Wishing students success on the bar exam

The Bar Exam is upcoming. And with it comes heightened stress and potential for students, but also an odd chance for diverging interests between a small number of students and their law schools.

Bar exam homonyms: high stakes; gateway, leveler, stressor, useless unnecessary burden after three years of school, fee generator, standardizing, and proficiency. I’m sure “bar exam” conjures up many more thoughts and meanings for others. For law students, the impact of this exam is wide-ranging. Most graduates spend months of intensive study preparing for the bar exam. They incur additional debt for these review courses; they devote months of their lives to study intensively for the exam. Exam passage marks the entree into our profession with all of its benefits and burdens. Exam passage allows our graduates to practice law and makes more likely their getting and keeping a job sooner rather than later.

While for individual students, we provide encouragement, cajoling, and hope for exam success, their exam success has an additional impact on us. For law schools, the bar exam is a factor in accreditation and in reputation. The ABA accreditation standards require a law school to meet a bar pass requirement that can be done in one of two ways: “either by showing that 75 percent of its graduates who took the bar exam in at least three of the previous five years passed or by showing that its graduates’ first-time bar pass rate was no more than 15 points below the average bar pass rate for ABA-approved schools in states where its graduates took the bar.” The ABA, this spring, did not follow through on a proposal that would have increased the passage percent rate requirement from 75 to 80 percent. This connection to accreditation, while arguably standardizing law schools, can recast student success on the bar exam from an individual achievement and triumph to an institutional success or failure.

Therein lies a challenge for a small number of students – reconciling the individual student’s path toward bar exam success with institutional markers of success. Where one student may benefit from repeated attempts at taking the exam, gaining familiarity and comfort and so easing stress that inhibits success, the student’s school must count that student’s learning process as a “failure” against institutional success and reputation. To foster institutional reputation, encouraging some students to wait to take the bar exam seems a good path; on the other hand, for the student who would benefit from the exposure, supporting the student’s decision to take and re-take may be the better path for the student even if not for the institution. A delicate balance is needed when we approach those students who are at risk of not passing the bar exam.

Of course, student success or failure arises from many factors, and the choice to take the exam in the face of difficulties is the graduate’s. It’s also worth remembering that many famous people did not pass the bar exam on their first try including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady Michelle Obama, and even Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. So, I’m going to encourage all of our students to know themselves, to work as hard as they can in the way that works best for them, and of course: wish all students success on the bar exam.

Thirty-One Themes of Thought

“Thirty-One Themes of Thought” is the title I gave my fifth grade class poetry compilation.  What could this possibly have to do with best practices for law professors?

This post, my first for this blog I have long admired, I conceived as a commentary on what I call my “thematic” approach to law teaching.  In my doctrinal Family Law course as well as in my Family Law Clinic I stress recurring themes: the intense public-private tension inherent to Family Law; social change as catalyst for legal developments; storytelling as advocacy; client-centeredness; and holistic lawyering.

As I pondered this concept of “thematic teaching” my mind wandered repeatedly to that alliterative “Title” my 10-year-old brain fashioned . . . 35 years ago.  My use of the word “theme” was likely less about dedication to big-picture thinking than it was about grappling for a word other than “poem” to make my little manila-folder-booklet different from the rest in some small way.  Yet upon further reflection I find a resonance in that word choice with my current work and my teaching style.  Calling my booklet “Themes of Thought,” I believe demonstrated a constant yearning for connectivity (hence the alliteration) and a broad view (referencing the “thought” our class put into each poem)  that is part of my identity.

Taking a thematic approach to law teaching is not something I was taught–it is something that I developed organically as I grew the past 12 years as an educator.  And although I have been aware of it as my approach for years, I just a few months ago began to name it and reflect on it.  Reflection, I firmly believe, is a fundamental aspect of my professional growth as a professor and a lawyer, but also of my students’ growth.  Reflection as a tool in clinical law teaching is nothing new.  I first experienced it as a law student invited/required to submit journals routinely during my clinical year.  Borrowing that tool from my mentors was arguably the single best decision I made as a new clinical professor four years ago.  Reflection fosters self-awareness, which fosters a maximization of strengths.  Lawyers work hard, think critically and often receive little praise from clients and judges alike–not to mention opposing counsel.  Reflecting on one’s accomplishments and professional development, in addition to client interactions, shows budding lawyer (our students) that they can do this work and in fact are doing it well on many fronts.  By the same token, the opporutnity for feedback from their professor or other clinical supervisor through submission of journals is a safe and controlled space to reflect on mistakes and engage in contemplation about how to improve skills while a mentor helps them process those often uncomfortable realities.

This methodology of reflection and self-awareness is different in the traditional law school classroom setting than clinics, but it can be done.  Several colleagues have written and presented at conferences on using written reflections and other tools in non-clinical classrooms.  In my thematic teaching paradigm, I use several approaches in my Family Law lecture course, which often holds enrollment of over 50 students:

1. On Day One of class I explain the main theme of the course, which is the public-private tension mentioned above.

2. My “big picture” approach is evident from both my remarks that day in class; my syllabus which describes each class period’s theme; and the casebook, which opens with commentary on that very same public-private tension unique to Family Law.

3. I assign casebook material for Day One, comprised of several United States Supreme Court cases interpreting Due Process liberty interests.  During class I ask students to ponder why a course on Family Law suddenly looks so much like a Constitutional Law course.  Drawing their attention back to the public-private tension theme, I remind the students that Due Process liberty inquiries center around that same public-private tension.

4.  One Day One I dispense the material via lecture and PowerPoint, but clarify that I use the Socratic method from Day Two forward and call on students at random.  The Socratic method promotes self-awareness and reflection in a way no other methodology can offer, when managed successfully.  Each teacher must define success for themselves, but for me it means engaging the student about why they responded as they did, regardless of the accuracy of that response.  Even if the response is flawed in some way, I invite them to thoroughly vet it.  Then I clarify any flaws–with compassion and professional respect.

5. Volunteered answers, and questions, are welcomed in my classroom.  The questions are particularly useful for promoting reflection as well as larger themes, as they often stem from common public misconceptions about Family Law ripe for discussion.

6. Returning back to Day One for a moment, I ask the students something critcal after my introduction of the course themes and my teaching style, but before my lecture on the assigned material.  I invite them to mindfully reflect on whether this course will serve their needs as a learner.  Immediately, they as listeners are cued to reflect what they do need as learners of the law.  With what I hope is humility, I remind them that my brilliant colleague Dara Purvis also teaches Family Law and they can take the course with either prof. Students dropping my course after hearing that speech does not offend or scare me, and I stress that.  Occasionally a student walks out at that point, never to return.  That is utterly fine.

7. Finally, the final exam.  After a semester of thematic teaching and, one can assume at least a sliver of reflective learning, the students are asked at least one question on my exam about the public policy aspect of Family Law. The question is not a fact pattern.  Other parts of my exam utilize those.  But the policy question asks them to consider (and sometimes describe) an area of Family Law and what they learned about it, and opine on the efficacy of that legal framework or approach.  I like to end the semester the way we began, with reflection on the big picture, with consideration of our legal system as social underpinning.  How does the law reflect our values and social norms? Who gets to define those norms?  How much government regulation of private decision-making on personal matters is too much?

What is your signature teaching approach?  I ask my clinic students to reflect on what is their unique style of lawyering.  As their teachers I believe we are well served by reflecting on what is our unique style of teaching. The growth among our academy and our students is symbiotic.  Let us embrace that.

Writing about Teaching Literature

Mary Lynch:

This may be helpful for those of us whose summer plans include scholarship on teaching and learning.
….. And speaking of the fruits of our labor, the blueberries in the farmers markets on the East Coast are really spectacularly delicious right now.
What “fruit” scholarly or organic appeals to you this summer?

Originally posted on Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.:

"Writing" by Jeffrey James Pacres (CC BY-NC-ND)by Laura L. Runge

The MLA recently released its long-awaited report on Doctoral Study in Modern Languages and Literature. Among its recommendations, the report argues for greater support and value for teacher-training. Although not an early harbinger of change, the report gives a welcome endorsement to strategies that we have seen developing in doctoral programs around the country.Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral  Study in Modern Language and Literature I’ve taught a practicum in teaching literature at the University of South Florida since 2004. I’ve also written two teaching guides for Norton and a couple of articles on pedagogy. Whereas in the earlier days I felt something like of a lone voice in the wilderness among my colleagues in English, I’ve watched the scholarship on teaching transform to a diverse and robust field.

There are now many opportunities to share our scholarship on teaching and learning, and there is much to be learned from the variety of classroom experiences in…

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By Steve Friedland

While attending the Best Law Teachers Conference in Chicago last week I was struck by how much I learned by simply observing terrific law teachers. I saw contrasting styles, from Heather Gerken’s Socratic Method, to Meredith Duncan’s distinctive discussion approach, to Rory Bahadur’s combination method. Actually, all three blended different methods and shared some basic characteristics. It was obvious that each was passionate, dedicated to having their students learn, highly organized and focused on learning outcomes, and had a structure that they intentionally shared with students. Just because they did not hide the ball did not mean they did not have high expectations; students were on notice that they needed to put on their learning hats while in the room. I took notes furiously on my laptop and felt like a student again – until my poor eyesight and creaky hands reminded me that my “youthful student” days were long over.

A Primer on Professionalism for Doctrinal Professors

Legal education reform advocates agree that law schools should integrate professionalism preparation throughout the curriculum. Ultimately, it falls to individual professors to decide how to incorporate professionalism issues into each course. This can be an especially difficult task for professors teaching traditional doctrinal classes. The law — and not the practice of law — is the focus of most doctrinal casebooks. Law students typically do not act in role as lawyers in these classes, so they are not compelled to resolve professional dilemmas in class, as students are in a clinic or simulation-based course. As a result, it takes some additional preparation and thought to introduce professionalism issues into these courses. Some professors may resist making this change — not knowing which aspect or aspects of professionalism should be the focus, fearing that time spent on professionalism will detract from the real subject matter of the class, or believing professionalism is adequately covered elsewhere in the curriculum.
My article A Primer on Professionalism for Doctrinal Professors considers how and why doctrinal professors should address the challenge of integrating professionalism into the classroom. The article was recently published in the Tennessee Law Review and is available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2449313.
Part I of the article briefly discusses the multitude of meanings ascribed to attorney professionalism and argues that the lack of a clear, concise, and shared definition is a substantial barrier to effectively incorporating professionalism into the law school curriculum. Next, Part II provides a more coherent, streamlined definition of attorney professionalism. This part also identifies and describes three primary aspects of lawyer professionalism: fulfilling duties to clients, satisfying duties to the bar, and possessing core personal values essential to being a good lawyer. This simplified conception of professionalism should begin to address the concerns of professors who do not know where to begin to incorporate professionalism into their classes. It is also intended to persuade skeptics that professionalism is something they can and should teach as part of their doctrinal classes.
Thereafter, Part III provides guidance for developing course outcomes that connect course subject matter and professionalism. Questions prompt doctrinal professors to look for the natural connections between their course subject matter and issues of professionalism. Then, Part IV considers various methods doctrinal professors can use to introduce professionalism topics into their courses. Integrating professionalism into the classroom does not require professors to abandon their casebooks; using case law can be an effective method. This part also considers other teaching methods and materials for combining doctrine, skills, and professionalism. Finally, Part V concludes with thoughts on how students benefit when professors make the effort to incorporate professionalism into every law school classroom.

Trauma Informed Services and Trauma Informed Supervision (Another Post From “the Real World”)

Originally posted on Asedillolopez's Weblog:

In my new position as executive director of a non-profit dedicated to eliminating domestic violence, I have learned a lot about trauma.  Trauma causes three main automatic reactions in the brain:  Fight, flight or freeze.  Trauma also makes us more sensitive to triggering events that can recall the trauma in our brains.  A smell, the slamming of a door, a sharp noise, even a tone of voice can trigger a reexperice of the traumatic event.  And, service providers, including lawyers, experience vicarious trauma by listening to the stories of traumatic events experience by others.  Knowing that this is happening is the first step in learning how to address the effects of truama.  At Enlace Comunitario, we try to have polcies that don’t retraumatize our clients.  We try to have a warm and welcoming waiting room and we don’t have harsh policies such as cancelling an appointment for someone who comes…

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Transferring Best Practices to a Domestic Violence Agency–i.e. the real world

On February 1, 2014 I left the ivory tower of a law school I had loved for 27 years to become the executive director of Enlace Comunitario, a non-profit agency focused on eliminating domestic violence in Latino immigrant communities through intervention services such as case management, counseling and legal services and prevention activities such as leadership development, education and outreach.   This was a big transition for me, but I am loving it!  And, my long time involvement with Best Practices for Legal Education has paid off in this context.  How, you might ask, are the skills transferable?  Well I will give some examples in my next few posts…but I will share immediately that I am working to create a teaching and learning culture at my agency.   Specifically, my goal is to build the capacity of folks in the agency so that when I step down one or several of the staff members will feel ready to take on the helm. And, of course, I will want staff members to step up to take their place. Already, we are training a counselor to become a counselor supervisor and we are training a former receptionist to become a case manager. I love seeing my staff take on the teaching role! And, they are good at it.

So…one of the foundational principles of best practices is to work to develop learning objectives for your students.  Well, it is not a stretch to work with staff members and develop learning objectives with them!  And, creating evaluations that fit the job duties and the learning objectives was fun:  Each job criteria or learning objective is evaluated as follows:  “in training”, “needs improvement” “good work” or “awesome, can teach this knowledge, skill or value”.   So far the staff has responded positively to the new evaluation process.  We will finish up this month!  I will let you know how it goes!


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