Examples of How Law Schools are Addressing Law Student Well-Being

In a recent post, we summarized the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s recommendations for law schools. This post follows up to provide examples of what law schools are doing on the subject of student wellness. These efforts are intended to educate students and create good habits that they will take with them into practice.

Gather Well-Being Resources on a Webpage. Gathering a list of programs and resources in one place makes it easy for students to know the opportunities that are available and highlights the school’s commitment to student well-being. William & Mary Law School does a nice job of cataloging their wellness opportunities on this page, which links to another page listing “Wellness Wednesday Events.”

Curriculum. Law schools are increasingly creating classes on wellness-related topics. This blog recently discussed The University of Tennessee College of Law’s class Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach).  Many schools have developed courses on the subject of mindfulness. For example, University of Miami School of Law offers a number of classes in its Mindfulness in Law Program, Northwestern Law’s mindfulness offerings include Mindfulness-Based Resilient Lawyering, while UC Davis School of Law offers Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact.  The University of San Francisco School of Law and South Texas College of Law Houston both offer courses in Contemplative Lawyering.

Extra-Curricular. Extra-curricular activities can address multiple aspects of student wellness, from creating a sense of community to addressing physical health. Yoga classes (such as the weekly classes offered at Marquette University Law School) and running clubs (like those at Lewis & Clark Law School and UCLA Law) are popular at law schools. Book clubs (like the one at the Michigan Law which is promoted as a fiction escape from law books) and potluck dinner gatherings (offered for students at Tennessee Law) provide opportunities for students to connect, socialize, and recharge.

Counseling. Many law schools are connected to universities with counseling and related services available to all students; it can be incredibly helpful to make law students aware of those university resources by creating a list on a law school webpage (like the one created by the University of Missouri School of Law).  Some law schools, like American University Washington College of Law, and William & Mary Law School  have counseling and “wellness coaching” services in the law school building to make it easier for students to access.

Creating a Space that Encourages Student Health and Wellness. A number of law schools have given thought to student health and well-being as they have designed or re-designed their space. While not every school can afford a gym, many have made space for standing desks in the library, ping pong tables, and exercise bikes.

Well-Being Committees and Student Organizations.  A number of schools have created well-being committees or student organizations, often at the urging of students. For example, the Washburn Association for Law Student Health states its purpose is to “actively promote the education and awareness regarding health and wellness of the law student body, mentally and physically, while creating a community for students interested in promoting health and wellness in their own lives and in the lives of their peers.”

These examples only scratch the surface of all the things law schools are doing on the topic of well-being. If your law school is doing something that other schools may want to consider, please add it in the comments.

 

Dean Gerken’s Vision Versus Malcolm Gladwell’s Experience

“When we decide who is smart enough to be a lawyer, we use a stopwatch.”           Malcolm Gladwell

“Law school should be a time to luxuriate in ideas, to test their principles, and to think critically about the law and the profession.”  Dean Heather Gerken

On the same day I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating podcast about the LSAT and test-taking speed, I also read Yale Dean Heather Gerken’s insightful Commentary, “Resisting the Theory/Practice Divide: Why the “Theory School” Is Ambitious About Practice.” Both are wonderful.  Together, they shine light on a dialectic tension within legal education.

Dean Gerken’s article inspires us to think about legal education in its biggest and broadest sense.  She posits that, “At its best, a J.D. is a thinking degree, a problem-solving degree, a leadership degree” and she notes that for students, “law school should be a time to luxuriate in ideas, to test their principles, and to think critically about the law and the profession.”

She envisions law school as a place where students engage in deep critical thinking about the law and the profession – both in the classroom and in clinics, and she discusses the interdependent relationship between the deep learning that should occur in both.

Dean Gerken eschews a mechanistic approach to both classroom and clinical teaching.  She points out that as doctrinal and clinical faculty, our collective, and symbiotic, goal should be to train our students to read closely, think deeply, skeptically, and critically.  She notes that we should help our students learn to question legal rules and principles in context of messy facts, to challenge existing legal rules, and develop new rules or applications of those rules, or as Dean Gerken puts it, to spend as much time thinking about “the ought as the is”.

Contrast Dean Gerken’s understanding of legal education with Gladwell’s podcast about his experience taking the LSAT.  In it, he posits: “when we decide who is smart enough to be a lawyer, we use a stopwatch.”   He notes that who gets into law school, and what law school they get into, rests largely on LSAT score differences – differences that may depend in part upon one’s ability to answer questions quickly rather than thoughtfully.

Gladwell recounts his experience with an LSAT test prep coach who urged him not to read the passages closely because he had no time to do that.  Amazed, Gladwell reflects on how, to get the best score, he must not spend time truly thinking about the issues raised by the problems he must answer.

In the podcast, Gladwell talks to Professor Bill Henderson, the author of a seminal article providing empirical evidence that test-taking speed is an independent variable in both the LSAT and timed law school exams.  Henderson, a former firefighter, talks about the times in his life he felt most time pressured.  As Gladwell remarks, Professor Henderson’s most time-pressured performances were not when responding to life-threatening emergencies.  Instead, they were when he took the LSAT and law school exams.

Gladwell’s podcast meanders into the world of championship chess.  Gladwell analogizes how the chess world decided not to value speed, and how that decision changes who is a top-ranked international chess champion.  He notes that the arbitrary value placed upon speed when it comes to the LSAT and law school exams defines who we consider smart.  He wonders what would happen if the ability to answer questions quickly were not in the mix.  The podcast then returns to Professor Henderson who talks about how allowing law students more time to take law school exams can change the outcome of who gets the best grades in a law school class, and hence who thinks of themselves as a smart person, and who gets hired by top law firms, etc.

As I listened to Gladwell’s podcast, I thought about the bar exam.  In an article Professors Chomsky, Kaufman and I wrote, it took us nearly 500 words to deconstruct the analytical process one must go through to answer one tort multiple choice bar exam question.  That analytical process begins after examinees read a question.  Bar examinees have approximately 1.8 minutes to read and answer each of the exam’s 200 multiple choice questions.

While perhaps quickly identifying the correct response is a necessary skill for some litigators, speedy answers to legal problems are not the cornerstone of most good lawyering.  Yet, starting with the LSAT, continuing in law school, and ending with the bar exam, as Gladwell observes, we reward the hare instead of the tortoise.  He asks “why”?

Dean Gerken’s vision speaks to why I became a law professor.  Gladwell’s observations speak to the experience of my students.  I am not sure how to reconcile the two beyond noting that we must first acknowledge the dialectic.  Only then can we decide if we want to  judge future lawyers’ potential and abilities based upon Gerken’s vision or  Gladwell’s experience.

How Practice Tests Reduce Anxiety in Bar Preparation and the Exam

Sara Berman and I recently did a podcast in the ABA’s Path to Law Student’s Well-Being Podcast series. See https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being. Anyone associated with helping applicants prepare for the Bar exam knows that the challenges they face can affect their well-being.  In the podcast, we share our experience that applicants who practice tests regularly learn not only content and skills, but also the ability to manage anxiety as they get closer to and take the exam.

            In bar preparation, students take seemingly endless sets of multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam questions. In addition, their bar preparation companies provide opportunities to practice essays and Multistate Performance Tests (MPTs).  Applicants need to follow the Bar company’s suggestions and to get feedback on submitted work.  They should welcome critiques and suggestions, assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and improve by building on strengths and addressing weaknesses.  If allocation of time to different study methods is an issue (and it always is), applicants need to do more—not less—practice testing than reading and re-reading outlines, flash cards, and the like.  Cognitive science indicates that people retain information better when they learn a concept by applying it in a problem-based approach. See Dani Brecher Cook & Kevin Michael Klipfel, How Dow Our Students Learn?   An Outline of a Cognitive Psychological Model for Information Literacy Instruction, 55 Reference & User Services Quarterly 34 (Fall 2015).   In studying legal rules, applicants retain more by doing practice essays or MPTs because they are learning and applying rules in the context of the facts that trigger them.

            This message may be not be welcomed by an applicant who, when she writes a practices essay or MPT answer, experiences anxiety during the practice test.   Applicants often do not want to face the reality that they do not know a rule.  They falsely believe that they must have mastered a subject area before doing practice tests.   The podcast encourages applicants to practice essays and MPTs regularly and often even if they are do not feel that they have fully mastered a subject.  Using the open-book method for practicing can help someone get the process going.  The key is to break through the resistance to doing practice tests.

            If applicants get past the reluctance to embrace practice tests, they can experience reduced anxiety as they move forward.  Again, the context of our recommendation presumes that an applicant is receiving feedback from a Bar Company representative, an academic support advisor, or both.  When applicants respond to feedback in new practice test answer and see their work product improving, that reduces their anxiety.  The anxiety does not go away but remains at a reduced level—a level at which it can motivate performance rather than interfere with it.   At such a point, it is fair to say that an applicant is managing anxiety.  

            In the podcast, Ms. Berman implored law students who might be listening to apply these principles in law school.   Practicing tests—whether essays, multiple-choice, or other tests—will benefit a student.  The student of course needs to seek feedback, recognize areas in which she can improve, and be working toward that goal.   Those students who I have seen take such an approach report (1) less anxiety on graded tests and (2) that they believe they performed more effectively.  Although the days of a class hinging on one grade at the end of the semester seem to be fading, the final exam still forms a major part of student’s assessment in many courses.  Of course, ABA Standard 314 encourages formative and summative assessment and students are receiving meaningful feedback.   By doing practice tests, such as writing an answer to a potential essay, the student can apply what she has learned from feedback and seek more.

            An excellent article on practice tests concluded that such tests may improve student performance.  See Andrea A. Curcio, Gregory Todd Jones & Tanya M. Washington, Does Practice Make Perfect? An Empirical Examination of the Impact of Practice Essays, 35 Fla. St. L. Rev. 271 (Winter 2008).   The question explored in the article is whether practice essays improve performance.  The inquiry in our podcast is different.  We ask whether practice tests allow students to manage anxiety.  We entitled our podcast “Practice Makes Passing,” to counter the view that applicants must be perfect (or have completely mastered) most subjects.  Applicants need to do their best. However, they will increase their chance of passing by recognizing that practice may well be what gets them to “good enough”—i.e., a passing score.

            The ABA’s series on student well-being is an important look at a problem once viewed solely as an attorney well-being problem. Many now accept that law schools and students are an environment that can diminish or enhance student well-being, depending on choices by the school and by the students.  By learning to manage anxiety through practice tests, law students can choose to improve their well-being. Bar applicants can do the same. By spending their time wisely in bar preparation, and including a healthy dose of practice tests, the applicant will ultimately experience less anxiety and likely perform more effectively. 

Thriving as a Lawyer

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being encourages law schools to develop a “Well-Being Course.” The Task Force explains that such a course can “leverage research findings from positive psychology and neuroscience” and explore the many benefits of enhanced well-being, including improved cognitive performance–in law school and legal practice.

Doug Blaze and Candice Reed developed the well-being course Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach) and taught it for the first time in spring 2019. In creating the course, Doug Blaze drew on his 30+ years of law teaching experience (including his work as a clinician and clinic director, a Dean, and now as  Director of Tennessee Law’s Institute for Professional Leadership), while Candace Reed drew on her legal training, her practice experience, and her background in positive psychology (she holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania).

The Thriving syllabus explains why the course is needed and what students should expect to learn:

“[Lawyers’ struggle to achieve happiness] puts us at high risk for burn-out, depression, alcoholism, divorce, and even suicide. Accordingly, this course is designed to introduce law students to the scientific principles of positive psychology, while incorporating ‘hands-on learning’ through empirically validated positive interventions, which require cognitive reasoning and physical effort, encourage habitualizing behavior, involve goal-setting, and allow for self-efficacy or autonomy.”

Students are provided the following list of themes that they will study in the 2-credit course:

  1. Why are many lawyers so unhappy? How does this unhappiness or lack of thriving typically present itself? In other words, what are the symptoms of a lawyer in trouble? What are the signs someone is struggling?
  2. What are the obstacles to thriving in the law? Why is happiness in the law so elusive?
  3. Is it possible for the highest ethical behavior and client service to flourish under these circumstances? If not, should legal institutions (i.e. law schools, bar associations, law firms and corporate legal departments) encourage and promote wellbeing? If so, how?
  4. What roles do personality, emotions and character strengths play in attorney wellbeing (or a lack thereof)? Should lawyers (and their employers) take these personal characteristics into account in making career choices (e.g. type of legal job or employer, practice concentration, etc.)?
  5. What strategies/practices/habits/mindsets support lawyer wellbeing? What should lawyers do if they want to increase their own wellbeing?
  6. How can these issues be articulated in a persuasive manner to leaders of legal institutions and lawyers themselves to promote lasting, positive change?

Reed and Blaze assemble an impressive list of reading assignments for the class, including articles like these:

Thriving students are prompted to complete the VIA survey of Character Strengths, as well as several of the questionnaires (on on topics such  positive and negative affect and grit) at the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness Test Center

Students do a presentation on a book on a well-being related topic. The book list includes a number of titles, including the following: 

  • Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant
  • The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar
  • Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey
  • The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation by Jeena Cho
  • Wire Your Brain for Confidence by Louisa Jewell

In its 2019 rollout, one strength of Thriving was its unique format: it was taught over two 3-day weekends. Students were required to do a lot of reading, journaling, questionnaire completion, and other work before these sessions. And during the long weekend classes, students were fully immersed in the course material with their colleagues and their professors. The course received rave reviews and will likely become a regular course offering.

 

Today’s Law Student Wellness Programs

There was a time in the not-so-distance past when wellness programs in U.S. law schools primarily focused on preventing substance abuse and suicide. This programming often involved a presentation from the state’s Lawyer Assistance Program. The speaker warned about depression, substance abuse, and suicide for members of the legal profession and the availability of help. While this was important programming, it was depressing and not inspiring for most of our students.

Today, law schools, law students, and lawyers take a broader view of attorney wellness and well-being. We now recognize that students and lawyers benefit from education and opportunities to develop into happy, thriving lawyers. Law school wellness education today is not just about prevention of negative outcomes. It centers around the proactive steps law students and lawyers can take to improve every dimension of their lives.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL) formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being to address attorney and law student wellness. In its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (“Task Force Report”), the Task Force explains that there are six different aspects of lawyer well-being:

  • Social. Attorneys should work to develop “a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network while also contributing to our groups and communities.”
  • Occupational. The Task Force Report references the need to cultivate personal satisfaction and growth in our work. It also notes the importance of financial stability.
  • Physical. In the area of physical health, the Task Force recommends “regular physical activity, proper diet and nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery; minimizing the use of addictive substances. Seeking help for physical health when needed.”
  • Emotional. The Task Force Report encourages lawyers to seek support from professionals when they are struggling emotionally. It also emphasizes the importance of “developing the ability to identify and manage our own emotions to support mental health, achieve goals, and inform decision-making.”
  • Intellectual. An attorney focused on the intellectual dimension of wellness engages in “continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development.”
  • Spiritual. The Task Force Report explains that the goal in this area is “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”

The Task Force makes a number of specific recommendations for law schools. The suggestions include the following:

  • Create Best Practices for Detecting and Assisting Students Experiencing Psychological Distress.
  • Assess Law School Practices and Offer Faculty Education on Promoting Well-Being in the Classroom.
  • Empower Students to Help Fellow Students in Need.
  • Include Well-Being Topics in Courses on Professional Responsibility.
  • Commit Resources for Onsite Professional Counselors.
  • Facilitate a Confidential Recovery Network.
  • Provide Education Opportunities on Well-Being Related Topics.
  • Discourage Alcohol-Centered Social Events.
  • Conduct Anonymous Surveys Relating to Student Well-Being.

In subsequent posts, this blog will consider some examples of the wellness programs, classes, and initiatives that law schools have instituted to address these issues and other areas of need.

 

“Teaching the Next Generation of Lawyer Leaders in a Time of Polarization” – Reflections on the AALS 2019 Conference on Clinical Education

If you have never attended an AALS Conference on Clinical Education, you have missed a transforming and immersive experience that includes supportive peers, provocative learning, and meaningful scholarly discussion while celebrating student-centered community activism.   It is attended both by those who teach primarily through clinical courses and by other professors and administrators who want to learn more about clinical androgogy, experiential learning, and justice lawyering. Deans and other law school folks enjoy the intra-law school and inter-law school collaboration efforts facilitated there.  The Clinical Legal Education Association, an advocacy organization, sponsors a biannual  new clinicians workshop adjacent to the conference and supports the local community where the Clinical Conference is held through its per diem project.  The conferences are always well attended, with the 2019 conference (held last month in San Francisco, May 4-7) hosting a whopping 780 participants.

The yearly AALS Clinical Conference is not a “talking heads” conference.  The program format varies from year to year but always involves intentionally planned opportunities for mentoring and discussion in smaller groups, with ideas and resources to bring back to campus. At the end or near end of the academic year, it provides an opportunity to nurture one’s exhausted spirit and rekindle the right-brain in a community that values  fun, creativity, and play as necessary skills for long-term  survival, teaching, writing  and do-gooding. Often, cutting edge research ideas are presented here before they take hold in the rest of the legal academy or larger community.  For example, yesteryear conferences introduced legal educators to pedagogical, andragogical and curricular theories such as backward design.   In another example, I first became aware of the early research on implicit bias at a Clinical Section program, well before this concept  entered the vernacular, was discussed by the ABA, or became a CLE requirement for lawyers in New York State.

This year’s conference did not disappoint.  Its theme, Teaching the Next Generation of Lawyer Leaders in a Time of Polarization, not only was timely but was intended to suggest that, perhaps, legal educators have a role to play in decreasing polarization and advancing understanding of shared humanity.  The conference organizer’s posited the challenge this way:

Today, we and our students are confronted with threats to virtually every norm in the legal and political world –the environment we live in, a free press, election integrity, judicial independence, standards of respectful debate, facts, the rule of law. Our students appear energized and anxious to take this on, but what new tools and opportunities should clinical legal education be providing? ….

How do we build the next generation of lawyer leaders when our students have grown up in an era of strong division, attacks on institutions of government, and the frequent rejection of civil discourse? 

The conference explored how to facilitate discussion among students and others with diverse worldviews while continuing to sustain productive learning communities for all — especially including those whose identities or religious or political views are degraded by extremist or reductive narratives.  How do we continue to pronounce and support the rule of law? How do we facilitate professional engagement in civil discourse when some classrooms are sorely lacking in diversity and a few students or one individual might carry the full weight of the ignorant or degrading narrative?  The conference organizers argued we must equip our students with creativity, judgement, and a toolbox of knowledge, skills, and values that will enable the coming generation to meet these unprecedented challenges.”

Participating in the conference was wonderfully helpful to my thinking as an educator. It made me reflect and learn from others in the small discussion group settings.  Sad to say, it was not my “transmogrifier; I am not now a wise and perfect facilitator of discussion of polarizing topics. Nor am I now certified as an educational designer of flawless learning environments.  However, I do have five reflections I want to weave into my preparation for and delivery of next year’s teaching as well as import into my discussions about the legal academy.

First, I need to defend higher education and law schools when unfairly attacked. In an era when the narrative touted in some circles suggests that lefty higher education professors exist only to foist their liberal views on students,  I found the themes and discussions at this conference more consistent with my experience in academia. Instead of arrogant proselytizing, most of my sister and fellow educators, at Albany Law School and beyond, try to empower learning in their students, facilitate creative ideas in the academic setting, enhance professional development of law students/budding lawyers and encourage community benefit and access to justice through our work.  Do we always succeed? Probably not. However, most of us have the same shared goals.

Second, I need to be mindful that Americans – and probably many of our overburdened students – are simply “exhausted.” By ugly, polarizing, speech. By hateful acts. By constant “breaking news” of dysfunction in our nation’s political capital. The conference’s plenary session “America Polarized: What Drives Us Apart? What Brings Us Together?” presented the results of a research report entitled, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” It finds an “Exhausted Majority” in the American electorate. This research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Miami Herald, NPR, and CNN.

As I think of my students as containing both those excited about fighting for change but also those exhausted by polarizing discussions, how do I proceed?  How can I pick up on those cues during stressful times in the semester? How can I model and include less exhausting learning methods without shying away from ugly facts, cases, laws and legal history?  When is it time for private “one minute papers,” or private “on line feedback, submissions or comments” and when must something be thoroughly hashed out publicly?

To address this kind of polarized exhaustion, should I revisit classroom rules and class participation guidelines that facilitate learning for all my students?   In my Domestic Violence Seminar course which usually enrolls approximately 20 students, I have found some useful tools in creating an appropriate classroom climate for discussion of difficult issues. My Course Packet includes a modified version of Sophie Sparrow’s excellent Professional Engagement Expectations for the Classroom,   along with an  Assessment Rubric for Class Participation (which I modified from one my Academic Dean,  Connie Mayer,  created.  I am going to review these materials again with the concept of exhaustion in mind. (There are of course diverging views on the pros and cons of making a “safe” or educationally fertile classroom as well as what “safe” means. For contrasting views see Berkeley Education tools and an article about teaching “insensitive” topics in law schools in Atlantic Monthly). 

Third, I will remind myself of the research presented at the conference.  Research conducted by More in Common, a nonprofit research organization devoted to bridging political divides, suggests there is “more to the story” than a polarized populace. Those researchers found a wider spectrum of beliefs among Americans than one would realize when listening to, reading, or clicking on the news. They also found Americans are far more aligned on many critical issues than you might think.

For example, our data show that 75 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, 82 percent believe that racism is at least a somewhat serious problem in America and 79 percent favor providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. In addition, 77 percent of Americans agree that our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.

Fourth, I will encourage students (and urge myself ) to dig underneath the polarization and understand individuals’ values and fears. Professor Daniel A. Yudkin, Department of Psychology, Yale University, a post-doctoral researcher who  presented the Hidden Tribes research results,  noted at the conference and in his NYT commentary here that

our report identifies a powerful explanation for political polarization. It shows how discrepancies in people’s “core beliefs” (their moral values, parenting philosophy, feelings about personal responsibility and so on) explain differences in their political views.

Yudkin recommends this research as an entryway to discussion for teachers and scholars.  Misperceptions surrounding values and fears can cause Americans to misunderstand and misjudge each other. An example Yudkin discusses concerns views of good parenting. Conservatives align good parenting with “manners” and “respect,” while liberals tend to value fostering “curiosity” and “independence.” Fostering a discussion about how we love our children and try to be good parents could help us understand each other’s goals and values,  even if we disagree with each other’s methods.

I will consider whether in the cases I teach, the examples I provide, the arguments I encourage students to form, the hypothetical [problems I create, whether I allow room for development of empathy for the other? Do I acknowledge the underlying common humanity of all actors – in my area, as it pertains to the “abuser”, the “sexual assaulter”, the “murderer”, the “misogynist”? Should I?

Do I focus too heavily on the best opposing argument? Do I encourage enough human empathy for the other side even when preparing students to zealously advocate for ours?

Finally, using the values celebrated and embraced at Clinical Conferences such as experimentation, joy, community support, and creativity, I will continue to struggle with but also make peace with the dynamic that advancing empathy, unity and civil discourse does not impede or undermine my obligation to call out injustice. Upholding the rule of law does not preclude admitting the many times the law fails and how it rarely meets its aspirations in the daily lives of so many of our sister and fellow Americans.

Thank you to the the AALS Clinical Conference organizers, presenters and participants and the CLEA workshop organizers and presenters for providing me so much to reflect and improve upon this summer.

 

Improv for First-Year Law Students?

Just over a year ago, in search of a mid-life growth opportunity, I began taking improv (i.e., improvisational performance) classes at a small theater in Pittsburgh. For decades, I had been a fan of improv as a comedy form but did not have the confidence to think that I could step on a stage and do it myself. Then I happened upon Alan Alda’s book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? Post his acting career, Alda has become a communications consultant of sorts, working primarily with scientists to help them explain complex ideas in ways that a lay audience can understand. One of the central messages of the book is that improv training and exercises can help professionals of all types relate to others more empathetically and communicate with others more confidently and clearly. Alda references studies showing the benefits of improv training and describes his own experiences running improv exercises for groups of engineers and other scientists.

After reading Alda’s book, I realized that my job as a law professor is to communicate complex ideas to a lay audience too. So, I decided that I could benefit from improv classes—and have some fun at the same time.

My improv experiences over the past year, including joining a team and performing numerous short sets before a live audience, have convinced me that, in short, legal education needs improv. More specifically, to improve the learning environment throughout law school, entering first-year law students need improv! (I could write a separate post on the salutary effects that improv training has had on my teaching, but I will focus for now on how exposure to improv could benefit law students.)

There are CLE courses on improv offered for practicing lawyers (for example, in California and Florida), and there is a blog on improvisational skills for lawyers. But how about improv for law students? Based on a cursory online search, it appears that a handful of law schools offer or have offered improv courses or workshops, including Drexel and Indiana University McKinney. How much improv work has been done with 1Ls, if any, is unclear.

The benefits of improv for law students seem most apparent in the context of skills or experiential courses involving oral communication. Indeed, I have begun using some limited improv exercises during oral argument lessons in my 1L legal writing course. No doubt faculty members at various law schools—Northwestern, for example—have used improv exercises in other skills courses. Thinking more broadly though, and extrapolating from studies discussed in Alda’s book, I believe that offering improv workshops to law students early in their law school careers could very well improve in-class performance and learning throughout law school.

Improv revolves heavily around a group or team dynamic. Someone on the team must initiate a scene by stepping out on stage and doing something, or saying something, or both. One or more of her teammates then must step out in support, accepting the reality established by whatever the first person did and adding to it to help build the scene. That is the essence of “yes, and,” the fundamental premise of improv. The priority in every scene is to make one’s scene mates look good and to never hang them out to dry.

A quick example: An improv teammate and I walk onto the stage. She purposefully walks to a corner of the stage where there is a chair, sits down, puts her head in her hands, sighs deeply, and then begins to sob. Since I have walked onto the stage too, I am the team member in this scene who must accept her established reality: she is distraught about something, and we are in a location where she has taken a seat. However, I must also add to that reality. There are myriad ways in which I could do so. I could, for example, walk over, put my hand on her shoulder, and attempt to comfort her by saying, “It’s alright, honey, I never really liked our BMW anyway, and the side of the house that you hit—we really don’t use it much anymore now that the kids are gone.” She in turn accepts the reality that I have created, and on it goes from there, each of us supporting the other as the scene develops.

I see multiple potential benefits for law students (and, in turn, their professors) that could come from some basic improv training with exercises, offered perhaps within an orientation program before classes begin. For starters, law students, like lawyers, need to work collaboratively and need to relate to each other in a civil and empathetic manner. Improv’s emphasis on teamwork can help in that regard, enhancing students’ abilities to work productively and constructively with classmates in group exercises and projects.

Then there is the classroom learning environment and the sometimes strained or unproductive exchanges that take place between professors and students. Consider the ways in which exposing students to improv could mitigate the impediments to learning existing in the following classroom scenarios, each of which should be familiar to most law professors:

  • Professor poses a question or discussion topic to the class and waits for a volunteer to raise a hand and respond. Nobody does. Or, in a similar scenario, professor calls on a specific student, and the student asks to pass (even though the student might very well have done the reading).
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student asks for the question to be repeated, or answers in a manner that is not directly responsive to the question.
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student couches his or her answer in the form of a question, not a statement, suggesting uncertainty and lack of confidence. (For example, in my Legislation & Regulation course, I might ask regarding a case, “Which of the three opinions—majority, concurrence, or dissent—seems to approach the statutory interpretation question most like a textualist would?” The student somewhat meekly responds, “Is it the dissent?”)
  • Professor poses a question that is not explicitly addressed in the reading for that class but rather concerns a hypothetical scenario or a thematic issue in the course that is implicated by the reading. In response, the student struggles to answer or fully engage with the question because, as some students are wont to say, “it wasn’t in the reading.”

These are usually not scenarios where the student is incapable of responding insightfully; rather, the student is just not confident enough to respond or too nervous to respond. Students who have done improv exercises involving initiating scenes and supporting teammates in scenes would naturally be less averse to speaking up in class and doing so in the form of confident and clear statements. They would also naturally be less averse to joining in a discussion after a classmate speaks up (akin to supporting one’s teammate). And they would naturally be more inclined to listen actively and carefully to the professor’s questions and their classmate’s statements. All of which is to say that each of the above scenarios might play out differently—with some robust student participation leading to more productive and constructive discussion. The final scenario in many ways gets to the heart of what improv is all about: going with the flow and accepting whatever comes your way. With exposure to improv, students would perchance be less phased by the question that, while technically not encompassed by the day’s reading, is still well within the scope of the course and their abilities.

In classroom discussion, students whose answers are “wrong” or whose contributions to discussion are somewhat off target tend to view the episode as an embarrassment and a reason not to ever answer a question in class again. I would expect that, with exposure to improv, students would be at least somewhat more inclined to view the episode as a learning experience, which is indeed how it should be viewed.

Posted on the wall of the green room at the theater where I take improv classes is a sign that reads “You Are Enough.” For any law student, improv can impart the message that, even though there will be struggles and mistakes along the way, you are indeed enough. I continue to get nervous before my improv team’s shows, and on more than a few occasions, I have said or done things on the improv stage that fell flat, did not effectively advance the scene, or otherwise just did not feel right. Yes, I get frustrated. But I keep confidently walking in front of the audience because that is how I will continue to learn and grow. So it should be for law students in the classroom, and ultimately in the practice of law, and in life.

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