Welcome to Wills Lab

I held another “Wills Lab” (voluntary out-of-class practice-focused exercises) a few weeks ago. This time around, I was Andy Nicole Smith, and I needed someone to write my will for me. I did my best to blunder into the exact issues that caused so much confusion with the real Anna Nicole Smith will. My students set me straight. Nicely done.

How did we get to this point? It’s a long story.

For a while now, I’ve been keeping tabs on the discussion about practice-readiness. Numerous writers have urged that law school include more hands-on, skills training. After reading yet-another such article just after the start of the semester, I decided to take some steps. But first I’d check in with the class.

And so this semester, I asked my Wills and Trusts class here at Thomas Jefferson Law School for their input. I said, lots of observers have said that legal education needs more exercises, more skills training, more practice readiness. I’m willing to do this. If you want, I’ll tear up the existing reading list, heavy on traditional doctrinal Wills law, and instead we’ll bring in lots of practitioners, run group exercises, talk to mock clients, draft practice wills. It will require that we condense a lot of the doctrinal matter, and skip some topics that aren’t really relevant in practice today, but it will make space for a new practice-readiness focus. Who’s with me?

The class vote was overwhelming: NO.

That’s right, no. The students did _not_ want to cut any doctrinal instruction in order to add in exercises, mock clients, and the like.

This surprised me. I had read article after article extolling a switch to more practical approach. But the class felt strongly otherwise. About 3/4 of the students voted against any change.

In follow-up conversations with students, I began to realize why. There are, broadly speaking, two constituencies in a Wills class. 70% of the class is there for bar prep. They want to know all of the black letter law on Wills, but they are planning to ultimately practice law in another area — criminal law, or IP, or whatever else — and so these students really aren’t interested in going through will-drafting exercises. On the flip side, the other 30% of the class consists of students who _do_ plan to go into Wills, either specializing in it or as part of a general solo practice. And those students really _do_ want to go through some exercises to prepare them for practice.

So to try to meet the needs of both groups, I instituted a voluntary “Wills Lab” — like going to Chemistry Lab in college or the like, to put into practice things covered in lecture. It’s not graded, and not required. But it is a chance for students who want more practically-focused exercises to get experience.

I’ve tried to make it a much more practical experience. Like real life, it’s open-book. The students work together in “law firms.” And like real life, the students do _not_ get the info ahead of time.

The classic Wills test gives the students a lot of facts and then asks them to apply law. “Al is married to Betty. They have three children, Charlie, Dana and Elise. Al’s will says, ‘I leave Greenacre to the kids, but only if they marry nice Jewish spouses . . . ‘”

In contrast, for the first Wills Lab, I showed up as the mock client and said, “my father just passed away, and I’m not sure what to do next. I found a stack of papers on his desk. [Hands over papers.] What do I do now?”

And the student “law firm” had to figure it out.

It took a minute for them to adjust their approach.

“Did your father have a will?” I have no idea. You’re the lawyers. These papers are all I found. “Is there community property?” I’m not sure, you’re the lawyers. You tell me.

It took them a minute or two to shift gears from traditional law-student mode, and then they did a great job, asking questions, going over documents, establishing that there was no will (at least in the papers found), explaining intestacy to the mock client, sketching out the family tree and determining deceased-dad’s intestate heirs. The next Wills Labs included a couple of different will- drafting exercises for different clients, as well as a complicated trustee-duty situation.

The students did excellent work, and I think they really enjoyed the Lab option. I’m already planning on using it again next semester, and tinkering with the exercises to make them more effective. I may try something similar with Business Associations as well.

There are complicated tensions in the figuring out the best pedagogical approach. I don’t think this approach is for everyone. But for my class this semester, it worked really well.

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3 Responses

  1. Jason Solomon says:

    This sounds fantastic, Kaimi. Your students are very fortunate. Nice work!

  2. Paul Horwitz says:

    Thanks for the post and best of luck with the “lab.” One thing to ponder: I appreciate why you gave students a vote and why you listened to them, but you may want to draw your own conclusions about the pedagogical and practical value of the lab. If you decide that value is high, you might want to make it a mandatory part of your class for everyone regardless of their own preferences.

  3. Kaimi says:

    I’ve thought about that, Paul. I’m going to be experimenting somewhat over the next semester or two. I think this could be a really good addition to the students’ educational experience.