Bringing Reality Back Into the Classroom

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By Sandra Simpson from Gonzaga University School of Law

Bringing real life cases to our classrooms for students to work on breathes life into any class. Every spring, I teach Legal Research and Writing IV, a two credit course dedicated solely to contract drafting, and every spring, I struggle to come up with good problem sets to use which are not too involved or too in-depth, research-wise. I also struggle to find a problem set which interests the students and won’t bore me when grading time rolls around. This year the answer came to me through some community service work I do. A local non-profit was looking to start holding fundraising raffles at some of their events, but needed to make some changes to their by-laws and needed to have a written policy on conducting these raffles. After consulting with our law school’s clinic and the director of the legal writing department, I contacted the client and set up an initial meeting between my students and the client. Using my law license and the clinic’s malpractice insurance, my class contracted with the local non-profit to do the work at no charge.

The difference I am viewing in my students’ attitudes, their work ethic, their enthusiasm, and their work product is astounding. My students always work hard, but now that they are working for a real client, the earnestness is clear. Daily, my students are prepared, motivated, curious, and serious. When they work in groups, every group is focused. When they turn in drafts, the drafts look like final papers. And when they meet with the clients, they are very poised, professional, and prepared. No matter how hard I have tried to sell my fake “client” situations in the past, it has never motivated the students like this real client situation. Not only has it pushed my students, but it has pushed me to be a better and more prepared professor. The message has been received by the students; it is never OK to be unprepared. The results of this experiment are still in process, but the early results are favorable. I am just finishing up their client letters which lay out the legal options for the client. These letters are outstanding, very professional and complete.

The experiment, however, has come with its drawbacks. First, we have had to change the project several times to please the client, which is normal in practice but not normal for students, who still thrive on predictability. Second, I have had to turn around documents really quickly to stay on schedule for the client. Lastly, as there is a real client, I could not limit the research or problem. My students had to look at every statute, every regulation, and every case to make sure the advice was sound. This created more work for them and for me than I would normally assign in a two credit class.

The positives of this experiment, however, outweigh the negatives. The students are excited every day and for every class. The students have not complained about the changes in schedule or the amount of work, as they see it as what the client needs rather than what I am “forcing” them to do. The students have learned how to draft a client letter, starting an attorney-client relationship, limit their responsibilities with a client, change by-laws, draft a policy, and think of long term ramifications of their actions.

I have so enjoyed this experience, I am currently trying to incorporate real life into the rest of my classes. For instance, I am in the process of contacting area attorneys to see if there is an area that needs to be researched so that I can pose that problem to my first year objective writing students. The lesson here is the more real life we can bring to the classroom, the more learning that is taking place between students and professors.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning