Helping Law Students Define and Pursue Success

On the AALS listserv, Gabe Teninbaum (Suffolk) asked, “[H]ow do we teach students to define successful outcomes in a given scenario?  And how do we help them understand how to communicate with clients about defining their own success?  As a former litigator, I remember balancing clients’ varied goals (their definition of “winning” didn’t always comport with the reality of what I, as their lawyer, could deliver) with what my firm could realistically offer.”  He asked for suggestions of books, articles, or resources.

These are very important questions regarding law students’ (and lawyers’) definitions of success.  The following is my response to Gabe’s request.


Here are some blog posts and an article that you might find of value:

Lawyers Are From Mars, Clients Are From Venus – And Mediators Can Help Communicate in Space summarizes substantial empirical research showing that lawyers and clients generally live in parallel universes regarding their cases.  Martians – the lawyers – often develop routines of focusing only on monetary outcomes based on what the courts might decide and discounting clients’ concerns as too “emotional” or “unreasonable.”   Litigation, negotiation, and mediation processes often are bewildering to Venusians – the clients – who typically aspire to have a meaningful process and not merely get a favorable monetary outcome.  This is relevant to your observation about lawyers’ frustrations due to differences with clients about appropriate goals and strategies.  The goal of satisfying clients’ interests is not only an ethical and practical imperative, communicating well with clients and satisfying them also should make lawyers feel more successful.  Although mediators sometimes can help, they also often have a Martian perspective.  In any case, lawyers have the primary responsibility for communicating well with their clients.

Study Finds That Law Schools Fail to Prepare Students to Work with Clients and Negotiate provides excerpts from the Building a Better Bar study about new law school graduates’ unmet instructional needs.  The study found that new lawyers were “woefully unprepared” to work with clients and to negotiate.  Given the common Venus–Mars differences between lawyers and clients, law students should be taught to listen, communicate, and negotiate well with their clients, not just the other side.

Big New Study on Necessary Lawyering Skills summarizes the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System “Foundations of Practice” survey of lawyers which identifies “foundations” that lawyers need soon after graduation.  These include communication, emotional and interpersonal intelligence, passion, ambition, professionalism, and various other qualities and talents.  Almost all of the items on the list refer to personal qualities that law schools don’t emphasize in their curricula.  By contrast, law schools focus on things that only small proportions of the lawyers think are necessary soon after graduation.

What Makes Lawyers Happy? – And How Can You Help? summarizes Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon’s impressive study, What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success.  They write, “[T]he current data show that the psychological factors [related to subjective well-being] seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers.  Conversely, the data reported here also indicate that the factors most emphasized in law schools – grades, honors, and potential career income, have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”

A Message for Law Students to Prepare Themselves for Legal Practice includes suggestions to help plan self-directed learning to supplement what students learn in law school.  It recommends that students (1) appreciate the values and limitations of the law, (2) recognize the “hidden curriculum” in law school, (3) understand that “thinking like a lawyer” really is about helping clients achieve their goals, (4) develop a strategic plan for their education, (5) compile a portfolio, (6) take clinical, externship, and practice courses, (7) interview practitioners, and (8) join the ABA and other bar and professional associations.

Easy Assignment to Promote Law Students’ Apprenticeship of Identity describes an assignment in which students were required to review several law firm websites and write a homepage for the kind of practice that they would like to be part of.  The post includes a copy of the assignment.

Law Schools Should Teach Students to Think Strategically – That’s What it Really Means to Think Like a Lawyer argues that law schools should teach law students to think strategically when representing clients.  It recommends that law schools offer courses in strategic case evaluation and management that integrate elements of interviewing, counseling, pretrial litigation, negotiation, and mediation in a coherent practical framework.

Real Lawyering Practice Systems describes how real practice system theory can be applied to lawyering.  It includes self-assessment questionnaires for lawyers and law students.

Resources for Using Real Practice Systems Materials in Teaching describes how faculty can use ideas and materials from the Real Practice Systems Project to help students get realistic understandings of practice.  Although the project has generally focused on the systems that mediators develop and use, it can be adapted to understand the perspectives of lawyers acting as advocates in mediation, negotiators, and in legal practice generally.  In addition to requiring or recommending that students read publications about real practice systems, faculty could assign students to write papers such as (1) a Stone Soup interview of a practitioner, (2) a description of students’ actual system in simulated or real case(s) in their courses, or (3) a description of students’ desired system after they graduate.  This post includes templates for assignments that faculty could tailor to their courses.

Law Students Can Use Portfolios to Plan Their Practice Systems describes how law schools can help students create their own definitions of success by using Real Practice System self-assessments to guide them in developing individualized portfolios. Portfolios identify students’ learning objectives and experiences designed to achieve them. They may include a variety of elements such as writing samples, video recordings, grades, faculty evaluations, clinical course journals, and extracurricular experiences.

My Last Lecture: More Unsolicited Advice for Future and Current Lawyers advises students to get the most possible benefit from law school by paying attention to what’s really important, learning to learn, and not doing dumb things.  It includes lots of specific suggestions.

The Real Practice Systems Project Annotated Bibliography includes a section on legal education with additional publications you might find helpful.

Take a look.

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