One aspect of Harvard’s new curriculum for 1Ls is that students come back to school early in January for a month long term (J-term). All students take one class, five days a week, for three weeks. I guess the restructuring allows the school to squeeze in an extra class, while students don’t feel the normal grind of a full four-class term. Going into it, all I knew about J-term was that every 1L takes the same class, “Problem Solving.” Given my lack of knowledge, I was a little worried about what this class was going to be.
Turns out the course is an exercise in practical lawyering skills. Each day we are given a case study complete with facts from the case and various relevant documents. Afterwards we meet in small groups to discuss the different legal approaches and then usually submit some sort of legal memo with our recommendations.
Problem solving is good because instead of trying to absorb a ton of hard law, we are practicing how to be actual lawyers. I think I figured out that this wasn’t going to be like any other class I had taken at law school during our second assignment. We were doing a case study on a dispute between a landlord and a tenant. We were supposed to draft proposals for a plan of action for the landlord. The class was a little worried though because our professor kept saying really cryptic things like “you never know when your client might be coming by.” I’m pretty sure that the prevailing theory was that our “client” was going to turn out to be our professor in a wig.
Lo and behold, halfway through class some guy came strolling into the room claiming he was our client and demanding answers about the case. Luckily I was not slated to present that day, but I could see my classmates frantically trying to figure out what to tell the guy (who turned out to be an actor).
Therein lies the biggest value in Problem Solving. In our normal law school classes, we learn how to win at trial. We learn precedents. We learn statutes. We learn all the stuff you need to know to beat the other guy. The problem is that not every case makes it into litigation. Problem solving is framed around teaching us stuff like how to calm down belligerent clients, and how to evaluate different options in order to make a well-reasoned legal recommendation. It’s an attempt to teach us all the intangible stuff that lawyers know and that law students should know. We talk about cases and depositions. We confer with our “associates” to discuss matters. We’re drafting memos daily. In fact, I need to wrap this up because I need to make sure my suit still fits – we’re meeting some of the partners downtown to discuss our final projects tomorrow. Doesn’t get more lawyerly then that.