Stone Soup in 1L Courses

Many colleagues see an obvious benefit from using Stone Soup assignments in traditional dispute resolution courses but have doubts about using them in other courses, especially 1L courses.  At the ABA Legal Educators’ Colloquium, some people worried that using Stone Soup in 1L courses would overwhelm students.

That shouldn’t necessarily be the case, especially if the assignments are planned carefully.  In particular, faculty can assign students to conduct Stone Soup interviews or observe court hearings without requiring them to write papers or grade the interviews.  Brian Farkas used this model with great success.

Papers and grading are means to an end and not the end in itself.  Promoting learning is the goal and having students conduct interviews and discuss them in – and out – of class can advance that goal.  Most students are likely to be motivated to do these assignments if they can, so they don’t need grading to make them do this.

Having students conduct interviews or observe court proceedings is likely to encourage more students than those who would be overwhelmed.  1Ls often are overwhelmed by a new language and way of thinking, often reading cases with facts and language they can’t relate to.  Giving them an exposure to the real world can help them make sense of legal doctrine.

You can assign students to do the interviews or observations soon after the course begins.  In courses spanning two semesters, students can do this between semesters.

You can spend 25-50 minutes in class discussing what they learned, and you can illustrate doctrinal lessons in the rest of the course by referring to these concrete cases when relevant.  This assignment also is likely to stimulate valuable discussions outside of class between students and faculty as well as with their fellow students.

Several colleagues at the Legal Educators’ Colloquium said that it can be particularly valuable to have students do Stone Soup assignments early in a course, before you cover much of the material.  While this may seem counterintuitive, there are several advantages to this approach.  First, students may be tempted to “find” that real life neatly fits the doctrine, and having them do the assignment early in a course reduces the chances that students’ interviews and observations will be tainted too much by what they learn.  Doing the assignment early in the course enables you to foreshadow issues and, when you cover them later in the course, students can appreciate how their understandings have changed after learning the relevant legal rules or theory.  And students are likely to have more time and energy to do the assignments at the beginning of the semester and are likely to enjoy it more then.

If you require students to write papers, you don’t have to wait until they submit them before discussing them in class.  Discussing them earlier increases the benefits and may improve the quality of the papers.

Assignments in Specific Courses

In contracts and property courses, students can interview friends and relatives about their experiences in resolving disputes or negotiating transactions.  In torts, they can interview friends and relatives about incidents where someone is injured.

In civil procedure, students could interview lawyers about pleadings, discovery, and/or motions.  I don’t know how faculty teach it these days, but my recollection of civ pro was that is focused on technical rules with little or no discussion of real-world strategy.

Some students might be able to identify litigators to interview.  Several students might participate in the same interview of a single lawyer.  If a few students can’t find a lawyer to interview, that need not be a big deal if there is no paper or grading.

For students who need help finding interview subjects, you might solicit your alums who litigate to see if they would like to be interviewed for 30-60 minutes.  In my experience, lawyers generally LOVE talking about themselves and their work – and are flattered to be the focus of attention.  Lawyers often remember their awkward experiences in law school and want to help students.  This also is an easy way for alums to give something back to their school – which doesn’t cost them a dime.

In criminal law, students can observe cases in court, particularly when the court accepts plea bargains.  As we all know, that’s how the vast majority of cases are resolved – in contrast to what they see on tv all the time.  It would be an eye-opening experience for students to see how this actually works in practice.  You might encourage them to pay attention to lawyers and defendants in the audience and hallways as they consult and possibly try to work out last-minute plea deals.

In addition or instead, you could have a “focus group class” in which a panel of guest speakers who would be asked carefully planned questions.  For example, you might invite a prosecutor, defense attorney, and a judge to talk about plea bargaining.  Rather than having them give presentations, you and the students would ask them each to address certain questions.

Filling a Larger Glass of Knowledge

Faculty using Stone Soup in a 1L course presumably would need to eliminate coverage of a little material, which can be hard because faculty often feel that they don’t have enough time to cover everything as it is.

At some point, covering more material is like pouring water into a glass that’s already full.  The glass doesn’t hold any more water and you just have a mess.  If students learn about concrete situations they can connect to the material, they may be able to understand and retain more material.

So consider if you can accomplish your educational goals better by skipping your lowest-priority material and making a little Stone Soup instead.

Here are model assignments for contracts, property, torts, civil procedure, and criminal law courses that you can tailor to fit your situation.

2 thoughts on “Stone Soup in 1L Courses”

    1. Thanks, Tom.

      I think a lot of faculty are wary about doing something like Stone Soup in 1L courses because they feel obliged to cover as much material as they can. They also worry whether 1L students would be able to handle this kind of assignment.

      As I describe in the post, this need not add any workload and students might actually learn a lot more after interviews with a naive, blank-slate, perspective.

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