Building A Solid Foundation Before Week 1

By Louis Jim, Assistant Professor, Albany Law School

One year ago, I began teaching Introduction to Lawyering, which is the required 1L course on legal analysis, communication, and research at Albany Law School. The textbook I used, like many “legal writing” textbooks, provided information about the types of legal authorities (primary or secondary) and weight of those authorities (mandatory or persuasive). And any textbook about legal authorities would, of course, also provide information about this nation’s three-tiered court structure. In class, I discussed those concepts, showed flow charts illustrating the structure, and distributed a map of the circuit courts of appeals. But I failed to assess whether my students truly understood the significance of the three-tiered structure and how that significance related to their other first-year classes.

This past summer, I attended the AALS New Law Teachers Workshop, where a number of presenters inspired me to think about new methods to assess whether my students understand the foundational needed to succeed in the first year and beyond. In response, I made two significant changes to my course design this semester. First, I required my students to complete weekly reflections in the last ten minutes of our Friday class.[1] The students must tell me two things they learned in my class and two things they want to learn more about in class. Students may then leave comments or ask questions on any topic even if the comments or questions are not related to law school.

Second, rather than simply discussing court structure with them, I created an in-class activity to assess whether students understood the significance of that structure. The students completed this activity at our first Friday session, which was the last day of their first week of law school. I rewrote a hypothetical that was originally written by my colleague at Albany Law School, David Walker, Assistant Professor and Director of the Schaffer Law Library, for a quiz in his advanced legal research class. A copy of the hypothetical can be found here:

The students spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of class reading the hypothetical. I then asked a series of multiple choice and short answer questions using Poll Everywhere based off the hypothetical. A copy of those questions can be found here:

I provided a link to the webpage where students would respond the poll’s questions, and students answered the questions using their laptops. Their anonymous responses were displayed on the large monitors at the front of the classroom. As we worked through the questions and hypothetical, I defined common terms that students would encounter in the cases they read for their doctrinal classes (e.g., motion, ruling, opinion, holding, judgment, etc.). I also distributed an outline that allowed the students to write the definitions and take other notes. A copy of that outline can be found here:

I hid the responses until at least three-quarters of the class had responded as I did not want a student’s response to be influenced by their classmates’ responses. By displaying their answers anonymously, every student could participate without fear of embarrassment, a fear prevalent in the first few weeks of law school. By using Poll Everywhere, the students who did not choose the right answer also saw that they were not alone. For each question, we also discussed each of the answer choices and why a particular choice was correct and the other ones were incorrect. Because everyone had to answer the questions, everyone—and not just the victim of the cold call—stayed engaged.

Because we completed this activity on the first Friday that we met, the students also completed their first reflection on that day. One student had commented in her reflection that she wished that we had completed that activity before the first week of classes began because it gave her a better understanding of the assigned case law in her doctrinal classes. I met with this student that following Monday, and she said she had a better understanding of her Week 2 reading assignments in her doctrinal classes after having completed the activity. Another student added that the activity filled many gaps in his understanding of the material in his doctrinal classes. Later that week, another student told me in person that she also wished we had completed the activity before the first week of classes.

As attorneys and/or professors, we often take for granted our understanding of the hierarchy of authority of the court system and our understanding of the terminology common in case law. Those just starting law school, however, may have never read a case before. But more often than not, the new law students’ first law school assignment requires them to read a case (likely more than one) and be prepared to discuss the case (or cases) on the first day of class. Those readings contain terms and concepts that new law students may have heard on television or read in a newspaper, but most new law students lack an understanding of how those terms and those concepts relate to the substantive law. Students may then feel discouraged in the first week because they don’t understand the concepts that seasoned attorneys take for granted. Although law students should and must develop skills in synthesizing rules and applying them, as educators, we must provide a solid foundation so that students can start developing those skills. With that in mind, next year, I hope to complete this activity even earlier so that students begin Week 1 with a solid foundation.


[1] This semester, I teach two sections of Lawyering, and each section meets once on Wednesday and once on Friday. On weeks in which we don’t have time to complete the weekly reflection in class, the reflection becomes an optional assignment that students can email to me. Much to my surprise and delight, some students completed the optional reflections too.

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