Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Thank you so much to Best Practices for Legal Education for inviting me to blog again and to Elizabeth Murad for her remarkable work in keeping contributors in touch and on track.  So much is written about the very real decline in bar passage that it is easy for schools with high pass rates–or at least high in relation to other schools in their state– to ignore the need to change what goes on in the classroom and dismiss the excellent work being done in effective law teaching as a problem for “lesser schools” in “lower tiers.”

We know, as legal educators , members of the bar and even members of the public, that bar passage rates have been falling.  And we also know that many, if not most, law schools are admitting students today with LSAT scores lower than those that they  admitted ten years ago. So it’s easy to see a correlation between lower scores and falling rates.  After all, the bar exam is a test much like the LSAT–why wouldn’t there be a relationship?   But even if students are failing the bar exam for the same reasons they are getting low LSAT Scores,  we still have the opportunity to intervene in ways that we know raise pass rates.  This blog contains so many resources for those who want to teach more effectively.   Why wouldn’t we want this for all our students?

Everyone at a school with a “bar passage problem” is well aware that we cannot continue to do the same things we always have when they are no longer working the way they used to.  But we hear this less at schools satisfied with their bar passage  Perhaps the students who are failing are really canaries in the coal mine and a warning to all of legal education that all of today’s law students find it more difficult translating their legal education into the very peculiar format required for bar passage-regardless of LSAT score? Everyone who has ever studied for the bar exam remembers it as a grueling, unpleasant, and highly intensive process–but until very recently that process started after graduation and barring personal disaster almost always resulted in passage.  Even when it didn’t, the consequences of were lower.  Today, students safely employed in September find themselves fired if October brings news of failure.  We need to consider bar passage as an issue both for students who fail and for those who pass–after all, both groups spend the same three years in law school.

Anecdotal evidence (which we could easily substitute for actual data by doing some surveys) suggests that bar passage anxiety spreads well beyond those students most at risk.  All students know that the stakes are high and many believe that their chances of passing are lower than students in the past.  Does that affect their choices while in law school?  Could they be doing more to prepare for their future careers if we could provide them more effective instruction?

Medical students and educators are expressing the same kinds of concerns about their curriculum being shaped by a test as we should be about ours.   We can’t easily change the bar exam–but we can adopt more direct methods of instruction that support not just bar passage but create time for the more complex and less exam focused thinking that we want to be going on in class.

I hope over the week to share resources that would encourage everyone to consider how studying for a very old fashioned test is negatively shaping the education of all of today’s law students. (and because it always warrants reposting-here is a recently revised article by, Louis Schulze of what they have done at FIU to apply the “science of learning” across the curriculum in support of higher bar passage.

 

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We have to talk about the bar exam

Thank you very much to the team at Best Practices for Legal Education for inviting me to blog this week.  My particular thanks to Elizabeth Murad for administering the blog, Professor Mary Lynch, Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy & Director, Center for Excellence in Law and President & Dean Alicia Ouellette of Albany Law School for hosting this blog.  It is an honor to join such a distinguished group of scholars and teachers.

We knew it was going to be a bad bar year when on Sept 14, 2018 the NCBE announced that “the national average MBE Score for July 2018” had decreased “about 2.2. points from the July 2018 average.”  And, indeed, as states have announced the pass rates based on their own individual formula of MBE plus essays plus the MPT (multistate performance test) plus their own individualized questions, the results were bad.  A lot of our students failed the bar exam.  Pass rates were down in New York, in California, Georgia, Florida, in Texas, and lots of other places.  Yet at the same time, individual schools saw significant success in raising pass rates in the face of grim news all around them.  All of this makes for glib headlines and much handwringing, but in the context of a blog post on “Best Practices for Legal Education” it is more helpful to take a step back and assess the tools we, as legal educators, have available to us in addressing bar passage in our individual schools.  I do so from my Ph.D. studies in higher education as well as from my experience as a dean, associate dean, law professor, and medical school professor.

One of my main themes this week will be to argue for individualized problem solving.  If anyone comes to you with a product to solve all your bar passage problems, I hope after this week you will be able to ask some questions about the data on which they base their claims.    Because a productive discussion of bar exam passage really rests on two questions—1. Why aren’t the students at your law school passing the bar exam at the rate they “should” and 2. What should you do about it?

I am going to use this week to share with you some of the resources available to law schools, to individual faculty members, and even to law students who want to increase their chances of passing the bar the first time.  Along the way, I hope to address some of the unhelpful myths that have arisen and to endorse a very old idea borrowed from the then revolutionary 1960s era child rearing techniques of Dr. Benjamin Spock: These are your students—and you know more than you think do.  Trust your judgement.  Ask questions.  That doesn’t mean that you can do everything yourself—it’s fine to consult with experts, but in the end addressing bar exam passage issues is a school wide effort and everyone has relevant information to add and a valuable role to play.

To get started, it’s helpful to have an overview of the players.  As a matter of foundational Constitutional Law, each state retains the power to license and regulate professionals.  (more detail here).   As a result, every state and territory has its own process for setting criteria for bar passage.   Almost every state contracts with the National Conference of Bar Examiners which develops the annual exam, grades it, and spends a lot of time explaining itself.  If you have any interest in this topic, a free subscription to The Bar Examiner will quickly bring you up to speed.

Tomorrow–how a test from the 1950’s trips up today’s digital natives (or “Do we need a Tardis to match law school curriculum to the bar exam?”)

New Blog on Leadership for Lawyers, Law Students, and Legal Educators

Readers of this blog may be interested in following the new blog Leading as Lawyers. Recognizing that all lawyers are called upon to lead, the blog explores leadership and professional development topics of interest to law students, lawyers, and legal educators. The first posts on this new blog have explored topics like self awareness, leadership in developing diversity in an organization, and addressing novel situations with authenticity, competence and candor.

Jumpstart Outline: Ideas to Help You Make a Plan to Teach “Public Citizen” Lawyering in Any Law School Class

Best Practices for Legal Education and Building on Best Practices urge legal educators to help students develop their professional identities. One aspect of a lawyer’s professional identity is performing the role of “public citizen.” The Preamble of the professional conduct rules in most jurisdictions explains that lawyers are “public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

We can help students begin to understand what it means to be a “public citizen” if we address the issue in concrete ways across the curriculum. The following outline provides some ideas for integrating public citizen lawyering into your course.  This is a long list, but there should be an idea or two that will work for your course, whatever its focus.

Use (or Adapt) Existing Course Materials, Exercises, and Activities to Make Explicit Connections Between the Course and the Lawyer’s Work as a Public Citizen

  • Find the Public Citizen Lawyers in Your Current Textbook. Are there lawyers in your textbook that are fulfilling the public citizen role? Discuss them when you see them.
  • Use Course Materials to Help Students Identify and Discuss Injustice. Help students become justice-seeking lawyers by helping them identify injustice. In the chapter Social Justice Across the Curriculum (in Building on Best Practices), Susan Bryant identifies seven questions that can be used in any class to help students explore injustice.
  • Discuss Needs for Law Reform in the Subject Area of the Course. When you encounter areas of needed law reform in course material, discuss how lawyers can play a part in making that change.
  • Use Writing Assignments to Give Students Experience Advocating for Law Reform. For writing assignments that require students to recommend or draft proposed changes to the law, make the explicit connection that this one way that lawyers fulfill the public citizen role: they advocate for improvement in the law. Provide them avenues to publish, discuss, and otherwise publicize their work.
  • Lawyer Speakers Should Be Asked to Discuss How they Serve. If you ordinarily invite lawyers to class to talk about course related topics, prompt them to talk about the things they do to serve the public and the legal profession.
  • Integrate Social Justice Issues Into a Course Exercise. Is there an exercise you currently use to develop knowledge or a skill in which you can introduce an issue of social justice? For thoughts on designing and debriefing that exercise, see Susan Bryant’s chapter Social Justice Across the Curriculum in Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World, at pp. 364-66
  • Prompt “Public Citizen” Discussion in Journaling Exercises. Prompt students to reflect upon public citizen issues in their course journals. What are areas where they see a need for law reform? What could they do to address those issues now and in practice? Suggest that students talk to lawyers (with whom they work) about how they serve the public and the profession. Ask the student to reflect on those discussions in their journal.

Create New Activities and Exercises that Integrate Course Material and the Lawyer’s Role as Public Citizen

  • Prompt Students to Create a Professional Development Plan.Particularly in classes where students may have common career goals (such as in an externship or capstone class), prompt students to write about their values, interests, and strengths, and to make a plan for the future, including a plan for service.
  • Integrate Pro Bono or Service Learning Into the Class. Find an opportunity for the class to represent a client or clients or serve a community organization or population that is connected to the subject matter of the class.
  • Create a Law Reform Activity for the Class. Engage in action as a class to reform the law in an area of need connected to course material. For suggestions see Mae Quinn’s article Teaching Public Citizen Lawyering: From Aspiration to Inspiration, 8 Seattle J. for Soc. Just. 661 (2010).
  • Require Students to Interview a Lawyer. The interview should cover course-related material as well as the lawyer’s service to the poor, the public, and the profession.
  • Organize a Book Club. Identify a non-fiction law-related book with a connection to your course material and that provides a springboard for discussing the lawyer as public citizen. A great book about pro bono service and its impact on both client and lawyer is William H Colby’s Long Goodbye, The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan. A book that prompts lawyers to think about the ingredients of a happy life – including pro bono work and “serving a larger social purpose”– is Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder’s book The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.

Share Information about Yourself as a Public Citizen

  • Be Inspiring. Tell an inspiring story about what another lawyer’s service meant to you or about what your service may have meant to someone else – and how that made you feel.
  • Talk About Yourself as a New Lawyer. Tell stories about your experiences as a new lawyer attempting to fulfill the public citizen role. What did you learn from those activities? Did you have mentors that inspired or encouraged you?
  • Note the Times When You Struggled. Share the times in your career when you have struggled with balancing the demands of practice, your personal life, and serving the public. What worked for you and where do you continue to struggle?
  • Incorporate Examples Connected to Course Subject Matter. Weave in examples of what you currently do to serve the public and the profession and explain why you serve.
  • Revise Your Faculty Webpage to Emphasize Your Public Citizen Work. Include your pro bono service activities, service to the profession (committees, CLEs, etc), and board service on your law school profile – not just your C.V.
  • Promote Your Service to the Public and Profession on Social Media. Alert your law school communications person to stories about your service activities so that students and alumni can learn about what you do through law school social media. Also, promote these same things in your own use of social media.

Fulfill the Public Citizen Role with Students Outside of the Classroom (Not Necessarily Connected to a Course)

  • Provide Access to Justice. Participate with students in organized pro bono events or service activities.
  • Improve the Law. Enlist students to help you prepare to testify or do research about a suggested change in the law – and bring the student along when possible.
  • Serve the Profession. Ask students to help you with a CLE – from preparation to attending and presenting with you. Or invite students to participate in a bar committee or bar event with you.
  • Identify a Need and Fill It. Work with student organizations you advise to identify a group with interests related to the organization. Find out their needs and make a plan to partner with them.

 

Blended Learning for Law Schools

I just returned from an inspiring and thought provoking three days at the Wolters Kluwer-sponsored Leading Edge workshop. The gathering of about 35 thought leaders from legal education – a wonderfully diverse group – was structured as an un-conference, so the participants designed the agenda upon our arrival and all the discussions revolved around topics that the invitees chose and facilitated. The topics ranged from assessment to increasing diversity in the academy, to teaching about leadership and cyberlaw, to disruption of law schools (yes, that was the session I lead).

Among the many recurring themes at the conference was online learning, particularly blended or hybrid learning, also referred to as flipping the classroom. Over the last few years, researchers have increasingly confirmed that students learn best in courses that combine online with face-to-face learning. Here, the Mayo Clinic describes the utility of blended learning in the health sciences field. Similarly, the US Department of Education found many benefits of flipping the classroom in its meta-analysis of online learning. These and other studies talk about the many advantages that derive from blending online and in-class instruction.

In the law school context, I made these videos about flipping the law school classroom and blended learning in legal education, in which I talk about how online learning can free up class time for law students to begin to gain exposure to essential lawyering competencies during each course while still covering the doctrinal material that professors hope to assign during a typical semester. Adding blended elements to your courses can be fun and rewarding. Here are some tips for getting started.

Top Five Things to Consider When Flipping a Law School Course

  1. What topics do you want to flip?

Before you begin, identify the topics that you typically cover for which the flipped classroom model would make the most sense in the course.

  1. You don’t have to produce all of the videos.

Don’t be reluctant to assign video content produced by other professors. Like other teaching and scholarly activities, such as writing an effective article, practice guide or even blog post, the production of effective and engaging video content takes time. As a result, I often assign my students to read law review articles and casebooks prepared by other professors. Assigning videos prepared by other professors is analogous. Indeed, by assigning material prepared by others, our time is freed up to spend on more active teaching activities. Visit legaledweb.com for a collection of videos prepared by leading law faculty.

  1. Begin with planning what will be “flipped in” rather than what will be flipped out.

Plan what you want to do with the additional face-to-face time with students that blended learning will afford. This is the point of having a flipped classroom. For example, consider adding new activities into the classroom (such as interviewing, negotiation or drafting exercises) that hone practical lawyering skills and competencies.

  1. Produce chunked, short video content.

Research shows that effective videos do not exceed 5-8 minutes in length, and some are even shorter. Break up a longer subject matter into a few chunked segments, making sure that each video addresses a discreet legal topic. Remember to make the video engaging and to speak clearly and concisely.

  1. Hold the students responsible for watching the videos.

Start each class with an assumption that the students watched the video. That will create an expectation for the group. Start the class by expanding on the videos lessons and assigning activities/discussions that ask students to use the theories learned from the videos actively through role plays, simulations, small group work or Socratic dialogue.

Best of luck innovating legal education. Let us know, in the comment section below, how it goes for you. What works? What could be improved? What insights can you share with the community?

And if you want to learn more about flipping the classroom and other innovations in teaching pedagogy, visit legaledweb.com

 

Law Schools Going Beyond Learning Outcomes Mandated by ABA

Having taken part in two recent symposia on learning outcomes (PLOs) in legal education, I was encouraged to see the number of law schools that are taking advantage of the recognized pedagogical benefits of adopting and assessing learning outcomes. As most law professors now know, ABA Standards require the adoption of learning outcomes. These standards also mandate programmatic assessment of whether students are attaining these outcomes. ABA Standard 302 dictates certain PLOs that all schools must adopt (e.g., knowledge of substantive and procedural law, legal analysis, research, and writing skills.) However, I saw evidence at each symposium that schools are going beyond the mandatory PLOs and are shaping their learning outcomes for knowledge, skills, and values beyond the minimum. That phenomenon suggest schools recognize the pedagogical value of outcome-based education and are seeking to provide more than the minimum.

The first symposium was entitled “The Next Steps of a Professional Formation Social Movement,” at St. Thomas School of Law on February 16-18–https://www.stthomas.edu/law/events/ symposium-21717.html One of the primary themes of the conference was that between thirty and forty law schools had adopted learning outcome that incorporated professional formation, consistent with the third apprenticeship advocated by the Carnegie Institute’s Educating Lawyers. Because ABA Standard 302 does not require such learning outcomes, the efforts of a growing number of schools to include them show a recognition of the significance of Carnegie’s emphasis on the need to do a better job of helping law student to develop a professional identity as they learn doctrine and lawyering skills. The conference explored professional formation learning outcomes in medical and military education and suggested potential points of comparison to law teaching, the conference further reported new data suggesting that the growing professional formation movement is consistent with the goals of law students. Finally, participants formed working groups to continue with the work necessary to keep the momentum going for the role of professional identity formation in legal education. In short, the symposium demonstrated the steady increase of faculty and schools advocating for integration of professional identity formation into the legal curriculum. See http://beyondtherule.blogspot.com/2017/ 02/cefler-cosponsors-symposium-on.html. The results of the symposium will appear in St. Thomas Law Journal’s upcoming symposium issue.

The University of Detroit-Mercy Law Review also hosted a symposium, on March 2, 2017, which reviewed the impact of learning outcomes and assessment—both institutional assessment of the degree to which students attain the outcomes law schools state as objectives, and more creative assessment in law school classes in the form of both formative and multiple summative assessments — http://www.udetmercylrev.com/symposium/outcome-measure-legal-education-symposium. The symposium highlighted again PLOs being adopted by a wide range of schools that exceed the minimum of ABA Standard 302.   The message of such a response to the advent of learning outcomes in legal education seems to be clear: law schools are willing to use this proven method of ensuring educational quality to improve their programs, not just in the least possible way but in a manner that will help law students achieve the most from their time in school.

These are but some examples of a broader movement in legal education improve pedagogy not only in the classroom (e.g., more formative assessments) but throughout the program (institutional reforms). Despite fears of widespread recalcitrance, a substantial number of law schools appear to be making a genuine effort to improve their programs.

What is a “Fact”? A “Story”?

In Washington D.C., on the GWU campus, there is a statue of a hippopotamus. A nearby sign explains that the statue was placed there because hippos once could be found in the Potomac. George and Martha Washington liked watching them from their Mount Vernon porch. They were also a favorite of children visiting the estate. George Washington even had a false set of teeth made of hippopotamus ivory.

As you have likely guessed, that sign offers readers what we might call mendacities, misrepresentations, falsehoods, alternative facts, untruths, lies, or bulls**t. To end any suspense, there really is a statue, the sign really does say most of these things, and George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made of hippo ivory. But the Washingtons never saw hippos frolicking in the Potomac and no one would have children anywhere near the Potomac if there were. To see hippopotami in the Potomac, someone would have had travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, capture a pod of hippos (they are social creatures) without being attacked (they are very dangerous, killing 3,000 people each year), carry them across land to seafaring boats, make the trek across the Atlantic, and then to the Potomac—all while keeping the animals’ skin moist at all times. The hippos might freeze in the winter if not recaptured and quartered somewhere warmer. Hippos are also very large, weighing in at 1.5 tons or more.

Nevertheless, these facts and falsehoods hang together as a story. When did you begin to question that story? When you began to question, did you then question the entirety of the facts or were you willing to believe any of the information as fact? As lawyers, you know that stories are composed of facts, but if asked for a definition of a fact or of a story, can you provide one?

More importantly, we want the next generation of lawyers to fully appreciate the answers to those questions. With the decentralization of information, I find that I need to be more deliberate in my approach to teaching different categories of facts: actual facts such as the sun rising in the east on our planet; verifiable facts, such as the natural habitat of hippopotami; and debatable facts, such as whether this sentence should have used “whether or not” instead of “whether.” I also spend a significant amount of time distinguishing facts from characterizations, which are essentially the opinions or judgments of the writer. Someone’s “lovely summer-preview week in April” is someone else’s “torturous week in April” if that second someone suffers from summer Seasonal Affect Disorder. And, now, sadly, I am spending more time teaching the difference between facts and misrepresentations or falsehoods, such as a statement that this blog post focuses primarily on hippopotami (a misrepresentation) or on cat memes (a falsehood).

For several years, I have also spent several class hours on the importance of story structure as the delivery vehicle for facts and story strategy as a driving force in persuasion. A story involves characters, a setting, and hurdles or challenges that a particular character or characters must overcome to reach a desired goal. Implicit in that definition is the passage of time, i.e. a beginning, middle, and end. It is easy to see how legal matters exist as stories. The nub is in the teaching of the re-telling, from the client’s perspective, using description and detail—that is, facts—rather than characterizations.

Facts must be presented as a narrative rather than as a list if the author wants the audience to interact with those facts and remember them. Facts by themselves don’t persuade. Stories persuade. That’s not my opinion, but has been demonstrated by science across a variety of fields. We think, act, make decisions in story. As those of us studying and writing on applied legal storytelling know, former Oceanographer at the Department of Energy, Kendall Haven has published books to help professionals digest the vast amount of science out there. For yourself, take the simple but germinal test in the study conducted in 1944 by Drs, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Look at the video and see if you can answer a few of the questions. If you can, you have demonstrated that you think in story. To demonstrate this to my students, before showing the video I divide the class in thirds and assign each group a client to represent. After showing the video twice I ask each group to tell a story from that client’s perspective.

Contrary to what we may call our lawyer’s sense of justice when the verifiable facts disprove falsehoods, citing just the facts by themselves may actually backfire–here’s a great Harvard Business Review article with links to the original studies that will help explain why. In law, there are several studies of jurors that demonstrate the power of story, but only a handful of studies testing legal audiences. In a 2010 article Ken Chestek wrote about a study that used carefully constructed briefs to study the preferences of judges, court staff attorneys, newer attorneys serving as law clerks, appellate attorneys, and law professors. From the data, he concluded that stories are more persuasive to decision makers than syllogistic reasoning by itself. Attorneys and judges with more than five years of practice overwhelmingly chose a storied version of an advocacy document over a straight-up law/application version. Only the attorneys newly out of law school deviated from this pattern—begging the question, are we doing something in law school that skews this number so much from what judges and seasoned attorneys believe to be effective lawyering?

Assuming you are on board that our students should graduate knowing what facts are and knowing that representing clients means being able to appreciate and tell their clients’ stories, the last question to answer is the curricular locale for teaching these things. Historically, the clinic and externship programs at law schools have been celebrated for focusing students on facts and narrative in a capstone experience. I am a true believer that those programs will continue to be the locales in which students will most strongly make the connections between legal and narrative reasoning. But we do students a stronger service if they enter the capstone experiences with a strong foundation. The casebook authors can include more story so that teaching professors can reinforce the ideas of facts and narrative. The skills professors of the trial advocacy and practicum courses include some training, but the first and heavy lift most appropriately belongs in the required first-year legal research, analysis & communication course series. Gone are the days when we can teach those courses by indulging in the pedagogy of a legal document’s traditional text-based sections or on a singular paradigm for organizing legal reasoning. In 2017 we must focus on making students client-ready. Written and verbal communication in law occurs in a variety of mediums, to a variety of audiences, and in a variety of different rhetorical situations. The connecting universals across law and legal communications will always include law, facts, and story.

*Thank you to Courtney Knight, Class of 2017, Rutgers Law School, for the story idea.
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