Not just readin’ and writin’: Changes in store for LRA

BY MIKE WISER

First year students at Harvard Law School have been advised by the Board of Student Advisors (BSA) since 1910, but the way that is done is about to change. Starting next year the school’s first-year legal writing program is going to be beefed up by the addition of seven new lecturers, an expanded and more uniform curriculum, and better, more experienced student teachers.

Last year, in an effort to improve the program, the faculty hired Prof. Michael Meltsner as the director of the First-Year Lawyering Pro-gram. Since then, Meltsner, who taught one of the sections of Legal Reasoning and Argument (LRA) this fall, has worked with the BSA to review the program and lay the groundwork for a revamped program for the class of 2004.

Meltsner explained the problems with the current LRA program. “A regular review indicated that the 1L experience was uneven across the sections, that the 1L experience changed in significant ways every few years in response to no coherent educational theory and that student instructors were not as consistently trained by faculty for their role as desirable,” Meltsner said.

The most dramatic change will be the hiring of seven lecturers in law who will work exclusively on the writing program and be designated to one of the seven 1L sections. David Ware ’02, the new Vice-President of the BSA, applauded the new faculty additions. “There are going to be seven people, whereas before there were four professors who obviously had other professorial duties. There’s going to be seven people whose full-time job is to make sure that the First-Year Lawyering Program is a good one and students have good first-year instruction,” he said.

The school is currently in the process of hiring the lecturers, who will assume their duties in July. Meltsner, along with a new assistant, will continue to oversee the program. Erin Hoffmann ’02, the new BSA President, indicated that while the lecturers have not been hired, she expects the lecturers to have practical experience in law and possibly in teaching.

One of the primary goals of the new lecturers will be to increase the amount of time spent on assisting students with their lawyering skills. The new lecturers will be expected to meet with each one of the eighty students in the section at least once during the fall term to review the students’ progress. However, Ware is not concerned that this will diminish the role that the BSA plays in training first-years. “I think the idea isn’t that the lecturers will replace the feedback that we give. I think that it will just augment it. I think one of the things a lot of first-year students say is that they don’t get enough feedback in their classes and in general. Obviously, [as it is now] the feedback that they get on their written work from BSA instructors is the only feedback they get until finals,” he said.

The new program also hopes to centralize and coordinate the course syllabus, according to Sheldon Pollock ’01, the outgoing BSA Vice-President. “The faculty, I think, had a very legitimate concern, that you had four separate LRA courses in the fall semester as it is now, and they wanted to create a certain level of uniformity throughout the curriculum,” Pollock said. He added that it also created problems for BSA leaders who had to oversee the classes. “[I]t was very difficult for us to coordinate any cohesive organization training for our members and coordinate lesson plans and things across sections when you had four different curriculums,” Pollock said.

Under the new system, Meltsner will outline a new expanded curriculum to ensure that all students learn the same basic skills. The lecturers will be free to develop their own exercises and teaching style, but will be expected to ensure that all students are competent in the required skills.

Exactly what skills will be required is still up in the air. Meltsner and the BSA are hoping to expand the current curriculum and are dropping the old LRA title in favor of the more expansive First-Year Lawyering Program (FLP). While writing memos, briefs and oral argument will still be at the heart of the program, the FLP may also include training in client counseling, transactions and negotiations. To find time for the new curriculum the program may be expanded from the fall semester into the spring semester also. Currently, first-year students only are expected to participate in the Ames competition during the spring.

Next year’s 1Ls will also have more experienced student teachers in their workshops. Under the LRA program, second and third year members of the BSA have taught small classes of around 13. However, next year all classes will be lead by an experienced third-year BSA instructor who will be assisted by a second year. Ware said the idea is that “the 2Ls will receive extra training for a year and mentorship from the 3Ls and in the workshops the 1Ls will have two points of contact, two BSA members that they can rely on to give them feedback.” In order for the fifty-two BSA members to handle the new classes, some of the BSA leaders will have to take on the responsibility of teaching two classes. Additionally, the workshops will be slightly larger.

Hoffmann was pleased with the new system. “I think we keep a lot of things about the old model – having a student instructor in the workshop who is very close to the 1Ls and able to give you an extra perspective every week in that sense and then you still have a lecturer to fall back on,” she said.

BSA members who are 2Ls will also take part in a revamped teaching preparation course in their spring semester. “I hope the course helps to continue HLS’s historic role as the launching pad of many brilliant teaching careers,” Meltsner said.

Changes to the program were recommended after a committee chaired by J.D. Dean Todd Rakoff ’75 looked at the first-year programs at other law schools. As Meltsner explained, “It had been some years since LRA had been reviewed, years in which the increasing importance of research skills and clear writing – as well as practice-related skills such as negotiation and counseling – had become obvious to many lawyers, judges and law teachers.” Both Meltsner and the BSA leaders are confident that the changes will help 1Ls better develop those skills.

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