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Peter Hoffman: Adapting skills education to changes in the practice of law

It’s not enough for Peter T. Hoffman that clinical and skills classes have become a vibrant and important part of legal education. Hoffman, a professor of law and director of the skills program at Elon, is pushing for more.

Peter T. Hoffman - Professor of Law and Director of the Skills Program - B.A., Michigan State University /J.D., University of Michigan

“Today’s problem is that the clinical and skills courses are failing to adapt to the many changes occurring in the practice of law,” Hoffman wrote in a recent New York Law School Law Review article. “It should not be difficult for us, as legal educators, to remedy this problem, but it requires us to be aware of the existence of the problem and to take the necessary steps to bring our courses into the present to reflect how law is actually being practiced.”

Both in his scholarship and in the programmatic innovations he is advancing at Elon, Hoffman advocates courses that prepare students for today’s world of legal practice, including the rise of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), the increasing importance of depositions, changes in e-discovery and courtroom technology, and the increasing use of focus groups to test the persuasiveness of case theories and themes. Hoffman suggests that more law schools consider courses on mediation advocacy to better prepare students for their roles in the world of ADR. He also encourages clinical and skills faculty to stay informed about changes in law practice and to incorporate new knowledge into course content.

“I love talking to lawyers. I think lawyers tell better stories than anybody else,” he says. “I enjoy talking to them about what’s going on in the practice of law.”

To stay current in the legal field, Hoffman also relies on an international network of contacts through his work as program director for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA). He was recently named a NITA Legend. He has taught litigation in 17 countries and 38 states.

Published widely on the importance of clinical and skills training to prepare students for the practice of law, Hoffman is the co-author of the largest-selling book on deposition practice, The Effective Deposition: Techniques and Strategies That Work. His latest article, – "Teaching Theory Versus Practice: Are We Training Lawyers or Plumbers?" – will soon be published in the Michigan State University Law Review.

“Our primary goal is to teach students the skills they’ll need when they’re in practice,” Hoffman says. “A second goal is to teach students how to take the doctrinal theory they’re learning in other classes and apply that to solve the problems of clients.”

Before coming to Elon in 2011, Hoffman was director of the Blakely Advocacy Institute and director of clinical legal education at the University of Houston. The challenge of creating a new program at a law school that’s receptive to change – and in a beautiful state as well – proved irresistible. As part of an effort to stay current on new approaches to law practice internationally, Elon recently set up links with law schools overseas for faculty and student exchanges. One faculty member teaches in Australia, and Hoffman has represented Elon as a teacher in Mexico City, Kyoto, Belfast and the Federated States of Micronesia.

“This is not a place that’s afraid to try new things to improve legal education,” he says. “If it’s a good idea, they’re willing to try it.”

Philip Craft,
11/27/2012 2:09 PM