Student “Law Firms”

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March 2015

By Andrea J. Boyack

One of the gaps in traditional law school education is the dearth of opportunities for students to practice working in groups. Unlike business school and medical school, where group work forms a large part of graduate-level education, law school professors and students alike have long resisted significant and graded small group activities. But group work is invaluable and builds skills that will be critical to success in the workplace. According to Barbara Gross Davis, “[r]esearchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats.” (Barbara Gross Davis, 147 Tools for Teaching (1993)) The challenge, then, is to come up with an effective and fair design for group work in the law school context.

During the first week of school, I group my students into small “law firms,” and throughout the semester, these same firms are given time in (and sometimes outside of) class to work together and solve problems as would lawyer teams in practice. Some of the many challenges involved in creating effective student law firm work include (a) appropriately defining the group, (b) crafting multiple types of opportunities for group collaboration, (c) adequately assessing individuals’ performance in their small groups, and (d) providing helpful feedback to groups and individuals.

Defining the Group. In order to be effective tools for developing collaborative skills, student firms need to be the right size and need to function as a team. Ideally, the student law firms are more than a mere pair of students, but are still small enough so that every member must engage with the material and actively participate, minimizing the freeriding problem. I find that student firms work best when they consist of between 3 and 5 students. Sizing a group is only one important aspect of defining it. Students in law school often lack background or instruction in how to collaborate. The professor needs to provide direction with respect to collaboration techniques, as well as demystify the purpose of collaboration. Assessment and feedback processes should also be transparent so that students will focus on the exercise rather than obsess on how group work will impact their grade. Student law firms function better if their members have come together as a team, and this can start with something as simple as coming up with a firm name. The firm can also be assigned a task to do outside of class, perhaps over lunch or coffee. Later, building something humorous and fun into a group assignment can help the members identify themselves as collaborators rather than competitors.

Crafting Group-Work Opportunities. Student firms can and should engage in a wide variety of types of group work. For example, the firm could be given the task of drafting parts of a contract, with instructions to divide up the job among the members, and then work together to put the pieces into a coherent whole. A group could be asked to research several issues, once again allowing individual contributions to a collaborative work product. Having individual responsibilities within a group project helps build cohesiveness of the group and sets a model of individual participation rather than freeriding. Groups could also work together to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem or work together to spot multiple issues to a hypothetical fact scenario. Groups can work together to create arguments both for and against a given policy position. This sort of collaboration is good for perspective building and hones expressive skills in a way that is especially valuable for students who still struggle with public speaking fear when called on in class. Much of the reality of group work in practice involves being able to discuss ideas – learning both to speak and to listen well – in a small group. Groups can work as a team to negotiate an issue (with another group on the other side), and can similarly work as a team to present a legal argument for judicial determination. Groups can also function as a panel of judges in deciding how a question of law should be decided, justified, and articulated. Some group work can result in a written product, and some can culminate in oral presentations or role-plays. Each different sort of activity builds different but important lawyering skills. Research suggests that the benefits of group work are best achieved in working on more significant, longer tasks rather than merely on brief in-class tasks. Accordingly, a few student law firm activities throughout the semester should take an hour or more to complete.

Making Individual Assessments. It is important to student engagement that superlative group-work be rewarded, and it is vital for individuals to receive tailored coaching with respect to collaboration skills. Although group work product can be graded and marked up to provide valuable feedback and assessment, it is more challenging to individually assess how well a student performs in a group. These sorts of assessments necessarily rely to some extent on self-evaluation and peer evaluations, as well as spot observations by the professor. For example, students can give a student feedback with respect to their observations of the effectiveness of firm activities. In addition to self-critiques, my provided feedback solicitation form asks if anyone in their group or in another group with whom they interacted exhibited behavior that was especially helpful and impressive or, alternately, problematic. After exercises in which one group negotiates with another group, I solicit input with respect to how well the other group seemed to work together, who lead the discussion for that group, and whether anyone seemed unengaged. To encourage frank responses, I make it clear to all students that self and peer assessments will not directly impact their grade. I explain that student-provided feedback helps me know what challenges students are facing in the context of group work, and this will assist me in coaching them. In addition, during group work, I circulate as a “fly on the wall,” taking notes with respect to individual and group behavior, tactics, and effectiveness. This allows me to give immediate feedback at the end of the exercise. In addition to spot observations, I attempt to observe an entire session of group work at least once in the semester.

Providing Meaningful Feedback. Feedback for group work is tricky and needs to be provided at several levels. General observations and issues that appear repeatedly should be addressed to the class as a whole, and I try to provide this sort of general feedback orally at the end of each group-work session. Group-by-group feedback can be provided through comments on written work product and by professor emails to a student firm, highlighting for the group things that worked well and things that did not. It is more difficult, but perhaps most vital, to provide individual feedback as well. I often do this in private conversations or emails, wherein I try to strategize with students regarding improving their collaborative skills. These private conversations also alert me to student discomfort or struggles. Once alerted, I can try to address these issues.

Students become involved and engaged with group work in a completely different way than they do with traditional lecture or Socratic questioning. Group work allows students the opportunity to practice joint problem solving, to be collaborators, to become more adept at dividing up a task, and to function effectively within a group. It uses peer pressure to motivate students, and provides needed context for applications of legal doctrine to realistic scenarios. Student law firms can help develop distinct and important professional skills, skills that are often neglected in the law school experience, but are critical to law practice success.

Questions to Think About
in Crafting Student Law Firm Group Work

  • Does this particular assignment support and enhance class goals and course curriculum?
  • Have I made the goals for this exercise adequately clear? Are they achievable with the time and resources allocated?
  • Have I adequately defined and motivated the group to achieve the goals?
  • Have I provided opportunities for individual contribution to the collaborative effort? Do I need to be more involved to ensure this happens? How can I be certain it does?
  • What kind of leadership or coaching can I provide to enhance the effectiveness of the exercise?
  • How will this exercise be evaluated? How and when can the students receive feedback with respect to their efforts and work product?

Inspired and adapted from Jane Westberg and Hilliard Jason, Fostering Learning in Small Groups: A Practical Guide (1996).

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning