Preparing 1Ls for Persuasive Communication by Integrating Procedural Rules and Substantive Law

By Louis Jim, Assistant Professor of Law, Albany Law School

My last post discussed my experience of using “classroom clickers” in the first week of law school to build a foundation to understand the hierarchy of authority, a foundation that is critical to success in all classes. In this follow-up, I discuss my experience with using “classroom clickers” to improve student understanding of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure before students write their motion and appellate briefs.

Many law schools require 1Ls to complete a legal analysis, communication, and research course. Although models may vary, those courses typically span two semesters: the first semester focuses on “objective/predictive writing” and the second semester focuses on “persuasive writing.” At Albany Law School, the course is called “Introduction to Lawyering,” which is a six-credit, two semester course (“Lawyering I” in the fall, “Lawyering II” in the spring). I started teaching the course in August 2018.

In Lawyering II, I require the class to write a summary judgment motion and an appellate brief; the students then complete an appellate oral argument. For the summary judgment, every student represents defendants who move (and are inevitably granted) summary judgment. Every student then represents the plaintiffs-appellants for the appellate brief. Students choose their side for the appellate oral argument.[1] By forcing students to switch sides, students must first write their statement of facts and argument from the perspective of the defendant, and then re-write their statement of facts and argument from the perspective of the plaintiff. This model fosters a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both parties. But more importantly, because students must write from diametric perspectives, this model forces students to think about how organization and word choice affect the persuasiveness of their motion and brief.

The semester-long hypothetical is set in fictional State of New Scotland, and the venue of the civil action is the fictional U.S. District Court for the District of New Scotland,[2] which is in the fictional U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourteenth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals from the Fourteenth Circuit. The hypothetical involves a real circuit split on a constitutional or statutory issue and asks students to persuade the fictional district court and fictional circuit to take a position. As an “open universe” problem, students perform independent research, though I assign short research assignments to get them started. Students must recall their knowledge of “binding” and “persuasive” authority and analogize or distinguish the hypothetical problem’s facts to the facts of real cases on either side of the split.

When I first taught “Lawyering II” in Spring 2019, I presumed that every student fully understood how summary judgment actually worked because they took “Federal Civil Procedure” in the fall. But after reading the motions, I realized that I had failed to ensure that each student had a solid foundation to understand how summary judgment actually worked in practice.

Not wanting to repeat my mistake this spring, I created an in-class exercise to assess the class’s understanding of motions, appeals, and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56. A copy of the exercise that includes my comments on the objective of each question is available here:

The exercise involves two separate federal housing discrimination claims against “YBR Apartments, Inc.” The plaintiff in the first claim is “Oscar Zoroaster,” and the plaintiff in the second claim is “Dorothy Gale.” Both plaintiffs claim that they have the fictional “Ruby Slippers Syndrome.” Each question in the exercise builds the prior question, and each question assesses a different aspect of Rule 12 or Rule 56. By using a “classroom clicker,” each student participates without fear of being singled out for being incorrect.

I start with Rule 12 because it serves as a good opportunity to focus the students’ attention to the elements of the claim (i.e. “Can plaintiff state a prima facie case for federal housing discrimination?”). The discussion on the questions about Rule 12 also gave me an opportunity to stress that plaintiff’s counsel should draft complaints precisely and accurately as possible in light of the information available to counsel at that time.

The exercise transitions then to assessing the students’ understanding of Rule 56. For the Rule 56 portion, I wrote hypotheticals that would assess their understanding of (1) what it means for a fact to be “material,” (2) what a “dispute as to [a] material fact” and “judgment as a matter of law” actually mean, and (3) how a district court uses persuasive authority when there is no binding authority. The posture of the last two questions in the exercise are designed to mirror the posture of summary judgment motion and appellate brief for the semester-long hypothetical, i.e. convince a district court and a circuit court to adopt the position of another circuit absent any binding authority.

Not only was the exercise useful in assessing (or reviewing) their understanding of Rules 12 and 56, but the exercise also challenged students to begin forming and making persuasive arguments to support their responses. By practicing how to develop their persuasive communication skills early in the semester, students engaged with the primary learning outcome for Lawyering II—persuasive communication. Students could then apply the exercise’s lessons to the semester-long hypothetical. Finally, students saw how substantive and procedural law is actually integrated and used in practice, an opportunity that may not always arise in other courses.[3]


[1] Students sign up on a first-come, first-serve basis.

[2] Albany Law School is located at 80 New Scotland Avenue in Albany, New York.

[3] My students complete a biweekly reflection in which they must tell me two things they learned in Lawyering that week and two things they want to learn in Lawyering. The students then have the option of writing any comments or asking any questions even if the questions and comments are unrelated to Lawyering. One student commented that she wished she saw more of how doctrinal law is actually used in practice.

Guiding Students From Law School Into the World

It seems that one of the things we law professors can do to help our students develop their identities as professionals and their obligations to the greater society is to incorporate into the law school events that plug students into what’s going on in the “real world.“ I did just this in a small way this week by offering all the students the opportunity to attend and participate in a talk/discussion about the Supreme Court arguments that were heard last week in the DACA case.

The students were invited to attend a portion of my immigration clinic class. Food and pro bono credit hours helped, I’m sure, but the event brought a plentiful group of students I had not interacted with before, who were both knowledgeable about and interested in the issue of the day.  The event lasted only about 45 minutes, but that was long enough to produce a lively and I think informative conversation about oral arguments, professionalism, case theory, the role of policy, administrative law, and of course the specific legal issues raised by the case.

With so much of the law school endeavor focused on exam taking and other tasks that force students into a single-focused, competitive role, bringing them into a discussion about key issues at stake in our country in the moment could likely enhance their connections to their future and help them envision some individual goals they can aim for once out in that “real world.”

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!

Unlearning as Learning Outcome

As the newly revised ABA accreditation standards 301 and 302 now require law schools to clearly articulate and publish their learning outcomes for their students, so individual faculty members must do likewise. Yet it is not uncommon to see these learning outcomes statements that read like the table of contents of the textbook used to teach the course. To truly be effective in driving learning and teaching, learning outcomes must be targeted, concrete, measurable and active (not “learning about” but “learning how to”).

How do we most effectively choose and articulate these learning outcomes? In MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION 83-89 (2010)., educational specialist David Perkins emphasizes that learning is most effective if learners “work on the hard parts.” Similarly, the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN framework, originally developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, emphasizes beginning the search for course goals by looking for the “Big Idea” in the course. These are the ideas or themes that can be used throughout a legal career and that require a lot of work to master.

One of the most effective ways to uncover these “big ideas’ or ‘hard parts” is to focus first on unlearning outcomes – that is, preventing and addressing predictable misunderstandings in the course. Thus, for example, much of the first year of law school is devoted to “unlearning” the positivist philosophy of students who believe the law is resolutely determinate. These fundamental misunderstandings are persistent, difficult to overcome and block learning of new ideas. Students construct knowledge by building on prior understandings. If those prior understandings are incomplete or incorrect, new learning will be flawed as well. As summarized by NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING, HOW PEOPLE LEARN: BRAIN, MIND, EXPERIENCE, AND SCHOOL: EXPANDED EDITION 11 (2000), “teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) ( 2014), Elizabeth Green reviews the research concluding that effective teachers (as measured by student learning gains) are those who are able to identify the reasons that students misunderstand and help them to unlearn those misunderstandings.

Some of the most fundamental misconceptions that students bring to a subject from their own experience (or from bad course outlines passed around from prior semesters) must be discovered in the classroom. Brief classroom assessment devices such as “minute papers” or statements for the students to complete can easily generate a range of incorrect or incomplete understandings for any given topic.  The mission to discover student errors leads faculty to many of the best practices in teaching: regular interaction with students, frequent and meaningful feedback, and active learning strategies.

The power of an “unlearning” perspective on assessment improves student learning, but also quickly leads faculty to a deeper understanding of what assessment of student learning oucomes means.  Assessment is not an end-point, a box to be checked, reported and forgotten, but is an iterative process of discovery and experiment that drives students and faculty learning alike. Assessment tools (such as quizzes, socratic dialogue, essays, simulations, and reflections) might be used to unearth student misconceptions.  These misconceptions then become the basis for the learning outcomes around which one can build a course and assessments then can be used to determine the extent to which one is successfully dislodging misunderstanding and misconception and replace it with a solid framework mastery.

%d bloggers like this: