View From the Classroom: Law skills and life skills

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

We law teachers teach the law.  Whether we teach a doctrinal course like Constitutional Law, or a “skills” course like Negotiation, or a practice-based course like a clinic, we teach our students the substance and skills to be good lawyers.  We teach them law skills.

But we also know that there’s more to good lawyering than substantive knowledge and sharp lawyering skills.  There’s also good judgment, professionalism, organization and time management, good social skills, and more.  We know that these less tangible traits are every bit as important to our day-to-day practice as substantive knowledge and sharp lawyering skills.  But we do precious little to teach our students these life skills.

Maybe that’s because we see these “soft” skills as outside core legal education.  We might say that our focus is legal doctrine, or legal skills, or even legal practice—law skills, not life skills.  When life skills are necessary to legal practice—for example, when we counsel a client, or file a motion on time—we embrace them.  But otherwise, we treat them as distractions.  In short, maybe we don’t emphasize life skills because we see them as outside of our bailiwick.

Or maybe we don’t focus on life skills because we assume our students already know them, or that they’ll pick them up along the way.  We might say that these “soft” skills aren’t teachable—that our students either have them or not, and, if not, that they’ll get them from their other social interactions.  In any event, we might claim that students can’t learn these—and that we can’t teach them—in a sanitized classroom.  In short, maybe we don’t teach life skills because we think we can’t.

Whatever the reason, we’re wrong.  Good life skills go hand-in-hand with good law skills in law school every bit as much as in law practice.  Life skills and law skills are complements, and good law skills teaching, therefore, must include good life skills teaching: life skills are very much within our bailiwick.  Moreover, these skills are teachable.  Indeed, professionalism, organization, and time management are more easily teachable than most first-year topics.  And even good judgment and social skills, skills that are far less tangible, can be taught.

Life skills teaching is easy, even within the most rigidly Socratic doctrinal course.  Here are two simple ways.  First, we can model good life skills:  we can show good judgment, professionalism, organization and time management and good communication in our own teaching—and we can talk about how and why we do what we do.  And next we can instruct our students on good life skills:  We can tell our students how to acquire these skills, and help them to realize them—using techniques ranging from strict classroom rules to informal one-on-one counseling.

We know that our students will need life skills in order to succeed.  And we know that we can teach them.  We ought to do more to bring life skills education into our law skills classrooms.

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