Professional Skills Courses Continue to Gain Popularity
By Andrew Cohen
When Henry Hecht joined Berkeley Law’s faculty in 1983 as the first instructor brought in-house to teach specific lawyering skills, he offered the law school’s first course in client interviewing, counseling, and negotiation. Today, skills courses permeate the curriculum.
With employers and students pushing for more practical training in law school, a growing number of lawyering skills courses are being taught at Berkeley Law. These courses, which introduce students to the practice skills they will use after graduating, mainly use structured role-playing exercises—learning by doing—along with demonstrations, lectures, and group discussion.
"Coming from a law practice background, I believed deeply that skills courses were of great value," says Hecht. "Our professional skills program gives students vital hands-on training, and nationally this is a trend in what law schools should be doing and soon will likely be required to do."
With academia and bar associations increasingly focused on how law schools can best produce job-ready lawyers, two recent reports have underscored the need for more professional skills training. First, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published the results of "Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law," a three-year survey of law school curricula. Then, the Clinical Legal Education Association reported on its six-year study, "Best Practices for Legal Education: A Vision and A Road Map." Both challenged law schools to create more integrated curricula to better prepare lawyers through enhanced skills training.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, also sets standards mandating that law schools offer instruction in the skills "generally regarded as necessary for effective and responsible participation in the legal profession." The association lists several courses that fulfill these requirements, such as negotiation and dispute resolution, pretrial civil and criminal practice, civil and criminal trials, transaction and business practice, evidence advocacy, and appellate advocacy—all offered at Berkeley Law.
Hecht is co-founder of the Hecht Training Group, which presents workshops on depositions, negotiation, motion practice, and trial tactics to practicing lawyers, and he has lectured and written extensively on skills training. He authored the book Effective Depositions (ABA 1997, 2nd ed. forthcoming 2008) and three multi-media CD ROMs on the mechanics and techniques needed to master motions, take depositions, and defend depositions.
"The demand from attorneys for our skill training services and the demand from law students for practical skills are both on the rise," Hecht says. "Things that I learn in teaching lawyers I try to bring back to my classes here at Berkeley. More and more students want hands-on training, which counters the traditional approach law schools have taken in educating future lawyers."
The majority of Berkeley Law’s professional skills courses are elective, following the required Legal Research & Writing and Written and Oral Advocacy courses for first-year students. Skills courses are typically smaller-sized—18 students for both depositions, and negotiations and mediation, for example—and typically oversubscribed. Many of these courses are taught by experienced practitioners, others by lecturers in residence like Hecht.
"Graduates tell me, 'I wish we had those courses when I went to law school,' " says Hecht, embarking on his 25th year at Berkeley Law. "Students tell me, 'I wish we could take more of them.' Thats gratifying to hear, and it speaks to a collective desire to learn by doing."