A Reluctant Technologist – Best Practices for the 21st Century

BLOG Authored by:  Irene Scharf

Professor of Law

Univ. of Mass. School of Law


From a reluctant technologist:  For several reasons, this year we’ve instituted in the clinics at the law school an email security program to boot-strap onto school’s email system we’ve been using to communicate with our students. We did this for a few reasons.  First, we realized that, once the students are not longer in the clinic, if we continued using their general emails, the confidential client case information in those email accounts will remain in their possession.   So, we needed to establish a dedicated email system that would be used exclusively for students’ (and supervisors’) confidential client communications, one that would not follow the students with them when they left the clinic. In addition, these dedicated email addresses can also be used by clients, who are becoming more attuned to the internet and especially email, so they can communicate with their clinic students in a “safe” environment. Finally, these confidential emails are always available to the clinic staff, even after a student leaves the clinic, so that we are able to access this information if it is needed for a case.


I was a reluctant participant in this project, feeling that, and fearing that, I was becoming obsolete, given the myriad of technological interconnections in which we, as lawyers and clinicians, must become not just familiar, or proficient, but outstanding.  Also, “Best Practices” for legal practitioners remains open to argument, particularly as the technology, and attempts of outsiders to “invade” these systems, becomes more sophisticated.  It seems that, as soon as one advance is made, it becomes obsolete and needs updating.  This is difficult to keep abreast with, particularly difficult for law school clinical programs, which often do not have the resources to maintain the continued vigilance that seems required these days.


For now, though, we’re “all set.”  Let’s see how long that lasts …

Being in the Moment with our Students

BLOG post authored by:

Irene Scharf

Univ. of Mass. School of Law

About a month ago, when the President announced that he was taking executive action to address various issues that would assist about 5.5 million immigrants in this country, lawyers, legal services offices, religious organizations, and law schools around the country stepped up to organize, even at the very busy time of year’s – and semester’s – end, to help in whatever way they could.

For law school immigration clinics, and even for law students not enrolled in clinics but interested in helping and dipping their toes into immigration, students and their teachers experienced, in this call to action, “being in the moment” – with their teachers, with their clinics, and with the people who they will help. That immigration clinic faculty all over the country naturally took up this role modeling, while an automatic response to real need, is both a testament to them and a meaningful example law professors can set for their law students. An issue arose. People needed help. Law students were invited to participate, with their teachers, to help those in need. Law school clinics teamed up with local legal services providers. With religiously-affiliated groups. Community-wide events are being held. Everyone working toward a common, worthy goal. Students witness, and participate in, activist, justice-centered lawyering. That’s best practice.

Thanks to all our wonderful readers and contributors, we WON!

Best Practices for Legal Education” blog won first place in the ABA Journal Blawg 100’s Careers / Law School category. Our blog garnered more than 150 votes and was one of 13 popular vote winners out of 100 blogs.

The Blawg 100, as selected by the ABA Journal, was featured in the journal’s December 2014 cover story. As a winner of the popular vote, “Best Practices for Legal Education” will be featured again in the February issue.  The ABA Journal‘s Blawg 100 is an annual list of the best in blogs about lawyers and the law.

We also have a cool new BADGE featured on our site! Booyah!

A special thank you to Michele Pistone of LegalEd  for her great work on getting out the vote!

So keep those contributions, posts and comments coming!


Building on Best Practices for Legal Education Manuscript Submitted to Publisher

Four editors,  59 authors, 92 readers, three copy editors, librarians from two schools, a secretary, miscellaneous consultants, three student assistants for bluebooking, and one for setting up perrmacc links.*

Many people, occasionally in multiple roles, were needed to produce the manuscript sent to Lexis last Monday for the forthcoming book Deborah Maranville, Lisa Radtke Bliss, Carolyn Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo López (eds.),  Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World. (Lexis 2015).  A monster project — but, as I assured a friend, no, not a manuscript about monsters and not monstrously unpleasant to produce – just big, ambitious, and sometimes exhausting for the editors and authors.  A big thank you to all who participated!

The book is a follow up to CLEA’s Best Practices for Legal Education, the 2007 volume by Roy Stuckey and others that inspired this blog.  Like Best Practices, this book will be distributed for free to legal educators.  Lexis has promised to make it available in electronic format through their e-book library and to provide print copies on request.  Look for it in four to six months — if all goes smoothly perhaps in time for the AALS Clinical Legal Education Conference in early May.

The coverage of Building on Best Practices is wide-ranging.  To quote from the Introduction, “[t]his volume builds on the call to link mission and outcomes; emphasizing the themes of integrating theory, doctrine and practice, developing the broader spectrum of skills needed by lawyers in the twenty-first century, and taking up the question how best to shift law school cultures to facilitate change.”

Advance praise for the book has included:

  • “[M]ilestone in legal education . . . that legal educators will rely on as much as . . . on the first Best Practices book.”  (Patty Roberts, William & Mary)
  • “Educational for folks who don’t know much about experiential education and insightful for those who do. . . .Really something to be proud of . . . an invaluable resource to schools as they go to work on implementing the ABA’s new requirements for learning outcomes and assessment. . .The perfect product coming out at the perfect time.” (Kate Kruse, Hamline)

Once again, CLEA deserves kudos for its support of an important scholarly project on legal education.  And the Georgia State University, University of New Mexico, Quinnipiac University, and University of Washington Law Schools deserve a big round of thanks for supporting the co-editors in this project.

https://perma.cc/ provides an archive for those annoying website links that quickly become outdated.

Update from AALS Conference on Integrating Clinical Pedagogy Across Curriculum

BLOG POST Authored by:
Mayer, Connie
Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs; Raymond and Ella Smith Distinguished Professor of Law
Albany Law School

I just returned from the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. this past weekend where I had the honor of helping to plan the session entitled, “Integrating Clinical Pedagogy Across the Curriculum: Making it Work.” The session was co-sponsored by the Section on Clinical Legal Education and the Section on Teaching Methods. A panel of very dedicated law faculty highlighted how clinical methods can be used effectively in non-clinical courses to enhance learning. Two panelists, Professor Alice Abreu (Temple) and Professor Ray Brescia (Albany), described their use of live clients in teaching Tax Policy and Practice and Law and Social Innovation. They highlighted their use of clinical methods including problem-solving in a real world setting, reflection, and live client interaction. Three panelists, Professor Kenneth Klein (California Western), Professor Nicole Iannarone (Georgia State), and Professor Brian Krumm (Tennessee), discussed their use of simulations, reflection, professional role plays, and collaborative learning in teaching their courses (Representing Enterprises, Professional Responsibility, and Civil Procedure, respectively).

Given the new focus on experiential learning, both from the ABA and from employers seeking to hire graduates who are more ready to take on their professional roles, the burden (and reward) of seeing students develop their professional identity through clinical methodology cannot be solely on the shoulders of the clinic, though the clinic will remain the focal point for experiential learning. There is “added value,” however, if faculty teaching non-clinical courses also adopt some of the clinic methods that are known to promote deeper learning.

The session raised some very interesting questions that we need to continue to explore. If simulations are used in a non-clinical course, how much time should be devoted to teaching the skill being used? For example, if students are asked to negotiate a problem with the goal of enhancing their understanding of the subject matter area, how are they taught about the process of negotiation? If individual faculty members integrate certain clinical methods, how are they coordinated with one another and with the work of the clinic? Are the courses sequenced (or can they be) so that students begin to learn skills and develop a professional identity in a more intensely supervised setting and then move on to non-clinical courses where they can practice those skills in a less supervised setting? How can the success described by the panelists be used to promote broader curricular change?

As a former clinical teacher, I use clinical methods in my non-clinical courses and I find them rewarding and an important way to enhance learning. As the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, I encourage faculty to use clinical methods in non-clinical courses. But there is a need to coordinate these individual efforts and think through how to place in order the opportunities for experiential learning that we offer. We are lucky to house the Center for Excellence in Law Teaching, directed by Professor Mary Lynch, who organizes regular workshops on teaching that provide a platform for discussion of these issues. The clinical conference in the spring on “The New Normal” will also help us continue this conversation.

Thanks to our wonderful moderator, Professor Jane Aiken (Georgetown), to committee member Professor Lisa Reel Schmidt, and to our hard-working co-chairs, Professor Joy Radice (Tennessee) and Professor Spencer Rand (Temple) for a very inspirational session!

Teaching Optimism, by Margaret Martin Barry

Chris Rock’s tweet “Are black men an endangered species? No, endangered species are protected by law,” captures at once the failure to apply our laws and when applying them to do so effectively. Scan to the recently released Senate Select Committee’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, yet another example of how we struggle as a culture with the rule of law.

How do law schools inspire students to work within a system that yields such results?

The AALS Deans Steering Committee had this to say: “Law school empowers students to become agents of change because it teaches students about the legal system of the United States, a system that has the seeds of change built into its structure.” The statement goes on to say that “The rule of law is the foundation of our society, our political system, and our economic system” and “The primary role of law professors is to teach the next generation of lawyers to think critically about problems, to understand the structure and power of law in our society, and to be thoughtful and engaged with respect to solutions.”[1]

Indeed, critical thinking about legal and other strategies that touch on social wrongs has been discussed in law school classrooms and clinic supervision for decades. However, our legacy is the workarounds and neutralizing of civil rights, workers rights, environmental, and other laws intended to help us solve social ills; the seeds of change have not borne the results expected. Students who are attracted to law school because they see law as a tool for solving problems, soon sense a system that is mightily frayed. As these students navigate the texts and training offered, they struggle with how within our venerated legal system to achieve change that will connect the law to the values they consider essential for a viable society.

Vermont Law School’s curriculum committee just approved a new course called Legal Activism: Lawyering for Social Change designed to expose students to theoretical and practical approaches to legal activism. The course will use Alan K. Chen and Scott Cummings, Public Interest Lawyering: A Contemporary Perspective (Aspen Elective 2012) as its text, taking advantage of the book’s focus on activist lawyers and legal strategies in our history. The impetus for the course was largely the disconnect between the careful web of procedure, precedent and statutes that perpetuate unsustainable results and the desire so many of our students have expressed to find paths that reflect the values they hold.

As law schools consider how to prepare students for the “new normal” (a painful phrase), we must recognize that among them are those who question the very premises of normalcy. Our challenge is to work with these students to foster a sense that they can achieve meaningful results, and that it is not too late to try. Their pursuit of change may test the structure of law in our society and its relevance to the increasingly urgent problems we face. While they may not discover more sustainable results than those achieved by activist lawyers in the past, we will do well to help them envision the possibilities.

[1] See “Statement on the Value of Legal Education,” http://www.aals.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Statement-on-the-Value-of-a-Legal-Education.pdf

Five Problems to Avoid in Writing Student Learning Outcomes

As law faculty across the country strive to improve student learning and meet ABA standards of accreditation through the assessment process, it is perhaps appropriate to stop and assess our efforts in that regard.  Here are five common problems that occur when first writing learning outcomes for a course:

1. Don’t focus on you – focus on the students
Student learning outcomes are designed to give students an idea of what they will be learning.  Avoid learning outcomes that describe what or how your will teach and instead focus on what the students will be able to know, do, or believe.

NOT: UMKC457  Trees as Thought
Student learning outcome:  In this course, I will be exploring the philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I will explain my book “Trees as Focal Points for Reality” and refute critics of the proposals presented therein.

BETTER: UMKC457  Thought Experiments
Student learning outcome:  At the end of this course, students will be able to think critically and communicate effectively the metaphysical theories regarding the existence of that which cannot be perceived. Students will be able to describe how the theory of subjective idealism has impacted religious and scientific philosophy.  Through discussion and written reflection, students will demonstrate clarification of their individual values.

2. Avoid Vague Verbs
Probably one of the most common verbs found in student learning outcomes is “understand,” as in “students will understand [course content].” The problem with this as a learning outcome is that it is difficult to know what evidence would demonstrate that understanding.  A student learning outcome that uses more active and concrete verbs can unpack the type and degree of “understanding” that a professor expects.

NOT:   LAW8000  Family Law
Student learning outcome:  Students will understand the law regarding marriage regulation and the constitutional constraints on that regulation and the law of divorce, including child custody.

BETTER:  LAW 8000 Family Law
Student learning outcome: At the end of this course, students will be able to:
• identify the legal issues raised by a fact pattern involving a marriage regulation, make critical and effective arguments regarding the meaning of that regulation and its constitutional validity, and confidently predict the outcome of a challenge to that regulation
• identify relevant facts necessary to gather from a client seeking a divorce and child custody with property including real estate and pensions; draft a complete and legally effective petition for that divorce and custody action, including a parenting plan; and identify legal issues and make critical and effective arguments, applying the statutory and case law, to determine the divorce, property division, child custody and economic support in the case.
To read more about it, see Chapter Two. Understanding Understanding, of GRANT WIGGINS & JAY MCTIGHE, UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN (2nd Ed. 2005).

3. Avoid “elementitis”
A student learning outcome should not merely summarize the syllabus or be a list of topics the course will cover.  Rather, the student learning outcomes should focus on thematic elements that tie these topics together or ways in which the students will be able to use this knowledge.  As David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education notes:
We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later….to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’
DAVID PERKINS, MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION (2010).  Avoid student learning outcomes that are plagues by “elementitis” and describe instead what it is students will be able to do with course coverage.

4. Don’t Always Expect Mastery
Student learning outcomes should indicate not only the content the students will learn but how well they will learn it.  We cannot aim for mastery of all aspects of the course.  Rather, learning outcomes in some courses are necessarily going to be at an introductory level (students will “recognize” or “describe” or “identify”) while other outcomes may be aimed at higher levels of mastery.  An effective tool to determine the proficiency level of your learning outcomes is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which provides a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated learning outcomes.  To read more about it and see a list of verbs associated with differing levels of learning, see Rex Heer, A Model of Learning Objectives from Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (2012). To read an application of this model to law school, see Paul Callister, Time to Blossom: An Inquiry into Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Hierarchy and Means for Teaching Legal Research Skills 202:2 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL 191 (2010-12).

5. Don’t Avoid Outcomes that May be Difficult to Measure
Student learning outcomes for a classroom rarely will focus entirely on the acquisition of knowledge.  At a minimum, most classes expect students to develop their cognitive and communication skills in using the knowledge base of the course.  Courses may also help students to clarify values, reconsider beliefs, appreciate new perspectives, or develop greater self-awareness.  Some faculty recognize that these skills and values are some of the most important benefits that students take away from the courses, but are reluctant to state these as learning outcomes because they are unable to “test” these outcomes.  However, any important skill or value can be assessed – even if there is a good deal of subjectivity involved in that assessment.  By stating these objectives as learning outcomes, faculty members can challenge themselves and their students to more clearly describe the dimensions of this learning.  Measurements of this learning may be through written reflections, observations of performance, or surveys of opinions.  These are perfectly valid assessment tools.


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