Great Teaching is Great Teaching, In Any Delivery Mode

By Sara J. Berman, Director of Programs for Academic and Bar Success, AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence

Hats off to LSAC for its important June 30th webinar featuring Berkeley Law Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. As LSAC President Kellye Testy said at the close of the session, I too felt a longing to return to the richness of law school learning while listening to Dean Chemerinsky’s review of recent Supreme Court decisions. The session also provided a hopeful counterpart to Dean Paul Caron’s same day post, Is A Law School Meltdown Coming? Thank you, Dean Caron, for this critically important warning that I hope we all heed, and for the rays of light in between the cautionary notes.

Dean Chemerinsky showed every prospective law student —via a distance learning delivery system I might add — why the law and legal education are critically important—indeed vital to the future of our democracy. And, for all who watched and listened, or will do so when the video link is posted, Dean Chemerinsky’s Constitutional Law session provides irrefutable evidence that great teaching is great teaching, in any delivery mode.

Distance learning is not new. We have long been engaged in deep learning through books, movies, and educational television. How many of us first learned how a bill becomes a law or the proper use conjunctions because of Schoolhouse Rock? And, how many are learning important U.S. history lessons by singing the lyrics of Hamilton and watching the musical online—from a distance, not “in the room where it happened.” Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of today’s greatest distance educators!

I am a legal ed distance learning pioneer. When people question me about the efficacy of online learning in legal education, I often point to Professor Arthur Miller. Teaching in person for decades at Harvard Law School and now at NYU, and through multiple distance formats, Professor Miller has taught more lawyers, judges, and everyday citizens than anyone could possibly ever count— about civil procedure and the American legal system— through his Federal Practice and Procedure treatise, casebooks, and hornbooks, bar review, PBS series The Constitution: That Delicate Balance for which he won an Emmy, and decades of work providing legal commentary and bringing life and clarity to legal issues on national television, not to mention the lectures he recorded for the first online law school, where I served for some fifteen years as a faculty member and assistant dean.

Quite simply, anyone who categorically dismisses “distance learning” in legal education as some sort of inferior substitute has never heard, watched, or read the teachings of Erwin Chemerinsky or Arthur Miller, or any of the thousands of other brilliant law professors across this country who are right now preparing to teach superb online courses this fall. And, this is precisely what we should be doing —preparing for the fall.

In a June 30, 2020 post, former Northwestern Dean Dan Rodriguez rightly lauds Professor Deborah Merritt, “What Prof. Merritt captures well, and what I and others have tried hard to capture as we have discussed this issue privately and publicly is this: We can and should put on a full-court-press to develop and refine our remote/online teaching abilities so as to commit to giving our students an excellent educational experience — excellent in curricular content, excellent in experiential/skill-building opportunities, and excellent in the community-building that technology can assist us with, if we are diligent and strategic, energetic and empathetic.”

And, to anyone who contests the community building part of the statement above, anyone who claims that unless we are together in person we cannot really build deep and lasting connections, let us remember that history is replete with people who have fallen in love, sustained relationships, started revolutions, and changed the world through letter writing.

The week of June 30th was indeed a busy one for legal education and distance education in particular.  In addition to the webinar and posts noted above, the Summer 2020 issue of the AccessLex Institute’s Raising the Bar (RTB) was published on July 1, 2020.  I am proud to have founded and continue to serve as managing editor of RTB. This issue is dedicated to distance learning in legal education, and features among other content, wisdom from four visionary law school deans who are at the helm of hybrid JD programs that were educating for the 21st century prior to the pandemic. I hope that readers find the issue informative and will feel inspired to continue working to develop precisely the kind of excellent educational experience in learning that Professor Merritt envisions.

As legal education continues in part or fully online in the new academic year and until this virus is eradicated and perhaps beyond, let’s work together with the same fervor depicted in Alexander Hamilton’s writing “like he’s running out of time,” to see the virtual halls of our nation’s law schools filled this fall with the brightest, most engaged minds —students from all backgrounds who are ready to learn to protect the Constitution and to ensure that our nation remains a thriving democracy, governed by the rule of law.

MORE NEWS ON STATES, BAR EXAM, AND DIPLOMA PRIVILEGES

For several months now, this blog has commented on Courts and States continuing to require a traditional bar exam for admission to practice.  It has also covered the call by law deans and law students to enact Diploma Privileges.

Since our last post on this subject Oregon has adopted a Diploma Privilege and now a New York State Senator has proposed a bill which according to its “justification” allows for “a modified form of diploma privilege. “  The bill is found here.

Senator Brad Hoylman’s Sponsor Memo reads as follows:

At this point in time, it is too early to tell with certainty whether it will be safe and feasible to hold an in-person bar exam in early September. State and local restrictions on venues being open and limiting the size of in-person gatherings may preclude the administration of an in-person test. Amid the uncertainty over the test’s administration, law graduates are reporting that the already stressful bar exam preparation has been compounded by personal challenges ranging from their own health and wellbeing to financial hardship to increased caregiving responsibilities. Allowing a modified form of diploma privilege, as proposed in this bill, would give law graduates a reprieve from further delays in admittance, while retaining the Court of Appeals’ prerogative to set standards for the profession. Under this bill, as long as there is an extent state of Emergency related to COVID-19, the uniform system of examination for admission to practice law in New York will consist of the New York Law Course, the New York Law Examination, and the Multi- state Professional Responsibility Examination, all of which can be taken online.

Nothing in the bill precludes the State from moving forward with admin- istering the Multistate Bar Examination, meaning it can remain an option for New York-based law graduates who wish to practice law in a state other than New York. Passing the MBE, however, would not be a required prerequisite to admission to practice in New York for the duration of the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

According to Karen Sloan’s article on Law.com, 2020 Brooklyn Law School graduate Claire Schapira, who is involved with an advocacy group called NY 4 Diploma Privilege hopes

that the Board of Law Examiners and Court of Appeals will act on their own, because they have the power to do that,” Schapira said. “But I think that this helps push the momentum. This is not something that graduates want because we don’t want to take the bar exam. This is an issue that has a real impact across the legal community and the community more generally.”

I agree. I spent a portion of yesterday trying to problem solve with a brilliant, hardworking, ethical and professional law graduate and accepted bar examinee.  This student also excelled in clinical practice.  Like other examinees, this immune compromised student, who is normally efficient, excellent at focus and time management, and extremely organized is being distracted from bar study by 

  • trying to keep up on what is safe to do as the virus surges again
  • changing bar expectations and information across the country
  • concern about friends and family who live in other states
  • Rent issues while studying for the bar in a safe appropriate place in the Capital NY Region 
  • Figuring out when to move to a more expensive city where a more challenging living situation but good job is waiting
  • Fear that NYS will once again punt making a hard decision by delaying exam dates until October which continues unemployment for this graduate and many others.     

It is time to provide certainty and provide New York law graduates with a diploma privilege tied to other indicators of professional promise as outlined previously on this blog here and here.

 

UPDATE: 7/8/20 See also https://news.bloomberglaw.com/us-law-week/insight-clinical-education-a-safe-and-sure-pathway-to-law-licensure

 

Defund the Police or Reimagine Policing

On behalf of Josephine Ross, Professor of Law at Howard University School of Law, Author of forthcoming book “A Feminist Critique of Police Stops” (Cambridge University Press, anticipated publication date mid-January 2021)

I was invited to post a blog because I have been working on a book about policing while all around us, the protests are changing the landscape. This is mostly figurative, but in some cases it is literally changing, as the streets in DC are now painted with Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police.

So I’ll start there, with the slogan “Defund the Police.” I’ve been grappling with whether the phrase feeds into the hands of Republicans by scaring people who should be allies. Why not use “Reimagine Policing” instead? Is defunding the police saying something different than reimagine? For white people like me or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Americans who believe they are white,” we are called right now to support the dismantling of the racist power structure, the system that led to the death of Eric Gardner and George Floyd, of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. There is no sitting on the fence. In that vein, I invite us to think about what the slogan means.

Whatever its drawbacks, the slogan has already spurred some changes. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution to “replace the police department with a community-led public safety system.” This involves reimagining policing for sure, but it defunds the old in order start fresh, with different personnel and structure, with anti-racist professionals.

Calls to defund also force us to look at how police departments waste taxpayer money. My book builds on stories my students told me about their encounters with police. Howard law students told me about being stopped and frisked or pulled over for driving while black. None of their encounters helped make our communities safer. Stop-and-frisk is a form of sexual harassment. Just like unwanted touching at work, people who have been stopped repeatedly by police feel vulnerable just walking down the street. Repeated stops create a hostile environment, but it’s easier to quit a job to avoid a boss than it is to avoid the police. I call for the abolition of the stops and frisks (without probable cause) and argue that Terry v. Ohio was built on a lie. No more stops without probable cause. No more consent stops. No more patting people’s groins, pretending that’s where they might have hidden a small weapon that they will pull out while the officer talks to them.

When I talked to people outside the law school about what I was writing, I was often asked what would replace stop-and-frisk? The answer is nothing. Reimagine policing without harassment. The slogan “defund the police” speaks to this too, for why pay money for a system that subjugates us? If an organized patrol was set up to wolf whistle at young women on the street or harass women at work, we would call for them to be defunded. We would not seek retraining and education. We would dismantle it.

I think there’s still a need for a police-like agency that’s given a monopoly on violence. This unit must respond quickly to calls of rape or home invasions. Some type of detectives must investigate murders. The question is whether this police-like structure can be created from the same institutions that shot Philando Castile and kill approximately one thousand people each year. I remember when a Howard Law School student complained to me that “officials talk about blacks regaining trust as if we had trust before. We never had it.” It might be easier to build trust by defunding the old and creating something new.

I confess to writing Defund the Police on a sign before standing at the busy corner where my white neighbors stand (6 feet away) at 6pm to show support for the protesters. I figure that most law professors think they do more by writing and teaching. But I think it’s important to support our students, especially our black students, by adding our bodies to the sea of people calling for real change, not just the same lipstick job that’s been going on since Rodney King’s beating in 1991. I chose the Defund the Police sign because it pushes the envelope and forced me to really think about the slogan. I recommend taking some action no matter what your deadline and no matter what you draw on the cardboard. It makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

Fifteen Simple Ways (“low hanging fruit”) for Law Professors to Integrate Professional Formation and Development into Online Classrooms

by Sara Berman and Neil Hamilton

During this spring semester, legal education like nearly all education sectors, underwent an overnight revolution, moving from largely an in-person to an online delivery format. Educators have had to adapt to not only to new technologies but to new ways of communicating, adopting many new teaching and learning methods, new grading policies, and more. Understanding that many law faculty have been completely overwhelmed by having to change so much so rapidly, but knowing also that this change will continue, in all likelihood, into this summer and fall, we propose some simple steps that faculty can take to incorporate professional formation and development into online law classes, all of which can be employed in in-person classes as well.

I. Contextual Background

First, what is meant by professional formation and development?  Many publications have detailed these concepts at length.[1] For the sake of brevity here, each student should demonstrate an understanding and integration of:

1. Pro-active professional development toward excellence at all the competencies needed to serve others well in meaningful employment; and

2. An internalized deep responsibility to others, especially the client and the legal system, whom the student serves as a professional in widening circles as the student matures.

There are several key principles that should guide the development of strategies that foster professional formation and development. Holloran Center scholars have been building a framework of key principles to guide the development of the most effective curriculum, culture, and assessments to foster each student’s growth toward later stages of development on the two foundational professional formation and development competencies,[2] conducting research and analyzing scholarship on (1) higher education in other disciplines, particularly medical education, (2) moral psychology, and (3) self-directed/self-regulated learning.

Four research windows agree that an effective curriculum (including assessments) that promotes the two professional formation and development learning outcomes should:

  1. Take into account that students are at different developmental stages of growth and engage each student at the student’s present developmental stage – Go Where They Are;
  1. Provide repeated opportunities for reflection on the responsibilities of the profession and the habit of reflective self-assessment in general;
  1. Emphasize experiential learning, feedback on the student’s performance, and reflection; and
  1. Emphasize coaching.

An additional research window suggests the following curricular engagements to foster each student’s growth toward the two professional formation and development learning outcomes:

5. Experiences that create cognitive dissonance/optimal conflict with the student’s current developmental stage on either of the ethical professional formation and development learning outcomes;

  1. Instruction that helps the student understand how new knowledge is building on the student’s prior knowledge and competencies (student’s existing narrative);
  1. Instruction that helps each student understand how the professional formation curriculum assists the student to achieve his or her goals; and
  1. Instruction that helps each student understand and implement specific steps to grow toward later stages of development.

II. Fifteen simple questions or strategies

We need to remember that this generation of law students also experienced the Great Recession of 2009-11; now they are experiencing the current crisis and will in all likelihood face yet another serious recession or more dire economic struggles ahead –not to mention health and safety related hardships.  The questions/strategies below may be helpful to provoke constructive reflection and discussion, and hopefully to positively channel at least some important concerns about moving forward in their professional lives in this challenging context.

The following are questions that a professor can pose to students to spark self-reflection and awareness about professional formation and development:

  1. “Assume you meet a lawyer who could be important in your employment search and the person asks some version of, ‘What did you learn in this crisis?’  Write a brief answer to this question –or record a brief video of yourself answering this question.” 

The teaching opportunity suggested with this writing prompt is to provoke thoughts about this underlying query: “What did you learn that would be useful to an employer?” Thoughtful answers would go toward versions of I learned adaptive capacity skills, perhaps with words such as: a) “I learned that I know how to figure out solutions to a host of unanticipated changes and challenges,” b) “I made X changes to adapt to Y challenges.” Or, c) “Actions I have taken so far and/or will take to adapt and eventually thrive, even in the face of many challenges, include Z].”  Student answers might include specific examples of “grit,” “resiliency,” and positive or growth mindsets that helped them through pandemic-related challenges offering evidence that the student would demonstrate similar resilience as a future professional.[3]  Note: where students video themselves, they are also simulating how they might orally respond to such a question in an interview.

  1. Same situation as in the first query but posing this question: “What did you learn about the organizations, businesses, or business sectors you observed?  Write specific examples of how they reacted, adapted, or failed to do so during the pandemic.”
  1. Talk to a person whom you know who has experienced and transcended a crucible in life and ask what they learned from the challenges going forward.  As students: “What did you learn by asking the question and/or from the response?  What follow-up questions did you ask and why?”
  1. At the end of a Socratic Q & A session (in-person or online), ask students to write down any other questions they would have asked if they were the professor. The ability for students to see themselves in a professional role, here as professor, is critical to making the successful transition from student to professional.

The following are actions that a professor can take to support students while encouraging their professional formation and development:

  1. If you are comfortable doing so, talk with your students about the crises/crucibles/difficult times in your own professional life or the life of your clients, noting what you and they learned?
  1. Log on to synchronous online classes 10-15 minutes early or stay for 15-20 minutes after class to talk and listen to students’ comments about “life” and in particular about their professional life and concerns during this crisis.  This underscores the notion that a vital part of professional life is to engage in collegial discussion; it stresses the importance of personal connection as an integral part of professional work.  You might analogize “official” class time to office work time, and these pre- or post-class discussions to attending bar association meetings or receptions with colleagues. Taking just a few minutes before or after class also promotes belonging and work-life balance and underscores the importance of continuing to engage in personal and professional networking, especially as students are facing extraordinary health, financial, and psychological stress, and are forced to stay at home.
  1. As a faculty member, attend an extra-curricular event led by the Dean of Students, the Career Services office, the Academic Support faculty, and/or an event organized by a law student affinity group, and sit in the audience if invited when LRW faculty hold oral arguments. Attend these now, virtually, and plan to attend in person when you can.  Law schools host many events to help students, some of which are part of programs you strongly believe in. Theoretical support is important, but your presence (online or in person) as a faculty member, even for a few minutes, carries far more weight that you will ever know in terms of whether students take such programming seriously. This will also help students realize as future professionals how important their presence will be at law office functions, networking opportunities, and community events.
  1. Provide extra credit in class for students who make thoughtful explicit connections between classroom assignments and any outside pro bono work they are doing or plan to do. There will continue to be limitless opportunities for meaningful pro bono work as society weathers this storm – assisting with unemployment issues, bankruptcies, evictions, and more. Share with your students (in an email, recorded message, or synchronous online class) any pro bono work you are doing or examples of pro bono work you did in the past, noting how it has made you a better lawyer and more competent and empathetic professional.
  1. Tell students why you went to law school, and ask them to think about why they came to law school. (You can send this as an email, post it as a discussion board exercise in the LMS, or bring it up in a Zoom or other synchronous class.) Tell them about how your purpose with respect to your understanding of what it means to be a member of the profession may have changed over the years. Is it changing now in this crisis?  

For faculty involved in planning fall Orientations, think about including time for incoming students to write a Why Law School letter to themselves; collect the letters and return them to students during the summer between 1L and 2L and again before they begin bar exam preparation. Finding one’s “why” and holding fast to it are critical to success in law school, on the bar exam, and in practice.[4]

  1. When students pose a question or answer a question in a way that demonstrates that they listened to (or read) a previous student’s comments and integrated those comments thoughtfully into their new question or comment, the Professor can drop an email or instant message note saying, “The way you asked (answered) this question shows you listened carefully to your classmate’s comments (or listened to and recalled a dialogue from one of our last classes). That’s great! Critical listening (or critical reading) skills are among the most important qualities of a successful lawyer. As just one of many examples, you might well find yourself in the position of eliciting more important information and posing better, more thoughtful follow-up questions because you critically listened to a witness’s answers in a deposition. Thank you again for your thoughtful question/comment. And, keep developing this important skill.”

Little time is needed to reinforce and praise professional behavior and the demonstration of critical lawyering skills; the potential for positive impact on student engagement, well-being, and learning, in addition to on their professional formation and development is great.

  1. Professors can also help students improve listening skills by periodically stopping class (in-person or in a synchronous online class), for example after you have posed a question, and asking students to write down what you just asked (noting whether they believe they heard and understood your question) and then email you their answers. Collect the answers and choose some to read or post, anonymously. Warn students in advance that you will be doing this. And, be transparent about the nature and purpose of this assignment: to encourage individuals to sharpen their own listening skills. You can also use this exercise as an opportunity to explain the purpose of questions generally in the law school classroom – that they center not just on the 1-on-1 between professor and student, but on everyone collectively listening carefully (or reading questions posted on bulletin boards), just as they will need to listen to clients, colleagues, and witnesses. (Similar exercises can be useful to help students train critical reading skills.)
  1. Distribute (via email or on a discussion board) a master list of the key skills/qualities of competent lawyers (for example from Schultz and Zedek or IAALS) and/or note (in live class, by email, or on discussion board) a few of the key skills/qualities that you believe the work you are doing is helping to train during each class so that students can “check in” and ask themselves if they are honing these skills. Reading such practice-minded lists will empower students who are building certain skills but still working on others to continue to believe that they “have what it takes” to become competent lawyers. (You might also ask students to consider which competencies are most relevant to help clients in a crisis.)
  1. Bring guest speakers to online and in-person classes, such as practitioners who can talk about the entire range of competencies needed in the various areas of practice.[5]  Guest faculty can also provide insights into differing perspectives on parts of your courses. CALI.org has posted a list of professors willing to Zoom into classes as guest lecturers at https://www.cali.org/content/guest-speakers-available-remote-teaching-law-school-courses-coronaviruscovid-19
  1. When/if you give formative assessments (in-person or as part of asynchronous or synchronous online learning), make explicit which of the lawyering competencies each assessment is measuring – how and why. Provide concrete examples of the transferability of skills from success in law school and on the bar exam (where applicable), to success in law practice and as professionals.
  1. Give a talk (in a synchronous online class or in a recorded message), before the end of the semester if possible, or during this summer, to try to blunt the pain that the law school curve can bring and to encourage all of your students to feel that they belong. Even though many schools have changed the grading policies to pass/fall for the spring 2020, many students will be even more concerned about their law school GPAs and their potential impact on future employment. Now more than ever is an important time for students to read the Roadmap.[6]

There is no one right message; this has to be authentic for each professor. But, an example might include something like, “You are all used to getting A’s. You cannot all get A’s in law school. What you can all do is your best, and can and must, as professionals, engage in continuous learning and improvement. If your grades and/or comments on exams do not reflect the quality of work you will need to be doing to best serve clients when you graduate, please talk with me; ask me to review your exams and help you determine how to improve. The career path of great lawyers involve continuous improvement. Your goal is to be a lifelong learner.”

III. Conclusion

As noted at the outset, the authors applaud law faculty nationwide whose nimbleness served as irrefutable evidence of a collective dedication to students and to the continuity of graduating future leaders who will protect the rule of law. The suggestions in this paper are merely that, thoughts on some simple steps to incorporate professional formation and development into online law classes. The authors hope that these suggestions spark ideas for faculty to adapt as they choose, and that a discussion will continue to further develop both additional simple steps and more comprehensive programming on professional formation and development in online and in-person formats, as we weather the storms resulting from and adapt to changes required because of the 2020 pandemic.

The authors are available to discuss these further and encourage readers to contact the authors with additional strategies for integrating professional identity formation into legal education. This list will be updated and available on the Holloran Center website.

Neil W. Hamilton, Holloran Professor of Law and Co-director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions. https://www.stthomas.edu/law/facultystaff/a-z-index/neil-hamilton.html;  SSRN author page

Sara J. Berman, Director, Academic and Bar Success Programs, AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence; formerly held Assistant Dean and Director positions Whittier and NSU Law Schools, and served as faculty and in senior administration of nation’s first fully online law school. SSRN author page


[1] See generally body of work collected at https://www.stthomas.edu/hollorancenter/resourcesforlegaleducators/publications/

[2] These general principles here appeared first in Neil Hamilton, Formation-of-an-Ethical-Professional-Identity (Professionalism) Learning Outcome and E-Portfolio Formative Assessments, 48 UNIV. PACIFIC L.REV. 847, 856-59 (2017).

[3] Neil Hamilton includes many additional strategies to help students and for students to help themselves to pave the way toward developing meaningful employment opportunities in Roadmap: The Law Student’s Guide to Meaningful Employment, Second Edition (ABA Publishing, 2019).

[4] Purpose-driven learning is a cornerstone of bar success, as Sara Berman writes in the introduction to Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide (ABA Publishing 2019).

[5] Inspired by her civil procedure professor who brought a journalist to class to discuss the differences between the types of questions lawyers ask and those that journalists ask, and why, providing an engaging deep dive into the importance of facts generally, author Berman regularly invited police officers to her in-person criminal procedure classes and a family court judge to her online community property classes, which resulting in The Courtroom Comes to the Classroom, a collaboration between Professor Berman and Judge Mark Juhas.)

[6] See Roadmap, supra at note 3.

 

Rise in Wellness Blog Q&A: Part 2

Q: Introduce yourself! What’s your name/class year/any extracurriculars/area of interest/etc.?
A: Olivia Cox, 2021, Executive Editor of Albany Government Law Review, Vol. 14; cello teacher/teaching artist for Empire State Youth Orchestra’s CHIME program.

Q: Can you give us some background on what the Wellness Initiative is and how it got started?
A: In 2018, the Wellness Initiative was establish to raise awareness of issues related to health and wellness, provide resources for members of the law school community who are dealing with issues related to mental health and wellness and provide educational programming related to mental, physical, social, financial and academic health and wellness within the law school community. The Colby Fellowship was created to allow students the opportunity to participate in various wellness based activities, provide resources to students, and to help bring greater awareness to the importance of a holistic, balanced lifestyle. The Colby Fellowship is named in honor of our generous donor, Trustee Andrea Colby ’80.

Q: Why did you choose to get involved in the Wellness Initiative and become a Colby Fellow?
A: Wellness/Mental Health has always been very important to me. I have always believed that all my accomplishments are for naught if I don’t have my health. This sentiment seems to be lost in the law school environment due to its competitive nature. I hope our events and Blog remind students of the importance of mental health and wellness, especially during law school.

Q: What has the Wellness Initiative done this year at Albany Law School?
A: This year, unfortunately, was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not stopped us from soldiering on with our wellness programming. We have held several yoga/meditation classes, hosted speakers, including Brian Cuban, and various relaxing activities during finals.

Q: What is the Wellness Blog? What kinds of topics have you written about and what do you plan to write in the future?
A: The Wellness Blog is Albany Law’s central hub for wellness tips, resources, updates, upcoming events and more. We’ve posted a Q&A with a yoga teacher, volunteer opportunities, and about various events we have hosted. However, the Blog is getting a lot more traffic since the onset of COVID-19. We have been compiling and posting all sorts of resources, in addition to posts from guest writers about how best to work/learn from home.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the Wellness Blog?
A: I hope that students will enjoy reading the Blog as much as I have enjoyed writing the Blog. I hope it becomes “one of those things” that students check often, like Canvas or TWEN.

Q: Who can post to the Wellness Blog?
A: Anyone! Currently, it is primarily Carly and I creating content for the Blog. However, we welcome contributions from anyone and everyone. Professors, students, and faculty alike are all welcome to post on the Blog. Just send us your article/post and we will post it!

Q: Do you have any advice for other schools that might want to start a Wellness Initiative?
A: “If we build it, they will come.” It sounds cliché but it’s the truth. At first you may not have many participants, but over time more students will become interested. Mental health and wellness are often put on the back burner during law school, but that is when it is the most important.

Rise in Wellness Blog Q&A: Part 1

Albany Law School established a Wellness Initiative, which is currently run by Carly Dziekan ’20, Olivia Cox ’21, and Rosemary Queenan, Associate Dean for Student Affairs. As part of the initiative, the team created the “Rise in Wellness Blog” – a blog devoted to health and wellness. Every week, the blog posts resources, wellness tips, updates, and upcoming events. I “virtually” interviewed Carly and Olivia to find out how the Wellness Initiative and Rise in Wellness Blog got started (“Part 1” will cover Carly’s interview and “Part 2” will cover Olivia’s interview).


Q:
Introduce yourself! What’s your name/class year/any extracurriculars/area of interest/etc.?
A: My name is Carly Dziekan and I am a 3L at Albany Law School and one of the Colby Fellows for the Wellness Initiative. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology. In my free time, I enjoy running, biking, and recently started kickboxing! Especially in light of this pandemic, it is even more important to take care of yourself physically and mentally as best as we can.

Q: Can you give us some background on what the Wellness Initiative is and how it got started?
A: The Wellness Initiative started in 2018 by a recent graduate who saw a need for an administrative initiative devoted to law student mental health, wellness, and overall wellbeing. The administration and the students then took on the ownership together and it has been growing ever since! This initiative is still very new, so we are open to any and all suggestions!

Q: Why did you choose to get involved in the Wellness Initiative and become a Colby Fellow?
A: Law school is a challenging time in so many ways, and it challenged me in ways I never expected. I am very lucky to have an incredible support system and to have already had coping mechanisms and wellness habits grounded in me before law school. Even so, I still struggled. I was excited to become involved in the wellness initiative to help other students who may not have had the experiences I have had, and to show them that help is out there is they need it and we are here for them.

Q: What has the Wellness Initiative done this year at Albany Law School?
A: This year, we have had monthly yoga class on campus (and now via Zoom), a Mental Health Week in honor of World Mental Health day, an impactful keynote speech by Brian Cuban, programming for 1L students discussing the stress of finals, and other educational and recreational wellness centered events.

Q: What is the Wellness Blog? What kinds of topics have you written about and what do you plan to write in the future?
A: The Wellness Blog really turned into a way to update students with COVID-19 resources. Now more than ever, wellness and mental health in law students is a huge issue. (Rest of the answer morphed into the question below)

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the Wellness Blog?
A: The idea of the blog started when I got a flat tire and didn’t know where to get it fixed as I am not originally from the Albany area. It got me thinking: how many people are having this problem? I wanted to create a central location where students could get information on various resources in Albany, from gyms, to restaurants, to car mechanics, to mental health resources. Another goal is to also highlight all of the work we are doing on campus related to wellness as well as what other schools and organizations are doing.

Q: Who can post to the Wellness Blog?
A: The Colby Fellows run the blog, but anyone can contribute! Send Olivia or I an email and we would love to have others write a piece.

Q: Do you have any advice for other schools that might want to start a Wellness Initiative?
A: Don’t get discouraged. This work is so important and necessary but it takes some time to gain traction. Sometimes, even if an event isn’t well attended or no one “responds” to your post, trust me, people read it or heard about it and it impacted someone. Which is what really matters. Now that the initiative has been around for a bit, more students are aware of the work we are doing and much of it has been de-stigmatized.

Disparate Impact Magnified: Holding a Bar Exam during the COVID 19 Pandemic year of 2020

Yesterday the Harvard Law Review blog posted an excellent piece by a powerhouse group of legal educators who describe the prospect of a “licensing abyss” just when non-privileged folks and small businesses will need extra legal assistance to navigate the health, employment, housing and government benefits legal landscape.  On the same day, the ABA also urged states that cancel or delay the bar exam to  license law grads on an emergency basis “to help address the increase in legal needs for individuals and businesses caused by this pandemic.”

The Harvard blog authors note, in addition, the the reluctance of bar examiners and courts to find alternatives to the “closed-book, two-day exam anchored in 200 multiple-choice questions” despite the option of so many good alternatives that may well better predict competence to practice law. The authors ask,

Why do our courts and bar examiners place so much faith in this high-stakes exam to predict who is competent to practice law?

This question has puzzled readers and contributors of this blog particularly in light of the discriminatory nature of “speeded” exams  and the economic call for practice-ready lawyers. It is also puzzling when the profession itself is so deficient in diversity and standardized tests are used in ways that preference the privileged.

For 2020, the issue of disparate impact with respect to timed, closed-book exams anchored in multiple choice questions is further exacerbated by law students’ quarantine and sheltering conditions while studying for the bar exam- see the excellent piece in the NYT on how students returning home to attend classes removes the veneer that all are equal. Even more disturbing and heartbreaking is the information surfacing this week about the horrific disparate impact of COVID19 deaths on Americans of color.  Pre-existing disparities in trauma, housing, employment, healthcare, opportunity, discrimination and historical DNA exacerbate the distress and fatalities for communities of color and for those whose families and friends are populated by people of color.  Some of us – particularly our students of color – will be affected in disproportionate ways and in ways no one can predict or control over the course of the coming months.

As the authors of the Harvard Law Blog wrote, “Crises challenge assumptions and demand action. For this year, emergency licensing based on diplomas and periods of supervised practice would offer proof of competence.”  To do otherwise would demonstrate an inability of our profession to adapt and experiment, and a shocking refusal to recognize and correct disparate impacts.

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!

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

Best Practice Contributors Highlighted in Best Articles of 2019

A big congratulations to our very own bloggers, Jennifer Bard and Benjamin Madison, for being featured on the TaxProf Blog!

Jennifer Bard’s article, “Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?” and Benjamin Madison’s article, “New Rubrics Available to Help Law Schools that Have Adopted Learning Outcomes Related to Professional Identity Formation” were both listed as TaxProf Blog’s “Best Legal Education Articles of 2019.”

Active Retrieval Practice: Known to Improve Learning but Underappreciated?

Exam time has arrived in law schools.  Students who want to excel on exams (and later, as attorneys) would do well to try out active retrieval practice.  To understand the value of retrieval practice, some brief discussion of well-established cognitive science is necessary.  Learning involves (1) taking knowledge into short-term working memory, and then (2) moving it from working memory to long-term memory by actively using the knowledge.[1]  In their excellent book, Teaching Law by Design, Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz, Professor Sophie Sparrow, and Professor Gerald Hess explain this process of storing learning in cognitive schema.[2]  They liken schemata to a “folder system[] provided for users of computer operating systems.”[3]  As they observe, however, storing knowledge “isn’t enough.  To analyze a problem, students must recall (“retrieve”) what they have learned and use that learning . . . .”[4] 

Research on cognition demonstrates that meaningful learning in any discipline requires the learner to perform some form of active retrieval exercises to be able to use the knowledge in analyzing and solving problems.   Active retrieval methods are ways in which the learner recalls knowledge and uses the recalled knowledge to solve problems or answer questions.[5]  Recalling for mere “knowledge checks,” sometimes called rote learning, is not effective.[6]   In the law school arena, a student can recite a memorized rule but not be able to apply it to fact patterns in a way that shows understanding.   Effective retrieval-based learning activities require the student to solve problems or to answer questions.  By doing so, the learner strengthens her understanding  of, and ability to recall, the knowledge.[7]  In law school, mid-term exams require students to recall information at least in mid-semester.  The problem there is that neuroscience shows a marked forgetting curve: if learning is not retrieved within a few days of its being stored, the knowledge is lost and must be relearned.[8]  Indeed, retrieving and using the knowledge are the critical parts of developing meaningful learning. 

               Spurred by the adoption of ABA Standard 314, my colleagues and I have been giving mid-term exams and using a variety of interim assessments designed to have students to recall information from previous classes. I regularly have a mid-term that includes multiple-choice, essays, or both.  The exams are graded and students receive a model answer. I discuss with students the answers to the assessments and common mistakes (e.g., failing to state rules accurately, insufficient application of facts in supporting one’s analysis).   The exam and follow-up discussions achieve the goal of providing the “meaningful feedback” that ABA Standard 314 seeks.   The mid-term is also summative. My experience is that many students do not take a practice, ungraded mid-term seriously. Having the exam count, but not so much as to prevent a student from recovering from a poor exam, helps to ensure that students prepare for and spend time on the mid-term.

               Another way that I have incorporated active recall practice is by using multiple-choice polling questions.  In the first class after we finish a course segment, we begin the class with multiple-choice questions that students answer by polling.    I ensure participation by recording the polling, by student, and including their responses (or lack thereof) as a class-participation part of the grade.  In answering the questions through polling, students must recall knowledge to analyze the question and reach a conclusion.   For example, after completing the study of removal jurisdiction and procedures, I use a series of multiple-choice polling questions that explore the many nuances of removal.   These sessions provide “meaningful feedback” to both students and to me.   If everyone misses a question, you can be sure I go back to discuss the area.  I also encourage anyone who missed a question in these polling sessions to meet with me after reviewing the topic addressed by the question.

               I urge students not to rely solely on the mid-term and the polling sessions as a means of ensuring they have learned material well.  Instead, I highly recommend preparing answers to essays under timed conditions.  At times I provide a model answer after they practice an essay. I also invite students to meet with me to go over their answers.   In these discussions, I almost always find some area in which a student has a mistaken understanding of a rule or concept.  If we did not uncover that misunderstanding, a student could repeatedly recall a flawed rule or approach.  Hence, I appreciate more than ever the wisdom of Standard 314’s emphasis on formative assessment.   After resolving any misunderstandings, I encourage a student to rewrite an answer.  That allows the student to revisit the topic and solidify her understanding.  Indeed, the act of writing itself helps students to embed the rules and concepts more firmly in their memory.[9] 

               What is true for law school is also true for the Bar Exam.   Last summer Sara Berman and I created a podcast for the ABA on practicing tests (essays, Multistate Performance Tests [MPTs], etc.) as some of the most effective ways to prepare for a state’s Bar Exam.[10]  Ideally, a student learns everything she needs to know in law school Bar review is just that–review.  More often, Bar applicants have a vague recollection of rules and concepts from their time in law school.  In other words, Bar applicants often find themselves relearning rules and concepts.  In so doing, they will learn more effectively by practicing an essay or MPT answer and by submitting these answers for grading to their Bar Preparation company and the faculty at their law school who help Bar applicants.  In doing these exercises, they benefit for at least two reasons.  First, it will identify areas in which the applicant’s knowledge of rules and concepts is so weak that she cannot answer a question.   Knowing that, the applicant can review that area and know that she needs to do so.  Second, exercises such as practice essay answers will require applicants to recall the rules they do know and apply them.  The more they do so, the more likely they are to remember them on the Bar. 

               Repeated, active retrieval practice is one of the best ways to learn to perform on exams or in law practice.  Yet, despite the data showing its effectiveness, such practices are not the norm in higher education.[11]  The practice is likely not the norm in law schools.   Standard 314 ought to help to some extent increase active retrieval before the end of the law school semester.  Yet, at present students are not spending their time as wisely as they could. Instead of preparing detailed outlines, and memorizing rules or flash cards, they would learn more from methods that require them to recall and apply legal rules and analysis.   Indeed, one might say this fact is one of the best kept secrets in law school. Perhaps it is time to let this secret out.


[1] Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow & Gerald Hess, Teaching Law by Design 4­–7 (Carolina Academic Press 2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 5–6.

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Jeffrey D. Karpicke, A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory: Practicing Retrieval Enhances Long-Term, Meaningful Learning, American Psychological Association (2016), available at https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory (last checked Dec. 6, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Louis N. Schulze, Jr., Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School’s Successful Efforts to Raise its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230, 245 (Winter 2019).

[9] Bryan Goodwyn, The Magic of Writing Stuff Down, 75 Educational Leadership 78–79 (April 2019).

[10] Sara Berman and Ben Madison, Practice Makes Passing, Episode 6 of American Bar Associations Path to Law Student Well-Being Podcast series, available at  https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being  (June 22, 2019).

[11] According to Dr. Karpicke, college students likewise use rote learning methods more than they use active retrieval exercises.  See Karpicke, supra note 5.

World Mental Health Day and Multicultural Awareness

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, instituted by the WHO to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world” and mobilize “efforts in support of mental health.”  Many members of our profession, are challenged by depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.  In 2016, the ABA created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being partly in response to the increased ubiquity and pressure of the digital age.

The ubiquity of email, text and other technological advances, all of which make the advent of the fax machine feel downright quaint, have only exacerbated our legal responsibilities. The pressure is constant. And in the midst of taking care of everyone else, we all too frequently ignore our own stressors and health in the process.  Over time, the subtle adverse effects go unnoticed and mask the existing crisis …..

The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In August 2017, the Task Force released The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Wellness Study).  Many state bar associations – such as New York’s – highlighted the need for lawyer health. 

Law students, too, are subject to similar ubiquitous demands of the digital age while competing, learning, interning, seeking permanent employment, representing clients under supervision, and, for many, accruing debt. My law school, like many others, takes seriously the need to educate and support law students’ well-being and has been fortunate to receive funding from a loyal alum and board member for a Wellness Initiative. This week our Dean of Students and her office have planned a series of educational and supportive events.

Mental Health Week

Another project run by students partnered with alums helps with the economic stress of having to purchase professional clothing and suits. And our Center for Excellence in Law teaching sites provide links to self-help apps for students .

This focus on well being is not simply an administrative task. It is incumbent upon law teachers to discuss these subjects in doctrinal classes, seminars and experiential learning courses while mainstreaming ethics, professional identity and multicultural awareness into the curriculum.  Wellness intersects with several of my law school’s learning outcomes  for JD students. In particular, wellness and mindfulness are important tools in mitigating implicit bias and facilitating students ability to

Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be competent and effective lawyers in a multicultural world. (Albany Law JD Learning Outcome #6)

I experimented with linking the two in class this week. I started the class by reminding students that it was Mental Health Awareness week and the reading a poem by Mary Oliver to get them to slow down.  We also meditated for about 1 minute and 30 seconds by placing a raisin on our tongue and using that time to “Uni-task” by just focusing on the  smell, taste, feel and effects of saliva on the raisin.

We discussed vicarious trauma, implicit bias and how it affects Science.  For homework students had taken implicit association tests,   acquired some new cultural knowledge, read about transgender killings and viewed Hidden Injustice: Bias on the Bench.”  We then discussed how Implicit Bias might work against victims/survivors of domestic violence or privilege abusers which led into discussions of voir dire and Batson.  Students expressed surprise that judges cared about Implicit Bias and that NYS now requires a 1 credit CLE in Diversity and Inclusion. 

We ended class with discussing how to mitigate our own implicit biases.  This is where well-being and mindfulness come in:

  1. Reflection is a tool for mitigating bias. Emphasizing the importance of reflection as a life-long lawyer habit is something we teachers can embrace. Thus mindfulness is not only an important part of well-being, it is a tool to become a more competent lawyer.
  2. When we are tired and exhausted, we are more apt to rely on unconscious patterns, which swings the door wide open to implicit bias reactions and away from thoughtful and considered responses.

The students appeared to understand the connection and to acknowledge its potential. In the final moments of class, I led the students in a LION yoga pose. This was a real treat for me.  As the days get shorter and mid-semester stress hits, there is nothing better than seeing law students laugh at themselves (and me) as they loosen up their tight facial and jaw muscles.

How are you honoring Mental Health Awareness Week at your school or organization?  Do you see the link between mitigating bias and wellness/mindfulness?

Building A Solid Foundation Before Week 1

By Louis Jim, Assistant Professor, Albany Law School

One year ago, I began teaching Introduction to Lawyering, which is the required 1L course on legal analysis, communication, and research at Albany Law School. The textbook I used, like many “legal writing” textbooks, provided information about the types of legal authorities (primary or secondary) and weight of those authorities (mandatory or persuasive). And any textbook about legal authorities would, of course, also provide information about this nation’s three-tiered court structure. In class, I discussed those concepts, showed flow charts illustrating the structure, and distributed a map of the circuit courts of appeals. But I failed to assess whether my students truly understood the significance of the three-tiered structure and how that significance related to their other first-year classes.

This past summer, I attended the AALS New Law Teachers Workshop, where a number of presenters inspired me to think about new methods to assess whether my students understand the foundational needed to succeed in the first year and beyond. In response, I made two significant changes to my course design this semester. First, I required my students to complete weekly reflections in the last ten minutes of our Friday class.[1] The students must tell me two things they learned in my class and two things they want to learn more about in class. Students may then leave comments or ask questions on any topic even if the comments or questions are not related to law school.

Second, rather than simply discussing court structure with them, I created an in-class activity to assess whether students understood the significance of that structure. The students completed this activity at our first Friday session, which was the last day of their first week of law school. I rewrote a hypothetical that was originally written by my colleague at Albany Law School, David Walker, Assistant Professor and Director of the Schaffer Law Library, for a quiz in his advanced legal research class. A copy of the hypothetical can be found here:

The students spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of class reading the hypothetical. I then asked a series of multiple choice and short answer questions using Poll Everywhere based off the hypothetical. A copy of those questions can be found here:

I provided a link to the webpage where students would respond the poll’s questions, and students answered the questions using their laptops. Their anonymous responses were displayed on the large monitors at the front of the classroom. As we worked through the questions and hypothetical, I defined common terms that students would encounter in the cases they read for their doctrinal classes (e.g., motion, ruling, opinion, holding, judgment, etc.). I also distributed an outline that allowed the students to write the definitions and take other notes. A copy of that outline can be found here:

I hid the responses until at least three-quarters of the class had responded as I did not want a student’s response to be influenced by their classmates’ responses. By displaying their answers anonymously, every student could participate without fear of embarrassment, a fear prevalent in the first few weeks of law school. By using Poll Everywhere, the students who did not choose the right answer also saw that they were not alone. For each question, we also discussed each of the answer choices and why a particular choice was correct and the other ones were incorrect. Because everyone had to answer the questions, everyone—and not just the victim of the cold call—stayed engaged.

Because we completed this activity on the first Friday that we met, the students also completed their first reflection on that day. One student had commented in her reflection that she wished that we had completed that activity before the first week of classes began because it gave her a better understanding of the assigned case law in her doctrinal classes. I met with this student that following Monday, and she said she had a better understanding of her Week 2 reading assignments in her doctrinal classes after having completed the activity. Another student added that the activity filled many gaps in his understanding of the material in his doctrinal classes. Later that week, another student told me in person that she also wished we had completed the activity before the first week of classes.

As attorneys and/or professors, we often take for granted our understanding of the hierarchy of authority of the court system and our understanding of the terminology common in case law. Those just starting law school, however, may have never read a case before. But more often than not, the new law students’ first law school assignment requires them to read a case (likely more than one) and be prepared to discuss the case (or cases) on the first day of class. Those readings contain terms and concepts that new law students may have heard on television or read in a newspaper, but most new law students lack an understanding of how those terms and those concepts relate to the substantive law. Students may then feel discouraged in the first week because they don’t understand the concepts that seasoned attorneys take for granted. Although law students should and must develop skills in synthesizing rules and applying them, as educators, we must provide a solid foundation so that students can start developing those skills. With that in mind, next year, I hope to complete this activity even earlier so that students begin Week 1 with a solid foundation.


[1] This semester, I teach two sections of Lawyering, and each section meets once on Wednesday and once on Friday. On weeks in which we don’t have time to complete the weekly reflection in class, the reflection becomes an optional assignment that students can email to me. Much to my surprise and delight, some students completed the optional reflections too.

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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