Much legal education in the US is like telling someone how to ride a bike or having them read an instruction manual. It’s important, but most people wouldn’t get very far if that’s all you did. You could simply give them a bike and tell them to go, but that could lead to some sudden unpleasant endings. The additional step of having people watch others ride really can help people “get” what they need to do to go from point A to B without falling.
Law schools provide some clinical courses – sort of like riding with training wheels and supervision – but that generally represents a small part of the curriculum. Much litigation is done in public and there are numerous opportunities for students to observe, but I suspect that law schools generally don’t take as much advantage of opportunities for students to observe litigation as reasonably possible.
Long before Stone Soup was cool, Arizona State’s Bob Dauber was doing Stone Soup in his evidence course by having students observe in court. (He also used Stone Soup last summer in his negotiation course.) In his evidence course, he gave an extra credit assignment for students to observe motions in limine and write 1-2 page papers. This semester, 62 out of the 91 students in his course took advantage of this opportunity to get an extra 3%. Here are sample papers from his and other colleagues’ courses (with the students’ permission).
Students loved this opportunity. Bob wrote, “Students seemed to appreciate the encouragement to observe court proceedings. For many, it was their first time watching a hearing or trial, and they were surprised by how well they understood the evidentiary arguments they observed. The instructions required only 1 hour of observation, but most students stayed for an entire morning or afternoon, and some returned the next day to observe the continuation of the trial or hearing.”
I emailed with one of his students who wrote, “I appreciated and enjoyed Professor Dauber’s court-observation assignment because it was highly educational and very useful in better understanding the rules of evidence. Not only did observing a pre-trial hearing that involved the rules of evidence help me in class to understand the rules’ theoretical application, it also made their practical application much more concrete in my mind. Knowing how the rules of evidence are applied in practice motivated me to more fully learn them in the classroom. All in all, the assignment helped me a lot throughout the semester as I thought about how the rules might apply in a court of law. Professors should include assignments like this one in their curricula more often because it would help me and other students to better grasp the concepts that are taught in the pedagogical setting.”
Bob noted that even a short extra-credit assignment adds to the time faculty need to spend, especially in a large course. Since many of his students observed hearings together, we discussed the possibility of students collaborating on a joint extra-credit assignment. This would stimulate discussion between the students and reduce instructors’ workload. Faculty sometimes are wary about assigning group projects because some students do most of the work and others do little. But this is less of a concern for short extra-credit assignments.
Bob is considering using a similar assignment in his civil procedure course. Like Stacey-Rae Simcox’s Stone Soup assignment in her trusts and estate course, this illustrates that Stone Soup isn’t just for ADR courses. Indeed, creative faculty could assign students to observe or conduct interviews about actual cases in almost any course, except for a few like law and literature.
Here’s Bob’s assignment (the highlighted language on page 3 of his syllabus) and course assessment. And here’s a link to other course assessments as well as a summary of Stone Soup experiences and general advice based on this semester’s courses.