The Value of Skill Boards: Improving Useful Skills or Generating Arbitrary Accolades?
By Thomas Renkes
Skill boards seem to be an ever present pressure on GW Law students. In the first few weeks of the Fall semester, 1Ls are already asked to sign up for the Fall Alternative Dispute Resolution competition. Come Spring time, they’re being told they “might as well” do the 1L Moot Court competition, and are encouraged to participate in the 1L Mock Trial. Students are often enticed into competing by the prospect of board membership; the opportunity to build skills, by contrast, is often a lesser consideration. While it can easily be argued that these goals are one and the same, the reality is that there is a fine distinction between playing the game to get better and playing the game to win.
At GW, there is sometimes a stark contrast between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” A common perception among students is that board members are satisfied with the way the boards work, seeing the exclusive ranks as an “old boys club.” In actuality, most board members understand the shortcomings of the judging process. “It’s all so subjective,” said one 2L who is a member of the Mock Trial board. “You’re relying on 30 different people, in 10 different rooms, scoring 40 different people, to all be using the same scale and looking for the same things.” But fixing this perceived shortcoming would create just as many problems: “There’s really only two ways to change it: either open up more spots on the board, diluting what it means to make the board, or go to some type of head-to-head system and worry that you missed out on all the best competitors because of tough matchups.”
And there-in lies another issue with the skill boards: are they about picking the people who are the best at oral advocacy, or are they about picking people who are the best at oral advocacy competitions? One professor said that meta-gaming the competitions is a serious concern; and when put in situations that are less predictable, those type of students are less capable of adapting on the fly: “There’s a real concern with making sure students aren’t just competing for their resumes. [Skill board] competitors should be focused on building skills. You don’t want to walk into an interview and say ‘yeah, I made this board and that board,’ you want to walk in there and say ‘hey, I competed in this competition and learned this, and I competed in that competition and learned that.’ Expanding your skill set in a meaningful way is what’s important here.” Unfortunately, this message is often lost on competitors. Many students compete in skill board competitions exclusively for purposes of acquiring board membership, and while no one would argue that making a board isn’t an accomplishment, the real goal should be the expansion of comfort zones, the fostering of latent talents, and the chance to be exposed to court room procedures.
Knowing that you’ve worked to improve an important advocacy skill isn’t always the greatest salve for some students, however. Said one 2L, “Yeah, it’s frustrating. It seems like the competitions exist just to remind you that you aren’t quite good enough.” Furthermore, the qualifications of some judges leave students asking questions about whether the judges are able to accurately score certain competitions. As one student noted, “It’s entirely possible for someone to make the mock trial board as a 1L, not take evidence 2L fall, and then judge you on your knowledge of evidence in Cohen & Cohen.” But the implications of expecting judges to have done well in the classes most relevant to a particular skill board may actually raise the bar for membership. Not only would students have to excel at the particular skill, they would also have to excel in its academic application, hardly a satisfactory solution. “I guess it creates kind of a catch-22: you want the judges to be qualified to actually score you on these things, but then you don’t want to get denied board membership because you didn’t get an ‘A’ in evidence either,” lamented a 2L when faced with this proposition.
Ultimately, the skill boards are obviously a positive presence at the school: they foster healthy competition, give students exposure to real world applications of their schooling, and allow students to build marketable skills for employers. They are exclusive, subjective, and perhaps somewhat theatrical, but individual perspective and differences in approach can have a huge impact on participants’ feelings. A 2L who has focused on participating in competitions to build skills said “it’s tough to keep missing out on board membership,” but focusing on the positives aspects of competing makes it a worthwhile endeavor. Skill boards and their associated competitions are much like the rest of law school: taxing, time consuming, difficult, and ultimately disappointing for many, but focusing on the positive aspects of competing is important. Skill boards give students something to strive for, and they provide students with the tools and practice to achieve their goals. Even for those students who don’t make a particular board of their choice, the competitions provide valuable experience. Focusing on the positive aspects of competing, beyond board membership, can make the experience more fun, more educational, and even lead to a greater chance of making the board. One disappointing experience in any competition shouldn’t discourage anyone from continuing to compete, and continuing to learn.