By Tonya Kowalski from Washburn University School of Law
As legal educators working to prepare our students for practice, one of the biggest hurdles we face is that until students are immersed in a real practice environment, they usually lack the context to deeply understand practical applications for their learning. They also struggle to understand the procedural nuances of their assigned case readings. One easy way to provide some context is to incorporate real court filings from Westlaw and Lexis into our coursework as examples, supplemental readings, and even discussion problems. Doing so not only motivates students by giving them a taste of the “real world,” but also gradually exposes them to more kinds of legal writing, as well as illustrating a range of procedural stages in litigation.
As we speak, my first-semester legal analysis students are still working to digest the concept that parties typically sue each other under several causes of action based on the same set of facts. Of course, the concept becomes crucial when reading unedited judicial opinions that analyze a number of claims, sometimes without clear delineations. For example, my class is presently writing an office memorandum based on an action to enforce a covenant not to compete. At least one of their assigned cases addresses not only that claim, but also a separate action under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Students feel frustrated that they cannot use tests and terms from one claim to analyze the other, and they continue to incorporate them into successive rough drafts.
At last, I realized that an abstract, academic discussion of this concept just was not an effective way to make the point. With just one terms and connectors search in a litigation filings database, I quickly found a beautifully-constructed complaint from federal district court containing seven claims, including the two that are confusing my class. I added some margin notes and posted the complaint to TWEN as a supplemental reading. We looked at it for just a few minutes during the next class. I am curious to see how this affects the drafts I collect in class next week, but I have already had a handful of students tell me that seeing the claims vividly separated and enumerated in the complaint, each with a different set of elements and different prayed-for relief, led to an “a-ha” moment.
Finally, I also suspect that our students are probably much more motivated to learn by seeing their course material applied in an authentic practice setting than by working strictly with a simulated case file or discussion problem. It seems difficult for students to put themselves in the shoes of the writer when that writer is a professor or appellate judge, but much easier when the writer is a “regular” lawyer, working out there in the trenches. Fortunately, now that we have authentic work product from all phases of litigation and transactional practice at our fingertips, we have yet another arrow in our quivers when it comes to bringing practice to the classroom.