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Law students learn by doing

U of M program evolves into mandatory part of first year

Laura Brown//March 13, 2023//

Suzanne Mead, left, and Jack Tate pose for a photo

Suzanne Mead, left, and Jack Tate took part in Minnesota Law’s Law in Practice program as fist-year law students. Now second-year students, Mead and Tate are student instructors in the program. (Submitted photo: Tony Nelson/Minnesota Law)

Law students learn by doing

U of M program evolves into mandatory part of first year

Laura Brown//March 13, 2023//

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For decades, lawyers and judges have implored law schools to emphasize practical skills as much as theory. The tide seems to be turning on this issue, and the Law in Practice (LiP) program at Minnesota Law is one such example.

It is true that almost all law schools offer clinics, trial advocacy courses, and moot court to help students gain the skills they will need once they leave the classroom. LiP has taken this a step further, integrating practical skills training into the 1L curriculum.

“The legal profession, and law school specifically, has been criticized for not paying enough attention to the development and cultivation of both practical and professional skills for students and new practicing attorneys,” agreed Randall Ryder, director of LiP. “Law in Practice (LiP) develops and cultivates practical and professional skills for students and allows them to hit the ground running the summer after their 1L year.”

LiP has evolved at Minnesota Law over the past decade. It began as an upper-level elective, which is common for many law schools. However, it was later transformed into a mandatory part of first-year student’s education. At many law schools, students are unable to get practical skills until the second or third year, when they participate in clinics or work at a firm over the summer. This alone distinguishes the program at Minnesota Law.

“The timing of LiP during Spring 1L helps students understand how to apply what they have learned in the first semester in practical simulations,” said Ryder. “It also gives them a head start for their 1L summer work experience, in addition to accelerating learning in their 2L & 3L classes.”

First-year students are divided into “law firms.” In those firms, students work with faculty to research what law applies and determining how it applies in each case. During the semester, each student will go through two case simulations from the beginning to the end. One is litigation and the other is transactional. The students will do legal work that they will do in legal practice such as deposing witnesses.

Jack Tate (from left), Mitch Zamoff, Suzanne Mead and Randall Ryder pose for a photo
From left: Jack Tate, student instructor; Professor Mitch Zamoff, associate dean of experiential education; Suzanne Mead, student instructor; and Professor Randall Ryder, director of the Law in Practice and Moot Court Programs at the University of Minnesota Law School. (Submitted photo: Tony Nelson/Minnesota Law)

More than 50 judges and mediators volunteer in the program each year. They will do things such as hold simulated chambers meetings and mediations, making the experience feel that much more real for the students.

“The scope of the program reflects its focus on both building professional skills and a professional network,” said Ryder. “This year, simulations are led by 31 practicing attorneys. We also rely on more than 30 local judges and 30 local mediators for our chambers conference and mediation simulations. And of course, a talented troupe of trained actors to play the roles of various clients.”

LiP has a group of more than 50 trained actors who play the parts of clients and witnesses during the simulations. “LiP is uniquely positioned amongst our peer programs. To the best of our knowledge, no other school uses trained actors and real judges and mediators for a first-year skills class,” said Ryder. “Our standardized clients are critical to simulating what it’s like to work with real clients. The actors also receive training on how to provide constructive feedback on how a ‘real’ client would react to our students.”

Students, both during their legal studies and later in practice, praise the program. “One of the hallmarks of the program is its immediate impact on students. We regularly hear from students during their 1L summer — recognizing that LiP helped them develop necessary skills and perhaps easing their nerves for their summer legal work,” Ryder said. “And many of our current LiP instructors talk about how the skills they developed in LiP are still critical to their practice.”

The clinic was recognized by Bloomberg Law in 2022 as one of the best in the category of “Innovation & Experience” in its recently launched Law School Innovation Program. This program acknowledges law schools that have developed educational innovations.

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