Innovative Law in Practice Course Provides 1Ls With Early Exposure To Lawyering

Nearly a decade ago, the University of Minnesota Law School took a bold leap with the introduction of an innovative experiential learning course required for first-year J.D. students. Today, Law in Practice (LiP) remains the only course of its kind in the country, recognized widely for the career-advancing preparation it offers.

“The placement of the course in the first year and the way we deliver this vital learning still stand alone,” says clinical professor of law Laura Thomas, who co-designed and co-directs the course.

LiP combines classroom teaching with small group simulations led by practicing attorneys to help law students apply their emerging knowledge of legal doctrine to the actual practice of law. Students learn how to conduct client and witness interviews, counsel clients, and take depositions, as well as negotiate and solve disputes in simulated conferences before real judges. The Law School recruits individuals for simulations who are coached to accurately recreate the personality, history and situation of an actual client.

The course lays the foundation for what lawyers do on most days, says professor William McGeveran, associate dean for academic affairs. “We are conscious that we are training a new generation of practicing lawyers, not just people who know a lot about the law,” says McGeveran. “Interviewing techniques, fact development, client relationships, negotiation—these are so central to what it takes to be a lawyer. Our faculty agreed that we needed to build these foundational skills from the start of law school, not toward the end.”

Responsive and relevant
The legal profession has been criticized for not paying enough attention to the development of students as practitioners, says associate clinical professor Mitch Zamoff, co-director of LiP and a former litigation partner at Hogan Lovells. “This is a really special opportunity for first-year law students to experience doctrine and practice in parallel,” he says. “Law is a high-touch customer service profession that demands multi-dimensional skills. This course builds those skills as well as the confidence needed to hit the ground running as a practicing attorney.”

Timothy Joyce ’17, an associate with Stinson, agrees. “Law in Practice showed me the value of a formal preparation regimen for in-person negotiations. While it is always a nice surprise to encounter collaborative counsel across the table, the reality is that many lawyers still view negotiation as a zero-sum game. Coming prepared to focus on the truly important, and understanding where to strategically retreat, are skills I honed during Law in Practice.”

The placement of the course in the first year and the way we deliver this vital learning still  stand alone. —Professor Laura Thomas, co-designer and co-director of LiP

The opportunities LiP offers students to test litigation and negotiating skills cannot be underestimated, according to Katie Nixon, 2L, who won best overall performance and best legal writing in her LiP section last spring. As a second-year student, she appreciates how LiP prepared her to work with real clients in the Bankruptcy Clinic. “Law in Practice taught me how to figure out what questions to ask and how to effectively communicate the status of a case and drive it forward.”

Over the years, Thomas and her colleagues have refined the course to include frequent feedback, especially on writing. “I think the single most valuable aspect of Law in Practice is the immediate, real-time feedback,” Joyce says. “It amazes me to this day that first-year law students generally have to wait until after final exams are graded to gauge whether they are on track or not. But LiP gives feedback every class.”

Seiko Shastri, 2L, who also earned top honors in the spring 2019 LiP course and is now a student in the Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic, concurs. “You get immediate feedback throughout the course on how well you communicate. Lawyering is about helping people figure out problems, and a huge part of that is effective communication.”

The advantage of location
LiP requires the participation of dozens of practicing attorneys, judges, mediators, and individuals trained for simulations. “Our location in a metropolitan area with a thriving legal community is a huge benefit for Law in Practice,” McGeveran notes. “Every 1L student gets to know two practicing attorneys through LiP. That adds enormous value to a legal education.”

Joyce says LiP provided him with his first connection to the legal world outside of academia. “As a new-to-Minnesota law student, I had zero network in place when I started. I know a few classmates for whom their LiP connections resulted in job prospects and offers. The real-world impact of a course doesn’t get much more real than that.”

—By Kathy Graves, a Twin Cities-based writer