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!

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

Getting to Know Your Students

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

This post can be found on the “Law Teaching” section of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning website.

“I had some time today to post a blog post with a teaching idea on getting to know your students and starting to build a learning community in your classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, I sent my students a “Getting to Know You” form which contained the following questions:

  1. Tell me anything you would like me to know about you.
  2. How comfortable are you with writing and research? Please give me as much information as you can so I can gauge your experience.
  3. Why did you decide to go to law school?
  4. Why did you choose Gonzaga?
  5. What study methods work best for you?
  6. How do you learn best in the classroom?
  7. Think of your favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your favorite?
  8. Think of your least favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your least favorite?

These simple questions gave me insights into who is sitting in front of me.  I stapled a picture to each of their information sheets so that I could put a face to the information.  I am only one week into the semester but the information has already helped me.  For instance, when I am forming working groups for the day, I was able to pair students who are comfortable with writing and research with students who are less sure.  Also, knowing what study methods work for the students in front of me, helps me shape how I teach each group of students.  Because each group of students is so different, it is good to have information about those students rather than creating lesson plans without that information.”

Thank you to Sandra Simpson for allowing us to re-blog this!

Fostering Student Success: Part II -Possible Actionable Steps to Encourage Growth Mindsets

The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.

By Sara J. Berman, Director of Academic and Bar Success Programs at the AccessLex Institute’s Center for Legal Education Excellence; SSRN author page https://ssrn.com/author=2846291

As was detailed in Part I of this post on Fostering Student Success, we must meaningfully reward those who do the hard work and actually end up achieving the requisite skills and doctrine mastery at some point (any point!) before graduation. Those who take a bit longer to catch on must be given true opportunities to improve so that they see struggling to learn as evidence of powerful grit and a stepping stone to a lifetime as a successful professional, rather than a predictor of future failure.  Below are a number of possible actionable steps we might consider piloting and studying.

First, we might encourage growth mindsets by listing grades as AGP (annual grade points) rather than cumulative GPA (grade point average). Every year would provide a new, level playing field for students, and, employers would readily see whose grades increased, and by how much each year. (Note: Scholarship comprehensively critiquing grading and class ranking systems dates back some time. [1] The suggestions here simply point to “low-hanging fruit” interventions.) A natural criticism of this approach is that first-year courses tend to be required and are thus an apples-to-apples comparison, while upper-division courses vary widely and often have looser grading policies. Too many 2L students who see Cs turn to Bs falsely attribute this “improvement” to their own effort when grade increases actually stem from “easier” courses and/or more lenient grading.  Nonetheless, there could be a great psychological benefit to having a “clean slate” each year, with new opportunities in 2L and 3L to be at the top of the class. Prestigious and financially generous awards could be given to students whose GPAs have increased the most from the first year to the third year. And, employers could still see grades in particular courses and full transcripts as desired.

Second, we could study the effect of eliminating class ranking altogether. Justified, as is GPA, by the “needs” of employers, class ranking also fosters a fixed mindset, competitively boxing students into “winners” (those at the top of the class) and “losers” –those at the bottom who  may internalize defeat and, far too often, treat low ranking as a predictor of bar exam failure (which in turn may become a self-fulfilling prophecy).[2] Are class rankings necessary? What pedagogical purpose do they serve? Some medical schools are moving to a pass/fail model[3] with less emphasis on relative rank.[4] This appears to be reducing some of the stress associated with mental health challenges in these similarly high-pressured graduate programs[5] without affecting academic performance or accomplishment.[6] Some (mostly elite) law schools do not rank students. Should others experiment as well?  The main advantage appears to be providing a triage system for potential employers, (e.g. “We only hire from the top 25% of the class.”). Yet recent studies[7] show that what many legal employers want in new lawyers includes so-called “soft skills,” not measured by grades or class rankings.[8]  If this is the case, might we better serve employers’ needs by creating rubrics to measure professionalism and practical lawyering skills?  Highlighting how much a student’s grades have improved from 1L to graduation could help employers measure resiliency, while actually encouraging improvement by stemming some of the “why bother” mentality of those who turn off after receiving low 1L grades.  

Third, let us endorse studies that pilot tests of non-cognitive skills, such as those LSAC is undertaking and those inspired by the Shultz and Zedeck studies.[9] And let us support and laud efforts to showcase (in part for potential employers) the wide range of student skills on display in lawyering competitions.[10]

Fourth, let us identify and study other creative ways to assist employers while breaking vicious, defeatism cycles that thrive in our current system. I have long encouraged graduating classes with the aspirational challenge of 100% bar passage, reminding them that while class ranking forced some to the top and others to the bottom, every graduate can pass the bar exam first time around.  (Recall the old joke: “Question: What do you call the person who was last in his class in medical school? Answer: Doctor!”).  I also urge law graduates to help each other –with a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy and with the learning science-backed truth that teaching another is often the best way to learn.

Fifth, we might pilot the administration of comprehensive exams at the end of each year of law school.  These would encourage students to review and be re-tested on key subjects, “building mental muscle” over time so that they learn to master materials they may only have understood superficially when first exposed.  Awards could be given to every student who achieved high scores on these “comps,” rewarding those who caught on later as well as those who caught on initially.

Sixth, we could develop a national pre-bar exam (what I call the “NPBE”), similar to the PSAT, which would allow 2L law students a high-stakes “practice exam” which schools could use as a diagnostic and formative assessment so that law graduates do not have to fail the bar exam in order to realize how much improvement they really need to pass, in skills, substance, time management, mindset, and more.[11] Like the PSAT with its National Merit Scholar incentives, the NPBE could award scholarships to those with low 1L grades who overcome challenges and perform exceptionally well on the NPBE.

Perfect pass rates are not impossible on the law school side (though I understand limitations that may result from certain jurisdictions’ cut scores), especially when considering cumulative rather than first-time bar passage, per the new ABA Standard 316.[12]  But widespread student success requires more than mouthing “grit” and “persistence” mantras.  We must actively foster institution-wide expression of and action supporting the belief that every student who is not academically dismissed can pass the bar exam.  We must equip all students who graduate from ABA law schools to pass the bar first time around.  And, if we truly hope to so equip our law students, their self-perceptions simply may not be allowed to become fixed after first semester grades. 


[1] Barbara Glesner Fines, Competition and the Curve, 65 UMKC L. Rev 879 (1997); Jay M. Feinman, Law School Grading, 65 UMKC L. Rev. 647, 656 (1997); Jerry R. Foxhoven, Beyond Grading: Assessing Student Readiness to Practice Law, 16 Clinical L. Rev. 335 (2009); Heather D. Baum, Inward Bound: An Exploration of Character Development in Law School, 39 UALR L. Rev. 25 (2016).

[2] Query whether research presented at AALS (January 2018) by Professor Robert R. Kuehn (Washington University in St. Louis) suggests this, given results of students with identical entering LSAT scores failing the bar where they were at the bottom of the class and passing where they were at the top of the class.

[3] Casey B. White and Joseph C. Fantone, Pass–fail Grading: Laying the Foundation for Self-Regulated Learning, 15 Advances in Health Sci. Educ. 469 (2010).

[4] John P. Bent et al., Otolaryngology Resident Selection: Do Rank Lists Matter? 144 Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery 537 (2011).

[5] Daniel E. Rohe et al., The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group Cohesion in Medical Students, 81 Mayo Clinic Proc. 1443 (2006); see also Robert A. Bloodgood et al., A Change to Pass/Fail Grading in the First Two Years at One Medical School Results in Improved Psychological Well-Being, 84 Acad. Med. 655 (2009); Francis Deng and Austin Wesevich, Pass-fail is here to stay in medical schools. And that’s a good thing, KevinMD.com (Aug. 3, 2016).

[6] B. Ange et al., Differences in Medical Students’ Academic Performance between a Pass/Fail and Tiered Grading System, 111 S. Med. J. 683 (2018).

[7] Alli Gerkman & Logan Cornett, Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, AccessLex Inst. Res. Paper Series No. 16-04 (2016).

[8] Bryant G. Garth, Notes on the Future of the Legal Profession in the United States: The Key Roles of Corporate Law Firms and Urban Law Schools, 65 Buff L. Rev. 287 (2017).

[9] Marjorie M. Shultz & Sheldon Zedeck, Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions, CELS 2009 4th Ann. Conf. on Empirical Legal Stud. Paper (2009).

[10] Sherry Y. English, Cincinnati Law hosts nation’s first, only law student case competition, UC News (Jan. 10, 2019),https://www.uc.edu/news/articles/2019/01/n2059715.html.

[11]As I often say, would anyone mount a Broadway show without a dress rehearsal? Do athletes compete in the Olympics without high-profile pre-competition practice?  No!  Yet we wait until after law school and generally outsource to bar reviews the only sort of organized practice runs for the highest stakes law exam of all.

[12] Two Indiana law schools soar on ultimate bar passage rate, Ind. Law. (April 22, 2019),https://www.theindianalawyer.com/articles/50047-two-indiana-law-schools-soar-on-ultimate-bar-passage-rate.

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