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April 17, 2007

Teamwork in law schools

One finding of my recent research is that lawyers are working in larger and more complex teams than ever -- teams that cross national, cultural, and organizational boundaries. My impression -- backed by relatively little data -- is that law schools remain largely individualistic. (Well, I have some data -- the LSSSE study reports that 88% of law students do not frequently work together with other students on projects during class).

I believe that law schools should promote and develop teamwork skills among students as part of the preparation they provide for practice. Business schools make this an explicit focus of both their teaching and pedagogy. I can think of supporting team development in at least three different ways:

  1. Explicit team-building, e.g. classes (whether credit or extracurricular) that teach teamwork, leadership, etc.
  2. "Hidden curriculum," e.g. orienting day-to-day classwork around teams of students working together to achieve goals. This could take place in traditional classes, clinical programs, or official/quasi-official activities like law journals.
  3. Organic grassroots, e.g. study groups and student interest organizations.

Some of the specific team-related skills students will need to have as practicing attorneys include:

  • Multidisciplinary action. For example, Stanford's simulation-based curriculum throws law students into teams with students from other schools to solve problems that are designed to be multidisciplinary in nature.
  • Technology-supported communication/coordination. Today's teams are complex partially because technology enables them to be. Yet working on a team through email or document management systems is a different skill than working face-to-face.
  • Hierarchy. Law firms and most other employment settings are not egalitarian, yet most of the teams that students work in during school are flat or relatively flat. (The heirarchy that does exist, in classes, tends not to be in the context of teams). Students' ability to play both member and leadership roles in teams will be critical to their future careers.

How important is teamwork to your teaching and your goals? Are you using teamwork in the classes you teach? What other opportunities do you see for doing so? When is it appropriate and when is it not? Are you confident that you can manage a team-centered class and support the process (e.g. providing resources to resolve team conflicts)?

-- Gene Koo

April 17, 2007 in Legal profession realities and developments, Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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Thanks for raising an important issue. Law schools do not do enough to encourage teamwork.

But a question remains as to what more law schools should do.

In my seminar this semester (titled "Is International Law Democratic?"), I encouraged students to collaborate on papers. Two pairs of students took me up on it, and their collaboration is proving fruitful thus far, at least as the drafts show.

Posted by: Anupam Chander | Apr 17, 2007 6:46:41 PM

Horrible idea. Leave it for b-school, where grades are largely an afterthought. You've either been out of law school too long or you've never worked in a law firm. Bad "teams" and bad teammates don't last very long in law firms and its not fair to make a hard working law student sacrifice his/her gpa because of fellow students that don't share the same work ethic, acumen or ambition.

Posted by: | Apr 18, 2007 5:42:25 PM

If I had learned, while I was still in law school, that a particular prof assigned group work, I would avoid their class like the plague.

Posted by: | Apr 18, 2007 6:09:40 PM

You're so full of it your eyes are brown. If you can't work well in groups, you will not last long in almost any professional setting. If so, start your own practice. There is no need to allow the dreaded "groupthink" and "teamwork" trash to permeate the law school system. It already has enough problems!

Posted by: Count Christoph | Apr 18, 2007 6:21:30 PM

Let me see if I've got this straight-- of the exhausting list of skills required of lawyers that go untaught in law school, we're going to start a curriculum revision with this?

On a more serious note, collaboration was (and I suspect still is) alive and well in law school in a very real and relevant way. Students may choose to study for exams with their peers, or to go it alone. As in the real world, those that believe they will benefit from the input of the group often do. Those that are judged by groups to have nothing to offer (those students that lack the intelligence, acumen, manners, or attendance record) are shunned, and learn a valuable lesson in teamwork. On the other hand some students believe that they will do better without group study. Some of these set the curve-- others, I'm sure, learned they weren't as smart as they had thought.

Posted by: SDProsecutor | Apr 18, 2007 8:13:00 PM

Why not include teamwork in classes that are graded pass/fail? Our Trial Ad class was P/F and included working in teams. AND students could pick their team. If you chose a slacker as a partner, that was your own fault. But even if you got stuck with a slacker, you still were graded pass/fail, and let's face it, nobody fails a law school class.

Posted by: Ann | Apr 18, 2007 8:33:33 PM

"Bad "teams" and bad teammates don't last very long in law firms" -- Indeed, which is why law schools should prepare students for that reality. Letting students sink-or-swim in that environment might convey meritocracy, but I would suggest that it's a school's duty to do the best it can to provide future attorneys with a full range of skills, not just reinforce the ones they have and fail the provide the ones they don't.

"[C]ollaboration was (and I suspect still is) alive and well in law school in a very real and relevant way." Agreed! Still, teams of peers may or may not reflect the reality of hierarchical teams that are the norm in work settings. (Working with a professor as a team of RAs, as junior and senior editors in the law review, or as peers in a study group are very different team configurations).

And grading is doubtless an important and very tricky matter. Just because some work is done in teams doesn't mean that the grading can't be individual, although it may take more work and creativity to make individual grading possible. A course I taught this past fall managed to assign individual grades for participation in a team by (a) our sense of how much each person contributed, correlated against (b) self- and peer assessments, which we found remarkably honest, albeit politely phrased.

As for free-riders, it seems to me that there's no avoiding them in the workplace, even if they eventually do get filtered out. Why not learn how to deal with them in school?

Posted by: Gene Koo | Apr 20, 2007 12:41:13 AM

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