On the Value of Gap Years and Non-Legal Experience to Legal Employers (and Law Schools)

Reviewing the results of the Foundations for Practice survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), I cannot help but note how the 24,000 responding attorneys ranked the helpfulness of various criteria for hiring beginning lawyers. (See here.) Just under 80 percent (78.3%, to be exact) identified “life experience between college and law school” as either a very helpful or somewhat helpful hiring criterion. Moreover, while “legal employment” (88.4% ranking as very or somewhat helpful) and “legal externship” (81.5%) unsurprisingly sat near the top of the list, “other experiential education” — meaning non-legal — was very close behind at 79.4%.

The responding attorneys, from a wide variety of practice areas and from throughout the country, ranked these two non-legal experience criteria — “life experience between college and law school” and “other experiential education” — as slightly more helpful than certain types of legal experience, including federal court clerkships, state court clerkships, and participation in law school clinics. The starker divide, however, came when considering traditional hiring criteria related to law school performance. While well over three quarters of respondents classified both personal and professional experience of a non-legal nature as helpful hiring criteria, only 62.5% said the same about law school class rank. Similarly, only 61.1% said so about law school attended, and merely 51.2% said so about law review experience.

One narrative coming out of the survey could indeed be that practical experience matters more than academic experience, and that seems to be what IAALS is highlighting. But, consistent with the results discussed above, I would suggest another as well: Non-legal experience — both personal and professional — matters almost as much, if not just as much, as legal experience.

The survey was just the first phrase of IAALS’s broader project, entitled Foundations for Practice, and the second phrase, which is being implemented now, directly implicates law schools. IAALS is working with four law schools to “translate the survey results into actionable learning outcomes and hiring rubrics.”

The current phrase focusing on law school outcomes turns my mind to the “incoming” side of law school admissions. The results of the survey suggest to me that law schools should more explicitly prioritize admission of students with meaningful life experience or non-legal professional experience. In addition, if it is not already, LSAC ought to be gathering and reporting to law schools pertinent data as to what percentage of law school applicants are undergraduate students who would be going directly to law school. And, as to those who are not, what are the percentages one year out from the undergraduate degree, two years, three or more, etc.? Just as law schools view national statistics on other important admissions criteria (GPA, LSAT, ethnic diversity, to mention a few) as important benchmarks, they ought to be in a position to do the same for number of years since undergraduate degree.

Having a significant percentage of students with meaningful life experience outside of the law is indisputably of great benefit to the law school learning environment. I see it every year in my classroom. More to the point of the IAALS survey results, by bringing in a significant number of students with such experience, law schools will be contributing to better outcomes — learning outcomes and employment outcomes. In a typical incoming J.D. class at my home school, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 20% to 30% of the students are three or more years removed from their undergraduate degree. We do not have a part-time or night program, and certainly those schools that do will have higher percentages of that demographic.

At least one-third and in some years close to one-half of the students in our typical incoming class are coming straight out of their undergraduate studies without even one gap year. This demographic exists at nearly every law school in the country (in varying percentages). Given what we know about the next generation of law students, and given the importance of life experience and non-legal experience as hiring criteria to today’s legal employers, these students would seem to face a more challenging path. What do law schools need to do, if anything? Offer or enhance existing professional development programming or curricula? Offer or enhance existing experiential opportunities that are not exclusively legal in nature and that expose students to non-lawyers and other disciplines and experiences? (Just two examples: teaching or working with high school students, or working with entrepreneurs at a tech startup. Law schools affiliated with a university can offer assorted interdisciplinary educational opportunities as well.)  I will be interested to see if the second phrase of the IAALS project emphasizes ideas like these or others that respond to the demonstrated need for lawyers with life experience and non-legal professional experience.

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New Research on Law-Student Resiliency

Student resiliency and well-being are on-going concerns to the legal education community. Counselling, academic support, and activities like yoga have been introduced in law schools to address these concerns. Although these strategies are undoubtedly beneficial, a recent research paper suggests that legal educators may have an additional, all-encompassing solution under their noses – the cultural mindset we create in our classrooms.

In the paper The Jury Is In: Law Schools Foster Students’ Fixed Mindsets, Susan Shapcott, Sarah Davis, and Lane Hanson suggest that the law school experience promotes fixed mindsets in law students. Many educators are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work and the concept of mindsets; when students perceive intelligence as an innate trait that one either has or doesn’t have, this is a referred to as a fixed mindset. At the other end of the spectrum, perceiving intelligence as something that develops with effort, strategy and time is referred to as a growth mindset.

The authors reported that third year law students’ mindsets were significantly more fixed than first year students’ mindsets. How does this relate to resiliency and well-being? Quite simply, mindsets are predictive of students’ goals and resiliency to challenges (an inherent part of law school). As students’ mindsets become more fixed, they are more likely to adopt goals intended to demonstrate how smart they are. Consequently, they are less likely to ask for help when they most need it, they will perceive professors’ feedback as judgement, and they may interpret mistakes as evidence that they just don’t have what it takes to succeed. Not only are these behaviors motivationally problematic, they are problematic for mental well-being.

Across a range of fields, growth mindsets are associated with adaptive learning strategies and mentally healthy behaviors that promote well-being and resiliency. So arguably, this is the culture that we should be focused on developing in law schools. However, as Shapcott, et al., report, the opposite may be happening. The longer students are exposed to law-school culture, the more fixed their mindsets become. Therefore, it is time to recognize that there is something adrift in our culture. Furthermore, we cannot simply focus on students’ mindsets without reflecting on the role we as educators play in influencing them.

Students’ well-being won’t change much until law schools work to change the culture from within. Law school classrooms that help students develop growth, not fixed mindsets will do more for students’ resiliency and long-term growth. This starts with faculty members reframing how intelligence and lawyering skills are described (they are learned skills, not innate gifts). When faculty share their own vulnerabilities and struggles to grasp concepts, they create a classroom culture where students are less afraid to ask for help. And when professors give accurate feedback intended to teach students how and what is required for them to improve, rather than simply judging their intelligence, they will help create a growth-mindset culture that reduces students’ stress and increases their strategies for manage their learning experience.

AALS Video Series on Law Teaching

Recently, a fellow blogger sent us a very helpful tool, that we wanted to share with our readers.  Last year, during the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference, a series of informative videos was created for law professors about the complications associated with law teaching.  The entire series is about an hour long, with each individual video being only about 5 minutes long.  These videos address some of the important pedagogical issues that law professors are currently grappling with, such as assessment, adding experiential learning to doctrinal courses, reflection, and technology.

This in the link to the entire series:

Teaching Tips to Think about Early in the New Semester- By Steven Friedland

With the beginning of a new semester upon us, these thoughts and tips are a great thing to keep in the back of everyone’s mind whether you are a student or a professor.  This great post was done by Steven Friedland.

Flexibility and Mobility in Law School Learning

As a professor who has been teaching for more than two decades, it is easy to feel like a dinosaur in classes populated by students mostly in their 20s.  But within that notion lies the fact that not only do ages change, but cultures as well.  It is evident that within the born-digital generation, cultural understandings, particularly involving learning, are different than mine.

While I think cross-cultural competency is more important than ever in this global era, it also applies to us teaching dinosaurs.  I learned in law school in a linear and fixed fashion – go to class, take notes, go to the library, study and prepare for the next class.  Based on studies and my own anecdotal evidence, there is an increasing preference for mobility and flexibility in learning.  I am becoming a believer in both — using Web platforms like TWEN, Blackboard or Moodle as integral parts of a course, and allowing students to have flexibility in where and when they learn.

I am now experimenting in doctrinal courses to include several flex classes — audiotaped, with an option to take each over a 24 hour period in a self-paced fashion.  These self-paced classes are combined with deliverables — writing an answer to a problem based on the class material and then posting it on the Web platform, or doing some other relevant task based on the material to ensure that some form of learning has occurred.  So far, these classes have been well-received; to my surprise, students like the flexibility about when they take class as much as the remote opportunity. I am enjoying shaking it up in this way.  What is the saying?  Even an old dinosaur can learn….

 

Note-Taking Breaks

In a law school class, there are a variety of note-takers.  Some are the “court reporters,” taking down every word.  Some take far fewer notes, within their own organizational schemes. Many students are using computers, with note-taking programs. I also have had some “deep observers,” who appear to take no notes at all.

But all students seem to rely on the notes they take in putting a course together for deep understanding, especially in the first year of school.  Interestingly, teachers do not generally know how students are taking notes and whether those notes taken are even accurate.  This is why I have started using a colleague’s technique (yes, I like borrowing good ideas from others, no hiding there), of taking “note breaks” in the middle of a doctrinal class — allowing students to check their notes with other students, particularly about important rules, principles or insights. I usually prompt the break by asking, “What were the most important points in class so far?”  This has several effects.  Everyone perks up and the students appear present and engaged.  Students also are more likely to ask questions about what has occurred thus far.  I get useful feedback on what I have communicated well and what I have done poorly.  So all the way around, I find it to be a helpful technique. When students walk out of class, they should be able to rely on and have ready access to useful notes.

 

Retention and Retrieval

Lots of studies have been done that show experts learn differently than novices.  In any educational process, the goal is to move up the scale, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to the highest level, unconscious competence.  I know about the lowest level, having been there in law school and many other contexts (just thinking back on the longest years of my life taking piano lessons).  The highest level of competence is epitomized by Captain Sully, the U.S. Air pilot who landed his commercial plane without engines in the Hudson River.

So what learning features are associated with experts? Experts recognize patterns of information, have deep understanding of material within a domain, organize their information well for ready access, and constantly self-monitor.  We can learn from these characteristics in law school.  It is traditional for law school professors to evaluate student performance through a single final examination, (although sometimes mid-terms are also offered).  The traditional summative evaluation framework promotes a particular type of studying.  Students study like crazy just before an exam, and then dump all of their knowledge on the test. (This approach was a familiar one for me when I was in school.) To help students progress from novice to expert, though, we should teach for long-term retention and retrieval.  This can occur through the use of numerous problems and opportunities throughout a course by which to practice organizing and storing material before a final exam, the use of structures or outlines by which to approach topics, and a greater emphasis on mnemonics, anchor words and other learning devices.   Sometimes, in our desire to cover great swaths of material, we don’t drill as deeply as we could or should.

Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering

As a follow-up to my previous post on “-crastination”, Creativity and the Importance of Downtime, I’m sharing a copy of my favorite handout for helping all of us, students and faculty alike, learn to engage in discernment around saying no, and yes.

TEN QUESTIONS
Ask yourself these questions

Before volunteering your time, skills & energy to ANYTHING!

  • Is there a chance I will find myself changed by this work?
  • Does this work express my values, the things I say are important to me?
  • Will this put me with people I want to know better?
  • Will doing this help me know myself better?
  • Do I enjoy thinking of myself as a person who would do this?
  • Do I have a special gift to share?
  • When I look back in a year or ten years, will I remember doing this?
  • Will this make me feel more connected or more disjointed?
  • What will I need to say NO to in order to say YES to this?
  • Will it be FUN!

 

Thanks for Maylin Harndon for sharing her version of this with me.

 

 

 

Teaching Legal Reasoning More Efficiently?

Teaching the traditional analytical skills more efficiently and effectively could provide a much needed opening for broadening the range of skills taught to all law students. In the legal academy’s version of the “socratic method”, law teachers historically taught the analytical skills” implicitly”. They demonstrated legal reasoning by pushing students away from their raw intuitions of fairness and justice to articulate rules and exceptions, while attending carefully to the inevitable ambiguities of language.

Some law teachers suggest that the process of learning to “think like a lawyer” fundamentally requires time and practice and therefore cannot be significantly speeded up.

Yet the implicit approach has been repeatedly challenged by scholars seeking to teach legal reasoning more explicitly, by naming and explaining how it works.*  (An obsession with the goal of teaching legal reasoning more efficiently was a major thread in two phases of my own legal career when I taught first year civil procedure. I struggled both to teach skills more explicitly and to provide students with opportunities to practice them.)

A recent contribution to this quest by my colleague Jane Winn grows out of her experiment teaching common law legal reasoning to undergraduates. Students were randomly assigned to use either a well-regarded study aid, or Winn’s own materials. The materials were also leavened by her own and colleagues’ experiences teaching foreign LL.M. and J.D. students coming from legal systems growing out of the European continental legal tradition.

Winn’s effort, aimed at law students, is notable in three respects. First, at twenty-nine pages it fills an intermediate-length niche: longer than a typical class “handout’, but shorter than the various book length alternatives. Second, it covers case briefing, outlining and exam questions, demonstrating how the three are related. Third, it grew out of an attempt to test her teaching method empirically using random assignment to a control group. Both law students and legal educators should find it a useful contribution.

The 2015 ABA accreditation standards may provide a laboratory in which to test efforts such as Winn’s. Standard 302 now requires law schools to adopt learning outcomes that, under subsection (b), must include legal analysis and reading; Standard 314 requires law schools to provide students with both formative assessment (feedback) and summative assessments (final “grades”); under Standard 315 law schools must engage in “ongoing evaluation of the program of education, learning outcomes, and assessment methods”. At its best this combination of more intentionally articulated outcomes, feedback to students, and program evaluation could prompt law schools to evaluate the potential for greater efficiency and effectiveness in teaching legal reasoning. I remain hopeful that enough schools will approach this task rigorously and in good faith that at least some progress can be made.

*Winn’s illustrious predecessors include:

  • Leading Legal Realist Karl Llewelyn, whose The Bramble Bush: Classic Lectures on Law and Law School have been assigned to generations of law students;
  • University of Chicago Professor and President and U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi, author of An Introduction to Legal Reasoning, originally published in the University of Chicago Law Review and then in book form;
  • Critical Theorist and Harvard Professor Duncan Kennedy, who took the decidedly un-Harvard step of visiting at New England School of Law in his attempt to reach beyond elite students and sharpen his skill at teaching students about the “gaps, conflicts and ambiguities” that underlie the development of the common law. He shared his insights widely with former students moving into teaching careers. produced a short volume
  • My former colleagues Pierre Schlag and David Skover, who produced a short volume early in their careers that catalogued the Tactics of Legal Reasoning (1985).
  • Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul, Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams (1999)
  • Leading clinical teachers Albert J. Moore and David Binder, Demystifying The First Year of Law School: A Guide to the 1L Experience (2009)

In recent decades much of the heavy lifting in legal reasoning has devolved upon teachers of legal analysis, research and writing. Among the results is a burgeoning literature proposing variations on the syllogistic Issue-Rule-Analysis (or Application)-Conclusion approach to analyzing and writing about legal problems, as well as a variety of textbooks.

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Unmasking Assumptions about Employment Outcomes and Legal Education

In an upcoming Wisconsin Law Review article, Robert Kuehn, Associate Dean for Clinical Education and Professor of Law at the Washington University Law School, presents a cogent, well-supported and thoughtful article describing the limitations of and lessons we can learn from the existing empirical analysis correlating student enrollment in clinical education and employment outcomes.  Kuehn’s article, entitled Measuring Legal Education’s Employment Outcomes is particularly powerful because it provides a thorough empirical rejection of the claim that clinical coursework might actually harm employment outcomes, as asserted by Professor Jason Yackee and which attracted some sound-bite attention earlier this year. In what is, perhaps,  an unexpected twist, Kuehn demonstrates that using Yackee’s statistical assumptions and methodology also would produce negative correlations for those students who participate on law journals or in moot court competitions.  Kuehn argues that one can’t draw any reliable conclusion from Yackee’s 2013 model, and perhaps not from any nationwide statistical model – as opposed to a particularized analysis of one school –  on the likely effect of clinical courses (or other activities like law journal or moot court) on employment, and surely not the negative effect Yackee posits. Kuehn points out that as to clinical coursework, the available evidence (through surveys) indicates that such experiences do aid some students in securing employment.

If you, like me, still become a bit nervous about how much you actually remember from undergraduate statistics courses, do not be alarmed by this post!  You will find Kuehn’s article accessible and a quick good read, even when he is using words like “regression analysis,” “granular data” and “variable choices.”   Here are the points made in Measuring Legal Education’s Employment Outcomes which I found most helpful:

  1. Kuehn’s reminder that when one confuses correlationwith causation one is bound to come up with a “misdiagnosis.” One problem with Yackee’s analysis is the lack of granular data to calculate the true employment rate for those who took a clinic (or who did not).  In fact, the data is so poor that “the results never account for more than half of the variability in employment across schools.”
  2. Kuehn’s explanation of the “confounding effect of prestige” and bar passage on employment outcomes.
  3. The problems of validity and reliability raised by analyses which employ information from ABA questionnaires, particularly those self-reports submitted prior to 2014.
  4. The fact that “13% of law schools” provide 80% of the school-funded jobs to law graduates. Not surprisingly, Kuehn found this factor biases many results if you examine nationwide statistics. And when Kuehn removes those jobs from the statistical analysis, Yackee’s correlation with clinical education falls apart even using his own assumptions and methodology.
  5. Yackee’s model yields completely different results if one uses the US News Lawyers/judges data versus academic peer data to control for the possible influence of perceived prestige.
  6. Application of Yackee’s model to “Law Journals” and “Skills Competition” and S. Newssub-groups also show no relationship to employment outcomes!
  7. In Yackee’s model, a better ranking is “strongly associated with improved employment outcomes.” However, Kuehn points out that a “closer examination of the relationship between rank and employment indicates that this positive association, although statistically significant when applied across the entire range of top 100 schools, does not hold true for schools ranked 51 through 100 (emphasis added).” 
  8. Kuehn’s documentation of employers who require, “strongly prefer” or identify law clinic experience as a positive factor in hiring such as The U.S. Department of Homeland, legal services and  legal aid offices, district attorney, public defender, fellowships and private law firms.
  9. Kuehn’s description of National Association of Law Placement (NALP) existing information: such as the  2011 survey of lawyers with non-profit and government offices;  the NALP survey of lawyers in firms of predominantly more than 100 attorneys; the NALP survey of public interest legal employers;  and the NALP 2013 presentation on the employment market reporting that ” law firms say they want new graduates to have ‘more experiential learning, client-based and simulation.”
  10. Kuehn provision of good information on other employer information such as the Lexis-Nexis WHITE PAPER: HIRING PARTNERS REVEAL NEW ATTORNEY READINESS FOR REAL WORLD PRACTICEProfessor Neil Hamilton’s employer survey to determine the relative importance of twenty-one different competencies in employer hiring decisions, and Professor Susan Wawrose’s legal employer focus groups which found employers prefer new hires with ” well developed professional or ‘soft skills” along with “strong fundamental practice skills.”

Professor Kuehn concludes by recommending that studies could best be done on a school-by-school basis by “surveying likely employers to find out what educational experiences of students are most valued.”  Professor Kuehn also recommends that schools could also “retrospectively look at various employment outcomes for graduates and any relationship” to students’ experiences while in school.

I agree with Professor Kuehn and am happy to report that  Albany Law School,  through its faculty Assessment committee and Admissions office,  is currently engaged in conducting employer focus groups and analyzing what best helps our students obtain employment in their desired career paths.  Until good data and information suggests otherwise, Professor Neil  Hamilton’s advice to law students,which Professor Kuehn quotes in his “must read” article, bears repeating:

In this challenging market for employment, a law student can differentiate herself from other graduates by demonstrating to legal employers that the student both understands the core competencies that legal employers and clients want and is implementing a plan to develop these competencies, including an ability to demonstrate that the student has experience with these competencies.

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