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.  

The Legal Interviewing and Language Access Film Project (LILA)

By: Laila L. Hlass and Lindsay M. Harris

Teaching effective interviewing skills is a perennial problem. Although there are excellent texts on the subject, few examples of real or model interviews exist, particularly ones which incorporate collaboration issues between student partners, language access issues with the client, and how to address issues of bias when they arise in the interview.

In 2018, we designed, screen-wrote, produced and released The Legal Interviewing and Language Access Film Project (LILA), two instructional videos and a teaching guide featuring a law student clinic pair representing two different immigrant clients, in two different introductory meetings, one of which is conducted with interpretation.

Our goal was to better teach interviewing in our own experiential courses, but we also hoped to share this resource with our colleagues. Since the videos were launched, law school clinics and experiential learning programs across the country have adopted the use of the videos. At the time of writing, more than 100 educators at nearly 75 law schools have requested use of the teacher’s guide for these videos. This includes more than 30 immigration clinics, but also educators teaching in a variety of other clinics, purely doctrinal courses, as well as courses focused on client counseling and interviewing skills.

The videos raise a multitude of issues within interviewing including client-centered lawyering, collaboration, interpretation, and addressing bias. Our films enliven and deepen the learning environment by utilizing modeling, as well as stimulating classroom discussion, reflection and role play. 

In Interviewing Victor: The Initial Meeting, two law students Lisa and Max interview a teenage asylum-seeker in removal proceedings, Victor, raising a number of issues relating to initial client interviewing, including: Road mapping and organization of the interview; Building rapport; Confidentiality; Role description, including representation at later stages, and explaining the arc of case; Verbal and nonverbal cues; Tone; Answering client questions or ethical issues that are difficult and unexpected; Recording the interview and seeking permission; Taking notes; Form of questions; Word choice; Approaches to sensitive topics and response to client’s distress; Client-centered lawyering; and Working with a co-interviewer.

In Josefina: Using an Interpreter, two law students Lisa and Max working with interpreters to interview a monolingual Spanish-speaking client seeking a U visa as a victim of a crime in the United States. This video raises questions regarding: Using third person; Pacing of speech; Summarization and  expansion of interpretation; Challenges when one student speaks the client’s language but partner does not; Confidentiality; Use of interested parties, such as family members; Approaches to changing interpreters; and Use of common language words where the interpreter doesn’t know the intended meaning.

For faculty who hope to adopt the videos in a course, pro bono orientation or other training, please email either Laila Hlass lhlass@tulane.edu or Lindsay Harris Lindsay.harris@udc.edu for the teacher’s guide, indicating in which course(s) you are considering using the films.

An Overview of “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes”

Robert Kuehn, Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and David Moss, Associate Clinical Professor at Wayne State University Law School, recently conducted a large-scale study looking at the relationship between clinical/experiential or bar subject-matter courses and bar passage success in a paper entitled, “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes.” As a law student currently enrolled in a clinic, this study immediately piqued my interest.

This study was in response to fear that bar passage rates were down because of rising enrollment in “experiential courses” as opposed to “bar-subject courses.” Law schools began pushing students to enroll in more of these bar-subject courses to correct this so-called issue. However, Professor Kuehn and Professor Moss observed that there was no evidence to suggest that taking more bar-subject courses was appropriate advice for all students. Their study looked at this missing evidence between bar-subject courses and experiential learning and bar exam outcomes for ten years between two law schools: Washington University School of Law (WashU) and Wayne State University Law School (Wayne State). Both schools only require the designed first year courses and the upper-level writing courses mandated by ABA accreditation standards.

Previous studies performed in states like Texas, Colorado, and California looked at the effects of coursework and bar passage rates. These studies did not support the claim that taking more bar-tested law school course improve chances of passing on the first attempt. Notably, a study done in Indiana concluded, “simply forcing lower-performing students to take more upper division bar-subject courses will not solve the bar examination failure problem.”

The first goal of the present study was to determine whether a graduate’s enrollment in elective experiential courses was related to first-time bar passage success. Next, it was to assess whether enrollment in elective courses that cover bar subjects was related to bar success.

Data was collected from law school graduates from 2006-2015. The following table outlines the number of graduates with LSAT scores and bar passage rates between the two schools:

The next table looked at graduate characteristics such as undergraduate GPA, LSAT score, 1L GPA, and law GPA and their correlation with bar passage:

It wasn’t until 2005 that the ABA began requiring graduates to receive professional skills instruction with as little as one credit satisfying the requirement. In 2014, the ABA changed this to require six credits beginning with 2019 graduates. The study authors decided to track enrollment in skills courses versus bar passage over this time period.

The table above reveals a solid line depicting that average bar passage percentages were steady from 2006-2013 (this is when experiential course enrollment increased by over 50%). During the significant rise in experiential enrollment, bar passage percentages were largely steady. “Therefore, efforts to link declining nationwide bar passage rates to the rise in experiential course enrollment are not supported by national statistics.” A more likely contributing cause for bar passage declines since 2014 is weaker credentials of incoming 1Ls.

At WashU, it was found that while taking at least the average number of bar courses is associated with increased likelihood of passing the bar, there was no statistically significant increase in bar passage associated with bottom-quartile LGPA graduates who took more than the school’s average. This was similar with graduates in the bottom half of their class at Wayne State. Results for both schools indicate that graduates in bottom quartile who take fewer than the average number of bar courses at their school were associated with a significant increase in bar failure. Further, at both schools, students entering with scores lower than 150 were associated with pass rates significantly below the school’s average.

This study concluded that the claim that the dramatic decline in bar passage rates is due to law students taking more experiential courses or fewer bar-related courses is not supported. It characterized efforts to cap experiential credits in order to improve bar passages rates are “misguided,” warning that schools should not expect that “mere exposure” to more bar courses will significantly improve bar passage rates.

Also see “Legal Skills Prof Blog” and “TaxProf Blog” for more posts on this study

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.

Fostering Student Success: Part I Challenges Posed by Changing Times and Changing Culture

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

Law school culture is shifting; the days of the hundred percent final exam are giving way to a culture that emphasizes routine midterms, quizzes, polling, and other formative assessment.  This is in part because of ABA requirements under Standard 314[1] and in part because of the now ample evidence that wise feedback helps law students succeed.[2], [3], [4]  

The shift toward integration of more thoughtful feedback into the curriculum dovetails with a movement of many of today’s leading legal educators to encourage growth mindsets.[5] But voices urging adoption of such positive mindsets ring hollow when set into a greater legal education backdrop that still too often fosters a fixed mindset.  Students who “get it” right away are handsomely rewarded, with the most prestigious jobs,[6] law review, and other opportunities. Those who persevere and overcome struggles are barely acknowledged or, more often, stigmatized because of their early low performance –some never regaining full confidence, even if they later dramatically improve. 

Empirical studies confirm that 1L GPA often correlates with bar passage.[7] Acknowledging high performers is appropriate, even laudable; but should we continue to perpetuate a zero-sum environment where initially-lower performers are not encouraged to improve in consistent and meaningful ways? Are we even aware of the extent to which our system expressly and impliedly communicates to certain students that they are “fated” to fail?  Let’s become collectively more aware and pilot studies to determine whether different faculty and institutional responses to 1L grades might alter what appears to be a “failure trajectory” for lower-performing students. Let’s find ways to truly encourage grit, rather than just giving it lip service all the while rewarding only those who catch on most quickly.  Let’s create a system that “normalizes struggle,” as Professor Christopher argues,[8] and celebrates learning from early mistakes. 

Much learning occurs after 1L. We must study how much more learning might take place if we rewarded, valued, and encouraged law students who engage in continuous improvement and, by graduation, become far more skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable than their first-year grades would indicate. This is not to suggest an “A for effort” or “everyone gets a trophy.” Rather, this is a call for pilot programs and careful study of how initially-lower-performing law students would fare (on the bar exam and in practice) if given true and un-stigmatized opportunities to improve, and be rewarded for improving, during law school.  Such opportunities may come in the form of the suggestions noted in Part II of this post, and by seeding the law school curriculum with formative assessment and thoughtful feedback.

Employers will surely still find ways to determine which graduates are the best fits for which jobs. In the meantime, we are wasting precious resources trying to get lower-performing students to thrive in cultures that do not encourage them to do the extra work required to outperform their early indicators.  Let’s at least study how bar passage (not to mention, job satisfaction and dedicated commitment to using the rule of law to make the world a better place) might improve if law school culture stressed deep, slow, and steady learning, and truly rewarded persistence, resilience, and continuous improvement.

Part II of this post explores some of the many possibilities for “simple” changes that might help advance the ongoing culture shift toward a true growth mindset.  Stay tuned!


[1] Section of Legal Educ. and Admissions to the Bar, Am. Bar Ass’n, ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools § 314 (2019),https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/misc/legal_education/Standards/2017-2018ABAStandardsforApprovalofLawSchools/2017_2018_standards_chapter3.authcheckdam.pdf.

[2] Paula J. Manning, Understanding the Impact of Inadequate Feedback: A Means to Reduce Law Student Psychological Distress, Increase Motivation, and Improve Learning Outcomes, 43 Cumb. L. Rev. 225 (2012).

[3] Daniel Schwarcz & Dion Farganis, The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance, 67 J. Legal Educ. 139 (2017).

[4] Carol Springer Sargent & Andrea A. Curcio, Empirical Evidence That Formative Assessments Improve Final Exams, 61 J. Legal Educ. 379, 405 (2012).

[5] The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006); see also Sarah J. Adams-Schoen, Of Old Dogs and New Tricks—Can Law Schools Really Fix Students’ Fixed Mindsets?, 19 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 3, 48 (2014); Kaci Bishop, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 959, 1006 (2018); Eduardo Briceño & Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success Before the Bar Blog (September 12, 2017); Olympia Duhart, Growing Grit in the LRW Classroom: Practices that Promote Passion and Perseverance (2019) (on file with the author).

[6] See Roger C. Cramton, The Current State of the Law Curriculum, 32 J. Legal Educ. 321, 335 (1982) (arguing that “[f]irst-year grades control the distribution of goodies: honors, law review, job placement, and, because of the importance placed on these matters by the law school culture, even the student’s sense of personal worth.”)

[7] Amy Farley et al., Law Student Success and Supports: Examining Bar Passage and Factors That Contribute to Student Performance (2018) (on file with the author).

[8] Catherine Martin Christopher’s recent article, Normalizing Struggle, Ark. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2019) provides many possibilities for precisely these different sorts of responses and actions.

Fear of Public Speaking

When I first started law school, I had one thing on my mind: getting called on in class. Like many students, the fear of public speaking was a constant battle. Despite preparing for class the night before and the morning of, the second I walked into the classroom, my brain shut off. My anxiety about “looking stupid” or “giving a wrong answer” was getting in the way of my learning experience. I know there are many students like me that are fighting this battle too, but can you do to get better and calm that anxiety?

An article called “Are you a lawyer with public speaking anxiety? You are not alone” was published on the ABA Journal website, which I found to be personally helpful. The author, Heidi Brown, talks about being a litigator for 20 years and being absolutely terrified of public speaking. What I loved about this article was the advice she gave:

  1. “Ditch the Clichés”

She starts off by advising individuals to feel comfortable in rejecting those messages that say “just get over it” or “simply overprepare, overprepare, and fake it”. This advice may work for some, but it certainly doesn’t work for all, especially when if you’re like me, you’re sending yourself all kinds of negative messages such as “they’ll think you’re not smart” or “they’re going to judge you later.” “Instead, to amplify our advocacy voices, we must invest in both mental and physical reflection and then convert our enhanced self-knowledge into conscious action.”

The next step suggested is to identify potential original sources of those negative messages. Heidi points out that this isn’t a “blame game,” but rather a way to recognize the harmful messages that may have entered our brains long ago. It’s important to realize that these messages are no longer applicable to our current lives as students and lawyers.

Heidi encourages us to find other moments in our lives where we feel empowerment and use that to inspire us during those scary public speaking moments. Using these moments, we can turn that “they’ll think I’m stupid” into “they’ll see how prepared I am.”

  • “Getting Physical”

A huge part of public speaking is not only your mental state, but your body language. There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy (the video is actually directly on the article page) that I highly suggest you watch. A professor sent this out before we had our oral arguments last year and it really helped me when it was time to face one of my biggest fears of 1L.

Heidi reflects on how she would make herself feel smaller as if to hide her “weakness.” I, too, found that I tried protect myself in the same way to hide the embarrassing anxiety and overheating that took over my body when I had to speak in front of my class. Now, Heidi has a checklist she uses and ensures that she opens herself up as soon as she starts to feel that anxiety rushing in. Most importantly (I think), is she remembers to breathe! I’m definitely trying to utilize these tips and the ones from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.

I would also just like to add that there’s a great non-profit organization called Toast Masters with clubs located all over the world. These are clubs that get together and help individuals work on public speaking and leadership skills. See the video on their website for an overview of exactly how this program works and how to get involved.

If you’re really struggling with speaking up, remember that there are a ton of resources available. The internet has a lot of tips, but don’t be afraid to seek counseling or speak to someone who has to do public speaking every day (like professors!).

Teaching What You Don’t Know—Wonderful Book with a NSFW Title

Teaching What You Don’t Know by Dr. Therese Huston is the most helpful teaching book I’ve ever come across.  It combines theory, practical advice, and reassurance in short and helpful chapters.  It has something for everyone who teaches law school at any level.  While the title might be off-putting to those being taught (maybe keep it home), as she explains it, “Teaching what you don’t know is an increasingly common reality for a majority of academics.”  To paraphrase, the only people who don’t teach what they don’t know are adjuncts hired for single classes and very senior research professors who buy out their teaching time.  The rest of us, very much including law professors who she acknowledges throughout, are essentially teaching survey courses in which it would be impossible to claim expertise for every point and chapter.

All that said, this book is truly a life-saver for the times when we truly, really are teaching what we don’t know either because we have taken on someone else’s class in an emergency or more naturally, when starting out when we are asked to teach a class for the first time. “Knowing” an area of law and “knowing how” to teach it are two very different things.  It’s also helpful when you are new at an institution and the students don’t know you.

In a few very short chapters, Dr. Huston provides practical advice for every challenge—very much including how to prepare and how to present yourself and your state of expertise in the class.  The section on “Establishing Credibility” is a must for anyone teaching something or somewhere new.  It can also help navigate the very choppy waters of teaching evaluations—which as we are all now aware reflect first impressions and often dovetail societal biases.

It’s worth some quotes— “Your knowledge of the field may be the primary way that you earn credibility from your colleagues, but you have a different relationship with students and you establish credibility, respect, and trust in different ways.  Research shows that instructors tend to lose credibility with their students when they:

  • “Show up late for class
  • Lack familiarity with the text
  • Cannot explain difficult concepts
  • Rarely ask if students understand their explanations
  • Does not make any attempt to answer students’ questions
  • Fail to follow course policies”

And even more helpful “there are several things you can do to create the kind of credibility that matters to students”

  • Show up on time for class, preferably early, so you have a chance to connect with students and find out if they have any questions
  • Periodically ask students if they understand the material

That first suggestion is gold.  I urge it on everyone.  It can work like magic.  And make your class more welcoming and inclusive. Research suggests that students care that you care—and the simple act of arriving early (even if the classroom isn’t available, you can mingle) allows you to interact informally with students who might never rush the podium after class or certainly not make the pilgrimage to office hours.

It’s also great for those who want to adopt new teaching methods.  There are a lot of teaching books—all with value.  But sometimes reading about 150 techniques for active learning is overwhelming.  Dr. Huston’s advice is highly curated, clearly explained, and very doable. I’ve given this book away several times since discovering it in the education section of a London bookstore and can’t count how many times I’ve read it and recommended it to others.  I don’t know why it isn’t better known.  Despite its title and its value to beginners and those who find themselves teaching something truly new, what the book really provides is sound, research based advice of value to everyone interested in teaching excellence-—even when teaching things you really know quite well. 

Jennifer S. Bard,J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.,Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

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