In BC Law’s Classrooms, Experiential Meets Academic

It goes without saying that BC Law offers a broad range of challenging classes, taught by wonderful faculty committed to producing lawyers who strive not only to win cases, but to serve their communities as well. And there is no shortage of ways to get your fill of experiential learning here–whether you participate in one of our top rated clinical programs, or are involved in an externship or moot court program, BC Law offers a multitude of ways to learn the law outside of the classroom.

But more and more experiential learning is happening inside the classroom itself.

Brian Quinn, the current dean of experiential learning, says professors have been bringing experiential learning into the classroom for years, but in response to recently adopted ABA standards regarding law students having access to experiential learning in their three years of law school, they are looking broadly at what “experiential” really means and how to include more of it in the classroom setting.

“We have to provide our students with different options for how they can meet that requirement, in different ways, and in different subject matter areas that we can’t aways do in a clinic or externship,” he says. “Doing it in a classroom gives us an opportunity to really tailor the learning experience.”

Kent Greenfield’s Supreme Court Seminar is one example of a kind of experiential learning that students would not be able to get in traditional clinic or externship. He calls this class a “triple threat,” as it involves advocacy, discussion, and writing. Students simulate real Supreme Court cases, with two  of them making arguments before the court, and the rest of the students sit in the places of the justices, listening to the arguments, asking questions, and eventually drafting and handing down a decision. Then they swap places for the next case.

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Professor Greenfield and his Supreme Court Seminar students on a trip to hear SCOTUS oral arguments.

“There is no better way to understand and appreciate the work of the Supreme Court than to mimic as close as possible what it does,” says Professor Greenfield.  “And there is no better way of learning a case — and the doctrine behind it — than serving as a lawyer who argues it or a judge who decides it.”

Students hear eleven cases over the course of the semester. Marnee Rand, a 2L in the course, says that this class not only offers enriching experiential learning, it also deepens her understanding of substantive law.

“My favorite part about the course is learning eleven new areas of constitutional law,” she says. “I learn these areas so much more closely than I ever could have done in a regular class.”

Elizabeth Blass, a 3L also taking the course, lauds the opportunity the class provides for her to hone her advocacy skills, both through presenting arguments herself, and by watching her classmates do so as well.

“The class is also an opportunity to work on drafting opinions, and for anyone who wants to clerk after law school, that’s pretty invaluable experience to have,” she says.

Bringing experiential learning into the classroom also allows for a level of control that students and professors might not otherwise have in a clinic or externship. “It’s more predictable,’ Dean Quinn says. “Sometimes as an educator you can predict what the clients are going to ask of your students, but there’s a lot of variability because it’s real life. If we’re able to generate simulations, we’re able to know that students who take these classes are going to have a certain set of experiences.”

James Bor, a 2L in R. Michael Cassidy’s Trial Objections course, appreciates the controlled environment of the experiential learning element in that course.

“One benefit of this blended learning is the ability to learn but also fail gracefully,” he says. He also appreciates the ability to work closely with his professor. “Unlike many law school classes, you can’t be passive and you can also expect in-the-moment feedback from Professor Cassidy.”

Professor Cassidy calls his Trial Objections class a “capstone class,” filled with students who know they want to be litigators. The class begins with a lecture, which Professor Cassidy likens to “stretching before you run.” Then they go through hypotheticals before starting simulations. Students are broken up into five panels — three of whom are “on call” in each class. With Professor Cassidy playing judge, these students are charged with arguing either to get evidence in, or to keep it out. After the simulation has ended, Professor Cassidy provides each student with feedback on their performance.

“With constructive criticism and a supportive atmosphere from friends, learning what we read about by doing it is more effective than reading alone,” says Kristen Friedman, another 2L in Professor Cassidy’s trial objections class.

In addition to the benefits of bringing experiential learning into the classroom, Professor Cassidy says blending a lecture format with an experiential learning environment allows for a flexibility to do things like develop extensive hypotheticals and problems. He also says that these small experiential learning classes allow for group learning in a way that might not be possible in larger lecture classes.

And there’s a real camaraderie that students build from that environment.

“I tell them on the first day that we’re all in it together, and that they shouldn’t be self conscious about failing in front of the group,” he says. “There’s a sense of trust and humility that builds among the group over the semester–they’re not worried about failure.”

Professor Cassidy also emphasized that these classes are not designed to replace the experience students get in more traditional clinics or externships, and that students should have a mix of these experiences to learn the skills it takes to be a lawyer.

Dean Quinn agrees. “It’s another arrow in the quiver,” he says, pointing out that these experiential learning classes are designed to blend theory and practice in a unique way and to offer students an even more well rounded learning experience here at BC Law.

“It’s all part of helping students be the best lawyers they can be,” he says.

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