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?

 

 

Leading Edge Conference: Facing and Forming Legal Education’s Future with Insights, Data and Inclusive Thinking

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 6th annual Leading Edge Conference hosted by Wolters Kluwer (WK) in Riverwoods, Illinois. It was my first experience with this particular conference. Using an unconference format and with a balance of old-timers and new attendees, WK brought together approximately 30 “thought leaders” for two+ days of intense discussion. Participants included professors and deans from a wide variety of law schools, representatives from law related entities such as LSAC, NITA and IAALS, education or pro-bono related entrepreneurs, and digitalization pioneers.

In addition to the conference, WK hosts the Leading Edge Webinar Series and just announced its 2nd annual Leading Edge prize. Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000) will be awarded to two winning teams “to help implement their visions of improving student outcomes or expanding educational opportunities for law students.” Proposals are due August 15th.

I left the conferences with many “take-aways,” that I am only beginning to fully digest, and with a better sense of the continuing challenges facing legal education and our profession. Bernard A. Burk, Jerome M. Organ and Emma B. Rasiel recently published in the Nevada Law Review “Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study”. Their research examined the response of law schools “to the substantial fall off in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010.”

The “Competitive Coping Strategies” research also explains why more law schools have not closed and emphasizes the “widened distance” between current students’ needs and current school resources. The study found that in the face of plunging applications to law school, “Reputationally stronger schools” generally chose to preserve their entering Class Profile. This meant “thousands of viable candidates remained available to other law schools, effectively preventing the closing of as many as twenty Reputationally Weaker schools.”

Second, the study points out the implications of shrinking Class Size and discounting Tuition to preserve entering class profile. “As a practical matter, then, law schools ‘invested’ in Profile rather than in expanding their faculties, facilities or their access to clinical and experiential education. We encourage discussion of the implications of this investment choice.”

Third, the study noted that “some Reputationally Weaker law schools perversely were able to maintain or raise their average Net Tuition” and “the students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them. These inequalities expanded significantly after 2010.”

Fourth, the study highlights the millions of dollars in forgone Tuition Revenue “unavailable to meet the needs of students who at many law schools are significantly less prepared” than their predecessors and suggests this widening gap underlies the declining Bar Exam pass rate.

We seem to have reached a plateau in declining admissions to law school. But that plateau is not a place for us to settle in and rest. There are too many hard questions about where we are now.

How do we address the inequalities which have expanded since 2010 in law schools? What is the value we provide to those with the “least promising prospects?” Is it immoral that those least likely to make “any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them?” or that they may be undertaking crippling debt to obtain a law degree?

On the other hand, if we narrow the pathway into law schools even further, rejecting any who come to law school less credentialed or less prepared, will we be rejecting the dreams and hopes of those who desire a professional pathway? Will we be rejecting many who will find an economically sustainable and good life for themselves? Will we be playing God with students from less advantaged backgrounds just because we don’t know who will make it and who won’t? Will we be eliminating first generation students in larger numbers? Will we be amplifying the lack of diversity in our profession?

And what about the role of law schools in the community at large at this moment in our nation’s fledgling history? Shouldn’t we continue to exist as community laboratories which encourage civil discussion, uphold the rule of law, critique unjust legal systems and decisions, work to sustain democratic institutions and constitutional checks and balances, and produce new ideas about the role of law and legal systems in society?

Finally, if we espouse the “public good” values of my last two paragraphs as arguments for the continued existence of the legal academy and law schools, then do we prioritize these values in our faculty hiring, our strategic plans, and our prioritization of resources?
So, I leave you as I left the conference, with more questions than answers, but with a firm sense that we must continue to ask these important questions.

(Note: the author had her lodging, food and flights paid. She was not paid to write or post anything about the conference. Besides, she is pretty opinionated and not easily swayed.)

Quite Moving but Frightening Testimony at AALS Conference

I write from the Hilton Hotel in New York City where the American Association of Law School annual conference has just ended.   The most memorable and riveting session I attended was the ABA panel presentation on proposed revisions to accreditation standards,   I knew full well that this would be an intense session and blogged about the dangers of these proposed revisions earlier in the year  here. .  The proposed revisions will change dramatically what I consider an essential facet of legal education:   the ability to acknowledge, discuss, debate, theorize,and write about  issues that are unpopular.  It will also prevent law faculty from teaching about and working with students representing clients on issues which are unpopular.   I knew this discussion would be intense but I was not prepared for  the stories of our brave peers in the academy which reinforced for me the fundamental importance of academic freedom supported by tenure or security of position.

One professor who self-identified as a female American who is Muslim reported  that she received death threats at work for appearing at a Department of Justice panel on National Security and Muslim issues.   She noted that without tenure and academic freedom, she would be at risk for firing for doing no more than accurately describing the national security legal issues.  She also eloquently explained that as a young, female professor of Muslim religious and cultural identity, she was vulnerable for receiving student pushback and bias for her assuming the position of power and authority over students.  Without academic freedom secured by tenure,  she would fear student bias in evaluations or impressions which could threaten her job security because of her Muslim identity.   A white woman who  taught at a religious school in the deep south,  movingly described her experiences. Without academic freedom supported by tenure, she found that  just raising legitimate legal issues and cases regarding property, same sex marriage, second amendment law, domestic violence or other issues could put her at risk of losing her job.  Had she not been supported by a tenure system which requires “cause” not popularity as measured by teaching evaluations or other factors, her personal and financial incentive would encourage her to avoid  teaching  important legal questions  for fear of back”pushback” .  Professor Terry Smith of Depaul College of Law presented remarks on behalf of the minority law professors section whose members attended in great numbers.  I share with you  his statement here (ABA Statement 1 4 13 ) Another member of the minority law professors section, Professor Anthony Farley,  cautioned that these issues are not “speculative” and spoke about ongoing attacks on academic  freedom, faculty governance, tenure and security of position at a particular school.  Other faculty members discussed how its hard to teach constitutional law in this country without mentioning race but that faculty who do not have security of position will find it difficult because when race is mentioned in a classroom, faculty inevitably suffer in teaching evaluations by students who are uncomfortable talking about race.

Professor Kate Kruse, past president of the Clinical Legal Education Section  noted that for many clinicians academic freedom has only been made real by the current ABA  standard 405 (c) and the  proposed revisions make no attempt to provide a “safe harbor” for the majority of clinicians and legal writing professors who also need to enjoy academic freedom.  There was some discussion by panelists and audience members about an earlier proposal which would have eliminated the hierarchical status types among faculty and questions about why that proposal was never presented for notice and comment.  See earlier blog discussion of the proposals. Past President of the AALS Clinical Section and Fordham Law’s Professor Elizabeth Cooper noted how tenured clinicians are  often asked by untenured  clinical colleagues to make points at public meetings that they are unable to make for fear of impact on their continued employment.

Members of the panel thanked those who testified for good reminders about the negative and practical consequences of these revisions. The Chair of the Council on Legal Education, attended and wanted the audience members to know that he had listened carefully to the concerns.  Past President of the AALS, Professor Leo Martinez and panel members urged  all interested parties to submit written  comments about this controversial proposed revisions on the ABA website found here.

Will Proposed Revised ABA Standards Result in Less Diverse Faculties and Monolothic Thought?

Concerns about the impact of the ABA proposed revised accreditation standards governing faculty  on diversity on law faculty and on diversity of thought have been raised eloquently in a Law Professors Letter to the ABA on Tenure that has circulated on the minority and clinic listservs as well as in other areas.    The  deadline for signing onto the letter is this Monday October 7th,  You can sign here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/16W-bQtXqbk09plpoOVpQQ5s8ZriYm0VeucU38KAWQcU/viewform

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