Imagining the 21st Century Law School

September 26, 2014 Gerry Spence

“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit.”    Martha Graham

“The academic lecture is ‘that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the professor’s notebooks are transferred by means of the fountain pen to the pages of the student’s notebook without passing through the mind of either.’” Hamilton Holt

Carnegie HallThe perfect school for litigation sits on the corner of 57th street and Seventh Avenue in mid-town Manhattan. It is called Carnegie Hall and unfortunately it is dedicated to music rather than law. Carnegie has just finished their new education wing, which has been built inside the halls old studio towers. Carnegie has  evolved from an entertainment venue into a university of music.

The Resnick Education Wing is a professional development center for music educators, teaching artists, and students to learn from professional musicians, as well as a home for public master classes and interactive concerts. The educational wing has two dozen rooms of varying sizes, providing a perfect setting in which to meet, learn, rehearse, explore, and share musical experiences.

Instead of practice rooms, our modern law schools are a collection of large lecture halls. We stuff students into classroom seats and require them to quietly absorb the accepted truth from the lectern. The case method of teaching was invented 125 years ago at Harvard, not just before the internet, but before the telephone–even before the original Carnegie Hall was built.

No one can learn to be a trial lawyer by listening to lectures or by responding to Socratic questions about eighteenth century opinions. Lectures are just information, passive and indiscriminate, each student receiving the identical lesson without regard to individual skill, intellect, or interest.

How would this work? After the first year of required courses, those students who want to be trial lawyers would be placed in a program designed to intensely train them to be trial lawyers. Not the usual clinical courses, or useless apprenticeships, but with rigorous courses, taught by experienced professionals, using mock trials and moot courts, to teach students how to litigate. They would attend a substantive lecture class immediately followed by hours of practicing those materials. They learn through repetition.  

Gerry Spence designed his Trial Lawyers College to work this way. Gerry used his own money to build courtrooms and performance spaces in barns scattered throughout his sprawling Wyoming ranch. Students lived on the ranch for a month while undergoing intense trial practice training. They worked 18 hours a day, not unlike a marine boot camp. When they left the ranch they were “practice ready.” Ready to walk into any courtroom, civil or criminal, and take on the case. Can any law school say the same?

So why is intensive practice so obvious to the other performing arts but not to us? Musicians, athletes, and chess players all practice, but we who practice law don’t practice. We suffer the disorder that business labels “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” Knowing “what” to do from a lecture is not enough. We face the challenge of turning knowledge into action. Action counts for more than elegant plans and concepts.

It is not what you intellectually know but whether you can use it that determines whether you can master the trial skills. Having specialized knowledge is not enough. In order to be great, you have to be able to put it to use. Law students can keep track of a lot of information in their brains but, getting up, on their feet, facing a court and jury, while shaking from anxiety and actually doing it, well, that is a different animal.

This is what the best trial attorneys do. They use their experience and knowledge, while on their feet presenting to the jury. They think quickly, recognize problems and select solutions. Not due to any magical skill, but from practice, from experience, from what worked before, just like a great quarterback who uses his vast knowledge of the play book and the opposing defenses, to call an audible that wins the game.

Medical students know this. In teaching hospitals, they say, “See one, do one, teach one.” Every student must watch, do, and then teach. It is a “teaching” hospital. It’s a learning environment where teaching new skills is essential.

Practice; See one do one; Repetition — Impractical, inefficient and worse, unprofitable.

There is an old show business story about the famous violinist, Jascha Heifitz. He is quickly walking down a New York street. A lost tourist asks Heifitz, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And Heifitz replies without breaking stride, “Practice, Practice, Practice.”  And not just in music, as Bruce Lee cautions: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

I thought of writing this while teaching my class. Imagine a law school where the seasoned trial lawyers, the experienced teachers and the novices would mix and learn. Now forget it. It will never happen.