It’s faster, easier, cheaper for the client, and almost certainly more effective in understanding the concept.

Teamwork is how things get done now, without exception, in the professional world. Law firms boast about “open-door policies” whereby lawyers exchange ideas with each other, and they make great efforts to pool collective knowledge into KM systems. New recruits are quizzed on their ability to work well in groups and contribute towards successful team dynamics. Corporate deals and major litigation require concerted, collective efforts to achieve goals. Online listservs like Solosez are a lifeline for sole practitioners. Corporate law departments want closer working relationships with their outside counsel. In short, no one succeeds in the legal environment by shunning collaborative efforts.

Yet law schools still devote the majority of their time to testing what an individual student can do on her own, not what she can accomplish in a group setting. Unlike MBA programs, where students work on cases in group after group, many law students can graduate without ever having contributed to a team project, learning how to integrate their expertise into a diverse set of personalities and workflow preferences. If there’s any truth to the old charge that law schools “don’t prepare students for law practice,” it’s not in failing to teach professional skills per se, but in failing to train students to learn from each other, to treat knowledge as a gift to be shared, and to give the best of themselves towards the success of the team.

Any law school that wants to earn a real competitive advantage, in terms of producing graduates ready to professionally collaborate, should think seriously about revamping its curriculum to encourage the academic equivalent of Facebook groups: live, in-person, problem-solving working groups, with rotating memberships to ensure you’re not just working with people you like. Increasingly, lawyers will succeed or fail on their teamwork skills; law schools have an obligation to reflect that.

Update: With a hat tip to the Law School Innovation blog, here’s a school that gets it: Washington and Lee University Law School in Virginia is completely overhauling its third year:

• The new third year curriculum will be entirely experiential, comprised of law practice simulations, real-client experiences, the development of professionalism, and development of law practice skills.

• All students will participate in a year-long professionalism program that will include the participation of practicing lawyers and judges and assist students in the development of professionalism in all its aspects, including legal ethics, civility in practice, civic engagement and leadership, and pro bono service.

• The core intellectual experiences in the third year will be presented entirely through a mix of practicum courses that simulate legal practice environments, legal clinics, and internships.

• The demanding intellectual content of the third year will instead be presented in realistic settings that simulate actual client experiences, requiring students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors—the full complement of professional activity that engages practicing lawyers

There’s much, much more, and it’s exhilarating. Read the summary of the new program for more, as well as my earlier thoughts on the third year of law school.

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One Response to “Cheating or collaborating?”

  1. michael webster

    Jordan writes: “You walk down the hall and ask a colleague who’s more familiar with the subject to explain it to you. It’s faster, easier, cheaper for the client, and almost certainly more effective in understanding the concept.”

    Uh, you have to do both. Talk with your colleague and understand the concept. Unfortunately, you can only bill for the former .2 conversation.

    Makes a lot of sense to learn the concept before in law school.

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