This coming Tuesday Seattle University will introduce a new course that is designed to familiarize students with practical aspects of practicing law in order to prepare them to start work either in a firm, public employment, or in a solo practice. The intersession course (January 8 -10, 2013) is Essential Lawyering Skills: Persuasive Communication; Interviewing and Depositions, and my co-author Professor Marilyn Berger and I designed it and we’re excited about it.
At its core, the Lawyering Skills course is about being an effective communicator. While learning how to think like a lawyer is the time-honored skill taught in the nation’s law schools, the other critical lawyering skill set is the ability to effectively communicate with the lawyer’s audience – a client, a mediator, a judge, a jury, a witness, opposing counsel and so on.
Law schools traditionally have not only neglected to teach communication skills but also have been counterproductive. Jim McElhaney, advocacy instructor and ABA Journal contributor for 25 years, put it this way:
“Law school is as much obscure vocabulary training as it is legal reasoning. At its best, it can teach close thought and precise expression. But too often law school is reverse Hogwarts – where Harry Potter trained to be a wizard – that secretly implants into its students the power to confuse other people instead of sowing the magic seeds of clarity and simplicity. . .
“So we lard our speech and writing with words and phrases of awkward obscurity and rarely have anything to do with legal precision but that unmistakably say, ‘This was written – or said – by a lawyer’
“Because we are professional communicators, it is our obligation to be plain and simple. It’s not our readers’ and listeners’ jobs to try to understand us. It’s our job to make certain that everything we write and say commands instant comprehension.
“And because we weren’t turned out that way by our law school training, we have to reprogram ourselves if we want to be effective communicators.” ABA Journal (September 2012).
The concept that a lawyer should learn communication skills in order to be successful in the practice is nothing new. In his July 1, 1850 notes on a law lecture, Abraham Lincoln stated: “Extemporaneous speaking should be practised and cultivated. It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech.” (sic).
Areas explored during the Essential Lawyering Skills course include: communication skills; visual persuasion; today’s technology; forging and maintaining the attorney-client relationship; witness interviewing and preparation; taking and defending depositions; and civility in the practice of law. Course methodologies include lectures and workshops for the different subjects. The text for the course is Pretrial Advocacy: Planning, Analysis and Strategy.
Seattle University Law School is a leader in teaching how to effectively communicate in writing. Its Legal Writing Program has been consistently a top ranked program. Again, in 2012, U.S. News and World Report ranked the program number one in the country. In harmony with the Legal Writing Program, this inaugural Essential Lawyering Skills also focuses on effective communication skills.