Learning is social in nature. Even if you were able to read all the books you wanted, you would still have to test your knowledge in the real world. That’s where you get the feedback on your ideas and skills that allows you to improve and make a better use of your abilities. In fact, even reading a book is a social activity because you, as a reader, interact with the text: you filter the author’s ideas through the prism of your own background, experiences, and values, creating a unique blend of meaning. The most difficult part of studying law is not the volume of reading and research you have to do, it is the ability to see nuances and make judgment calls based on the specifics of a situation. In other words, it is something that you gain from experience. That’s why newly-minted lawyers often feel so inadequate in real practice even after years of schooling. How can you benefit from the experiences of other lawyers who have been there and done that before you?
Consider cognitive apprenticeship. Cognitive apprenticeship is a method of learning that allows the apprentice to observe, model, and perfect the processes used by the expert to perform a complex task. It’s like a guided tour into the expert’s head. It begins with the expert explaining what he or she does and how he or she thinks on the job. This is not an easy task because people are not always aware of how they do things. Based on the expert’s explanations, the apprentice creates a mental model of the desired behavior. The apprentice then attempts to copy that behavior while the expert observes it. A crucial part of the process is coaching during which the expert corrects the apprentice, provides constructive feedback, additional observations and reminders. As the apprentice becomes more proficient in the skill, there is less need for the expert’s involvement.
While the Socratic method used in law classes attempts to model the legal analysis and critical thinking, it falls short of the benefits of cognitive apprenticeship, which is context-specific and targets real-world activities. You have to be proactive to find opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship. Here are a few things you can do:
- Find a mentor. This can be one of the best things you can do for your career and professional development. Good mentors are golden. It may take time to find them, so begin your search early.
- Volunteer and shadow experienced attorneys in their daily routines. Take notes and ask questions whenever you get a chance. Read more about “getting in the trenches” at Build A Solo Practice, LLC.
- Look into clinical programs at your school. They help you develop practical skills. Also, seminars may be a good option because the number of students is usually small and there is more time for questions and discussions.
- Become a fan of “why” and “how” questions. Remember, people often have trouble explaining how they do things. You may have to develop good questioning skills to guide them in the discovery of their own mental processes. It takes practice, but you will get better at it with time.
- Whenever you read legal opinions, articles or books by respected lawyers and judges, pay attention at how they think and develop their arguments. Notice not just what they say, but how they say it and why.
Do you have any other tips on how to become a cognitive apprentice or maybe, a personal story of cognitive apprenticeship? Share your learning with us!
What can you learn from people?
Orientation Series: 21 Steps to Becoming a Better Learner:
Step 1: Setting your learning objectives
Step 2: Taking an inventory of your skills
Step 3: Taking an Inventory of Your Learning Tools