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Legal Practice Skills program moves online and continues to build students’ lawyering skills

April 27, 2020

For University of Pennsylvania Carey Law faculty who teach in the Legal Practice Skills (LPS) program, the transition to online learning because of novel coronavirus precautions came as students were preparing to conduct oral arguments as part of the course. Thanks to LPS faculty and 3L students involved in the coordination of the program as well as the unflagging support of the Law School’s Information Technology Services staff, the spring semester of LPS remained a rich learning experience.

The first-year LPS course instills students with several fundamental lawyering skills, including legal problem solving, fact-finding, selecting arguments, and persuasively advocating for clients orally and in writing. In the spring semester, students use a simulated case file to draft a summary judgment brief. The Spring 2020 simulation focused on a case challenging the constitutionality of a warrantless police checkpoint in Goodyear, Arizona.

Students consult with faculty and work closely with Littleton Fellows, competitively selected third-year student teaching assistants, to refine their arguments. Students then argue their client’s case before a panel of upper-level students before ultimately conducting formal oral arguments at the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia.

This year, with the courthouse closed as a precautionary public health measure, the final arguments could not take place as scheduled. The LPS faculty and Littleton Fellows worked rapidly to shift their classes, conferences, and logistical arrangements so that students were able to argue before a panel of student judges using Zoom teleconferencing.

According to LPS Interim Associate Dean Jessica Simon, the LPS course anticipated and replicated developments in practice happening in real time. By the end of March, many federal courts had announced that they would also be holding arguments using videoconferencing.

Despite the added complexity of moving the course online and the difficulties that many students faced by losing access to campus, the remote oral arguments provided excellent practice for a new and important skill set.

“Like many practitioners today, the 1L students had to adjust to the reality of a virtual hearing, and from my perspective, they handled this abrupt and disappointing change with aplomb and grace,” said Littleton Fellow Charlotte Mostertz, L’20. “The Zoom platform worked really well for oral arguments, all things considered.”

After oral arguments were complete, students were tasked to negotiate a settlement of their dispute. In past years, this settlement exercise took place face-to-face in the classroom. This April, students negotiated remotely using email, phone, and videoconferencing. Before the exercise began, students received a supplemental set of facts and their clients’ parameters for an acceptable settlement.

Teamed up in pairs, students then had 45 minutes in which to reach an agreement with their opponents. Working remotely, students were spurred to make new strategic decisions — such as how to first make contact — and their overall experience reflected the iterative quality of real settlement negotiations. The vast majority of students successfully settled their cases, and many came up with creative and amicable approaches to resolving the dispute.

Students ended the semester with a joint re-writing project. Working with their oral argument and settlement-negotiation partners, students combine and revise their individual summary judgment briefs into a single document which tends to be stronger and more persuasive than either original. Despite the added difficulties posed by remote collaboration, the LPS faculty found that students’ work was not diminished in quality.

Professor Simon praised students’ dedication to their work and to one another.

“Our students really stepped it up to complete the final assignment in these more difficult circumstances with as high a quality as I would have expected had we been in person,” Professor Simon said. “All of us on the faculty were so impressed with our students who stepped in to help other students who were in more difficult circumstances, helping to ease the burden of those students and to demonstrate to those students what it means to be a true professional who cares about his or her teammates, colleagues, and the work product.”

The LPS course has traditionally been a source of community for first-year students, providing more than just legal practice skill development. Virtual office hours allowed faculty to maintain those relationships. Professor Simon transformed office hours sessions into informal get-togethers during which students could come together, ask questions, and enjoy each other’s company.

LPS Professor Gayle Gowen L’98 similarly reported that student turn-out for office hours was higher than ever, in part because students were eager for the connection that LPS provides.

The LPS program relies on the Littleton Fellows to counsel first-year students, review their drafts, and coordinate oral argument practice rounds. This year, the Fellows went even further to seamlessly rework a full calendar for volunteer student judges, creating new schedules under the most demanding conditions, and participating in all oral arguments, all while simultaneously critiquing students’ summary judgment briefs.

“Based in large part on the huge effort to quickly rollout and teach the Zoom technology, I don’t think our curriculum missed much of a beat,” said Professor Gowen. “In fact, if anything, I think it helped prepare our lawyers for a new normal where they might need to work on their delivery of information when in a remote situation.”

She added that a few students have even had virtual firm interviews for which LPS training in “portraying a professional self when virtual” was invaluable.

“My students noted the extra layer of challenge in not being live with their opponents and partners, but I think overcame it very well,” Professor Gowen said.