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More Than Thinking Like a Lawyer

April 15, 2023

My epiphany began when I, as a parent, sat in a classroom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), listening to a professor share the MIT teaching philosophy during Campus Preview Weekend for admitted students. He mentioned that while students are taught course fundamentals, the emphasis by faculty is on teaching students a methodology which, added to their subject matter knowledge, would equip the students to be problem solvers. He gave several examples of MIT graduates as global problem solvers operating in geographic areas with limited resources. This methodology gave them the framework through which they could confidently explore options, be imaginative and resourceful, to come up with workable and sustainable solutions. Macgyver came to my mind when the professor rattled off the examples and talked about solving many of humanity’s intractable problems as being at the core of what MIT graduates were expected to do.

After the first semester, I asked my son if the courses he took were difficult. He responded not overly so, but the problems sets, of which there were many, were challenging. The problem sets were not simply testing whether students grasped the fundamentals of what was taught that week. From my son’s perspective, the problem sets required the students to draw upon their subject matter knowledge while making a quantum leap to the solution. Learning to navigate this chasmic space was key to developing the mindset necessary for engaging the methodology of problem solving. Evidence of this mindset seems ubiquitous on the MIT campus and are apparent in the many amazing, and several funny, hacks that are chronicled every year.

But, back to my epiphany. How well does the legal academy prepare law graduates for the actual practice of law? Law schools are known to teach students to “think like lawyers.” Thinking like a lawyer refers to the way in which lawyers approach legal problems and analyze legal issues. Emphasizing legal reasoning and analytical skills, thinking like a lawyer requires careful attention to detail, critical thinking, and the ability to communicate complex legal concepts effectively. This sounds all well and good but, is it enough?

It is not enough to learn how to think like a lawyer. Students must learn how to be a lawyer. This necessarily requires professors to provide students with frequent opportunities to apply the skills they are learning in real world scenarios. While law schools are increasing the number of assessments students have in all their courses, there still is the divide between skill courses and doctrinal courses. Skill courses, like the writing and clinical courses, focus on developing skill proficiency. In contrast, doctrinal courses focus on students’ knowledge of subject matter law, with little attention given to the teaching and assessing of skills used by lawyers practicing in those subject areas. This artificial divide causes students to compartmentalize what they learn, making their transition to practice more difficult because practicing law requires that they use skills specifically tailored to areas of practice. The transition to practice is further hindered by students not learning the business of the practice. Whether starting out as a solo or working in a large firm, understanding firm culture, revenue generation and the bottom line are required for success.

My epiphany while sitting in that classroom was that law schools must go beyond teaching students how to think like a lawyer. Lawyers in practice are legal problem solvers. As such, this must be the focus—not just to learn the law and even apply the law, but to learn how to be legal problem solvers. Law schools must develop a methodology to instill in their students the mindset of problem solving as the overlay to thinking like a lawyer. The development of intentional, structured, and frequent subject matter skills assessments in all doctrinal courses would go a long way in preparing the law graduate for legal practice.

Sign up to be notified of future blog posts for further discussion on my epiphany as well as the skills needed for successful law practice. And, tongue-in-cheek, if my thoughts become muddled while writing the future posts, I may go back to MIT and see if the “Epiphany Toilet” is still available.


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