The Practicality of the Practicum

A couple of years ago, Barrie Lawson Loeks, ’79, looked through the course descriptions as her daughter prepared to start her 1L year at Michigan Law. The school offered some business classes, but nothing that would provide practical experience in the area of business entrepreneurship. Maybe I should teach one, she told her daughter, Jamie, now a 3L.

Barrie Lawson Loeks, ’79

"She called me out on it. She said, ‘Mom, you’ve been talking about doing this for 10 years,’ "she recalls. So it was that Loeks began the process of creating and teaching the Entrepreneurial Business Practicum, or practice simulation. Now in its second year, the class features business case studies, problem-solving exercises, and speakers, all designed to help students understand what it means to be a lawyer who works with entrepreneurs.

As Barrie Loeks explains, "What I’m trying to teach in particular with this group is how a lawyer can support and interact with, and add value to, an entrepreneurial company. Entrepreneurs are primarily focused on the product, especially in the early stages, and not on strategic planning or structure for the business. Lawyers are considered a necessary evil.

"What I teach my students is that they have to diagnose the needs of the business and help the entrepreneur plan strategically for the future." (See related story, page 26.)

Loeks’s class is one of many practice simulations added to the course catalog in the past few years. The idea was to expand skill-based learning options available to students, says Mark West, associate dean for academic affairs and the Nippon Life Professor of Law.

In the past, West says, much of this kind of training would occur at law firms. "We rarely taught things such as how to draft a discovery request or how to conduct due diligence. The firms picked up the slack" with seminars and on-the-job training, he says. With the downturn in the economy in recent years, however, firms were more likely to make lateral hires than to bring on associates who didn’t have these skills.

At the same time, the Legal Practice Program and clinics at Michigan Law had proven to be both popular and successful. "We knew we were getting value out of the non-doctrinal courses we were offering, even before the market forces took hold," West says.

A natural next step was adding practice simulations to courses such as Bankruptcy, Business Transactions, Evidence, and others. In the Evidence practicum, students examine impeachment, hearsay, expert testimony, and privileges, and their coursework includes the drafting of motions and courtroom-based scenarios in which they dissect and apply the Rules of Evidence.

One of the greatest strengths of the initiative, West points out, is that the instructors typically are attorneys who are practicing in the relevant areas today. "You really need current practitioners teaching a lot of those classes," he says. "And demand for these classes is high. I get emails from students saying, ‘I actually feel like I’m practicing law.’"

Professors who teach corresponding classes in a more traditional academic setting also see the value in the practice simulations.

"I have too many students to have in-class assignments every week," says Adam Pritchard, the Frances and George Skestos Professor of Law, who typically has about 55 students in his Securities Regulation course. The practicum—taught by Barbara Griffin Novak, vice president and corporate secretary of ArvinMeritor, an auto supplier—"is the next step and is an important part of a model of teaching doctrine in the first and second years, then moving forward with skills training in the 3L year," Pritchard says.

For Loeks, now in her second year of teaching the practicum, the possibilities are vast. This year, she is pairing law and graduate-level engineering students for the first six weeks of the semester. "Wouldn’t it be great if these students started the next Google, and then they called my law students to be their lawyers? They could be the next big thing in business."

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