“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.

 

Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

A Pedagogical Twist for the 1L Appellate Brief and Oral Argument

For those who teach legal writing to first-year law students, it is the season for appellate oral argument. Yes, the long-standing tradition of requiring first-year students to complete an appellate oral argument in the legal writing course continues today at the large majority of American law schools–at just under 75% of them, according to recent data. At those schools, the oral argument, which is commonly the capstone exercise near the end of the spring semester, has become something of a rite of passage for the students.

In a 2011 article, Legal Research and Writing as Proxy, I argued that assigning an appellate brief and appellate oral argument in the 1L legal writing course remains a pedagogically sound practice, even though a large majority of practicing attorneys will never engage in appellate practice, let alone complete an appellate oral argument. I still retain that view but won’t rehash my arguments here. Rather, I will focus on a pedagogical opportunity afforded by the brief/oral argument sequence of assignments that I discovered more recently.

In the last few iterations of my legal writing course, the appellate brief and oral argument assignments have proven an excellent vehicle for a bit of a pedagogical twist: A few weeks before the brief is due, not after, I teach lessons on oral argument and require the students to complete a practice oral argument round in front of my 2L teaching assistants. (The formal rounds of oral argument in front of a trio of local attorneys still occur after the briefs are submitted.) For many years, I kept brief writing and oral argument entirely separate—only after the briefs were completed and submitted would I shift the students’ attention to oral argument. (After all, that mimics the realities of the “real world“ of appellate practice.) But as a pedagogical matter, just like writing the brief helps in preparing an oral argument, working on an oral argument–and thereby having to talk out and defend one’s positions–can help in preparing a brief.

A few weeks before the brief is due, most students will have a scattered and underdeveloped array of arguments. Completing a practice oral argument can help them–or, in the case of those students who are spinning their wheels, force them–to organize and further develop those arguments for the purposes of the brief. In pursuit of this goal, I ask my TAs to give extensive feedback to both students after each practice round. Moreover, I require every student to attend two additional practice rounds as observers. At each round, the student representing Petitioner, the student representing Respondent, and the students attending as observers also begin to appreciate the formalities and peculiarities of oral argument, thus helping them to prepare for the formal rounds that will occur after submission of their briefs.

This semester, shortly after the practice rounds (just over a week before the briefs were due), my students graciously agreed to provide me some feedback on the experience. One of my students volunteered to solicit comments from all of her classmates, anonymize those comments and her own, and then send them to me. Twelve out of fourteen students in my small section gave a positive review. I include two of the more thoughtful evaluations here:

  1. I found doing the practice oral arguments before my brief was fully written to be helpful. Arguing my side in the courtroom and fielding questions from the TAs helped me more precisely narrow the theme of my arguments and determine how I wanted to frame my position in the brief itself. After receiving pushback from the TAs on certain points, I was able to refine my responses to common criticisms that would come from the other side. Additionally, I now feel more comfortable going into the “official” oral arguments having completed a practice round. However, I would have liked to participate in another mandatory practice round with the TAs after my brief is written; the substance of my oral argument has substantially changed since my first practice round.
  2. Practice oral arguments were a large motivator to get my arguments organized. I found it really helpful to speak out loud about the arguments. Doing so really helped me understand what my points were and whether or not they held up against scrutiny. Speaking about the arguments also helped me understand how they related to each other. The TA’s did a good job of making us feel comfortable throughout the process. I think overall the exercise is going to be beneficial as long as the practice round is kept informal. We were all stressed about how to perform the oral arguments, so maybe there could be a concession in the formality/process of the oral argument that could make us more comfortable.

Good food for thought, as I continue the tradition of appellate oral argument again next spring.

New Blog on Teaching and Learning Features Contributions from Law Faculty

Touro College has launched a Teaching and Learning Exchange Blog that all are welcome to drop in on.  Some of the recent posts discuss topics this Best Practices blog has highlighted in the past. For example, recent postings from four law faculty include: Laura Dooley , Hypo Hell: Using Short Form Questions in Class to Engage Students with Important Texts; Jack Graves, Multiple Choice Questions as an Integral Part of an Effective Assessment Regime; Dean Harry Ballan (and Dylan Wiliam), In Defense of Multiple Choice; and Meredith Miller, Day One: You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression.  Other interesting posts from faculty across the College include: Attention, Memory, and  Learning: What Do We Know? So What?, “I’m Not an Actor?” and Curiosity Feeds the Cat. Please bookmark this blog, facilitated by Dr. Rima Aranha.

Leadership Education in Law School: You’re Already Providing It

Regardless of whether they think of themselves as leaders, our law students will play a leadership role for the rest of their lives. Certainly many will be leaders in their local legal community, in their law offices, and in various bar associations. But beyond that, all lawyers will be expected to lead outside of their law practices. As a lawyer (and sometimes the only lawyer) in their community group, family, or organization, they will be looked to for leadership.

Just as our students may not recognize themselves as leaders, we may not recognize ourselves as teachers of leadership. But we are. Most of our classes provide excellent opportunities to talk about leadership, even if “leadership” is not in the title. And we model leadership in how we treat our students and other members of the law school, how we contribute to and connect with our communities, and how we help move our law schools forward to address the changing profession.

Recognizing the growing interest in leadership education for lawyers, the AALS Section on Leadership was chartered in November 2017. The section describes its purpose as promoting “scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.” This section is a great place to start for a law professor who wants to learn more about leadership education.

Law professors interested in getting some innovative ideas for integrating leadership-related topics into their classes should consider attending a workshop and roundtable at the University of Tennessee College of Law on April 4-5, 2019. The program is titled Leadership Development for Lawyers. The “workshop” day of the program will give attendees the chance to choose two of four interactive sessions: collaborating with career services; integrating well-being into leadership curricula; assessing leadership development efforts; and effective leadership skill development exercises. Then, the “roundtable” day of the program will provide an opportunity for conference attendees and panelists to share ideas and experiences in leadership education.

The goal of the Tennessee workshop and roundtable is to bring together a large group of legal educators who are working in the area of lawyer leadership education–including professors who don’t (currently) think of themselves as “leadership” teachers.

 

 

More Resources Re Teaching, Learning, and Bar Passage

Thank you to Best Practices for Legal Education Blog for having me as a blogger this week.  I hope the examples I’ve provided about methods medical schools use to evaluate their curriculum, test the effect of new programs, and look for factors that affect success on licensing exams.  As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the most comprehensive source for research based information about bar passage programs as well as a source of funding for sources is AccessLex.  There is a growing literature of articles from schools which have implemented successful bar passage programs.  Here’s an article by Louis Schulze about his work at FIU.

You might also be interested in a series of articles from back in 2009-2010 when those at the front lines of legal education, first year faculty and legal writing and research faculty, began to see significant differences in performance between the students they were teaching and those in the past.  These articles provide information about how substantial changes to the k-college education system in the U.S.A. impacts law students’ transition to law school. This article by Rebecca Flanagan is a good overview.  Prof. Patricia Grande here.  A literature review of law learning strategies by Profs Jennifer M. Cooper and Regan A.R. Gurung.   One more by Profs Susan Stuart and Ruth Vance

Here are the proceedings of a 2014 Symposium entitled “Teaching the Academically Underprepared Law Student” and I invited readers to take advantage of the comments section of this blog to share other publications—including the many more recent ones.  My point here is historical, not bibliographical.  And here, as a quick reminder of one of the crucial skills the bar doesn’t test– research.  Caroline L. Osborne

Finally, something I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the new collaboration between LSAC and Khan Academy providing free, on-line, very high quality LSAT preparation may have something to offer law students.  The skills underlying LSAT performance, close reading and legal reasoning, are not immutable—students can get better at them after enrolling in law school and may find some time with these materials a helpful and interesting way to brush up on these skills.

 

 

What Do We Remember about our Teachers Decades Later?

This coming academic year will be my 20th in law school teaching. Truth be told, I don’t really need a milestone in my career to grow contemplative and introspective, as I am wont to do so under far more mundane circumstances anyhow, but this milestone is definitely doing the trick.

The grandest question that I might ask myself is what sort of difference I have made in the lives and careers of the students—well over one thousand, I expect—that I have taught or worked with since I joined the legal writing faculty at the University at Buffalo in 1999. (In 2002, I moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and am still on the faculty there.) That is a rather abstract query, bordering on the metaphysical, I suppose. A related but more concrete question that I have actually been pondering is this: Decades after someone has been my student, what will he or she remember about me or my teaching? Something, I hope! And something positive, I hope too! Is there a particular thing I said, lesson I taught, teaching technique I used, kind gesture I made, or even joke I told that will stick with them, and maybe have a positive impact, even decades later?

Thinking back to my years in college and law school, I can easily identify the most  impactful specific thing that one of my professors did. I can even remember the date—September 26, 1983—as it was my very first day of classes as a freshman at the University of Washington. The class was Political Science 101, and the professor was Reza Sheikholeslami.

After I and hundreds of my fellow undergraduate students (mostly freshmen) settled into our seats in the lecture hall, Professor Sheikholeslami, sharply dressed and looking the part, strode confidently to the lectern. He scanned the crowd of young faces. Then came his first words: “Would everyone please stand up.” I hadn’t the slightest idea why we needed to stand up, and I doubt that any of the other students did either. But, promptly and without any hesitation, we all complied. He paused and again briefly scanned the crowd. “Alright,” he said, “please go ahead and sit down.”

After we settled back into our seats and the lecture hall again grew quiet, Professor Sheikholeslami explained, “This is Political Science 101, and the goal of this course is to teach you why you just stood up and then sat down.” Being an impressionable 18-year-old, I was mesmerized.

Of course, standing up and then sitting down in compliance with a professor’s instruction does not begin to reach the level of gravity of what happened in the various societies and cultures that we ultimately studied in the course. Think Nazi Germany, for example. But the metaphor Professor Sheikholeslami delivered with his opening words was ever so powerful, and the course largely lived up to it.

Wherever I see demagoguery or other anti-democratic forces rearing their ugly heads, and people are blindly following an authority to their own detriment and the detriment of others, I think back to Poly Sci 101. (I’ll refrain from further comment on the current political climate in this country.) Moreover, in various contexts in the law school classroom, I have drawn from the simple but crucial lessons of that first class with Professor Sheikholeslami. Sometimes, in my Legislation & Regulation course, the substantive lesson about obedience to authority underlies a thread of classroom discussion. More often, regardless of the course, the pedagogical lesson—try to leave a lasting positive impression with one’s students—drives me to think more creatively about how to approach a class topic.

Among the numerous professors that I had across four years of undergraduate study and three years of law study, off the top of my head I could probably name one-third of them (a higher percentage from law school than from undergraduate, I expect).  And among those whom I can remember off the top of my head, only a handful of them sit prominently in my memory—because of how talented they were as teachers, how funny they were in the classroom, how helpful and supportive they were in one-on-one work on a research project, etc. But only one remains prominent in my memory for one particular thing that he did in the classroom: Professor Sheikholeslami.

A few years after I benefited from his creative and thoughtful teaching, Sheikholeslami became the Masoumeh and Fereydoon Soudavar Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Oxford. I was saddened to learn recently that he died earlier this year at the age of 76. I regret that I never succeeded in reaching him to tell him of the positive impact that he had on me—as a person and as a teacher.

To be sure, there are many ways to define and measure good teaching. Now that I will soon begin my third decade in legal education, what I often come back to when I ponder my own qualities as a teacher is this: What do I say or do as a professor that will stick in a student’s memory and still carry some positive influence—no matter how concrete or abstract—decades later? A fond memory of any kind would be great. A memory on the level of my memory of Reza Sheikholeslami in Poly Sci 101 would be a wonderful bonus.

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