“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.

 

The Baby Has Finally Been Birthed!

Comprehensive revisions passed

The ABA House of Delegates passed the comprehensve revisions with “minimal  fuss” according to the ABA Journal linked  above.  One area, however, garnered  significant attention and also resulted in  an odd, though perhaps meaningless ,  procedural move.  The House voted  to send back to the Section on Legal Education for further consideration the comment to standard 305 which prohibits payment to students for credit-based courses.

What does this mean? Law schools which have not already done so must start identifying, articulating publicly and assessing student learning out outcomes, providing every student six  credits of clinic or clinic-like experiential courses and requiring students to take two credit hours worth of professional responsibility coursework.

Well, it’s a start……

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.

ABA COUNCIL CALLS FOR NOTICE AND COMMENT ON PROPOSED CHANGES TO LEGAL EDUCATION

The ABA Council on Legal Education posted for Notice and Comment significant changes to the accreditation standards relating to the program of legal education, mandatory institution of an outcomes and assessment regime, and the status of and retention of faculty. Many of these proposed changes have been discussed in earlier posts in this BLOG for going on four years. I have copied here the memorandum discussing the notice and comment. WHAT SAY OUR READERS???

MEMORANDUM

TO: Interested Persons and Entities

FROM: The Hon. Solomon Oliver, Jr., Council Chairperson
Barry A. Currier, Managing Director of Accreditation and Legal Education

DATE: September 6, 2013

SUBJECT: Comprehensive Review of the ABA Standards for Approval of Law School Matters for Notice and Comment

At its meeting held on August 8-9, 2013, the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar approved for Notice and Comment proposed revisions to Chapter 1 [General Purposes and Practices], Chapter 3 [Program of Legal Education], Chapter 4 [The Faculty], Standard 203(b) [Dean], and Standard 603(d) [Director of the Law Library] of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools.

The Standards Review Committee of the Section has been conducting a comprehensive review of the Standards. As part of that review, the Committee considered multiple drafts and received informal comments from many interested persons and entities.

The proposed revisions and accompanying explanations are attached below and published on the Section’s website:
http://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/notice_and_comment.html.

We solicit and encourage written comments on the proposed changes by letter or e-mail. Written comments should be submitted no later than Friday, January 31, 2014.

Hearings on these proposed changes are scheduled for October 2013 and February 2014 (details below). Both hearings will be held at the American Bar Association, 321 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60654.

October 21-22, 2013
Monday, October 21st, 1 p.m.
Tuesday, October 22nd, 9 a.m.

February 5-6, 2014
Wednesday, February 5th, 1 p.m.
Thursday, February 6th, 9 a.m.

Please address written comments on the proposal and requests to speak at the hearing to JR Clark, jr.clark@americanbar.org.

Thank you.

Barry A. Currier
Managing Director of Accreditation and Legal Education
Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
American Bar Association
321 N. Clark Street, 21st Floor
Chicago, IL 60654-7958

Democratization of higher education

In March 2012 I delivered a talk at TEDxVillanovaU about The Future of Higher Education, in which I spoke about how online learning can bring about a democratization of higher education.  Renee Knake of Michigan State has taken the idea further and applies it to legal education in her forthcoming article, Democratizing Legal Education.  Elizabeth Chambliss talks about the article, here.  

What do you think?  It is possible to democratize information about law and legal systems?  What are the barriers?  Who will be the gatekeepers?  What groups would want to see it happen and would they be willing to fund it?

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