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Prof to law schools: Get beyond books and into the real world

Prof. John O. Sonsteng
Prof. John O. Sonsteng

Med-school students stick IVs into patients’ arms, operate on lifelike dummies. Psychology grad students sit in on client sessions. Developing actors memorize lines and produce plays; budding musicians rehearse and perform concerts.

Law students, well, they listen to lectures and take blue-book exams. Sure, they understand law by the time they graduate, but they have little clue of how to practice it.

Unless that changes, says William Mitchell College of Law professor John Sonsteng, there’s not much reason for law schools to exist. Shut down every one of them and send aspiring lawyers straight to the real world and let them learn there.

Sonsteng, of course, doesn’t want to rid the world of law schools. He’s interested in something entirely different, if equally ambitious: overhauling the legal education system with a plan he calls Legal Education Renaissance, or LER for short.

The benefit of experience
“If the basic source [of learning] is from a student’s own experience, then what in the world are we doing here?” Sonsteng said. “Maybe law school should say, ‘Nope, we’re just going to teach you theory.’ That’s OK. But we say, ‘We’re going to teach you to be a lawyer.’ So we better do it.”

The claim that law students get no real-world experience is somewhat oversimplified. Law schools have practicums for upper-level students, where they practice skills in real-world environments, from immigration to corporate law.

But that’s not nearly enough, Sonsteng says.

LER calls for nothing but practicums, from the first to the final class: Students collaborate to study case law and practice real-world skills, everything from writing briefs and preparing arguments to courtroom etiquette and client management.

There aren’t many lectures, and tests are few and far between. There aren’t even many classes. Students are encouraged to learn at their own pace, and professors, instead of preparing detailed syllabi, guide students as needed.

“I do this practicum and I say to the students, ‘Call me anytime, if you’re working on it at two in the morning. If you’re ready, call me,’ ” Sonsteng said. “You can only learn when you’re ready.”

After law school, realization hit
Sonsteng graduated in 1967 from the University of Minnesota law school, and the moment he left, he realized he knew nothing about how to actually practice law. That experience led him, a decade ago, to begin working on LER. He recently published his first book on it,  which details the history of problems with law-school education and provides an overview of his system.

Sonsteng has been working with William Mitchell to begin incorporating parts of his system into the curriculum, but it’s a slow process. He figures that at any given law school, it’ll take seven years just to discuss all the necessary changes, and then another decade or more to get them all working.

That’s OK with Sonsteng, though. He’s patient. And his biggest hope with LER is simply to get people talking and thinking about legal education.

“I wrote a method that said, ‘Here’s how you do it,’ ” he said. “I’m not sure it’s right, but it’s a way to say something’s goofy, so let’s take a shot and see if it works.”

And if someone is talking about changing the system, change has already begun. Meaning, to Sonsteng, that there’s hope after all for the future of law schools.

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