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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Sponsored Post: Teaching PR through simulations

The following post is by Alex Long, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Doug Blaze Distinguished Professor of Law at The University of Tennessee College of Law, and is sponsored by West Academic.

When I first started teaching Professional Responsibility many years ago, I had a student make the following suggestion to me after class one day: if a student can pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) without first having taken Professional Responsibility, the student shouldn’t have to take Professional Responsibility in law school. The student suggested that I raise that idea with our dean. At the time I didn’t have tenure, so I forced a polite smile and counted to three and told the student I’d look into it.

I’ve reflected on that event numerous times throughout the years and pondered why this student thought his logic should apply to the MPRE but not necessarily the entire bar exam. Why does anyone need to take any law school course if one can pass a test on the subject matter before taking the course? I think the most obvious reason why the student thought this way about PR is that the student viewed the MPRE merely as a hoop one must jump through that can be navigated simply by choosing “the most ethical” answer choice or excluding answer choices that “don’t pass the smell test.” In contrast, most people realize they can’t pass a multiple-choice test on Civil Procedure without first having taken Civil Procedure. For whatever reason, many students approach PR as a course involving theoretical, but impractical, discussions of intuitive principles (but not real “rules”).

I spend much of my time in PR trying to disabuse students of the notions that “do the right thing” is a reliable maxim for dealing with issues of professional responsibility and that the issues we cover aren’t likely to matter in practice. Over the years, I’ve found that one of the best ways of doing that is to have them work through simulation exercises that force them to approach ethical issues the way a lawyer would and that involve ethical issues with not-so-intuitive controlling rules. To that end, my colleague Paula Schaefer and I started developing some of these simulation exercises and incorporating them into our PR classes. (West Academic Publishing recently published them as part of their Developing Professional Skills series.)

For example, we have an exercise in which students are asked, first, to evaluate whether their firm has a conflict of interest involving a lucrative and longstanding client and, second, to break the bad news to the client by writing a letter if the answer is yes. The “do the right thing” maxim would prove essentially worthless in determining whether a conflict exists, and human nature is to resist any conclusion that might end up costing one’s employer money. One of Paula’s exercises requires students to “bill” the time they spend preparing for classes over a three-day period, thus illustrating how the task of billing time to a client is more complicated than it sounds, how easy it is for clients to get overbilled, and how even a lawyer who wants “to do the right thing” by a client may end up not doing so. I know other folks in the field sometimes use similar exercises.

All of these exercises are just part of the ongoing attempt to help students appreciate the real-world application of the rules they read about in their casebooks. But for whatever reason, PR seems to have lagged behind this trend. That’s unfortunate, because there are actually some issues in PR that are not only highly relevant to real
practice but are actually kind of interesting. I’ve incorporated these sorts of exercises into my Torts class for a few years now. But keeping students’ attention and making them appreciate the value of the material is not the challenge in Torts that it is with PR. I’m sure there are plenty of other courses for which the same could be said. For those who teach courses like PR where student resistance and skepticism are obstacles to overcome, I thoroughly recommend using these kinds of exercises to help students appreciate the hidden beauty of the subject matter.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 21, 2017 at 05:09 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink

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