Posted Jan 01, 2013 08:10 am CST
As calls grow for change in tuition costs, loan policies and even the end of (some) law schools, is the Socratic teaching method—the 1L torment immortalized in the classic The Paper Chase—next to face the challenge?
If so, Karl Okamoto, a professor at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law, is answering that call. Okamoto has been awarded $680,000 in National Science Foundation grants to buck tradition and create and expand LawMeets, a virtual sandbox for law students to learn through real-world experiences.
Derived from LawMeets’ in-person transactional lawyering competitions (Drexel’s response to traditional litigation and alternative dispute resolution-focused moots), its online counterpart allows users to film themselves acting out responses to various client-based legal scenarios. Videos are reviewed on the Web and voted on by other participants. Finally, an expert video response is unlocked, providing the correct analysis by a professor or practicing lawyer.
“In law school, students are, by and large, passive. The motivation to do the readings is an exam at the end,” says Okamoto, who directs the school’s business and entrepreneurship law program. “We flip the classroom. Instead of traditional methods of professors delivering information from on high and expecting students to get much out of that, we create a need for the data we want absorbed.”
While Okamoto hasn’t scrapped traditional teaching techniques, his students solve fictional client dilemmas twice weekly. As a result, they are better prepared to grasp the nuances of a problem and how to apply the lesson in other contexts. Each exercise also includes a leaderboard on which students can track videos ranked by their peers. Okamoto shows the top-ranked videos in class, but he notes that sometimes those at the bottom of the rankings offer the greatest value.
“I often find someone thinking outside of the box and creative, but penalized by their peers not as willing to see the possibilities,” Okamoto says. The surprise responses also tend to mimic those of the practicing lawyer, he adds.
The LawMeets platform offers online courses to anyone, and they can be adopted in whole or modeled by professors. A recent program on mergers and acquisitions drew 800 students from 75 different law schools, plus associates at two BigLaw firms and others from the Law Library of Congress. Mystyc Metrik, a 3L at Cornell Law School, found the M&A class she took “really excellent.”
“Law school is a very individualized setting where you are rarely privy to the work of others,” Metrik says, “so getting the chance to actually see some of your peers’ work is really beneficial.”
So far, 38 faculty members across the country have used LawMeets exercises, and profs at 48 schools asked to test some after Okamoto presented the model to the Association of American Law Schools last year.
Okamoto’s science foundation awards are unusual in a profession that’s not often associated with technology grants (and is not generally viewed as in need of a monetary leg up), but even with the awards another challenge remains: recruiting more senior lawyer gurus.
“When you look at the kinds of people we’ve decided are most important to the legal academy, they don’t bear much resemblance to the people you think would be best at teaching people to practice,” Okamoto says. “LawMeets gives spectacular lawyers a way to speak about their experiences. I bring the students to them.”