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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

Experience with Peer Support, Peer Review and Feedback on Teaching?  

We are all familiar with engagement in peer review of scholarship. Law faculty culture prioritizes peer input and review of scholarly ideas and articles. Sending drafts of articles to colleagues for feedback, “workshopping” preliminary ideas, and vetting scholarship is part and parcel of the work we do. We visit other schools, make presentations and attend conferences because we value peer discussion and  input. It is the basis by which we create and communicate knowledge.

I don’t believe, however, we have a similarly pervasive culture for formative peer review when it comes to teaching in law schools, although such culture exists at other higher education institutions. According to The University of Texas Faculty Innovation Center, an academic culture which prioritizes informed peer collaboration, review and input on teaching benefits everyone,

Good teachers continually learn and develop. Peer Review, which combines the examination of course materials with in-class observations and collegial discussion, helps prompt this learning among faculty. Ideally, these interactions and conversations can create opportunities for us as colleagues to reflect on and adapt our teaching practices in order to become better teachers and increase student learning.

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research recommends a four step process:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching includes the goal of “enabling more intentional and mutually supportive communities of scholar teachers.”

It is true that we have made some progress in elevating the role of teaching in law schools in the past decade. Legal Education certainly woke up to the need for a culture change around curriculum and teaching following the publication of Best Practices for Legal Education  and Educating Lawyers.  The economic downturn heavily affected the admission process and the need to focus on student learning. ABA requirements regarding student learning outcomes also redirected attention and resources towards what students actually learn while in law school. Moreover, organized efforts such as the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning  and the AALS Section on Teaching Methods  have converted many to the idea that teaching and learning are matters worthy of scholarship, innovation and peer discussion.  Places like this blog and others support exchange of ideas, methods and innovations.

It is also true that as far back as 2008, pioneering legal scholars Gerry Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied factors which encourage or assist the professional development of law teachers including peer observation. So there are many resources available to improve teaching in law schools. Yet, across the academy, are we truly immersed in a continual process of formative feedback for law teachers? If so, the web shows little evidence of it.

I think some of the culture gap is explained by the fact that historically peer review of teaching only happened during a promotion and tenure process that resulted in an up or out decision by the faculty — hardly a formative approach. A voluntary formative program of peer support and review – not used for personnel decisions – should allay those fears.  Appropriate concerns about interference with academic freedom in the classroom might explain some of the culture gap. Except that, even more concerns about academic freedom arise with respect to peer input into “controversial scholarship,” since draft writings can be more easily captured and reproduced than can observations of a single class session. What I think explains the gap, instead, is that we have not properly trained or equipped law faculty with the tools and methods for conducting and receiving helpful peer observations.

At Albany Law, we have promoted a culture of inquiry around teaching and learning for many years now — colleagues sit in each others classrooms from time to time, our Academic Dean prioritizes teaching support, our Center for Excellence in Law Teaching showcases teaching ideas and invites collegial discussion through teaching workshops, and our Director of Online Learning and Instructional Technology facilitates flipped classrooms and other innovations. What we haven’t done is formalize a voluntary peer support and review program. This year, we are planning to revisit our very loose approach and learn from the ever evolving resources and experimentation of others.

So readers, contributors and chance internet searchers, please post here what if any processes have you implemented to support peer observation of law teaching? Is it a voluntary program as we envision at Albany? How has it worked? Or, if you have an opinion about faculty peer review programs, let us know what you think!

I hope to compile the results and report back later in the year!

P.S. If you are more comfortable with e-mail than a blog comment, feel free to contact me at mlync@albanylaw.edu. 

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