Hofstra Law’s Family Law With Skills Course — Innovative Classroom and Experiential Learning Based on the FLER Report’s Recommendations
Co-sponsored by the Maurice A. Deane School of Law’s Center for Children, Families and the Law (CCFL) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), in 2006, the Family Law Education Reform Project (FLER) led a reexamination of family law curricula at law schools around the country in an effort to incorporate interdisciplinary knowledge, essential lawyering skills and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), all of which it found were not covered by most law schools. The goals of the project were to provide family law teachers with the ideas, tools and materials necessary to bring family law teaching in line with modern family law practice and to help students become more effective and reflective family law practitioners, leaders and policymakers.
As set forth in “The Family Law Education Reform Project Final Report” (44 Family Court Review 547), the following three major guideposts for the future reform of family law education were identified: (1) to encourage family law professors to move from a course structure based on doctrine to one based on hypothetical families and the issues they face over time; (2) to stress interdisciplinary models of contemporary family law practice; and (3) to emphasize the need to teach the role and methodologies of ADR, which, by that time, had become an important tool in dispute resolution in the family courts.
In 2007, the recommendations of the FLER Report, particularly its finding that professional skills development should be added to family law curricula, were buttressed by the Report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (PDF) (Carnegie Report), which examined legal education overall. Specifically, the Carnegie Report stated:
Most law schools give only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice. Unlike other professional education, most notably medical school, legal education typically pays relatively little attention to direct training in professional practice. The result is to prolong and reinforce the habits of thinking like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner, conveying the impression that lawyers are more like competitive scholars than attorneys engaged with the problems of clients.
In implementing the recommendations of the FLER Report, Hofstra Law developed an innovative course, Family Law With Skills, which has been recognized as a model by the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). The course innovators were Professor Andrew Schepard and Professor J. Herbie DiFonzo, who were both extensively involved with the FLER project. Professor DiFonzo served Hofstra Law in many roles before his untimely passing in September of 2017, including senior associate dean for academic affairs, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic, and director of the L.L.M. Program in Family Law.
Professor Schepard served as co-chair of the FLER Project, and Professor DiFonzo as co-reporter. They had, for many years, taught the traditional 3-credit, casebook-oriented Family Law course and had also taught in law school clinics and simulated skills programs. Both professors were committed to implementing the FLER Report’s core recommendations in the Hofstra Law curriculum.
Hofstra Law was very receptive to the idea of creating this new course, as it already offered a diverse experiential family law education that included advanced courses, clinics and skills programs. This skills training included the interdisciplinary Center for Children, Families and the Law, the Family Court Review, the Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship and the Youth Advocacy Clinic. Thus, the Family Law With Skills course was born in 2008, with an additional 4th credit added to the 3-credit traditional Family Law course, which remains in the curriculum.
It should be noted that the FLER Report did not recommend excluding the teaching of traditional legal doctrine from law school family law courses; rather, it recommended that law schools offer an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum that, in addition to traditional legal doctrine, should include professional skills development. Thus, the Family Law With Skills course covers all of the same doctrinal subject matter as the 3-credit traditional Family Law course, including all of the topics covered in the bar exam under family and matrimonial law. The extra credit offered for the 4-credit Family Law With Skills course represents the incorporation of learning experiences for students designed to implement the findings and recommendations of the FLER Report.
The Family Law With Skills course combines classroom learning, courtroom experience (through observation and participation in the Navigator Program, which entails assisting self-represented matrimonial litigants by providing them with necessary legal information), simulation exercises, and the participation of esteemed family law practitioners and judges to sharpen the students’ practice skills.
The Skills Weekend is an intensive simulation exercise in which the students are provided with a detailed fact pattern involving divorcing spouses who are both seeking sole decision-making authority and primary residence of their children. The students are broken up into groups, with each group having students assigned to the respective roles of the wife, the husband, the wife’s attorney and the husband’s attorney. The students then prepare and during class practice their testimony and direct and cross-examinations for the mock trial exercise, with Professor Schepard providing them with his input. The mock trial is then held over two days (officially named Skills Weekend), which is attended by volunteer family law attorneys/mediators and family/matrimonial judges who observe, offer guidance and feedback in the trial preparation phase, and critique the students’ work immediately following the conclusion of the mock trial.
The Family Law With Skills course is used as a model by other law schools. It reinforces for the students that substantive doctrinal learning as well as extensive skills development are both necessary in order to fully shape the successful modern family law practitioner.
A student’s perspective of her experience taking the Family Law With Skills course can be found in a separate article on this website titled “Practical Skills-Building in Family Law With Skills Course: A Student’s Experiential Education at Hofstra Law.” Another related article on this website written by a student about his experiential experience is “Navigator Program Enables Hofstra Law Students to Help Self-Represented Litigants in Nassau County Supreme Court Matrimonial Center.”