World Mental Health Day and Multicultural Awareness

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, instituted by the WHO to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world” and mobilize “efforts in support of mental health.”  Many members of our profession, are challenged by depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.  In 2016, the ABA created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being partly in response to the increased ubiquity and pressure of the digital age.

The ubiquity of email, text and other technological advances, all of which make the advent of the fax machine feel downright quaint, have only exacerbated our legal responsibilities. The pressure is constant. And in the midst of taking care of everyone else, we all too frequently ignore our own stressors and health in the process.  Over time, the subtle adverse effects go unnoticed and mask the existing crisis …..

The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In August 2017, the Task Force released The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Wellness Study).  Many state bar associations – such as New York’s – highlighted the need for lawyer health. 

Law students, too, are subject to similar ubiquitous demands of the digital age while competing, learning, interning, seeking permanent employment, representing clients under supervision, and, for many, accruing debt. My law school, like many others, takes seriously the need to educate and support law students’ well-being and has been fortunate to receive funding from a loyal alum and board member for a Wellness Initiative. This week our Dean of Students and her office have planned a series of educational and supportive events.

Mental Health Week

Another project run by students partnered with alums helps with the economic stress of having to purchase professional clothing and suits. And our Center for Excellence in Law teaching sites provide links to self-help apps for students .

This focus on well being is not simply an administrative task. It is incumbent upon law teachers to discuss these subjects in doctrinal classes, seminars and experiential learning courses while mainstreaming ethics, professional identity and multicultural awareness into the curriculum.  Wellness intersects with several of my law school’s learning outcomes  for JD students. In particular, wellness and mindfulness are important tools in mitigating implicit bias and facilitating students ability to

Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be competent and effective lawyers in a multicultural world. (Albany Law JD Learning Outcome #6)

I experimented with linking the two in class this week. I started the class by reminding students that it was Mental Health Awareness week and the reading a poem by Mary Oliver to get them to slow down.  We also meditated for about 1 minute and 30 seconds by placing a raisin on our tongue and using that time to “Uni-task” by just focusing on the  smell, taste, feel and effects of saliva on the raisin.

We discussed vicarious trauma, implicit bias and how it affects Science.  For homework students had taken implicit association tests,   acquired some new cultural knowledge, read about transgender killings and viewed Hidden Injustice: Bias on the Bench.”  We then discussed how Implicit Bias might work against victims/survivors of domestic violence or privilege abusers which led into discussions of voir dire and Batson.  Students expressed surprise that judges cared about Implicit Bias and that NYS now requires a 1 credit CLE in Diversity and Inclusion. 

We ended class with discussing how to mitigate our own implicit biases.  This is where well-being and mindfulness come in:

  1. Reflection is a tool for mitigating bias. Emphasizing the importance of reflection as a life-long lawyer habit is something we teachers can embrace. Thus mindfulness is not only an important part of well-being, it is a tool to become a more competent lawyer.
  2. When we are tired and exhausted, we are more apt to rely on unconscious patterns, which swings the door wide open to implicit bias reactions and away from thoughtful and considered responses.

The students appeared to understand the connection and to acknowledge its potential. In the final moments of class, I led the students in a LION yoga pose. This was a real treat for me.  As the days get shorter and mid-semester stress hits, there is nothing better than seeing law students laugh at themselves (and me) as they loosen up their tight facial and jaw muscles.

How are you honoring Mental Health Awareness Week at your school or organization?  Do you see the link between mitigating bias and wellness/mindfulness?

The role of law school internships and supervisors

Today’s ABA Journal contains an op ed by a law student complaining that “law school  biases”  infringe on his right to free speech. Part of his critique involved a change in clinical policies after he wore a #BuildTheWall T-shirt to his internship.

“It had been expressed that we could wear T-shirts, and that has been the norm for my one year at this internship. I took extra precaution by bringing a light jacket to cover it up if a client came to meet with me unannounced.”

Others are better prepared than I to debate the issue generally of whether his claims demonstrate bias in higher education or bias on the part of the student. Others can ponder whether as educators, we are more apt to be triggered by exclusive versus inclusive messages since we value designing welcoming learning environments  and growth mindset .  However, I am not interested in this school’s particular behaviour or this student’s startling apparent nonchalance about how his clothing affected his colleagues, peers and the workplace.  Rather, I am more interested in developing a better understanding of the difference between an academic discussion about self-expression, and the responsibilities and possible repression of some self-expression that most lawyers and law students undergo when donning their professional role as legal interns do.

In my 30 years in clinical education, I have witnessed multiple instances of clinical faculty navigating the tricky balance in communicating professional norms, protecting clients and academic programs, and  respecting a student’s rights. Here are just a few issues we have addressed:

helping students without wealth obtain professional clothing

multicultural insensitivity to clients by both majority and minority students

student difficulty interacting with racist, homophobic and/or sexist, clients, judges, witnesses or opposing attorneys

Unlaundered clothes, smelly students

tight clothes (in men and women)

Clacking heels, scuffed shoes, or wearing clogs all day, every day, one’s whole life

Hair over eyes

dirty fingernails

evolving norms around piercing, black women’s hair, women wearing pants, more casual clothing, hair with color not found in nature

evolving norms around cell phones in local courts, e-mail

learning to use an ancient device called a telephone, to actually initiate a call or listen to voicemail

navigating support for transgender students in unwelcoming situations

drooping pants, belly showing, off the shoulder outfits, cleavage

loud talking, gum chewing,

informality in general which can appear as rudeness to supervisors

“distracting” jewelry

women students raising their voices in a question at the end of a sentence

…and I am sure you teachers can add many more. Feel free.

As a law professor steeped in clinical legal pedagogy and theory, I start the conversation with a few  questions:

  • what is the student’s “educational goal” for her academic/professional journey or experience
  • what is the student’s “lawyer goal” in the context of this internship, case or professional experience
  • what are the client’s/workplace’s needs and goals
  • what are the needs and goals of the community that supports you having this experience — the support staff, the court officers, your sister and fellow students, the local legal community (in this area I first must acknowledge my priorities and how current student behavior may close off opportunities for future students)

Then I discuss with the student how the student’s desired self-expression fits within those questions and priorities, and the possible disconnect from her goals and the programs.

This is my approach.  What do you do?

 

 

“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.

 

 

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