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Learning the law in context

Professor Michael Mushlin and the Honorable Lisa Margaret Smith have been teaching a first-year law school class that appears to be the only one of its kind. In addition to being co-taught by a professor and a judge, the class approaches material more commonly reserved for second and third year law students.

Beginning in the first semester of their first year of law school, students in Professor Mushlin’s section of “Introduction to Civil Procedure” learn the practical aspects of the law as a means to understanding the doctrine.  Not only is this a unique approach to a traditional course, it also appears to be the only class regularly taught by a sitting federal judge.

Class content, which has been developed and refined over the five years that Mushlin and Smith have been teaching the class, is broken down into three parts:

  1. Simulation exercises
  2. Regular participation of Hon. Smith, a United States Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of New York
  3. Student observation of real-world courtroom activities

The simulation exercises, drawn from a case that once came before the Judge, expose students to many of the skills usually reserved for upper-level clinic settings. Provided with the facts of the case, students learn to draft a complaint, prepare a discovery plan, and argue a motion for summary judgment. Since most actual cases do not go to trial, students are also exposed to mediation and negotiations methods. The intent of these exercises is to expose the students to the processes and provide a context and relevant application of the doctrine they are learning along the way.

The Hon. Smith participates in the classroom activities throughout the year, lecturing on discovery and presiding over simulations. This early exposure provides students at the beginning of their careers with an opportunity to interact with a sitting judge and become familiar with someone actively involved in litigation.

The third aspect of the course brings the students to an actual court proceeding. Though there has been some variation in the specifics over the years, students are consistently provided with an opportunity to attend a proceeding that is familiar to them, receive the papers in advance, and meet afterwards with the attorneys involved to discuss the case. Most years, the Judge has rendered her decision before the end of the semester, which allows students to observe the resolution of the case they have watched so closely.

At the conclusion of each year, the teaching team has distributed surveys that allow students to provide anonymous feedback. Each year, their response has been enthusiastic.

“Having practical examples of how the rules actually work was so much more helpful than just reading a case and moving on,” commented one student.