Problem-solving workshop heats up Harvard 1Ls’ winter

BY JENNY PAUL

Harvard Law School’s newest first-year required course was a winter-term success, according to many 1L students. The Problem Solving Workshop was the last of the curriculum reforms to be implemented after a 2006 faculty vote to change the required 1L courses, which also added Legislation and Regulation and an international law elective course to the first-year schedule.

“Problem Solving was awesome,” said first-year student Danielle Singleton. “It taught us very practical knowledge.” All first-year students were required to take the course during the law school’s three-week winter term. Students separated into small groups of four or five and were given hypothetical fact patterns that they used to address problems lawyers face in daily practice, such as how to effectively interview clients and draft press releases.
Dean Martha Minow said she was “delighted” with the results.

“The participating faculty took the unprecedented step of meeting daily to confer and compare experiences and ideas — and all seven of the teachers found the experience exciting and rewarding,” Minow said in an e-mail. “We are avidly reviewing now what worked well and what can be improved.”

In the last problem set, students took on the role of a public interest lawyer. Their client was a tenant who was told he was being evicted from his rental apartment because a bank was foreclosing on the owner of the building. Each group of students had to write a memo addressing what type of action they would take to try to keep their client in the apartment or how they would negotiate a monetary settlement with the bank. The groups then met with practicing lawyers to present the memos and receive feedback.

“The word we’ve had from the practitioners who did that is that they really liked it, and they thought, on the whole, our students did a good job,” said Todd Rakoff, one of the professors who conceived of the course and wrote the problems presented to the enrolled students. “I thought it was a neat thing. We sort of sent 500 people out into Boston to meet with practitioners.”

First-year student Julie Schechter said the practitioner meetings were her favorite part of the course. “I think we should have done that for all of the problems or at least more than one,” she said. “Someone who had practical experience taught you more than just talking to your classmates.”

Only one section was led by a practicing lawyer – Bill Lee, a co-managing partner at WilmerHale. “I loved having a practitioner [as a professor],” said Jessica Lewis, who was in Lee’s class. “I think every section should have a practitioner. I think it gives you a different experience than the typical classroom experience. I have prior work experience, and it seemed much more like a workplace setting.”

Rakoff said he would like to have Lee return to teach the course next year, but said it is unlikely that any other practitioners would be teaching. “I think probably we will try to have some more practitioner involvement in individual problems, since, in a lot of sections, people said they found that really valuable,” he said.

Rakoff said all 1L students filled out surveys to give feedback on the course. He said those comments are still being processed, but he has looked at them in “bits and pieces.”
“There were many favorable comments about the chance to work in groups,” Rakoff said.

“People seemed to think that that was a nice break from what otherwise happens in the first year and they thought they had acquired some skill in working in groups and also that it was just kind of fun to have a group of people to work with.”

Rakoff said he and the other professors who taught the course will meet in a few weeks to discuss possible changes to the course. In future years, students might be given fewer problem sets, because some 1Ls wrote that they would have liked to spend more time working with the same fact pattern, he said. He also said the professors would probably write some new problems to give to future first-year students.

All in all, Rakoff said, he thought the course taught first-year students something different than they were learning in their other courses.

“[The workshop] has the same core mission as the rest of the other courses,” he said. “It’s an attempt to show you the mental pathways that lawyers use, but we just thought there were a whole bunch of those mental pathways that weren’t covered in the traditional doctrinal courses.”

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