Singer on teaching students to solve problems

HLS Professor Joseph Singer ’81

HLS Professor Joseph Singer ’81

HLS is incredibly good at training the best analytical minds in the world. Yet its time-honored pedagogical model of reading and interpreting the law is not what the typical lawyer faces each day in law practice. Equipping students with another important skill set, including creative thinking and teamwork, is the purpose of the new Problem Solving Workshop, which launched this winter term as a mandatory course for 1Ls.

It is, in a word, “radical,” says Joseph William Singer ’81, the HLS Bussey Professor of Law, who spent the past two years developing the Workshop with Todd Rakoff ’75 and testing it on upper class students. Instead of looking at a case at its end point, an appeals court decision, the Workshop presents cases with the initial client contact. “There’s no course like this anywhere in the world.”

The purpose of the Workshop, adds Singer, “is to put students in a very practical setting, of learning how to help clients achieve their goals within the bounds of the law.”

He sees it as an essential part of 1L orientation, supplementing the technical skills students learn in regular courses with an emphasis on common sense, judgment, even wisdom. It also stresses that in real life, unlike in case books, ambiguities abound – in the law, in the facts, in what a client wants or thinks he wants.

While HLS’s clinical program, the most extensive in the world, has students represent clients in real cases under the guidance of practicing attorneys, the Workshop is designed as a bridge between classroom courses and clinics, giving them a framework to think about approaching legal problems. Both students and the instructors said they found the creativity and teamwork approach extremely valuable and rewarding.

“It’s the most fulfilling teaching I’ve ever done,” says John Palfrey ’01, Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who hopes to teach it again next year. “I think we have, in the Problem Solving Workshop, a real opportunity to find better ways to prepare students to become lawyers.”