Crash Course Courtroom - an Interview with Myra Berman

Many will complain that one of the key flaws inherent in a prestigious but academically oriented education is that it’s neglecting the development of practical skills in favor of the theoretical. The medical profession has for some time been addressing this disparity between academic training and worldly application by creating intern and residency programs; however, the world of law has become complacent with churning out formally qualified students with little hands-on experience.

Enter the Touro Law Center in New York, which aims to remedy this gap with the innovative Collaborative Court Programs (CCP). Professor Myra Berman, Director of the CCP, discussed what may be the new face of law education.

What skills are not gained in the typical law courses that are taught by the Collaborative Court Program and the court experience?

Myra Berman: Typical law school courses teach doctrinal law rather than the actual application of law to practice. The CCP program of instruction focuses on experiential learning, meaning that we try to prepare our students for practice by using the substantive law they’ve been learning in the classroom. Touro offers simulated practice modules as well as clinics, as do many other law schools, but Touro is unique in offering a program that uses the courtroom, the primary work facility of our profession, as the classroom’s “lab,” the place where theory is integrated with practice, where students observe and participate in legal processes that develop not only their knowledge of the law, but also their communication, research, problem-solving, judgment, and collaborative skills. Further, they are routinely exposed to situations where lawyers must make choices that involve values and ethics; this exposure helps students formulate their own professional identities.

Why has this form of education existed for so long in the medical world but is only now reaching legal education?

MB: Hospitals are frequently affiliated with medical schools and view part of their mission as educating future doctors. Medical education is one of the two primary objectives of a “teaching” hospital, the other of course being to provide patient care. Courts are not affiliated or even associated with law schools. They are, and must be, independent and separate from any particular private or even state-operated institution. This makes it extremely difficult for any law school to base a program of instruction on courses that depend upon collaboration with judges and other court personnel. In addition to the conceptual basis for hospital/medical school affiliations, they are typically in the same building or adjacent to each other, which makes it relatively simple – from a physical and structural perspective – to integrate work at the hospital with classes at the medical school. Law schools, unconnected either conceptually or concretely to courts, have more difficult logistical problems to resolve before implementing any programs that infuse the work of the courts into the law school curriculum.

When did you first realize that there was need for such a program?

MB: Nearly three decades ago, when legal education first began to recognize the need for practical or clinical education to become part of the law school curriculum (since the case method, while successful in teaching students to “think” like lawyers, had proven insufficient to train students for the practice of law) Touro’s dean, Howard Glickstein, envisioned a law school that would focus on both traditional legal education and actual preparation for practice. Such a law school would ideally be situated on the same campus as a federal or state courthouse; this would enable the law school to develop a program of instruction that was loosely based on a medical school model. It was clear to the Dean and the faculty that in order to train students for legal practice, a connection with the courts was essential. If the courts were not within the vicinity of the law school, then the work of the courts could not become an
integral part of the curriculum. Dean Glickstein’s vision was transformed into reality when a United States Federal Courthouse and a New York State court complex were built in Central Islip, New York, on adjacent plots of land; Touro purchased land on the same “campus” and, eventually, built a law school. Although it took years to bring this idea to fruition, in January 2007, Touro moved to its new location and the court observation program was immediately implemented.

What are the implications of the program for the world of law at large?

MB: This program is a new type of experiential learning course. It is a hybrid, somewhere in-between the simulated modules, which are connected to a doctrinal course and deal solely with hypothetical situations, and the clinics where students deal directly with clients. Even in the recent American Bar Association’s Best Practices guidelines, only those two aforementioned models for experiential learning are discussed at length. This type of integrated course offering, that includes elements of the classroom (and theory taught in the classroom) with elements of the courtroom (and the real cases that are being heard) marks another method by which students can incrementally develop their practice skills and values.

Has there been any interest expressed by other institutions to enact a similar program?

MB: Three institutions have replicated part of the CCP. The University of Mississippi Law School contacted us after a conference presentation and after lengthy discussions, decided to begin a CourtWatch Program, adapted from our 1L Court Observation Program. Newcastle Univeristy, in Australia, has also replicated parts of our 1L and 2L programs, subsequent to visiting Touro and observing the program in action. The same occurred when a professor from the Netanya Institute of Law, in Israel, visited. We did not complete our own implementation until Spring 2012, when the last of the state court courses was piloted. Now that our 3 Year Experiential Learning Court Program is in place, we hope to hold a national conference at Touro where we will present our program and provide a forum for other law schools to present any programs they may be developing (or already have) that utilize the courts to advance the objectives of legal education.

By Alex Levin, legal writer for Seeger Weiss LLP