Teaching Students to Work Effectively with Others

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By Sophie Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law

How ready are law students for the kinds of collaboration they will face when they practice law? The MacCrate Report, the 2008 study by Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck (Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions (2008) 36 Law & Social Inquiry 620 (2011) and recent interviews with practicing lawyers note the importance of collaboration. Whether working in large or small firms, non-profit organizations, businesses, or governmental entities, all attorneys spoke about the need for lawyers to listen effectively, be willing to admit ignorance, and work well with a wide range of people.

We can help our students develop interpersonal skills and prepare for their future careers by infusing our courses with collaborative experiences. We can also help them by explaining the importance of these skills to their future careers and giving them feedback on their interactions. In addition, we can build on the experiences many of our students are getting in college, where teamwork and collaboration are frequently emphasized. For example, one college career office tells students that a hot current interview question is “Tell us about a time when you were working on a team and you ran into a conflict.” The best response would discuss the situation, explain the conflict, and show how the job applicant helped resolve the conflict in a positive way. The answer should take no more than two minutes, with at least half the time devoted to discussing the resolution. The resolution should include concrete outcomes such as, “We went on to raise $6,000.” The interviewer should come away with the impression that the job applicant was an effective problem-solver, leader, and team player.

We can give our students practice collaborating in a variety of ways. A simple approach is using a one-minute “think-write-pair-share” where students think about a response to a question, make a few notes, and then share their response with one or two neighbors. All students get the chance to talk about their response and listen to a colleague. It’s not a great deal of interpersonal skill building, but it’s an improvement over none at all. A more elaborate strategy is to use team-based learning for one or more course modules, where students work in teams to solve problems and complete tests and projects. (More on team-based learning in law can be found athttp://lawteaching.org/teaching/teambasedlearning/). Between a one-minute pair exercise and team-based learning lie a number of collaborative exercises that, if well designed, can help our students develop effective interpersonal skills.

Every semester a number of students resist collaborative work, stating that they are in school to learn the law, “not some touchy-feely stuff,” like interpersonal skills. We can respond that we have a bigger responsibility, teaching them to be lawyers, which includes working well with others. Explaining the reasons for collaborative work doesn’t end all complaints, but it does let them know that we are trying to prepare them to succeed professionally.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning