Getting Them at Hello: Creative Teaching Techniques and Exercises to Engage New Law Students

By: Professor Lynn Su and Professor Anne Goldstein

The first few weeks of law school can be both thrilling and terrifying—an avalanche of reading, Latin lawyer lingo, and exacting methodology for thinking and writing about the law. This world of intellectual challenges takes place in an unfamiliar setting. Not only are students meeting new people and getting accustomed to a rigorous academic schedule, but many have also left behind the comforts of home, relocating to a new city, state, or even country to embark on the study of law. Forging into the unknown is fraught with great possibility and a bit of trepidation.

Because they are on the frontline of teaching first-year law students fundamental lawyering skills, Legal Writing professors can work to capture students’ imaginations and demystify the law school experience.  Legal Writing is likely to be the course with the lowest professor to student ratio in the first year of law school and typically continues for two semesters. Teaching small groups of first-year students for a full year, Legal Writing professors are uniquely well positioned to ease students’ transition.

Implementing creative teaching techniques and exercises early in law school is an effective way to introduce students to essential lawyering skills and to help them bond with each other. Interactive exercises, such as icebreakers, interview simulations, case dramatizations, and cultural awareness and mindfulness activities, can achieve these dual purposes. Here are a few examples that are popular in the Legal Writing community:

Icebreakers

An exercise in which pairs of students interview each other to unearth an interesting or unusual fact and then introduce each other to the class is a popular icebreaker. The exercise gives students practice speaking in front of a group, introduces them to interviewing, and helps them get to know each other. It also gives the professor insight into who the students are and what is important to them. The professor may make reference to the interesting and unusual facts throughout the year to enliven the class dynamic and connect students’ personal stories to relevant course topics.

Another introductory exercise is to divide students into small “law firms” and ask them to prepare a presentation to the class in which they pitch their strengths, experiences, and skills to a “client.” Students then vote for the firm they would hire. During this exercise, ideally on the first day of class, students connect to each other in small groups, identify what they already bring to the table, and get an opportunity to make and evaluate an oral presentation.

 Interview Simulations

At the beginning of law school, many Legal Writing professors assign students to read cases in preparation for writing their first legal memo for a hypothetical client. An in-class interview simulation in which students learn the facts from the client, played by an actor, upper-class student, teaching assistant, or colleague, is a great alternative to providing students with a written summary of the facts for the Legal Writing memo assignment.

To prepare for the in-class interview, students must critically read the case law to identify the issues, law, and the kinds of facts that are outcome-determinative. They must also formulate questions calculated to elicit the background and legally relevant facts from the client. While not required, a short introduction to some basic interviewing techniques, such as the use of open and closed questions, can strengthen the effectiveness of this exercise.

The entire class, acting as associate attorneys, may participate in the in-class interview or two students may take the lead. The interview simulation introduces students to fact gathering and legal analysis in a practice-oriented context and also acquaints them with the skill of client interviewing. And because it is interactive, the interview simulation gives students a platform to practice speaking and active listening.

Case Dramatizations

The Legal Writing classroom can be the stage for the dramatization of a case decision. Students play the roles of various parties in a selected case; this requires them to read critically the facts of the case and to understand each party’s position. Students observing the dramatization assess whether it was an accurate portrayal of what occurred in the case. This exercise is a dynamic way to underscore the importance of critical reading.

 Cultural Awareness and Mindfulness Activities

Mindfulness activities, such as breathing exercises, yoga, and self-reflection, may help ease the stress associated with being a new law student and may be incorporated into the Legal Writing curriculum beginning in the first week.  Cultural awareness activities, drawing on the work of Professors Susan Bryant and Jean Koh Peters in the Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering, in RACE, CULTURE, PSYCHOLOGY & LAW (Kimberly Holt Barrett & William H. George eds., 2005), can be used to introduce students to differences in cross-cultural communication and to the concept of implicit bias. For example, students may reflect on “parallel universes,” a time when they, a friend, or a family member was misunderstood because of a group affiliation or a trait. By sharing parallel universe experiences in class, students begin to appreciate the practice of non-judgment in client communications.

 Conclusion

Working through interactive in-class exercises, students practice fundamental lawyering skills and also learn about each other and their professor in a fun, lighthearted setting. This builds rapport and trust in the classroom, helps put students at ease, and creates a sense of community. In the early weeks of law school, creative teaching techniques and exercises like those mentioned above may be the secret to getting them at hello.

Share our content!