Adapting to the New Normal: Tips for Socialization While Social Distancing in Law Schools

I don’t think any of us realized that the day before spring break would be the last day we would be able to walk the halls of Albany Law for a while – I know I didn’t. In fact, I couldn’t have been more excited to escape that building in anticipation of vacation. But now, I miss waving to friends, catching up between classes, and the feeling of being in the Rochester Moot Courtroom. No one expected to have to transition the entire law school online to keep loved ones safe from COVID-19.

What we need now in this time of crisis is leadership and yes, even law student leaders can play a part. In light of the current situation, student leaders at Albany Law School put on their creative thinking hats to try to maintain a sense of community by offering “virtual events” and a list of online resources. Having a sense of community brings us together and keeps us feeling connected when we can’t physically be with one another. It keeps our relationships developing and our heads kept high. Most importantly, it provides a space for support, which is something we desperately need right now.

I thought of the idea for “Pet Happy Hour” when I was experiencing my first “Zoom” class. It was just a “test” class, so there was no substantive material being discussed. Then, several students “brought” their pets to class. Everyone in the class immediately started to smile – like instant therapy! I thought about how special our pets are and how animals can help us destress. Then I thought it would be fun to host a virtual event where students could show off their pets and wind down from the week with one another (and grab a drink). Since the inception of this idea, my student group has teamed up with two others to promote this therapeutic space to the rest of the student body. I’m excited to admire everyone’s pets and of course, show off my own!

Here are a list of the events/resources, which you could potentially recommend for your school:

  1. “Pet Happy Hour” – Several student groups teamed up to host a virtual pet happy hour on Zoom, where participants are being asked to bring their pet (or come admire other pets), grab a drink, and hang out.
  2. “Virtual Murder Mystery Night” – A student group will be hosting a virtual murder mystery game night. Participants are asked to sign up beforehand on a public google spreadsheet to ensure they receive character information before the game. (Note: there is a small cost associated with purchasing the game packet. ~$2 a person).
  3. “Virtual Meditation” – One of Albany Law’s very own professors leads a meditation session on Zoom every Friday at 12PM.
  4. “Virtual Exercise” – The Wellness Initiative at Albany Law is hosting a virtual yoga session and HIIT class for students on Zoom.
  5. “Rise in Wellness Blog”The Wellness Initiative at Albany Law has a blog with many resources listed including resources specific to COVID-19. A post by our Director of Communications and Marketing provided 5 excellent pieces of advice for working from home. Here they are quickly summed up:
    1. “Create a routine”
    1. “Keep a dedicated working space, if possible”
    1. “Make ground rules”
    1. “Take advantage of technology”
    1. “Stay positive”

It’s certainly a stressful time, but I think it helps to know that none of us are alone – we’re all in this together. Just because we are social distancing, doesn’t mean we can’t still stay connected. I urge other law schools to use some of the resources I’ve provided or find other creative ways to keep that connection with students. If your school has some other ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments!

Preparing 1Ls for Persuasive Communication by Integrating Procedural Rules and Substantive Law

By Louis Jim, Assistant Professor of Law, Albany Law School

My last post discussed my experience of using “classroom clickers” in the first week of law school to build a foundation to understand the hierarchy of authority, a foundation that is critical to success in all classes. In this follow-up, I discuss my experience with using “classroom clickers” to improve student understanding of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure before students write their motion and appellate briefs.

Many law schools require 1Ls to complete a legal analysis, communication, and research course. Although models may vary, those courses typically span two semesters: the first semester focuses on “objective/predictive writing” and the second semester focuses on “persuasive writing.” At Albany Law School, the course is called “Introduction to Lawyering,” which is a six-credit, two semester course (“Lawyering I” in the fall, “Lawyering II” in the spring). I started teaching the course in August 2018.

In Lawyering II, I require the class to write a summary judgment motion and an appellate brief; the students then complete an appellate oral argument. For the summary judgment, every student represents defendants who move (and are inevitably granted) summary judgment. Every student then represents the plaintiffs-appellants for the appellate brief. Students choose their side for the appellate oral argument.[1] By forcing students to switch sides, students must first write their statement of facts and argument from the perspective of the defendant, and then re-write their statement of facts and argument from the perspective of the plaintiff. This model fosters a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both parties. But more importantly, because students must write from diametric perspectives, this model forces students to think about how organization and word choice affect the persuasiveness of their motion and brief.

The semester-long hypothetical is set in fictional State of New Scotland, and the venue of the civil action is the fictional U.S. District Court for the District of New Scotland,[2] which is in the fictional U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourteenth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals from the Fourteenth Circuit. The hypothetical involves a real circuit split on a constitutional or statutory issue and asks students to persuade the fictional district court and fictional circuit to take a position. As an “open universe” problem, students perform independent research, though I assign short research assignments to get them started. Students must recall their knowledge of “binding” and “persuasive” authority and analogize or distinguish the hypothetical problem’s facts to the facts of real cases on either side of the split.

When I first taught “Lawyering II” in Spring 2019, I presumed that every student fully understood how summary judgment actually worked because they took “Federal Civil Procedure” in the fall. But after reading the motions, I realized that I had failed to ensure that each student had a solid foundation to understand how summary judgment actually worked in practice.

Not wanting to repeat my mistake this spring, I created an in-class exercise to assess the class’s understanding of motions, appeals, and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56. A copy of the exercise that includes my comments on the objective of each question is available here:

The exercise involves two separate federal housing discrimination claims against “YBR Apartments, Inc.” The plaintiff in the first claim is “Oscar Zoroaster,” and the plaintiff in the second claim is “Dorothy Gale.” Both plaintiffs claim that they have the fictional “Ruby Slippers Syndrome.” Each question in the exercise builds the prior question, and each question assesses a different aspect of Rule 12 or Rule 56. By using a “classroom clicker,” each student participates without fear of being singled out for being incorrect.

I start with Rule 12 because it serves as a good opportunity to focus the students’ attention to the elements of the claim (i.e. “Can plaintiff state a prima facie case for federal housing discrimination?”). The discussion on the questions about Rule 12 also gave me an opportunity to stress that plaintiff’s counsel should draft complaints precisely and accurately as possible in light of the information available to counsel at that time.

The exercise transitions then to assessing the students’ understanding of Rule 56. For the Rule 56 portion, I wrote hypotheticals that would assess their understanding of (1) what it means for a fact to be “material,” (2) what a “dispute as to [a] material fact” and “judgment as a matter of law” actually mean, and (3) how a district court uses persuasive authority when there is no binding authority. The posture of the last two questions in the exercise are designed to mirror the posture of summary judgment motion and appellate brief for the semester-long hypothetical, i.e. convince a district court and a circuit court to adopt the position of another circuit absent any binding authority.

Not only was the exercise useful in assessing (or reviewing) their understanding of Rules 12 and 56, but the exercise also challenged students to begin forming and making persuasive arguments to support their responses. By practicing how to develop their persuasive communication skills early in the semester, students engaged with the primary learning outcome for Lawyering II—persuasive communication. Students could then apply the exercise’s lessons to the semester-long hypothetical. Finally, students saw how substantive and procedural law is actually integrated and used in practice, an opportunity that may not always arise in other courses.[3]


[1] Students sign up on a first-come, first-serve basis.

[2] Albany Law School is located at 80 New Scotland Avenue in Albany, New York.

[3] My students complete a biweekly reflection in which they must tell me two things they learned in Lawyering that week and two things they want to learn in Lawyering. The students then have the option of writing any comments or asking any questions even if the questions and comments are unrelated to Lawyering. One student commented that she wished she saw more of how doctrinal law is actually used in practice.

Why Law Schools Need to Teach Critical Thinking

by Scott Fruehwald

Law schools have never systematically taught critical thinking.  I do not mean that law schools do not help develop critical thinking.  However, this is not done on a systematic basis.  There is no method or approach for teaching critical thinking in law schools.

For example, taking a class in negotiation will help students develop critical thinking, but not systematically.  This is like learning grammar just by speaking a language.  While this gets the student some of the way, to be systematically trained in a language, a student must explicitly study grammar.  Similarly, the Socratic method does help develop some critical thinking processes, but it mainly teaches students how to extract and understand doctrine.

I have just completed a book that shows law professors how to understand and teach critical thinking: How to Teach Lawyers, Judges, and Law Students Critical Thinking: Millions Saw the Apple Fall, but Newton asked Why.

Critical thinking is “[t]he intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”  (here)  “It is . . . automatically questioning if the information presented is factual, reliable, evidence‑based, and unbiased.” (here)  Critical thinking is a set of processes, including metacognition, conceptualizing, synthesizing (constructing), asking questions, organizing, developing and evaluating alternatives, considering unintended results, planning, self-monitoring, reflection, spotting assumptions, evaluating inferences, exercising epistemic vigilance, supporting arguments with evidence, evaluation, skepticism, and self-direction.

Here are several things that critical thinking can do:

1.  Critical thinking helps overcome superficial thinking.  It helps you see when you are relying on unsupported assumptions or opinions.

2.  Critical thinking helps overcome thinking based solely on intuition.

3.  Critical thinking produces rigorous and disciplined thinking.

4.  Critical thinking helps individuals create questions.

5.  Critical thinking helps individuals know when they need more information.

6.  Critical thinking helps avoid unintended consequences.

7.  Critical thinking supports problem-solving.  It helps make sure you don’t skip a step in the problem-solving process.

8.  Critical thinking helps overcome biased thinking.

9.  Critical thinking helps avoid mistakes by providing a method to evaluate (double-check) one’s work.

10.  Critical thinking helps an individual critique the work of others.

11.  Critical thinking promotes deep thinking.

12.  Critical thinking helps an individual see all sides of an argument.

13.  Critical thinking helps individuals solve difficult problems.

14.  Critical thinking helps individuals support their arguments.

15.  Critical thinking helps individuals recognize how a problem is framed and overcome the framing effect.

16.  Critical thinking helps thinkers recognize when selfish motives lie behind an argument.  It helps thinkers recognize manipulation.

17.  Critical thinking teaches students how to construct the law.

My book introduces critical thinking, shows how to teach it to lawyers, judges, and law students, and demonstrates how to use critical thinking to improve the Socratic method.  It also shows law professors how to improve their teaching through critical thinking.  Finally, it includes chapters on teaching legal writing and judges.  Since critical thinking development requires practice, it includes many examples and exercises.

Universal Design in the Law School Classroom—a Few Thoughts

One of the many things that most of us teaching in universities, very much including law schools, lack by way of training is any overview of how living with a disability affects learning, let alone what interventions might make a difference.

At best, some of us have second hand knowledge through the experience of friends and relatives (My Mom was a Speech Pathologist) who have that training or perhaps their children who are recipients of such instruction in grade school.   So no matter how willingly we provide the “accommodations” ordered by often overwhelmed university offices tasked with meeting the institution’s legal obligations, we do so without an underlying understanding of what those accommodations are supposed to achieve.  Or how they are supposed to achieve them.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to get a degree in teaching and learning to acquire a basic proficiency in how to teach in ways that make it more accessible to all students and as well as to work with experts to address the specific needs of individual students.

The resources below reflect a variety of sources for information as well as some ideas about universal design that would make learning more accessible to everyone.  It’s also helpful, in general, to be open to the idea that learning and sensory perception is different for everyone—and it’s probably better to let students make their own decisions about things like where in the room they want to sit than to adhere to traditions like pre-assigned seating.

To preview an article I’m working on, it is also important for us to realize that many of the common tasks assigned to law students, especially in classes intended to teach the crucial skills of legal research and writing, depend on levels of Executive Function rather than intelligence or knowledge basis or even ability to “think like a lawyer.”

Here are some resources:

Preparing Accessible Documents and here

An article from Diversability Magazine, Navigating Learning Disabilities in Law School.  https://www.diverseabilitymagazine.com/2017/04/navigate-learning-disabilities-law-school/

This information from Vanderbilt covers a lot of ground, and offers very practical suggestions in the section titled, “Strategies for Creating Accessible Learning Environments”

A recent survey of medical students seeking input on what would enhance their learning was a plea for no more blue slides with yellow text.   These links are helpful to make sure that we are not making life harder for students when we design slides. https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/media/content-assets/student-services/documents/A-Guide-to-Dyslexia-(PowerPoint)-A5.pdf

Here are some practical suggestions that we might offer all our students dealing with pages of dense text in small print-https://www.ws.edu/student-services/disability/teaching/learning.shtm

Hearing impairment is very common and sometimes comes on so gradually that people don’t even notice. It’s fair to assume that everyone would benefit from things like not just the Prof. using a microphone but passing one around so that students can here each other.  Here are some things to keep in mind about students with hearing impairments-including a very helpful point that no assistive device “restores” hearing and that we should respect a student’s own assessment of where in the classroom works best for them.  https://www3.gallaudet.edu/Documents/Clerc/TIPSTOGO-2.pdf

“Being Human To My Students And Letting Them Know I Care”

This is a wonderful blog post I found on the Institute for Law Learning and Teaching by Jane Korn, Professor of Law at Gonzaga University School of Law. As a current law student, I think that this practice should be implemented in all law schools for first year law students. I had a professor during 1L who did something similar. He would start the class every week with, “so how is 1L going?” and we could spend 10 minutes discussing general concerns about 1L and papers or exams we had coming up. Not only did it ease some of the anxiety, it also showed that the professor really cared about the students. It was like they were saying, “I’ve been there too and I’m here to support you.” Kudos to Professor Korn for setting aside some time in her class to do this!

“I have taught first year law students for a long time.  Please do not ask how long!  But years ago, I became worried about the mental health and stress levels of my first semester, first year students. I teach a four credit, one semester course in Civil Procedure during the first semester of law school.   On the last day of the week that I teach in Civ Pro, I take a few minutes out of class time and ask my students to tell me how they are doing.

The first time I do this, usually at the end of the first week of law school,  I tell my students that it is my custom, from time to time, to take time out from Civ Pro, and talk about anything they would like (with some limits).  In some years, it takes weeks for them to take me up on this offer.  Other years, they start right in.  They ask questions like the following:

  1. When should I start outlining?
  2. How much time should I spend studying every night?
  3. How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
  4. What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
  5. Do professors care about grammar and organization on a final exam? (I only answer what I expect and do not answer for other faculty)

I think that much of the time, they do not get a chance to ask a law professor these kinds of questions, and can usually only ask upper class students.  While we have faculty advisors, students may or may not feel comfortable asking them questions like the above.  They eventually do (and sometimes quickly) feel comfortable asking me a wide variety of questions.  They sometimes ask personal questions and, within reason, I answer them because it makes them feel more comfortable with me.  Questions on gossipy matters about other faculty are off limits. If for example, they complain about another professor,  I handle this question with a smile and say something like – you should ask that professor about this issue.

I set aside class time for several reasons. First, while I do worry about giving up valuable teaching time, lessening the stress of my students may make them more able to learn.  Second, students often feel like they are the only one with a particular concern during this first semester, and they often do not have the ability to know that others have the same concerns or questions.  In the first year, many of our students are not from this area and are far away from support systems, at least at first until they can make friends at law school.  The ability to know that other students have the same problems they do can lessen the feeling of isolation.  Using class time to answer questions to the entire group may help them with this sense of isolation and being the only one who doesn’t know something.  It also lets them see that their concerns are important and credible.

Every year my teaching evaluations reflect this process positively.  Students feel like I care (which I do).  However, the reason I do it is to increase their comfort during those first few exciting, confusing, and terrifying months of law school.”

 

Building an Ethos of Self-Directedness Among First-Year Law Students

By: Mary Walsh Fitzpatrick, Assistant Dean for the Career and Professional Development Center at Albany Law School

Background

I attended a workshop on professional identity formation sponsored by the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions last June. In preparation for the workshop, I read a number of articles on professional identity formation, including “Self-Directedness and Professional Formation: Connecting Two Critical Concepts in Legal Education.” The article posits “[f]or law students to move towards real professional identity formation in their career, they must be self-directed.” Self-directedness, some of the hallmarks of which are self-reflection, goal setting, seeking and receiving feedback, and using sound judgment, is integral to finding meaningful employment and career satisfaction. I know from first-hand experience working within law school career development for the past 13 years, students who are most successful in gaining meaningful employment take ownership of their experiences and make intentional choices early in law school. I believe self-directedness more than any other factor, including grades, leads to meaningful careers for law school graduates. The challenge is to cultivate self-directedness in all law students by creating an ethos of self-directedness with regard to career development beginning in the first year.     

While at the Holloran Center workshop, I devised a career development program to introduce first-year students to professional identity formation with emphasis on self-directedness. I subsequently shared the proposed program with my team at the Albany Law School Career and Professional Development Center and we collaborated on the program presentation and exercises. At Albany Law School, students are assigned an individual career counselor with whom they work one-on-one over the entire course of law school. Thus, in planning and implementing the program my colleagues and I chose to each lead the program for our sections separately, beginning individual relationships with our students and setting expectations.     

We decided upon a method of teaching that would allow students to practice self-reflection, seeking and receiving feedback, and using good judgment in the context of career development. The overarching goal of the program was to help students recognize self-directedness as a key component for successful professional identity formation leading to meaningful careers.

The Program – Setting the Stage

We communicated the program as a mandatory one-hour program and emailed to first-year students several weeks before the program the Individual Career Plan (ICP), a self-assessment tool we created several years ago, and our handbook for developing a legal resume. The students were asked to complete their ICPs and draft their legal resumes in preparation for the program. 

  • Reflection

We began the program by introducing professional identity formation and self-directed learning, emphasizing curiosity, initiative, feedback, self-reflection, resilience, judgment and ethics. We provided students with the Holloran Competency Milestones Assessment of Student’s Ownership of Continuous Professional Development (Self-Directedness) and asked them to take a moment to reflect upon and identify their current stage of development on the continuum. Recognizing each student comes to law school at a different stage of self-directedness we did not ask students to share their findings with the group, rather we called attention to law school providing students with the opportunity to move along the continuum with the goal of graduating competent learners who take full ownership over their careers by setting goals and seeking resources to meet those goals.

Next, we asked students to form small groups and to reflect upon and share with each other why they chose to attend law school, skills they hope to build, and experiences they hope to gain during law school. After this breakout session we asked one student from each group to report back some of the group’s findings. Two distinct motivations for attending law school emerged from this exercise, students: wanting to utilize existing strengths they identify as befitting a legal career; and wanting to acquire the skills necessary to be catalysts for change. Notably, both motivations evidence students’ strong desire to align their skills and values with meaningful employment.

  • Seeking and Receiving Feedback

In the second portion of the program we focused on seeking and receiving feedback in the context of career development. We began by educating students on critical thinking skills sought by legal employers, such as analyzing, evaluating, reasoning, and problem solving. We then asked students to provide peer-to-peer feedback on their resumes utilizing the resume handbook we provided before the program and tools we discussed during the program. Students worked in couples or groups of three to seek and provide each other with constructive feedback on how to better formulate existing resume descriptions for a legal audience. After the exercise we asked students to contribute one piece of valuable feedback they received.    

  • Judgment

In the final portion of the program students were divided into groups and provided three different hypotheticals related to career development decisions. Each group was asked to analyze the issues and report back how they would address the situation presented. The hypotheticals included issues of reneging on a job offer, misrepresenting grade point average on a resume, and failing to follow up with a professional connection. Through dialogue following the exercise we emphasized the importance of reputation, impact of reputational damage, building professional relationships, and the imperative of follow-through.  Many students acknowledged although no single hypothetical scenario would necessarily determine success in finding meaningful employment, the decisions made with regard to these issues could impact one’s professional reputation and future opportunities.   

Conclusion

We hope to have initiated student appreciation for the impact of self-directedness on professional identity formation that is integral to beginning meaningful careers after law school. The next step is for each student to take the initiative to complete an online strengths assessment, the VIA Character Strengths Survey, make a first career counseling appointment where they will receive individualized feedback on the ICP and legal resume and identify next steps in planning their careers.  

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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