On July 23, 2019, I emailed the Associate Deans’ and Deans’ ABA listservs asking for information about innovative courses. I received 54 responses describing more than 60 courses. I felt so fortunate to get to learn about all the interesting and innovative classes law schools have created, and I hope this post, which will be the first in a series of posts describing what I learned, proves to be of value to you. (Note 1: I have decided to adjust my label from “unique courses” to “innovative courses” so I can duck the question of whether any particular course meets the high standard of distinctiveness suggested by the word “unique.”

I decided to organize the courses into four categories: Required Courses, Electives, Skills Courses and Clinics, and Law and Technology Courses, and I am planning six blog posts, including this one on Required Courses, two on Electives (for which I received the largest number of nominated courses), two on Skills Courses and Clinics (for which I received the second largest number of nominated courses), and one on Law and Technology Courses. (Note 2: I acknowledge that these categories are arbitrary and simplistic. Skills courses and clinics are always taught against doctrinal backgrounds, and required and elective doctrinal courses typically teach analytical skills, and, in some cases, drafting and other practice skills.) My goal is to complete this series of six posts over the next 12 weeks.

Each posting will describe the courses, identify the law school that offers the course, and, if I have the information, provide the name of a professor at the law school who teaches the course. I will include at least some commentary about most of the courses. The quoted language comes from the email I received from the law school or from the law school’s website.

In this posting, as my title for this posting promises, I am focusing on innovative required courses. The seven required courses in this category fit into three sub-categories: (1) law practice skills courses, (2) professionalism and professional identity, and (3) foundational knowledge. Six of the seven courses are first-year courses.

Law Practice Skills

Professor Laura Thomas at the University of Minnesota School of Law has co-led the law school’s first year Law in Practice course for years. The course

[S]eeks to transform law students’ emerging knowledge of legal doctrine and reasoning into an introductory understanding of the practice of law.   LiP combines classroom teaching with small group simulation experiences to provide the conceptual knowledge and professional skills needed to master the iterative process of discovering new facts, refining legal research objectives and managing the relationship with the client. Law School faculty members teach a weekly class exploring doctrinal and strategic issues in the simulated cases. Students perform simulations in ‘Practice Groups’ of eight students led by practicing attorneys. Groups of two students engage in client or witness interviews, client counseling, and negotiation and dispute resolution simulations. Each student individually takes a deposition.

Here is a link to additional information about the course, and here is a link to an article about the course from Minnesota’s alumni magazine.

While many law schools have second-year simulation courses that are similar in content, what distinguishes this course is the choice to move it forward to the first year, a choice that I would hope would increase the likelihood that students retain the excitement about becoming lawyers that led them to go to law school in the first place.

Professionalism and Professional Identity

Three of the seven nominated required courses fit into this category, and I believe 25-30 law schools, including my current law school and my prior law school, require similar courses, all in the first year. Particular kudos are due in this category for Mercer Law School, which was one of the first law schools, if not the first, to create such a course and St. Thomas University School of Law, which has taken a leadership role in this field.

The courses in this category about which I was emailed were:

Mercer’s first The Legal Profession course, created by Professor Patrick Longen. This three-credit hour course is described as

[A]n exploration of lawyer professionalism. Students learn about what ‘professionalism’ means for lawyers and why it matters. They see what pressures the practice of law places on professionalism in different settings. The students explore the many ways in which the legal profession seeks, imperfectly, to create and perpetuate the conditions that promote professionalism. This course also examines the extraordinary challenges and opportunities that come with a life in the law, and the students study ways in which professionalism contributes to the satisfaction that lawyers find in their calling. In addition, to class readings, discussions, guest speakers, and an exam, the students write two papers reflecting on their career goals. They also visit in small groups with experienced lawyers to discuss life in the legal profession, and they read a biography of a famous lawyer or judge and discuss it in a small group setting.

Here is a link describing the course’s evolution.

The University of North Dakota School of Law’s Professional Foundations course is a team taught, two-credit hour course that was created and coordinated by Professor Emeritus Patti Alleva (who retired this year) and the law school’s new Dean, Michael McGinniss. The class

[I]ntroduces students to concepts of professional role, identity, and practice for lawyers. A key objective of the course is to assist students in beginning to cultivate a reflective mindset about professional life in the law and to develop the habits needed to exercise sound professional judgment as lawyers. Students will develop the skill of practiced self-reflection in legal settings and, in exploring the kind of lawyers they want to become, deepen their ability to apply their professional values in the practice of law.

Texas A & M School of Law’s Professional Identity course. In Professional Identity students are asked to engage in reflection about themselves, their goals, and how to best go about achieving them. PI is a chance for students to focus on their own professional development.

Foundational Knowledge

Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law has created two business-focused, required courses aimed at providing students with foundational business knowledge. The first, a required first-year, one credit course, called Business & Financial Literacy Module, is taught as a one-week intersession in January of students’ first year. It was described to me in this way: The course

[I]ntroduces all 1L students to critical business and finance concepts and their application in practice. This required course begins with an overview of basic financial literacy concepts, including instruction on how to read a financial statement and how to value a business. The course moves beyond these basics to show how these concepts are used in a practical setting. Students work in small groups to solve an ongoing problem involving the valuation and sale of a business. Their work is overseen by practicing attorneys who help students put the concepts they have learned into practice as they work through this real-life legal scenario. The week culminates with teams of students negotiating a deal and creating a term sheet for their clients, all with the guidance and supervision of experienced practitioners.

The second course, The Business Aspects of Law Module, was designed as a follow-up to the 1L course. The course was described to me in this way:

This one-week course was designed in consultation with law firm and in-house leaders. Practitioners from various settings – from global firms to small boutiques, from giant corporations to family businesses, from non-profits to government – show the students how different legal organizations run their business. Putting this knowledge into practice, students are broken into small teams and tasked with a simulation that requires them to run the general counsel’s office at a multinational corporation.

Together, these courses address an issue that I have heard about from practitioners all over the country: most new lawyers do not understand essential business concepts that can be significant both to their own practices and to their work for clients.

University of North Texas College of Law has created a one credit hour, first-year course it calls Lawyering Fundamentals. The course is aimed at providing UNT students with somewhat of a hybrid of the Legal Process courses from prior eras of legal education and the professionalism and professional identity courses described above. The course, per the description I received,

[I]ntroduces students to the UNT Dallas College of Law and its curriculum, and introduces concepts and skills that will be important throughout the study of law, including introduction to law as a profession, introduction to the court systems in Dallas, anatomy of a trial and anatomy of a deal, methods of effective studying and learning in law school, and interactions and interviews with lawyers relating to legal education and the practice of law.

Final Thoughts

Innovative courses in the first year are rare. Constrained by bar exam pass rate concerns, marketing concerns that lead law schools not to require more credit hours than their peer law schools, and the pervasive influence of the Langdellian legal education curriculum and the law school quasi-Socratic teaching method, law schools have only tinkered around the edges of the required curriculum. As you will see in future posts, the same cannot be said for upper-level skills courses, electives, and law and technology courses.