Ian Colby, MJLST Staffer
You walk into the classroom. You read the cases and statutes last night. You wrote out a few notes. You think you’re ready. In this classroom, though, you don’t wait for the professor to get the PowerPoint ready. Instead, you slip on your virtual reality headset and start the simulation.
Now you’re sitting in the boardroom of a major corporation with the board of directors. Your headset lets you hear the simulated directors’ nervous talk. You get a few minutes to take in the glass paneling, the city skyline, and the furrowed brows of the worried directors. You can pick up and read reports on the table. You can select dialogue choices to chat with the directors. While the people and place aren’t photorealistic, it’s good enough to immerse you. When class starts, so does the meeting.
“Welcome, everyone,” the simulated President begins, “err…I’ve called this meeting to apprise you of a developing situation and to get some input from our counsel [you].” The president then lays out a series of facts that go from bad to worse: the EPA has identified a toxic leak in a river adjacent to one of the company’s facilities. While the corporation has urged inspections for months, your dialogue with the directors indicates employees skip them. Rumors float that the on-site manager knew about a leak and covered it up. Now the toxic discharge has polluted the nearby river, residents are getting sick, and the EPA may file suit. The president turns to you. She asks, “Okay, Counsel, what is our first move?”
Law School is a finite period of time in which the expectations start at “don’t even think about saying something possibly constituting legal advice” and ends at “you are qualified to evaluate, counsel, negotiate, and advocate for real clients without supervision.” Other than those students who go onto BigLaw jobs (where the firm grudgingly expects to train the new lawyers instead), these three years are it. For the majority of that time, though, becoming a lawyer involves passive learning: reading and sitting in lectures. At the University of Minnesota, students must attend in-person, passive learning courses for 2/3rds of the credits to graduate. The Law School caps other learning methods. Students hope to absorb enough legal knowledge from these passive methods to do well on the course’s lone exam.
Law schools generally wish to develop lawyers that not only know the law, but who have the necessary skills to serve future clients. For example, of the 23 bulleted learning outcomes sought in a University of Minnesota Law School graduate, only 2 directly state that “knowing the law” is the expectation (Under “Client Service”, there is “Demonstrate broad knowledge of the law and the legal system of the United States” and under Ethics & Professionalism, there is “Know and comply with rules of professional conduct.”) The other 21 constitute crucial skills that budding lawyers cannot absorb from reading cases, passively listening to lectures, or trying to keep their heart still as a 1L, hoping they dodge the cold call. For both learning the law and developing crucial lawyering skills, passive learning means inefficient learning. Jennifer M. Cooper & Regan A.R. Gurung, Smarter Law Study Habits: An Empirical Analysis of Law Learning Strategies and Relationship with Law GPA, 62 St. Louis U. L.J. 361 (2017). While you may be expected to master those crucial lawyering skills, most of your credits do not work to help you develop them.
Now you actively respond to the President. Your choices drive the next interaction with the board. The simulation tests your ability to work with the myriad director personalities, gather the necessary information, demonstrate the application of the law, and maintain a poised tone. The simulation does not limit you to the boardroom. You can instantly immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the waterfront, watch the on-site manager’s facial expressions as you interview him, or review a 3D model of the toxic substance.
Active, simulated learning, on the other hand, is a dramatically more efficient way to learn knowledge and skills. Active learning means learning by doing. Simulations, a type of active learning, allow students to learn by working through a problem in complex, real-time interactions in which they will need to apply that learning. Simulations provide instant feedback on students’ application of knowledge within these real-time scenarios. Finally, simulations provide experiences that a student may have never witnessed before. Many other professions—particularly those that “require mastery of complex knowledge and skills where the stakes for getting it right are high”—utilize simulations to teach the necessary skills and knowledge. Medical professionals, military personnel, firefighters, astronauts, and pilots all perform simulations as a necessary part of their training.
Law schools, recognizing the benefit of active learning and simulation training, have taken steps toward incorporating simulations into the curriculum. At Minnesota, for example, first year students must take Law in Practice. Law in Practice is a simulation course which provides real-time scenarios in which students must elicit and evaluate information, advocate for a client, and negotiate deals. The simulation puts the student on the hot seat: Minnesota’s program is mandatory, provides real-life actors in real-time scenarios, and students demonstrate their skills with local attorneys, judges, and mediators.
However, these real-life simulations are costly, logistically complex, and usually limited to what’s available. Law schools tend to provide simulations separately from doctrinal classes. For those law schools that cannot or do not arrange for real actors and legal professionals, the simulation may lose immersion.
To offer similar benefits as these simulations with fewer costs, and to integrate those benefits into the greater curriculum, law schools should invest in digital simulations. A digital simulation means any interactive, immersive experience that uses technology to provide that experience. While digital simulations can include the latest tech has to offer, such as virtual reality headsets, it does not have to. Interactive CALI lessons can be digital simulations. Video games can be digital simulations. The level of technology does not matter as long as the simulation is immersive, interactive, and provides feedback.
A digital simulation, if done well, would be relatively cheap, repeatable, and provide active, simulated learning opportunities for students. The technology for digital simulations has progressed enough to be readily available—indeed, a student’s smartphone may be used for virtual reality simulations. Law schools could implement digital simulations with less friction than other active learning techniques. The other professions mentioned above have increasingly looked to utilizing digital simulations as a way to provide the benefits of active learning, without the added costs.
There are no defined limits to the variety of clients in a digital simulation. Real-life simulations and other experiential courses depend on availability. Whatever is available becomes the focus of the experience. By contrast, only the imagination of a creator limits the variety of digital simulations. Even if the local market cannot provide a niche area of law, a simulation could. Providing the ideal voice actor becomes easier.
You made a mistake and blurt out that the board should shred all company documents. But you’re not worried. If you make a drastic mistake, the simulation can give you a prompt to try again. Instant feedback. You asked the professor after class about it. You can attempt a different choice that night. Instead of shredding all documents, you advise the board to preserve emails, reports, and other documents.
Digital simulations have the added benefit of providing equity of experience. Unlike the real world, a digital simulation costs little to provide students with exposure to life, the world, or the legal industry. Further, students may repeat simulations with no additional cost until they become comfortable with the topic. By way of example, imagine that you are a law student who has never attended a boardroom meeting (shock!), never seen an easement on a plat, or never attended a courtroom hearing. A digital simulation would allow you to gain the experience of that context while also coming to understand the law. All other items being equal, would a student who has filed hundreds of complaints for a previous employer and a student who has no previous legal industry experience start out on the same footing in a Civil Procedure class? A digital simulation provides a chance for the latter student to catch up.
You remember the reading about environmental clean-up regulations, but this is your first time applying it. You “pause” the interactions with the board as you work your way through the problem. You don’t worry about wasting a professor’s time. You decide to keep the board paused, so you can check out the site itself. By the time you reach the final test in this class, you’ve lived the law as much as you’ve read about it.
Law school provides a crucial time period to develop students’ skills in communication, client services, collaboration, professionalism, legal analysis, and legal knowledge without real world consequences. So why not introduce the cheap, efficient method of digital simulation to adequately develop these skills in the time we have?