Letter to First-Year Students
Welcome to Penn Law School and to Legal Practice Skills!
The first year of law school is an exciting and challenging time. In your core 1L courses, you will begin the process of learning to “think like a lawyer,” analyzing problems systematically by applying legal rules. In this class, you will refine that skill and learn more; here, you will also begin to act and communicate like a lawyer. That can mean different things to different people, but here are some of the basic principles we hope you will take away from this course.
Lawyers solve problems. People engage lawyers to help them anticipate and avoid potential problems or solve existing ones. Whether you become a public defender, a commercial litigator, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, a regulatory specialist, or any other kind of lawyer, you will need to be able to spot, analyze, and resolve legal issues or prevent those issues from arising. In this class, we will teach you how to find the legal principles that apply to a particular situation, how to combine different legal authorities to develop a cogent overall picture of the law, how to apply the law to a new set of facts, and how to present your analyses and solutions orally and in writing in a way that is accessible and persuasive to your intended audience. Not incidentally, this style of thinking and writing will also help you on your Law School exams!
Of course, lawyers do lots of other things besides analyze legal issues. And, indeed, different types of lawyers spend their days doing different things. No single class could teach you all of the skills that lawyers use. But our goal in this class is to try to expose you to a variety of basic legal practice skills, so that you can begin to get a sense of what you like, what you don’t like, and, critically, what practice skills you’d like to cultivate during your three years here: we’ll ask you to conduct client interviews, to negotiate an agreement with a counterparty, to draft a basic contract provision, and to use a variety of source materials (like interviews, discovery documents, and deposition transcripts) to develop, sort through, and synthesize facts. We hope you will leave the course with a sense of different kinds of work that lawyers do.
A lawyer’s goal is to serve the client. In school, your focus is often narrow: you want to do the best possible job on the discrete assignment in front of you, but, after you turn the assignment in, you move on. In practice, your goal is much broader: you must solve your client’s problem, and everything you do should be seen through that lens. To that end, you should do your best to try to see any assignment in the broader context of the overall client representation and approach each assignment with the goal of adding value to the client, not just performing a task you have been assigned or answering a question that has been posed. So, for example, in the negotiation exercise we will conduct in the fall, your goal is not to “win” every point, but to determine and prioritize your client’s overall interests in advance, and reach an outcome that furthers those objectives, even if that means that you have to concede some points. Throughout the course, we will urge you to think broadly about how different assignments and tasks fit together and how they contribute to the broader goal of representing your client.
Lawyers communicate clearly, directly, concisely, and accurately. Communication is an essential part of being a lawyer. The best and most insightful legal analysis cannot help your client unless it is communicated in a way that others can understand. Accordingly, we will spend a lot of time in Legal Practice Skills working on communicating legal analyses orally and in writing. We will practice communicating formally, in legal documents and the kinds of oral presentations litigators deliver in court, and informally, as all lawyers do on a daily basis, through email and in face-to-face meetings.
While each of these different types of communication has its own set of ground rules, they all share certain basic principles. Chief among them is the need to write and speak clearly, concisely, and directly. In writing, this often means stating your conclusions first. In speaking, it means having a clear idea of what you want to convey. In both cases, successful communication requires a great deal of preparation—not just reading and understanding the relevant subject matter but refining your thoughts and polishing your words. This is true even for communications that look and feel more informal and spontaneous, like email.
Lawyers’ communications must also be accurate, in large and small ways. In the broadest sense, and most obviously, lawyers must always accurately represent the law and the facts. We will talk more about this obligation, and how to balance it with the equally important obligation to zealously represent your client, throughout the year, especially in the spring. But just getting the big things (i.e., the facts and the law) right is not enough; as a lawyer, you must also attend to the details. Whether you are drafting a prospectus for a bond offering, drawing up a contract, representing a client in court, or writing a brief, you will be judged on the presentation of your work, not just its substance. In many cases, readers will perceive typos, citation errors, and other seemingly minor mistakes as signs of a broader carelessness in your work. That, not an arbitrary desire to nitpick, is why we will focus on those kinds of mistakes in this class.
Legal and professional skills development is a career-long project. This year marks the first step on your path to becoming a lawyer. We hope you will use this class as an opportunity to explore different practice skills and step outside your comfort zone as a student, with an eye toward identifying or refining your broader professional goals. We also hope it will provide you with a solid foundation from which you can thoughtfully explore the many skills-development opportunities available to you in the Law School and beyond.
We look forward to working with you.