(AJT / iStock Photo)

A s new and returning law students get ready for classes this fall, there is no shortage of advice about what types of courses they should take, what their law school experience should and shouldn’t be and what their job prospects after law school might — or might not — be.

Last spring, in a commencement address at the College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law in Virginia, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia waded into the debate over legal education, lancing faculty who teach too little, law schools that charge too much and those who would reduce law school to two years.

At the same time that he said law school should remain a three-year enterprise, he also criticized law school curricula that offer esoteric courses unrelated to the practice of law. His criticisms were blunt and succinct, and deserve serious attention.

I do agree with some of what Scalia said, particularly with his support for three-year programs — that law school prepares students for a profession, not a trade, and therefore should not be a two-year trade school. I respectfully dissent, however, from his discussion of electives, even ones that may appear to stray from the narrow path of core law school subjects. For me, this is personal. I teach one of those “Law and …” courses, as they are sometimes called, which Scalia criticized as superfluous. These courses often round out a student’s education by attempting to teach core competencies needed to flourish in the practice of law as a profession, and those he or she might not learn in so-called “black letter” law courses.

A RANGE OF COMPETENCIES

The course I teach to upper-level students at Albany Law School is called “Law and Social Innovation: Creative Problem Solving.” In it, I try to expose students to exercises that can help them develop a range of the competencies they need to practice law. It also offers them an opportunity to work on thorny and real social problems requiring legal creativity and ingenuity to address.

Mimicking a business-school course, we use the “case method” to analyze instances when lawyers used the tools at their disposal to address social problems, and assess the effectiveness of those tools in bringing about the desired social change.

Students also learn a range of skills they are expected to gather along the way, whether in law school or after — from how to pitch an idea and tell a compelling and effective story, to working in groups and tapping into their own creativity.

Students read from texts not typically found in the law school canon, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” and Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.”

In this latter work, Pink, a recovering lawyer, talks about the “aptitudes” needed to excel in today’s economy. These include design, which Pink describes as creating something beautiful or engaging; storytelling, crafting a compelling narrative; symphony, seeing the big picture and marshalling and coordinating resources in light of it; empathy, forging relationships; and meaning, pursuing fulfillment.

Most law schools do indeed grasp that a broader set of skills than have traditionally been expected of graduates are what lawyers need to thrive today. Several years ago, professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted extensive research to gather information about the skills lawyers need today to be effective. My course tries to address a range of them, including interviewing, writing, speaking, strategic planning, empathy, and working with others.

REAL PEOPLE, REAL PROBLEMS

Of course, many of the Shultz and Zedeck skills are imparted to law students in traditional law school courses. But some of them — like developing empathy — can only come from courses that help students expand their horizons and interact with real-world problems and real people.

Clinical programs in law schools across the country have been doing this for decades. In addition, “problem-solving courses” like mine are now being offered in many schools, and Harvard Law School has a program, mandatory for all students, built around teaching students problem-solving skills. It is courses such as these that help round out each law student’s education and develop the skills needed to thrive in the legal community of the 21st century.

Csikszentmihalyi has studied individuals from many disciplines — scientists, artists and musicians, to name just a few. When these professionals talk about those moments when they are fully immersed in their craft, they describe what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” — “the joy of discovery, of solving a problem, of being able to express an observed relationship in a simple and elegant form.” In this state, “what is rewarding is not a mysterious and ineffable external goal” but the activity of their profession itself.

Yes, law students should develop a strong base of core legal subjects, but they should also be able to soar a little. It is the broad characteristics of the craft of lawyering that distinguish the technician from the artist, the functionary from the professional.

And while Scalia and others might jettison such courses as mine from the canon, it might just be these complementary courses that help round out our students’ education and help them experience the full range of professional possibilities a career in the law offers.