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Law Students Study as 'Virtual Apprentices'

J.D. students who have used LawMeets say the site trains them to interact with clients effectively.

A new website teaches J.D. students about effective lawyer-client communication through video interactions.
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The medieval educational model of apprenticeship, where students learn practical skills directly from craftsmen, has undergone many modern face lifts. The latest example is a website for J.D. students called LawMeets, which teaches lawyering skills via "virtual apprenticeships."

Many law schools have been modifying their curricula to offer more practical legal training for students who will face a harsh job market as newly minted J.D.'s. But students say that they sign up for LawMeets competitions because law school coursework doesn't sufficiently address the vital area of lawyer-client interactions.

"Most law schools today are geared toward giving you trial experience," says Peter Tsoflias, a 3L at Widener University School of Law in Delaware. "In actuality, most students are going to be doing transactional work, and most students' résumés are devoid of any indication to an employer that they have any experience with respect to transactional law."

That's why Tsoflias joined LawMeets, which was created by Karl Okamoto, a professor and director of the entrepreneurship law program at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law. Students watch a video with a hypothetical client dilemma—such as a question about executive pay—and upload their responses as three-minute videos. Students vote on their colleagues' recordings, and the 10 highest rated videos get critiques from legal experts.

According to an August 14 item on the Drexel website, professors at 48 law schools are expressing interest in using LawMeets in the classroom, and the program recently won a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Tsoflias has seen firsthand the importance of LawMeets, which he has been asked about at every job interview since he joined the site. "Hiring attorneys don't want to have to teach you everything, and they expect that they can put you in the office and give you a case file, and you can hit the ground running without asking a million questions," he says.

[Learn why online law degrees face a hung jury.]

LawMeets can also help law students refine their presentation skills, says Eamon Gallagher, a 3L at Drexel who started using the site in fall 2011 as part of a class assignment. "We were kind of the guinea pigs for the whole project," he says.

It was initially awkward to record and watch himself on video, says Gallagher, but with 15 LawMeets competitions under his belt, he now sees the experience as invaluable. "You get to actually see what you look like," he says. "It really gives you a great way to make sure that what you think you're saying is what you're actually saying."

In his internship with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit, Gallagher worked with clients directly but says that's a rarity for law student interns. Students who aren't entrusted with client interactions should turn to LawMeets, he recommends.

"If you're going to be involved with clients, it helps to know what that feels like," he says.

[See which b-schools teach student-avatars in virtual worlds.]

Tsoflias, who has participated in about five meets as a Widener student, agrees. "Obviously, if we could go out and do a trial by jury in our second year of law school, that would be the best experience," he says. "What these mock competitions and these learning tools do is they prepare you for the real world."

LawMeets not only prepares students for their careers, but it also facilitates expanding students' networks to include other students, attorneys, alumni, and professors from around the country, according to Chai Hoang, a 3L at Hofstra University's Deane School of Law who has competed in two meets.

"I would definitely recommend it to others," says Hoang, who is also an MBA student at Hofstra's Zarb School of Business. "It provides an opportunity to learn, practice, and hone in on transactional lawyering skills."

But Gallagher, the Drexel student, cautions that LawMeets isn't a golden ticket by any means.

"People that are going to be successful in the law field and be those multi-million-dollar lawyers are probably going to get there regardless of whether or not they have LawMeets," he says. "And people who are going to be really bad lawyers are probably going to be really bad lawyers regardless of whether they have LawMeets."