Case Study

Cold Call

One of the things that many business school and law school students fear is being “cold called” in class. Some students think professors are out to get them, others too nervous to speak up in class, and some just unprepared for talk about the case. All those things happen here at Northwestern Law, just like every other school. Fortunately, the population here at the law school is older and more experienced than other law schools, so the students are usually pretty poised and cold calls often go smoothly. Also, the professors here are great. They’re usually pretty accommodating when they engage students in the Socratic method, and they ask lots of leading questions to help us get through rather than make us stumble.

All four of my professors have different styles for cold calling. They all seem to expect different things from us when it comes to level of detail, degree of analysis, and how much they’ll keep prodding after we respond. My Civil Procedure professor likes to go through cases really thoroughly. She expects everyone to be prepared to talk about the tiny little details of the case and then about how they relate to each step in the case process. To be such a technical class, she really does do a great job at illustrating the concepts as part of a bigger story and at keeping things interesting.

On the other end of the spectrum is my Criminal Law professor. He tends to be a bit more easy going about the cold call and at times serves more as a facilitator than a professor. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an incredibly talented professor and is one of the most knowledgeable instructors at the school, but he’s also good at keeping the course interesting and putting students in the position to succeed. Because of his facilitation style, a large number of people volunteer every class. Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to forget who got called on in the first place, which makes the cold call much less intimidating.

My section is about 65 people, so everyone should get called on two times for each class this semester. At Northwestern, there isn’t really a system of being “on call” like some schools have, rather, the process is a bit more random. Some professors go down the list in alpha order and others reverse order. Some just draw a name from the middle of a pile. And others seem to mirror students picked from other classes that week.

Last week, I got called on in Civil Procedure. I didn’t expect to get called on with only a few minutes left in class, but to my surprise I did. I also didn’t expect to get a small obscure case in back of the book, as opposed to the two main cases for class that day, both of which will likely be the core of our midterm. I faired okay, but it wasn’t my best performance. In Contracts, my professor called on me today. It was pretty unexpected, but luckily I got a pretty easy case. As usual, the JD-MBA side came out when I started talking. We discussed the concept of bargaining and talked about how exploitation impacts contractual agreements. For the specific case, I argued that exploitation was okay and that the company with all the negotiating leverage was entitled to win the case. In retrospect, while my comments were probably rational based on the facts they were also “laissez faire” and a bit unsympathetic.

After class, five or six of us went into the atrium and continued the conversation for an hour or so seeing if we could come up with a better answer. But as you might guess, we couldn’t. The cold call specifically and law school generally are often more about reasoning, problem solving, and synthesizing facts, and less about finding the right answer. Navigating this grey area can be really difficult, but discussions typically end up being a lot of fun.

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Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 Law School No Comments

Summer Pre-Law Program and My Intro to the Case Method

Ever since high school, I’ve preferred energizing teachers who were entertaining and got me to pay close attention for class. Unfortunately these teachers have sometimes been in the minority, even at Stanford, because many teachers focused more on research more than on their teaching styles. But the good news is that business school and law school are quite different. Both have some pretty unique teaching methods to keep students engaged and participating in class. Among others are the case method courses, learning team discussions, multimedia simulations, experiential learning courses, and interactive lectures. And king among these is the case method.

The case method is a teaching approach that consists of presenting the students with a case putting them in the role of the decision-maker facing a problem. While some schools employ this more than others (for example Harvard Business School and The University of Virginia Darden), many schools do make use of it, and it’s hard to debate that the case method is best at keeping you attentive in class.

In a case discussion, students are forced to constantly pay attention to what’s being said, to continually integrate everything as the class moves forward, to synthesize hours of reading the night before, and to think one-step ahead of the discussion. You do this all while being prepared to jump into the conversation and provide relevant, timely, and insightful comments. This is a complete 180-degree turn from my time at Stanford, where many of my classes were often about professors lecturing for the full class and dumping thousands of facts into our heads.

Most people think the case method exists only in business school, but that’s not true at all. The case method, originally called the casebook method, has been around in law school longer than in business school. For a given class, a professor will assign several cases from the casebook to read, and the professor will ask students questions, pushing students to discuss legal rules and think critically about the ambiguous situations. As part of the experience, students discuss opposing viewpoints, and the professor will debate with students by asking and answering questions (i.e. Socratic Method). This is all done to stimulate thinking, empower students to come up with ideas, and illustrate concepts and theories.

Just last week, I experienced this in my Summer Law Prep Program at Northwestern. The summer prep program is for incoming first year students who want to get a head start on law school before classes actually begin. The program received applications from most of the incoming Northwestern class, and they selected 30 or so participants. We spent the full day, from 9:00am to 4:30pm, taking classes, listening to panels, reading legal cases, and participating in case discussions. During the week we learned from various members of Northwestern Law’s faculty, met with current students, and visited attorneys at the sponsoring law firm based in Chicago. Just this past Wednesday, this law firm was gracious enough to host us at their offices and provide us with a nice meal and chat with us about working in the legal industry.

For me, the program really helped illuminate what it really takes to do well in case discussions. I also noticed how the case discussion at the law school is different from the case discussions in business school. In law school, the discussions tend be a bit more focused than b-school discussions. Also, law students tend to focus on the details of a case, whereas MBAs are more interested in the broader implications. Additionally, in law school the cases are shorter, more technical, and care more about building consensus among differing opinions, whereas business school cases often extend for an entire class, are more cross-functional in nature, and value the individual perspectives.

That said, the one similarity I found is that for the truly engaged participant, the case method can help to refine your professional leadership style. Think about it for a second. Just like working the real world, as a student you have to analyze a variety of difficult issues and engage in high-stakes discussions where the results that have complex economic and political effects. In preparation for the discussion before class, you have to uncover the issues at hand, develop supporting analysis, and come up with recommendations, all under time pressure and with limited information available.

In the classroom, you must articulate your response in front of smart and sometimes critical classmates, most who have different perspectives than you and many whom you want to impress. These are the experiences business and legal leaders go through every day, and in a case discussion, you get the chance to practice that over and over again. I am excited to take these these types of courses at both business and law school. And I’m thankful to have a head start because of my summer program at Northwestern.

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Monday, August 24th, 2009 Law School, Leadership No Comments

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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