Insights From Legal Writing Prof

As I was frantically trying to clear out my emails to stay under my disk quota, I ran across an email sent to the faculty by Barbara Blumenfeld, our Legal Research and Writing Director. I had saved it because I liked it. I thought it could use a broader audience so I asked her if I could post it. She graciously gave her permission. Here it is:

This past summer the Legal Writing Director’s conference focused on “Best Practices in Teaching, Management, and Scholarship.” We had several speakers and workshops on both the Best Practices and Educating Lawyers books. This reflects the fact that legal writing has been concerned with and teaching using many of what are the “best practices” for twenty years or more.
One of our plenary speakers was Judith Wegner, one of the authors of Educating Lawyers. Some of her comments reflect what you already know if you have explored the legal writing literature or talked with legal writing professionals: that legal writing is not an English class but is about reasoning and argumentation and that its pedagogy can lend insight to legal education generally. That is, it teaches legal communication and problem solving. Professor Wegner noted many of the special virtues of legal writing pedagogy, including:
* Bringing together content knowledge and practical skills in close interaction
* Allowing “time out” to observe/analyze thinking
* Fostering of the development of metacognition
* Tacit structure that models professional practice and self-awareness
* Integration of “practice” and professional identity with theory/cognition
Since lawyers are generally communicating a legal proof to a variety of audiences, legal writing must teach the skills necessary to develop that proof as well as to communicate it. Those skills are many of the skills noted as essential to training lawyers. Legal writing professionals have been studying learning theory and applying it to this teaching task for many years. Your UNM legal writing faculty would be delighted to discuss these thoughts and legal writing pedagogy with you more, either individually or perhaps as a panel at a dean’s hour or something similar.

What Does Competency Look Like?

Lately, I find myself asking myself a question right before teaching some material, “What does competency look like in this subject area?”  I ask this in part because of student statements about the opaqueness of legal ed — that they do not know what we want them to be learning, exactly.  I also ask this question in part from recent realizations that teaching from a case book and being attentive to case law (or statutes or even problems) does not indicate what I really want students to learn about that material — namely the frameworks for analysis, the depth of knowledge and the application of that material to other fact patterns.  By covering material, I still am teaching law students as law students — not as test-takers or attorneys.  So I have tried to shift my approach sometimes and be more explicit about what competency looks like.  I may suggest a court’s or student’s analysis merits competency in an area or announce in class, “Here’s what a competent statement of a rule might look like,” or “Here’s how a defense lawyer might argue this issue.”  I know that this might be construed as spoon-feeding, but I want students to understand the general framework of a competent answer before I ask them many more hypothetical fact patterns.  (After all, piano teachers demonstrate competency before asking their charges to practice toward that goal.)  Has this express use of competency been successful?  I don’t know.  I do know it feels right to treat students not always as students, but also as future test-takers and lawyers — as “doers” and not just as note-takers or listeners.

A Colleague’s Thoughts on Curricular Planning

As we have been working on curricular planning, one of my colleagues, Laura Gomez could not attend an early meeting (I think she was at a book signing or her son’s field trip or something). With her permission, I am posting her thoughts:

Initially I’d like to thank Suellyn for turning our attention to the Carnegie report and to the Best Practices for Legal Education report. Together, the books point to deeply entrenched problems with how law schools teach and prepare students for the legal profession; they also suggest strategies for improvement. I share Suellyn’s assessment that we at the Universityof New Mexico are poised to take advantage of the cumulative wisdom presented in these studies. We are well-suited to do so for three reasons: (1) we are a highly collegial group (those of us who have come from other institutions might see this more clearly, but I think we all know it at the gut level); (2) we have a tradition of valuing teaching and truly caring about students; and (3) we have an enviable student-faculty ratio.

Reading these two books helped… Continue reading

What Makes a Good Law Professor: A Student Perspective

As a recent graduate (< 1 year) of Albany Law School, and a current Graduate Fellow in the Albany Law School Clinic, I’ve had the unique opportunity to be on both sides of the legal education fence.  Recent conversations with both doctrinal and clinical professors regarding the student experience in law school has made it clear that students and faculty/administration have very different perspectives on who the “good professors” are.  In almost every instance the students’ opinion (based on my understanding of the most pervasive complaints overheard in school corridors) was in direct opposition to the professors’ perspective.  Those professors who perennially fall within student disfavor seemed to be the ones that were most highly regarded by their colleagues for their teaching skills, and vice versa.

So, prompted by Professor Schwartz’s project (see prior post), and my unique position, I ask what makes a good law professor?   Continue reading

What Do the Best Law Teachers Do?

Recently, Professor Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law, and a contributor to this blog, sent me the following email:

Dear Colleagues,
 I am in search of the best law teachers in this country, and I could use your help.  I have the extraordinary opportunity to conduct a law professor-focused, follow-up study to Ken Bain’s wonderful What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2004).

 Thus, I am writing to solicit your nominations. In particular, I am looking for teachers who consistently produce extraordinary learning, who change their students’ lives and whose instruction stays with students long after they graduate from law school. I hope what I produce inspires you as much as Professor Bain’s work has inspired me.

Over the next three years, I will be:

  • soliciting nominations;
  • gathering evidence of nominees’ excellence;
  • paring the list of nominees to the most extraordinary law teachers;
  • visiting law schools around the country, sitting in on classes, interviewing the nominees, and talking to focus groups of students and alumni;
  • and then publishing what I have found in a book: What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011).

I have set up a web nomination process (although I will also accept nominations by phone, by e-mail, by regular mail, or in person).

To nominate a candidate or learn more about this project, please go to Click on the link on the right side of the page to get to the nomination form.

 To honor those who have been nominated, I have set up a website on which I will report the name of each nominee, the nominee’s institutional affiliation, and a few comments from the nominator.

Here’s a link to that website:

Feel free to e-mail me at if you have any questions. The names of nominators and nominees will be withheld upon request.

Professor Michael Hunter Schwartz
Washburn University School of Law

Future of Legal Education Conference

If you were uable to attend this conference, you can view the PowerPoint slides from a Presentation by Paul Maharq and Liz Li:

Here’s more about the conference:

Adaptive Learning Environments

The theme of the CALI conference this year is transforming legal education, picking up on the Best Practices theme and the Carnegie Foundation Report, Educating Lawyers.  One area where the horse already has left the barn involves learning environments.  In the 20th Century, the environment was entirely linear:  teachers taught, students learned, students studied in the library and then returned to class to learn some more.  In the 21st Century, that linearity has disappeared and a multidimensional set of environments has taken its place.  Learning is not so much a function of place anymore.  Students learn on the go — have laptop or Ipod, will travel.  Law school should adapt to the portability of learning in the 21st Century, encouraging TWEN, CALI, laptops and Ipod learning — because while these adaptive environments may be uncomfortable for us 20th Century dinosaurs, 21st Century students learn in this fashion.

Learning from Medical School—Resident and Law Student Interaction

Rob Schwartz, my colleague and renowned health law professor at the University of Mexico has been getting medical school students and law students together for years.  He has regularly organizes a Medical Legal Ethics day where students get together to discuss medical and legal problems.  These fact patterns are always cutting edge and very timely.   The groups of medical school educators, ethicists and law professors who facilitated these sessions always have very interesting discussions.  And, we usually learn how different lawyers and doctors are on their perspective.  Lawyers tend to value autonomy in trying to resolve the problems posed and doctors tended to value beneficence over patient autonomy.   This exercise is always enjoyed greatly by the participants and it gives medical students and law students some insights into the other’s profession. Continue reading

Learning from Medical School–Pre-tests for Legal Skills?

As part of the collaborative project on joint training for medical residents and law students about domestic violence, the group had decided to use standardized patients to “pre-test” skills.  The idea is that the pre-test would help us determine the effectiveness of the training.  The group designed two problems for the pretest, one involving a woman living in her car with her two kids because she had left an abusive relationship and her apartment.   The other involved a pregnant undocumented woman living with a U.S. citizen boyfriend who had hit her in the abdomen.  They were difficult problems, legally and emotionally.  The standardized patient/clients were trained by the excellent staff of the Assessment and Learning Department. I skipped the material on domestic violence in the textbook.   The staff from Assessment and Learning Department of the Medical School set everything up for the students to be videotaped while conducting the ½ hour interviews.  As a clinical teacher, it felt REALLY strange to send students to an appointment without any training at all (even if the person they would interact with was an actor and not a real client.)  However, I had decided to go with the flow in this medical/ collaboration.  The design of our collaboration included a pre-test. Continue reading

Carnegie Foundation and Law Schools Join to Promote “Legal Education Project”

          The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Stanford Law School have recently joined together to sponsor “The Legal Education Study Project” as a follow-up to the Carnegie Report, Educating Lawyers.  The Study Project has started with ten law schools that have made curriculum change a major focus in recent years, and the Study Project’s goals are to promote curriculum changes in law schools.  A major focus is for law schools to do a better of job of addressing issues of professional identity lawyering skills, and to Continue reading

Using Technology to Enhance Active Learning

Two professors at Albany Law School have successfully implemented technology in order to increase student particpation in class, provide feedback,  and foster active learning.  Click here for a complete description:

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