What Should You Be Learning in Law School?

Michele PistonePlease welcome Professor Michele Pistone to the blog. Michele is a professor of Law and teaches the Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES) at Villanova School of Law. She’s also created LegalED, an online resource where students can learn the law via videos from leading law professors and lawyers. She’s here today to share some insights about law school and what her day looks like. Welcome, Michele!

I’m considering law school, but I keep hearing about how schools aren’t teaching students what they need to know to graduate and be successful. What should I look for in a law school, to ensure that’s not the case?

Wow, you’re asking just the right questions. In my view, this can be a great time to go to law school if you are a savvy consumer. Classes are smaller, schools are focusing more on assessment and learning outcomes, and as your question suggests, in reaction to critiques, some schools and professors are focusing more on ensuring that their students graduate with the competencies needed for effective lawyering.

There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a law school — location, cost, its reputation in the community, and whether it “feels” right to you — and these are all important factors to consider.

Whatever school your choose, for whatever combination of reasons, will be the right school for you if you take full advantage of it while you are there. I think it is up to individual law students to be proactive so that they can get the most out of their law school education.

It is important for students to empower themselves by understanding that they should be educated consumers, both in choosing a school and in their engagement with the opportunities at that school.

In terms of becoming an educated consumer, know the research. For example, two professors at the University of California Berkley found that there are at least 26 factors that lead to successful lawyering (Shultz & Zedeck, 2011). Some of the best advice that I can give is to review those competencies and be proactive throughout your legal education to gain experiences and mastery in as many of them as possible.

There are many things you can do during law school to expose yourself to and develop the skills listed in the research.

  • Clinics are one excellent way to get experience with many of the competencies through one course. It is designed to help you transition from a student to your new role as lawyer.
  • Externships can help you develop relevant competencies while also helping to build your professional network.
  • Also, get to know the professors who teach the topics most interesting to you and try to refine your research and writing skills by working for them as research assistants.

If you are interested in developing experience collaborating with others, pick some extracurricular activities with leadership roles that will allow you to improve upon and demonstrate your abilities. For specific skills like listening, speaking and problem solving, consider classes that allow you to practice in interactive situations like interviewing, counseling or negotiating. It is up to you to be an active learner who is creative with the resources available.

While there may be concerns that students are graduating without the necessary competencies to practice law, I believe much of what determines a student’s success depends largely on how they take advantage of the experiences available to them.

I’m in law school, and I’m really bored and frustrated. I’d like to encourage my professors to use resources like your videos to spice things up. How can I convince them this is a good idea, and what resources can I refer them to so they can get started?

Over the last few decades, learning sciences research has shown that students learn best when the process is active. Especially in the case of adult learners, it is most effective to give students autonomy over their learning to help them understand the relevance of the information and how it is applied in the practice of law.

If your professors are interested in how to make their classroom more engaging, the Institute of Law Teaching and Learning hosts annual conferences on topics relevant to teaching and learning, such as using technology in the classroom, assessment and enhancing student engagement. These types of conferences will provide instructors with actionable ideas to bring back to their classroom. The annual AALS Clinical Conference also has a lot of sessions that focus around active learning that could be relevant to clinician and non-clinical faculty member alike. In addition, the AALS Teaching methodology Section plans a program for the AALS Annual Meeting related to law teaching.

Though conferences are fantastic for networking and intellectual discussion, through LegalEDweb.com I am working to make information about law teaching and learning accessible to everyone. On LegalED we host a growing collection of short (10 minute or less) videos about law school teaching methodologies.

I was motivated to found LegalED as an alternative way to teach and bring more skills-based training into the academy. On our website we provide a growing collection of online video lectures from expert professors around the world on a wide variety of topics, as well as blog posts, webinars and other resources on teaching methodologies. One goal we are trying to accomplish with LegalED is to educate law professors on ways to incorporate more active learning into every course.

Another tool professors could take advantage of is attending or speaking at our annual conference on active learning in the law classroom, Igniting Law Teaching. Last year, we hosted our first annual Igniting Law Teaching Conference at American University. The entire conference is focused on innovations in law teaching and brought together almost 40 professors from around the country. The beauty of the conference is that it is organized in a TEDx style so that all of the talks are videotaped and available online. This is a quick and easy way for professors to learn from their peers about new instruction ideas.

The 2015 Igniting Law Teaching Conference was at American University on March 20, 2015. The conference was live streamed and is available afterwards online. A great first suggestion to your professor to get the conversation started would be to recommend they watch the recordings from 2014 and 2015.

LegalED also has a growing collection of videos on substantive areas of law — like contracts, evidence and immigration law. I made videos about persuasion for lawyers — they are relevant to every law student. Check out these videos, they could be helpful in your studies!

It is a great idea to get your professors engaged in the law education reform movement. Please get in touch if there is anything we add to the LegalED website to help you start this conversation with your professors.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

My first job out of law school was as a corporate associate in a big Wall Street law firm in New York City. I loved that job, yet it is entirely different from what I do now. One thing I do recall from those early days is that I found the practice of law to be very different from what I had learned in law school and the transition from student to lawyer was very challenging.

Today, there are more resources and opportunities available for students to practice law while they are in law school. These all make the transition from student to lawyer easier. I encourage students to take a clinic, work in the field, lead student groups, join and attend local bar association meetings, participate in externships and represent clients before going into practice. All of these experiences will help you make more informed career decisions and ease the transition from student to lawyer.

At this point in my career, my time is shared between the roles of professor, clinic director, lawyer, entrepreneur, mother and wife. In law school I never dreamed of becoming a professor, but the value of my position is that I am able to marry the practice of law in the clinic with education.

I find that blend a powerful and effective way of teaching because students are much more motivated to learn in unique ways when they are working on behalf of a client, as opposed to studying for an exam.

There is a lot of experimentation happening right now in education with flipped learning, a focus on more experiential learning and new ways of using technology in the classroom. As an entrepreneur, I was inspired by the energy in the field going towards thinking about new ways to teach and learn. In creating LegalED, I wanted to encourage and showcase innovations within legal education. In the future we hope to be able to provide resources online that will explore career opportunities within the legal field so that students will be able to make more informed decisions about what positions would best suit them.

As I said at the beginning, I want to encourage every law student to approach school with a proactive view of what she wants to take from her education. That kind of purposeful approach will enhance your experience, improve your learning, and, hopefully, make your time in law school both meaningful and fun!

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Thanks, Michele! 

More about Michele:

Professor Pistone is a Professor of Law and teaches the Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES). Prior to joining the Villanova faculty in 1999, Professor Pistone was a teaching fellow in the asylum clinic (Center for Applied Legal Studies) at Georgetown University Law Center.  Professor Pistone received her B.S. cum laude New York University, her J.D. cum laude from St. John’s University School of Law, and her LL.M. from the Georgetown University Law Center. At St. John’s, she was a member of the St. John’s Law Review. Before joining the Villanova faculty in 1999, she was an associate in the corporate and telecommunications departments at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City and Washington, D.C., the Legal Director of Human Rights First in Washington, D.C., where she emerged as a leading advocate for justice in the immigration law system. In 2006, Professor Pistone was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to lecture at the University of Malta.

Professor Pistone is Co-Chair of the ABA Committee on Clinical and Skills Education of ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, and member of the Planning Committee for the Joint ABA, AALS and CLEA Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility (CLEPR), and on the Executive Committee of the International Human Rights Law Section. Professor Pistone also serves on the International Advisory Board for the Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights.

Professor Pistone’s research and teaching interests focus on asylum and refugee law, immigration law, migration, clinical education, and Catholic social thought. She is co-author of a groundbreaking book entitled, Stepping Out of the Brain Drain: Applying Catholic Social Teaching in a New Era of Migration (Lexington Books 2007).

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  1. This is a wonderful interview here. I do agree that law school students should always have a proactive outlook as they go through law school, in order to get what they need from it. It’s important to keep what you’re going to be using these lessons for in your mind, rather than thinking of it as information you’ll need for the next test. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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