The Legal Advocate

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Law School Series Part 4: Learning To Ride a Bicycle

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Mcgahey_RobertWhen I was teaching each of my kids to ride a bicycle, I had options.  I could lecture them on riding a bicycle. I could read them a book about riding a bicycle.  I could show them a video about riding a bicycle. I could even get on the bicycle myself and ride up and down the sidewalk in front of them to demonstrate how to ride a bicycle.  But until my kids put their butts on the seat and started pedaling, they were never going to learn to ride a bicycle.

This comparison comes to mind every time I read something about experiential learning and how it’s the new hot ticket in law schools. Experiential learning is now on the front burner of almost every law school’s plans.  After the Carnegie Commission report in 2007, the idea of increasing skills training for law students has gained momentum like a great big rock rolling down a very steep hill, with the goal of producing “practice-ready” lawyers being talked about by dean after dean, faculty after faculty.

I suspect that many residents of Nita City have listened to these discussions and thought: “And?” We might be forgiven for thinking that way, since NITA has always been about learning by doing, or, in the current vernacular, experiential learning. I’m not here to pat us on our collective backs.  Rather, I’d like to suggest that we, as folks already familiar with this learning style, can be of service to law schools, and by extension, to the generations of lawyers who will come after us.

Like many of you do at your local law school, I serve as an Adjunct Professor at The University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law (“SCOL”) where I teach Basic and Advanced Trial Practice and the Judicial Externship Seminar.  My Trial Practice classes are taught on a straight NITA model, using NITA case files: my students do an opening statement or a closing argument or examine a witness, I critique them, and when possible, they repeat the performance after my critique.  Their final exam is a trial in my courtroom, with another NITA-trained judge or lawyer presiding. I enjoy teaching these classes very much, and I hope my students benefit from them. At least four other NITA program teachers also teach courses at SCOL.

I’d like to urge those of you who are not already either full-time academics or adjuncts to examine your schedules and try to find time to help your local law school with some experiential learning.  The first place to look is, of course, the Trial Advocacy Program at your school. Even if you can’t teach a class yourself, the professor in charge of your school’s trial advocacy program may use adjuncts as a key component of his program, like Chris Behan does at Southern Illinois.  Maybe you could offer to teach a specific skill set, like motions practice, or depositions. Or perhaps there are so-called doctrinal cases you can help with, such as evidence, or civil or criminal procedure.  Those classes are easily adapted to include actual performance of courtroom skills. And if you can’t teach a class alone, how about teaming up with one or two other folks?

There also may be opportunities to actually work on the policy aspects of getting experiential learning up and running.  For example, Mark Caldwell and I are two of three non-faculty members of SCOL’s Modern Learning Committee, which is tasked with implementing The Carnegie Commission’s recommendations.  Mark and I have presented to the faculty, showing them things we do at NITA programs that are translatable to their classrooms.

I acknowledge that you may get resistance if you make these kinds of overtures.  But any law school that tries to give experiential learning short shrift is asking to be overrun by the schools that embrace it. Our offers to help should be sincere and guided by our love for the law and for the profession of lawyering. We care about this stuff, and that caring ought to be contagious. As NITA teachers, we each have a body of knowledge and information that we already know can pay dividends in the real world – and not just specific skills, but larger ideas on how to effectively communicate, persuade and learn. Many of us already participate in the academy, but more of us should.  To quote Winston Zeddemore: “We have the tools, and we have the talent.” We should make every effort to share both.

Let’s do what we can to get those students on the bike and pedaling.

This post was written by NITA guest-blogger Bob McGahey. 

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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