“Hum”s in the Classroom

Today I had the opportunity to learn from my students. I started my class with some commentary about the Project on Integrating Spirituality into Law And Politics (“PISLAP”) conference I attended last week at American University’s Washington College of Law–my alma mater. I told the students I learned much about cultivating a learning atmosphere that recognizes our shared humanity and cultivates learning by dialogue. As I began, though, a front row student pointed out that I had misspelled the word “blackboard” on the blackboard, by writing it as “blackboad.” Laughing at myself along with them, I explained this was a perfect way to begin–with humility.

The PISLAP conference, I told the students, was rich with dialogue about the use of humility for law professors, and the ways we can learn from our students and from other actors in the legal system and in higher education to best deliver a solid legal education that also values empathy and positive outcomes.

My very minor contribution at PISLAP, as I shared in class today, was the “notecard” system that another law teacher at another school generously shared with me. I give each student an index card on Day One of my Professional Responsibility class. Students turn in their cards with a note to me explaining what they want to do with their law degree, and one fact about themselves that might surprise us. It humanizes the bodies in the room and breaks down barriers to the rich dialogue that a law school classroom otherwise can thrive on. I share each student’s “note,” if they consent, sometime during the semester during class. Today we learned that one student can wiggle both ears independently as well as simultaneously, one has never lost a staring contest, and that same student wants to “help and serve others” after law school. That last one hit me hard. Our students are grappling with many challenges, and most of them are in law school for reasons that boil down to wanting to do something positive for this world and their fellow humans. Naming that in a Professional Responsibility classroom with the student who wrote it nodding in affirmation was a powerful moment. This is why we do what we do, or at least why I do what I do.

Later in today’s class, another “hum” word provided our closing theme. This one was harder. I shared a conflicts of interest anecdote from my own experience. Years ago, in private practice, I mistakenly missed spotting a potential conflict in the first instance, and had to resign from the case early in the representation as a result. I explained that although my staff “should” have discovered and screened out the conflict earlier, that I take ultimate responsibility as the lawyer–and that they should as well. I stressed that my primary regret was that the client had to find new counsel and deal with the mental stress of the turn of events.  I also shared that my secondary regret was my own humiliation. I felt terribly ashamed, and contrite, but it was appropriate that I dealt with those feelings and moved on. My humiliation]was a lesson in humility, and humility is a pretty decent North Star for lawyers. I urged my students to approach their careers and their law school studies with humility–it’s intrinsic to our Professional Responsibility.

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