Faculty Post: Real Lawyering from Day One — How Does the Legal Skills in Social Context (LSSC) Social Justice Jump Start Professional Development?

by Susan Maze-Rothstein, Senior Academic Specialist

To compete in today’s rapidly evolving legal profession, law students need to know how, more than ever before, to get practice-ready and fast. The profession can no longer accommodate graduates who need the first five years of practice to really learn how to be a lawyer. Our enrolling students have picked perhaps the most interesting time to go to law school because the law school business model of lecture courses is and must undergo change. They are getting in on the ground floor of the future of lawyering.

“What,” one might ask, “does this have to do with a course that offers both basic legal research and writing training and a real life social justice project that can only be accomplished in teams that we call “law offices?”

Answer . . . everything.

Upon arrival our students will need to get basic skills under their belts, but they will also need to immediately start to see how these skills can be used in complicated societal settings. Enter LSSC.

Legal Skills in Social Context (LSSC) is the law school’s first year signature course and the only one of its kind in law schools nationally. In it students will learn fundamental lawyering skills and apply them to address a complex legal/societal problem. LSSC includes two complementary components: a Legal Research and Writing (LRW) component, taught by four full time faculty and upper level students acting as Teaching Assistants, and a Social Justice (SJ) component, taught by upper level students known as Lawyering Fellows under the supervision of three full time faculty members with the support of fourteen advising attorneys. The library staff supports the training in both components of the program.

The entire incoming class will be divided into student “law office” teams of approximately 12-14 students each. Students will have LSSC LRW classes and SJ classes each week. While learning basic skills in research, writing and advocacy exercises in the LRW classes, they will immediately begin to serve their first client. The client will be either a non-governmental organization or a governmental organization that has proposed a real life social justice project. To get a more concrete sense of what this means, here are the clients served and projects completed by our first year class this past year.

LSSC CLIENT LSSC SJ PROJECT DESCRIPTION
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center Liability Issues When Working with Minor Survivors of Rape
Center for Public Representation Seeking Services: A 50 State Autism Survey
Criminal Justice Policy Coalition MA Bail Reform: Alternatives and Opportunities
EdLaw/MAC Special Ed: Due Process for Low-Income Families
Greater Boston Legal Services The Clean Slate Project: Managing Your Criminal Record
Immigrant Defense Project [Cr]Immigration Law: Quest for Justice
MA Communities Action Network Manufacturing Success: Improved Voc Ed Access in MA
MA LGBTQ Bar Association’s Task Force on Transgender Equality in the Military The U.S. Military Ban on Transgender Service Members
NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts Lies, Deceit & the Threat to Women’s Repro. Health
National H.I.R.E. Network of LAC Ban the Box: Reinvesting in Justice
Roxbury Choice Addressing Gaps in Urban Probation
Somerville Community Corporation Jobs for Somerville: First Source Workforce Development Programs
The Rich Coast Project, Inc. Defending Land Rights in Costa Rica’s Protected Areas
Wuhan University Disability Clinic Public Transportation Accessibility for China

These are tough topics for us societally and require a sophisticated lawyerly response. Our first year class, with expert support, responded to each one of these issues often so impressively that our clients could not believe it was the work of first year students. Similarly, when students add their social justice project to their resumes and are able to speak intelligently in interviews about what they and their law office team accomplished, our co-op employers are always intrigued. Our students immediately have legal experience that their first year counterparts from other law schools cannot parallel.

So, one might ask further, “how does LSSC accomplish all this through the first year class?”

Answer . . . we get all this done through experiential learning and a set of goals that work.

Here are our goals, which we know, after seventeen years and over three hundred social justice projects, work to support our students reaching this advanced outcome in their first year of study.

LSSC SJ Primary Goals:

  1. Placing/keeping the law in its social context through detailed engagement with a single complex legal problem that can expose students to how legal issues are embedded in a rich array of social institutions and relationships. (See also Goals 4 & 5 below for some specific dimensions of this endeavor.)
  1. Introducing students to facets of the lawyer’s representational role and the dynamics of lawyering as a service to a client.
  1. Providing the opportunity to develop and practice emerging legal skills – problem definition, issue identification, research (both legal and factual), higher order reasoning, analysis, written and oral presentation – in a collaborative experiential setting.

LSSC SJ Supporting Goals:

  1. Appreciating law’s social impacts, and law’s reflection of social power dynamics, with particular attention to the impacts on marginalized populations.
  1. Exploring the strengths and weaknesses of law as an instrument of social change.
  1. Developing and reflecting on the skills needed to manage a complex project as part of a diverse team.

We feel these are core skills necessary to practice 21st century law. And we look forward to welcoming our incoming class to campus next week!

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