A recent white paper discusses a survey of 300 hiring partners and senior associates in both litigation and transactional legal practice, to determine what skills in the areas of legal research, writing and transactional work are most desired in new lawyers. Among many interesting findings, the survey determined that “litigation writing and drafting skills are highly important.” The paper concluded these skills are “often lacking.” The paper as described as “lacking” the important skills of drafting contracts, understanding fundamental business and financial concepts, and finding forms and checklists. The recently published book The New IL – First Year Lawyering with Clients, addressing the deficits in traditional legal education indicates that skills “need to be applied in practice to be fully learned.”
Preparation for Litigation
The mission of St. Francis School of Law is to prepare students for the practice of law through a robust program focusing on practical professional skills taught by experienced legal professionals. Among the most important litigation skills, according to the survey results, is the ability to draft legal pleadings. First year law students at St. Francis learn the fundamentals of drafting pleadings needed in litigation through exercises based on real legal cases, requiring students to draft a complaint and an answer to a complaint. The professors teaching the professional skills course in drafting pleadings have over 20 years of real world litigation experience, so their professional input is meaningful, real-world and practical, rather than purely academic. Because St. Francis classes are generally limited to 15 students, every student receives detailed attention to their work, including pointed feedback on each draft of their pleadings.
Ongoing Legal Writing
Legal writing is a skill that, like any other, requires practice for improvement. Many traditional Juris Doctor programs concentrate legal writing in a few “legal writing” classes. The St. Francis program requires legal writing in every upper level course. Our small class sizes allow weekly legal writing with feedback from highly experienced professors, including many currently working in the field. This approach allows students to develop their writing skills while they are learning the law, reinforcing substantive material.
Among other drafting tasks ranked as very important in the survey were drafting motions, appellate briefs and mediation briefs. Students in the second year draft a motion to dismiss a case, again with detailed instruction and extensive feedback from a highly experienced professor. In addition, students conduct a mock argument on the motion. The attorneys serving as judges have extensive litigation experience. Upper level students draft additional pleadings in their substantive classes, including a motion to disqualify counsel, a complaint for legal malpractice, a mediation brief, and an appellate brief. Students follow up by conducting a mediation and an appellate argument.
Among other legal writing tasks ranked highly in the survey were drafting client communications, internal memoranda, and communications to opposing counsel. The St. Francis program provides detailed instruction in writing legal memoranda in a course covering legal research and writing, like many law schools. But The St. Francis program takes this one step further, as upper level courses require students to produce numerous additional memoranda addressing the substantive law under study in each course. Students frequently write letters to simulated clients and to simulated opposing counsel, as well as internal legal memoranda. These skills develop with practice and feedback, so that upper level students at St. Francis are able to produce high quality legal writing. To provide this ongoing practice requires distinctive curriculum design and experienced professors to provide mentoring and feedback to students, as well as small classes that permit the type of interaction required for meaningful development of the practical skills. The St. Francis program design allows students to improve, sharpen and polish important practical professional lawyering skills.
Developing Transactional Skills
Among the most important transactional skills, according to the recent survey, is the ability to understand business associations, and the related organizational documents, as well as the ability to draft and negotiate contracts. Students in the St. Francis Juris Doctor program receive detailed transactional instruction from professors with expertise in business law, and hands on experience with not only understanding business associations, but also drafting contracts and organizational business documents. Students take a professional skills class in contract drafting, then further develop those skills in variety of contracts drafting assignments throughout the upper level curriculum. St. Francis students draft a prenuptial agreement, as well as basic wills and trust documents. In addition, in the intellectual property course, students draft a patent application, a trademark application, and a copyright application, with detailed feedback from an intellectual property lawyer. Students also draft a partnership agreement and incorporation documents. All of this work is designed and supervised by lawyers with extensive experience in their fields.
As traditional legal education continues evolving toward practical skills, the St. Francis J.D. program has several advantages. With its small class sizes in every class, meaningful mentoring and developmental feedback can take place. The school’s highly qualified student body has the background to meet the challenges of this robust curriculum. With its foundational philosophy of teaching real professional skills at all levels of the curriculum, and professors with extensive experience in the real world practice of law, St. Francis has the organizational structure in place to deliver on the objective of training students for the real world practice of law.