Professor Kayalyn Marafioti, a former Restructuring Partner at Skadden Arps who has a Certificate in TESOL from The New School and teaches the Reading Legal Texts course in the St. John’s Law Advanced Legal English Certificate Program (aka ALDA), recently brought her students to sit in on a Contracts class in the law school. This is something Prof. Marafioti or I have done each year with the ALDA Certificate students in connection with the Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store case, which serves as the basis for the Reading Legal Texts course.
The idea is that, after digging into and deconstructing Lefkowitz from various angles in order to learn to read, brief, and discuss cases, students get a chance to sit in on a large Contracts class on the day that Lefkowitz is actually discussed in order to see, hear, and feel what they need to be able to do with these cases that they read.
In the wake of this year’s “field trip” to Contracts class and subsequent debriefing with her Advanced Legal English Certificate students, here are the Top Ten Takeaways that Prof. Marafioti reported based on her student’s reactions:
- Even in a large lecture course, the professor is likely to call on many members of the class.
- When the professor repeats a point more than once, it’s especially important to write it down and try to understand it.
- When the professor highlights an issue through the use of a power point presentation or some similar method, it’s especially important to try to understand it.
- When taking notes in class it’s essential to use shorthand and abbreviations, because otherwise there’s not enough time to record the important material that’s discussed.
- When the professor makes general statements about the law, these are like the “rule” section of a case. When the professor discusses that general rule in connection with the facts of a particular case, it’s like the “analysis” section of a decision. Applying the rule to the facts is critical to an understanding of the case.
- To put a particular case in context, a professor may ask students to think of and describe an analogous case they’ve previously read in the course, i.e., one that has certain similarities with the case under discussion. This will further expand students’ understanding of both cases.
- The student who uses and describes the stated general rule when answering a question about a case is likely to receive praise from the professor.
- The professor may describe a hypothetical change in the facts of a case and ask how the court’s decision might be different in those circumstances.
- Students must focus on the professor’s words and on the class discussion as it unfolds. The professor will be disappointed by a student’s failure to pay attention in class. (Note: There was a great moment in class where the professor had noticed a student checking his phone during the discussion. The professor then called on him, the student asked if the professor could repeat the question, and the professor said, “No. Speak to me after class.” And then called on the next student. This had a big impact on the Advanced Legal English Certificate students in terms of understanding how seriously they have to prepare and pay attention in law school classes.)
- The best way to learn a lot from the class is to prepare by reading the cases in advance. It will be very difficult to understand and follow the discussion in class otherwise.
For readers who graduated from a 3-year JD program, some of these observations may seem on the obvious side. However, for students coming from a very different academic culture–perhaps one where the lectures do not require student interaction, where the readings are less important than the lectures, and where everything you need to know for the test comes from the lecture–the experience of seeing a law school class like this in action provides extremely helpful context and motivation to the process of learning to read cases.
As teachers, we can explain to students all we want about what will be expected in a law school classroom. But it can be hard to fully conceive of it until you see it first hand. Even the opening scene of The Paper Chase, which we always show to our students at the beginning of the semester, doesn’t quite do it justice.