Law in Contemporary Society

Collaboration in Theatre and the Law

In law school, we may be told that lawyers succeed when they collaborate, but we are not taught to work together. At the risk of drawing a grand and imperfect metaphor, I’m going to look at how collaboration works in a field that I know fairly well - the theatre - to see how we could improve it here in law school.

The Theatre as Collaboration

The most innovative theatre of the past thirty years has been created by small ensembles in which all members share responsibility for the group’s projects. It matters little which member contributes what. The spirit matches almost a truism of the theatre – that it is a collaborative process, and its product is built by the creative influence of many people working together. The standout performer in a mediocre show has nevertheless failed.

Of course, artists are still competitive – they believe their show is and must be better than the one down the street, and they can be as cutthroat and catty as the worst moments of The Paper Chase. But within one rehearsal room, artists depend upon each other – they will sink or swim together. Their goal, competitive as it may be, is to make the performance better, and they will not do that by showing off to each others’ detriment.

Lawyers collaborate; Law students compete

Lawyers too do their best work in teams, working together to serve a client or idea. Even solo practitioners collaborate when they need to -- the criminal attorney in Boulder worked alongside SFLC. If in law school we mainly worked together to come up with more innovative solutions to complicated problems, then, they would be learning to be more like lawyers. I am fairly certain, however, that any group of five students in the first year class working together on the writing competition would turn in a final paper that was “better” than anything that any individual submitted. Some of the competition is forced on us, and some of it we seek out. By the time we start our second years, most of us accept uncritically that working in isolation is the norm.

Reform to Foster Collaboration

Incentivizing collaboration is a different challenge than reforming grades or the curve per se. Of course, even with grades, even with a curve, the school could measure how we work as parts of a team, rather than as artificially isolated individuals.

One simple scheme would be to divide a class into randomly selected small groups and assign each group a detailed writing assignment in lieu of an exam; everyone in the group would get the same grade. Professors would have no increased workload -- reading 20 papers is no more time consuming than reading 100 exams. Teams would be forced to collaborate as a team in order to succeed as a team. Competition would not be absent, as each group would have an incentive to outperform the others.

Hurdles to Reform

If the dean were to propose the above reform tomorrow, however, the howls of protest would most likely come not from the faculty, but from the students. Students worried that unprepared peers would drag their grade down would complain, and work-averse students who realize that the plan would be in fact more challenging than cramming may also raise a stink. It is easier to complain about competition (all the while competing fiercely) than to get together to change it.

In this class, given a wiki and a blank slate for topics, we have learned only slowly. We have had many debates, but the only thing we have created as a group is the music list. It is hard to get used to simply writing over someone’s work rather than commenting on it, and it is hard to get used to feeling that the person writing over your work has done you a favor. So it’s not easy, and it’s not simple, and we have taken a few baby steps. But the music list, after all, is not for nothing. And after all, learning slowly is the best way to learn for good.

So What?

This class is over; no matter what classes we take over the next few years, the majority will offer fewer tools for collaboration than this one did. So if I want to make collaborating with my fellow students a priority, I have to reach out to them and ask them for help, and offer my help to them. We can learn how to work together with or without the technology, if we choose to do so. We can turn the ocean liner if we take small steps and commit to them, just like the small theatre companies that work together with virtually no technology at all.

As a first tiny step, I have asked for and incorporated significant comments and edits from three other students in this class in this paper (and have now responded to Eben’s critique as well). I exchanged revisions and met with the other students on their papers, and hope that my notes were as helpful as theirs were. Whether we learn to work together in the medium of the Wiki or sitting across a table from each other is less important, I think, then the fact that we learn to work together at all. It is a small step on a small assignment, but who knows, it might be habit-forming.

-- AndrewCase? - 08 May 2009


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:14 - IanSullivan
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