Is Mandatory P/F An Opportunity to More Accurately Assess Competency to Practice Law and For Bar Admission?

As our knowledge of COVID19 and its impact becomes more extensive each day, each workplace, profession and community is facing some common and some unique questions. Those working on the front lines in hospitals – such as several of  my relatives in NYC and NJ – are experiencing the kind of trauma, shortages, emotional overload and duress that is usually experienced in wartime. It can only be weakly imagined by the rest of us.   For those of us not experiencing  people suffering and dying in front of us on a daily basis, some less horrific choices are before us:  How do we modify “business as usual”?  How do we evolve and adapt with each days new tsunmai of information and data?  How do we support our best selves and our core values in this historically momentous time on our shared planet? 

Before turning to the topic of grading and assessment, I want to pause to give a shout-out to my home institution. Our multi-talented leader Dean Alicia Ouellette has been holding  community town halls every day since Friday March 20th. (BTW Dean Ouellette  just shared on Facebook  that she had been suffering from “presumptive COVID 19” fever and symptoms but thankfully is now symptom free). During our daily town halls, my faculty colleagues and I have expressed our wonder and gratitude for the  character, resilience and grit of our law students who are balancing so much right now, and facing so many financial, tech-related, health and extended family burdens. Our students’ engaged and forgiving response to “tech-curious but not necessarily tech-savvy” teachers and their community-minded empathy for those hardest hit keeps the faculty motivated and inspired.

One of the COVID19 decisions for legal educators involves whether and how we assess and sort — which in reductive  vernacular means “grade and rank.”  Maintaining appropriate expectations, options, rigor and excellence in law teaching  may assume primacy for those  who have been long focused on ensuring that law students receive real value for the time, talent and treasure they expend on law school.   For others focused on fairness in law placement,  transparent employer signals about how they will view Spring 2020 legal education may be most influential.  For those concerned about our profession’s  reputation for lack of wellness and lack of diversity, those concerns are elevated at this moment when those least advantaged are most hard pressed.  For those struggling with equity, there are so many permutations and consequences of COVID19 – whichever choice a school makes – that voting faculty could become as immobilized as Chidi Anagonye on THE GOOD PLACE. (BTW Good idea for escape television for those who love philosophy or Kristen Bell).

On the other hand, might this be a moment to look for the opportunities for reform and improvement that only come when the status quo is disturbed and rocked to its foundations as is happening now.  Here is what I am thinking:

Might Mandatory P/F force educators and employers to admit that traditional law school grading and ranking is a misleading and reductive proxy for measuring potential success as a lawyer?

Could it force employers to use other ways to learn about the WHOLE STUDENT with all her strengths, gaps, and individual aptitudes including the situation she faced during law school?

Might it accelerate a move to a more qualitative than quantitative assessment of each law student? Or, at least might it prioritize learning which enables a school to assemble a portfolio of student recommendations ( demonstration of knowledge, skills, aptitudes, and professionalism)?

Foundational resources include of course Educating Lawyers, Best Practices in Legal Education, and Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World, which also provide helpful wisdom points. In addition, looking back through the dozen or so years of this blog’s existence, there are lessons from which we can pull core knowledge and core values to assist in our continued educational deliberations at this turbulent time. 

CORE KNOWLEDGE AND REFLECTIONS

Valuing Legal Education over Sorting – For example, focus on the difference between assessment and grading.  Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers conferences have brought employers, law schools, and legal education stakeholders together to tackle the disconnect between our current sorting systems (primarily used to help elite employers looking for a simple and reductive initial screening system) and the needs of society and most employers for competent new attorneys and the needs of students and the profession for fairness.

Focus instead on formative and evaluative assessment of law students and graduates

Focus on growth mindset, on reflection and learning from mistakes or experience

Recognize the limits and problems with GPA’s or LSAT scores to create a more competent profession with more able and diverse learners.

Acknowledge that the media and the academy is still stuck in a mindset that focuses on sorting methods rather than on better preparation and assessment of law students to serve clients and society.

Class rank does not predict who will become a competent, healthy and ethical lawyer

Effective Education includes

CORE LEARNING VALUES

Growth Mindset 

Inclusion and Diversity

Student-centered Learning  and the Introduction to the original Best Practices – “One of our basic tenets is that law schools should become more student-centered”

Wellness  

Collaboration and Innovation

Integrity 

Character 

Justice

Situational Excellence

There is a common theme here: P/F with alternative assessment information and measures should be seen not as temporary emergency expedients to “sort and rank”, but rather as long overdue components of a better educational program and more nuanced assessment paradigm.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  I wish all our readers and citizens of our little blue planet moments of peace, love, safety, and compassion. May someone be kind to you today and let’s pay it forward.

 

 

 

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.

Why Law Schools Need to Teach Critical Thinking

by Scott Fruehwald

Law schools have never systematically taught critical thinking.  I do not mean that law schools do not help develop critical thinking.  However, this is not done on a systematic basis.  There is no method or approach for teaching critical thinking in law schools.

For example, taking a class in negotiation will help students develop critical thinking, but not systematically.  This is like learning grammar just by speaking a language.  While this gets the student some of the way, to be systematically trained in a language, a student must explicitly study grammar.  Similarly, the Socratic method does help develop some critical thinking processes, but it mainly teaches students how to extract and understand doctrine.

I have just completed a book that shows law professors how to understand and teach critical thinking: How to Teach Lawyers, Judges, and Law Students Critical Thinking: Millions Saw the Apple Fall, but Newton asked Why.

Critical thinking is “[t]he intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”  (here)  “It is . . . automatically questioning if the information presented is factual, reliable, evidence‑based, and unbiased.” (here)  Critical thinking is a set of processes, including metacognition, conceptualizing, synthesizing (constructing), asking questions, organizing, developing and evaluating alternatives, considering unintended results, planning, self-monitoring, reflection, spotting assumptions, evaluating inferences, exercising epistemic vigilance, supporting arguments with evidence, evaluation, skepticism, and self-direction.

Here are several things that critical thinking can do:

1.  Critical thinking helps overcome superficial thinking.  It helps you see when you are relying on unsupported assumptions or opinions.

2.  Critical thinking helps overcome thinking based solely on intuition.

3.  Critical thinking produces rigorous and disciplined thinking.

4.  Critical thinking helps individuals create questions.

5.  Critical thinking helps individuals know when they need more information.

6.  Critical thinking helps avoid unintended consequences.

7.  Critical thinking supports problem-solving.  It helps make sure you don’t skip a step in the problem-solving process.

8.  Critical thinking helps overcome biased thinking.

9.  Critical thinking helps avoid mistakes by providing a method to evaluate (double-check) one’s work.

10.  Critical thinking helps an individual critique the work of others.

11.  Critical thinking promotes deep thinking.

12.  Critical thinking helps an individual see all sides of an argument.

13.  Critical thinking helps individuals solve difficult problems.

14.  Critical thinking helps individuals support their arguments.

15.  Critical thinking helps individuals recognize how a problem is framed and overcome the framing effect.

16.  Critical thinking helps thinkers recognize when selfish motives lie behind an argument.  It helps thinkers recognize manipulation.

17.  Critical thinking teaches students how to construct the law.

My book introduces critical thinking, shows how to teach it to lawyers, judges, and law students, and demonstrates how to use critical thinking to improve the Socratic method.  It also shows law professors how to improve their teaching through critical thinking.  Finally, it includes chapters on teaching legal writing and judges.  Since critical thinking development requires practice, it includes many examples and exercises.

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 Practices on Halloween Must Include the Notorious RBG

By Jessica N. Haller, Blog Assistant of “Best Practices for Legal Education” Blog

Last week, Albany Law Students gave back to our host community, enjoyed the mental health break of seeing children in costumes enjoy Halloween, and collaborated with each other in meaningful ways.

Every year, Albany Law School opens wide its doors and creates a safe place for local children to trick or treat on Halloween right in the school’s gymnasium. There are families who now come year after year and who now see the law school as a place their children might one day attend. Most of the student organizations participate, setting up tables, handing out candy to the children or face painting. Many groups often have an activity or game or other treat for the costumed kids. For example, the Student Bar Association had a “Connect Four” game and the Black Law Student Association made “worms in dirt” dessert (chocolate ice cream, Oreos, and gummy worms, yum!).

I am currently on the e-board for the Albany Law School Women’s Law Caucus and this year, we decided to combine fun with a chance to teach children about our favorite U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). We created a game called, “Pin the Dissent Collar on RBG.” We knew that many of the children coming to this event might not know who RBG is and we hoepd it might spark some conversation. We printed a large poster of RBG’s iconic Supreme Court photo and purchased three different kinds of black ribbon. The first little girl to participate was very enthusiastic about playing the game and asked about this mysterious “RBG.” You can see her playing the game in the photo below:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a feminine icon for women, especially for those of us in law school and in the legal academy. Despite the unending obstacles, she persevered. She was turned away from jobs despite being at the top of her class, and when she was able to get a job, she was paid considerably less than her male counterparts. She argued several cases, making it clear in each that gender equality is a constitutional right. For more information on RBG’s life and career, see her bio on Oyez (I also highly recommend a great documentary called “RBG” found here).

(Author and Blog Assistant, Jessica N. Haller, dressed as Agent “Peggy” Carter)

“Teaching the Next Generation of Lawyer Leaders in a Time of Polarization” – Reflections on the AALS 2019 Conference on Clinical Education

If you have never attended an AALS Conference on Clinical Education, you have missed a transforming and immersive experience that includes supportive peers, provocative learning, and meaningful scholarly discussion while celebrating student-centered community activism.   It is attended both by those who teach primarily through clinical courses and by other professors and administrators who want to learn more about clinical androgogy, experiential learning, and justice lawyering. Deans and other law school folks enjoy the intra-law school and inter-law school collaboration efforts facilitated there.  The Clinical Legal Education Association, an advocacy organization, sponsors a biannual  new clinicians workshop adjacent to the conference and supports the local community where the Clinical Conference is held through its per diem project.  The conferences are always well attended, with the 2019 conference (held last month in San Francisco, May 4-7) hosting a whopping 780 participants.

The yearly AALS Clinical Conference is not a “talking heads” conference.  The program format varies from year to year but always involves intentionally planned opportunities for mentoring and discussion in smaller groups, with ideas and resources to bring back to campus. At the end or near end of the academic year, it provides an opportunity to nurture one’s exhausted spirit and rekindle the right-brain in a community that values  fun, creativity, and play as necessary skills for long-term  survival, teaching, writing  and do-gooding. Often, cutting edge research ideas are presented here before they take hold in the rest of the legal academy or larger community.  For example, yesteryear conferences introduced legal educators to pedagogical, andragogical and curricular theories such as backward design.   In another example, I first became aware of the early research on implicit bias at a Clinical Section program, well before this concept  entered the vernacular, was discussed by the ABA, or became a CLE requirement for lawyers in New York State.

This year’s conference did not disappoint.  Its theme, Teaching the Next Generation of Lawyer Leaders in a Time of Polarization, not only was timely but was intended to suggest that, perhaps, legal educators have a role to play in decreasing polarization and advancing understanding of shared humanity.  The conference organizer’s posited the challenge this way:

Today, we and our students are confronted with threats to virtually every norm in the legal and political world –the environment we live in, a free press, election integrity, judicial independence, standards of respectful debate, facts, the rule of law. Our students appear energized and anxious to take this on, but what new tools and opportunities should clinical legal education be providing? ….

How do we build the next generation of lawyer leaders when our students have grown up in an era of strong division, attacks on institutions of government, and the frequent rejection of civil discourse? 

The conference explored how to facilitate discussion among students and others with diverse worldviews while continuing to sustain productive learning communities for all — especially including those whose identities or religious or political views are degraded by extremist or reductive narratives.  How do we continue to pronounce and support the rule of law? How do we facilitate professional engagement in civil discourse when some classrooms are sorely lacking in diversity and a few students or one individual might carry the full weight of the ignorant or degrading narrative?  The conference organizers argued we must equip our students with creativity, judgement, and a toolbox of knowledge, skills, and values that will enable the coming generation to meet these unprecedented challenges.”

Participating in the conference was wonderfully helpful to my thinking as an educator. It made me reflect and learn from others in the small discussion group settings.  Sad to say, it was not my “transmogrifier; I am not now a wise and perfect facilitator of discussion of polarizing topics. Nor am I now certified as an educational designer of flawless learning environments.  However, I do have five reflections I want to weave into my preparation for and delivery of next year’s teaching as well as import into my discussions about the legal academy.

First, I need to defend higher education and law schools when unfairly attacked. In an era when the narrative touted in some circles suggests that lefty higher education professors exist only to foist their liberal views on students,  I found the themes and discussions at this conference more consistent with my experience in academia. Instead of arrogant proselytizing, most of my sister and fellow educators, at Albany Law School and beyond, try to empower learning in their students, facilitate creative ideas in the academic setting, enhance professional development of law students/budding lawyers and encourage community benefit and access to justice through our work.  Do we always succeed? Probably not. However, most of us have the same shared goals.

Second, I need to be mindful that Americans – and probably many of our overburdened students – are simply “exhausted.” By ugly, polarizing, speech. By hateful acts. By constant “breaking news” of dysfunction in our nation’s political capital. The conference’s plenary session “America Polarized: What Drives Us Apart? What Brings Us Together?” presented the results of a research report entitled, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” It finds an “Exhausted Majority” in the American electorate. This research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Miami Herald, NPR, and CNN.

As I think of my students as containing both those excited about fighting for change but also those exhausted by polarizing discussions, how do I proceed?  How can I pick up on those cues during stressful times in the semester? How can I model and include less exhausting learning methods without shying away from ugly facts, cases, laws and legal history?  When is it time for private “one minute papers,” or private “on line feedback, submissions or comments” and when must something be thoroughly hashed out publicly?

To address this kind of polarized exhaustion, should I revisit classroom rules and class participation guidelines that facilitate learning for all my students?   In my Domestic Violence Seminar course which usually enrolls approximately 20 students, I have found some useful tools in creating an appropriate classroom climate for discussion of difficult issues. My Course Packet includes a modified version of Sophie Sparrow’s excellent Professional Engagement Expectations for the Classroom,   along with an  Assessment Rubric for Class Participation (which I modified from one my Academic Dean,  Connie Mayer,  created.  I am going to review these materials again with the concept of exhaustion in mind. (There are of course diverging views on the pros and cons of making a “safe” or educationally fertile classroom as well as what “safe” means. For contrasting views see Berkeley Education tools and an article about teaching “insensitive” topics in law schools in Atlantic Monthly). 

Third, I will remind myself of the research presented at the conference.  Research conducted by More in Common, a nonprofit research organization devoted to bridging political divides, suggests there is “more to the story” than a polarized populace. Those researchers found a wider spectrum of beliefs among Americans than one would realize when listening to, reading, or clicking on the news. They also found Americans are far more aligned on many critical issues than you might think.

For example, our data show that 75 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, 82 percent believe that racism is at least a somewhat serious problem in America and 79 percent favor providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. In addition, 77 percent of Americans agree that our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.

Fourth, I will encourage students (and urge myself ) to dig underneath the polarization and understand individuals’ values and fears. Professor Daniel A. Yudkin, Department of Psychology, Yale University, a post-doctoral researcher who  presented the Hidden Tribes research results,  noted at the conference and in his NYT commentary here that

our report identifies a powerful explanation for political polarization. It shows how discrepancies in people’s “core beliefs” (their moral values, parenting philosophy, feelings about personal responsibility and so on) explain differences in their political views.

Yudkin recommends this research as an entryway to discussion for teachers and scholars.  Misperceptions surrounding values and fears can cause Americans to misunderstand and misjudge each other. An example Yudkin discusses concerns views of good parenting. Conservatives align good parenting with “manners” and “respect,” while liberals tend to value fostering “curiosity” and “independence.” Fostering a discussion about how we love our children and try to be good parents could help us understand each other’s goals and values,  even if we disagree with each other’s methods.

I will consider whether in the cases I teach, the examples I provide, the arguments I encourage students to form, the hypothetical [problems I create, whether I allow room for development of empathy for the other? Do I acknowledge the underlying common humanity of all actors – in my area, as it pertains to the “abuser”, the “sexual assaulter”, the “murderer”, the “misogynist”? Should I?

Do I focus too heavily on the best opposing argument? Do I encourage enough human empathy for the other side even when preparing students to zealously advocate for ours?

Finally, using the values celebrated and embraced at Clinical Conferences such as experimentation, joy, community support, and creativity, I will continue to struggle with but also make peace with the dynamic that advancing empathy, unity and civil discourse does not impede or undermine my obligation to call out injustice. Upholding the rule of law does not preclude admitting the many times the law fails and how it rarely meets its aspirations in the daily lives of so many of our sister and fellow Americans.

Thank you to the the AALS Clinical Conference organizers, presenters and participants and the CLEA workshop organizers and presenters for providing me so much to reflect and improve upon this summer.

 

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