Learning Curve

Keeping It Real: The Increasing Importance of Relating Law School Skills to the “Real Life” Practice of Law

Lindsey Spain

Assistant District Attorney SVU/Child
Durham County District Attorney’s Office, State of North Carolin

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Lindsey Spain, Keeping It Real: The Increasing Importance of Relating Law School Skills to the "Real Life" Practice of Law, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)

I’m relatively new to the world of Academic Support. In 2016, I joined the wonderful team at North Carolina Central University School of Law as an Academic Success Specialist where I was able to bring my passion for education and the law to law students. One of the classes I teach is Critical Thinking, a skills class designed to help first-year law students transition into law school through learning how to read and brief cases, how to write and analyze legal issues using IRAC/CRAC, and how to outline and synthesize material in preparation for studying for finals. I anticipated that my students would be as excited about starting law school and learning these new skills as I was to teach them; however, I was mistaken. My students were polite and enjoyable, but there was an underlying sense that they did not understand why we were discussing study schedules, time management, and how to read the law. After all, they had done well in undergrad, so why would they need to change their habits now?

All of this transformed, however, when I began to discuss my former life as a criminal defense attorney. My students suddenly became engaged as I related how being able to brief a case correctly and efficiently in law school will lead to an ability to research case law for a client’s legal problem. I was also able to demonstrate how being able to sift through a client’s account at an initial interview to find the relevant issue and pertinent facts is the same skill as reading through a law school essay prompt and identifying the issue and legally significant facts. Creating a study schedule and managing your time was not an exercise for kindergarten students, but rather an introduction into the life of managing a hectic case load where an attorney may need to be in multiple courts in one day, all while juggling filing deadlines, client interviews, and research assignments.

Even seemingly ordinary classroom etiquette skills are transferable to the legal profession. For instance, I draw a hard line on coming to class on time. I explained to the students that this was not me being difficult or unreasonable, but it was preparing them for the courtroom. You don’t show up to court late. Period. End of story. I have known several judges that would make you wait to the end of the day to have your matter heard (even if for a simple continuance) if you showed up late to court, even if your client had made a calendar call, because they viewed tardiness as a sign of disrespect to the court. As one of the partners told me one time, “five minutes early is on time, and on time is late.”

Turning in assignments on time is another must in my class. While undergraduate professors may have been more lenient, I view my job as helping to train future lawyers. A lawyer absolutely cannot miss a filing deadline. It not only hurts his or her client, but it also sets the attorney up for sanctions and potentially losing his or her license to practice. Starting good habits in law school is critical to success, but we need to make sure that we are connecting these habits back to why they are important as students graduate into licensed attorneys. As I began to explain that all of the skills learned in law school are transferable to the legal profession, my students became less resistant and more involved.

We are teaching a different generation of students: millennials. I hear a lot of grumbling around the law school hallways about millennials, myself sometimes included. However, the entering students aren’t changing, so what can we do as legal educators to facilitate their transition to law school? Because these students have a different background, they are necessarily different learners. In a recent article, Judith Wegner discusses this new generation of learners by detailing that “they came of age during a time of rapid change, be it in educational philosophies (think ‘No Child Left Behind’), technology (think iPhones and the Internet), or the economy (think the ‘Great Recession’).”1 She goes on to discuss how these changes have affected students’ relationships with leisure activities and reading, a critical skill for success as a law student and attorney. Students are spending more time watching television, on their smartphones, and on the Internet than reading.

Legal educators consistently say that these incoming millennial law students need to hold more accountability for their learning responsibilities. The newer generation seems to think they will be taught some great truth in law school while being passive learners, when law school has always been designed to be a more hands-on, active learning experience. I agree that we need more student accountability, but one way to do this as educators is to make our subject matter and our teaching more relevant.2 By relating law school subject matter and skills back to the “real” practice of law, we make our teaching relevant to the millennial learner. Suddenly, the student sees these skills and knowledge as useful and becomes more engaged.

When I was in law school (not that long ago!), we were expected to read and brief our cases for class, outline for exams, and write using IRAC with no explanation of why. There was no discussion of how these skills might show up in “the real world” and benefit us as we became attorneys. It was only in retrospect after graduating and passing the bar exam that I truly understood how learning all of these skills was teaching me to “think like a lawyer” and, most importantly, how to be a lawyer. Making this connection sooner for students will not only underscore the importance of proficiency in these legal skills, but will also help our students “buy in” to the pedagogy of law school, ultimately helping them to become better students, better attorneys, and better advocates for their clients.


1. Judith Welch Wegner, Law School Assessment in the Context of Accreditation: Critical Questions, What We Know and Don’t Know, and What We Should Do Next, 67 J. of Legal Educ. 412, 422 (2018).

2. Amy Novotney, Engaging the millennial learner: New research suggests that offering variety may be the best way to engage today’s undergraduates,” available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/03/undergraduates.aspx

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