First Day

Ah, the first day of law school. The 1Ls are ready to go. Orientation may have fed some of their apprehensions, but it’s also gotten them excited about beginning their law school journey. The returning 2Ls and 3Ls have done a variety of things over the summer. Their experiences in many cases have given them new-found motivation (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all thrilled to be back at school).
But what to do on the first day of class? At Elon, we have a two-day “boot camp” as part of orientation. So every 1L has had a classroom introduction to each first year subject, and they’ve even written several mini-exam answers so they begin to see what the enterprise of legal analysis is about. And in my case, having taught the boot camp session on torts, I’ve already met with all the 1Ls (including the students I will have in my section. So a little bit of the ice has already been broken; they’ve already met with me (and several of their other professors) before the first “official” day of their law school careers.
Even with this run-up, there are still so many things a professor wants to impart on the first day. There are obvious logistical and housekeeping announcements. Even if they are covered in the syllabus, it’s usually a good thing to go over the most important ones in class. Over time I have become more and more convinced that making expectations clear and beginning to demonstrate how to approach legal problems is a good thing to do. Of course I don’t expect students to “get it” the first time it’s put out there – element analysis, applying facts to rules, etc. If they did, we wouldn’t need to spend an entire year doing the first year of law school. But the sooner they can begin to see what the expectations are at the end of the semester, even if at first their approach is mechanical, the more efficient all of their studying and preparation will be. At SEALS a couple of months ago, at one of the sessions I attended a professor said that on the first day he shows students what an exam question and a good answer look like. I have never gone quite that far – for one thing, I think it might be too intimidating. But the mini-exam hypos our students do in boot camp allow me to begin talking to first –year students from the very start about how to “reverse engineer” back from the ultimate result to what their notes and outline will have to include to get them there.
Having said that, and recognizing that there is so much we want to tell them, I strongly believe in “doing some law school” the first day. So regardless of where we are in the introductory material, at some point on the first day I want to make sure we begin to discuss a case. Too much talk of abstract concepts, process points or general themes can overwhelm 1Ls, especially when they haven’t yet read any cases.
One more point – also suggested by someone at SEALS. One nice, simple way to start a conversation about teaching among colleagues is to pose the question, “What do you do on the first day of class?”. Great idea. So give it some thought – what do you do? And why?

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2 Responses

  1. Love this idea for a faculty round table or brown bag luncheon. Thanks for sharing it.

    I use the first day to explain why my ADR survey course will not be like the 1L courses they took the previous year. I have each student self-identify their dominant information absorption style. Then I explain that I want to appeal to all learning styles, so we will be using Buzz Groups, role-plays, video, TWEN postings, cartoons, songs, charts, short lectures, discussion, and other active learning techniques.

    I explain that I want them to develop more right brain, holistic thinking about dispute resolution.

    I also ask them for any rumors they have heard from upper classmen about the course. I deal with the rumors up front. In fact, I ask someone to post the list on the TWEN site so we can see how accurate the rumors were at the end of the semester.

    I tell them to expect the unexpected.

  2. I agree that what we all do as teachers on the first day of class 1 ) cannot be underestimated; 2) too often is “unshared” with colleagues and 3) makes a wonderful focus for a teaching discussion. It also made for a wonderful workshop at the June Inst. for Law Teaching and Learning Conference. http://lawteaching.org/conferences/2009/workshops/session7.php

    CUNY’s Mary Lu Bilek demonstrated a “FIRST CLASS FOR ANY COURSE” which was aimed mostly for first years. She focused on their professional identitya nd keeping the eye on the ball; she also focused on the atmosphere she wanted to create which she could build on the rest of the semester. She had students divide into “law firms,” shear information and then name their law firm by foucsing on what was a strength for each of them, their goals and ideals etc.

    You can find out more on the ITLT webpage. I have copied some of it below:
    [B] It’s All About Becoming a Lawyer: A First Class for Any Course

    Mary Lu Bilek, CUNY School of Law

    * Get session handout (320 KB PDF)

    This interactive workshop puts participants in role as students in the first class of any course. The class is designed to set the stage for the kind of learning environment I hope to foster, as well as to situate the students on a path to professionalism and to suggest that the three years of law school are not just an academic enterprise, but rather an opportunity to develop professional identity, skills, habits, and values. The workshop has two parts. The first part is the actual class, which is very interactive and during which Institute participants will be in role as students. The second part asks participants to deconstruct the experience, working backwards to identify the explicit and implicit messages about learning and professionalism embedded in the class.

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