Building on Strengths: University of Denver Sturm College of Law and Best Practices

The University of Denver, Sturm College of Law is using some of the sessions in its faculty lunch series to think about and talk about the Carnegie Report and Best Practices.  I spoke at a faculty lunch on March 13 about Best Practices.  I asked the organizer, Laura Rovner, in advance of the presentation about whether I should assume that faculty members were familiar with the book.  She said no, it would be handed out after my presentation.  I decided to focus on curricular development, assessment and professionalism.  So I discussed the basic principles about developing a coherent curriculum, the basic need for students to receive formative and interim assessment based on clear articulation of learning goals and I posed the question about what professionalism education might look like at their law school.

I quickly realized that my presentation was perhaps a little too basic for this crowd.  I asked them how many of them provided interim feedback and many raised their hands.  One faculty member talked about how she gave an interim exam, then gave students the grading rubric and then had the students use the rubric to grade each other’s exams.  Another faculty member worked with the students on a collaborative outline of the course.  Another faculty member used group projects as an interim feedback tool.  Many members of the faculty used a variety of techniques for providing feedback and interim assessment measures.  As for curricular development, under the leadership of Dean Beto Juarez, the faculty is engaged in that process.  DU already offers a lawyering process program in the first year that integrates legal writing instruction with an instruction to the basic “tools of lawyering”.  They have a dynamic clinical law program and have had one for 100 years!  And given the law school’s history and interest in Law and Society, they are thinking about ways to connect the faculty’s interdisciplinary interests and research with enhancing their student’s legal education and providing students with information about the importance of interdisciplinary work in the study and practice of law.

During the luncheon presentation, the faculty had a very interesting discussion about “values” education.  What does it mean to identify professional values and perhaps to assess student’s attainment of them? Is “inculcation” appropriate or is it better to provide students facts and let them draw their own conclusion?  We talked about my example of trying to help students become less judgmental about domestic violence victims by having the students describe reasons that a victim might stay in a violent relationship.  Was this inculcation of my point of view or is it teaching them how to be more effective in representing victims?   Is it more effective to describe it as providing students with information and letting them draw their own conclusions?  Is my choice of information presented and the technique I use intended to encourage them to change their understanding and perhaps their attitude toward victims?  Should we be more transparent about our teaching goals? Interesting discussion!

Later I spoke to Dean Juarez about how I thought that maybe I had pitched the presentation at too basic a level.  He said that it is clear that his colleagues care very deeply about teaching.  We chatted about how it might be a good idea to create a list of all of the faculty member’s individual teaching methods that are consistent with what is described in Best Practices just to see where the school is.  He said that because of the university wide reaccreditation process the law school would probably have to do something like that anyway.

The experience made me think about our tax professor at my own law school at the University of New Mexico who was giving pop quizzes and detailed interim feedback and assessment before the Carnegie Report and Best Practices were published, and our business law faculty who developed a business law curriculum that was sequential, logical, included ethics and professionalism and had a major clinical and experiential component before they had read the books.  Indeed, my colleagues, as I think about it, were innovative in a variety of teaching methodologies and clinical legal education at our school prior to the publication of these important books. And, our own university reaccreditation process that is requiring the university to evaluate its assessment processes. There is a synchronicity about all of these developments that makes me think that in the next few years we will experience a profound transformation how legal education is delivered.  The Carnegie Report and Best Practices are influential in this movement and provide the tipping point to push it forward.  And, DU already has many strengths that can enable it to provide leadership in enhancing the quality of legal education as this transformation occurs.

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