Legislation & Regulation and the Bar Exam

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the performance test (PT), a portion of the bar exam in 42 states and D.C. (Forty states use the Multistate Performance Test (MPT); examiners in Pennsylvania and California write and administer their own PT.) For states using the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), the MPT counts for 20 percent of the overall exam score.

I wrote about the performance test previously here. I extolled its virtue as the only part of the exam that exclusively tests lawyering skills, requiring zero memorization of legal rules; and I bemoaned its status as the ugly step-child of the bar exam that gets next to no attention in conversations about exam reform.

Over time, bar examiners have concluded that certain substantive subjects have grown or lessened in importance to law practice such that they have added subjects to the MBE (e.g., Federal Civil Procedure) or dropped subjects from essays (e.g., Secured Transactions, in some jurisdictions). Why not the same with skills on the PT? Is it not fair to say, for example, that a greater percentage of beginning lawyers today work in fields dominated by regulations than did in 1993 when the MPT was born? Yet the vast majority of PTs to this day test the ability to reason from cases, not from statutes or regulations without the aid of cases.

The anti-regulation bent of the current administration notwithstanding, we live in a heavily regulatory state. Lawyers in numerous specialty areas, including health care law and environmental law; lawyers working for government agencies; or lawyers serving as in-house compliance officers—among the most important skill sets for all of them are reading, interpreting and applying statutes and regulations. (Compliance, by the way, has been a growing field, and positions in compliance are J.D. preferred jobs increasingly being filled by newly licensed lawyers.) Many law schools have responded to this reality by adding a 1L course on legislation and regulation to provide law students the needed foundation for practicing law in our heavily regulatory state. (A running list, accessible from here, indicates that about 30 law schools are offering a course of this nature in the first year.)

In reviewing summaries of the last 28 MPT items (covering the last 14 exams back to February 2010), I found only one among the 28 that provided only statutes and regulations and no cases as part of its law library. Typically, PTs presenting issues of statutory application have both statutes and cases in the library, and the cases provide the statutory interpretation needed to answer the issue posed. That’s still common law reasoning—a very important skill, to be sure, but not very helpful for a lawyer when the only applicable law is a statute or a regulation.

All of the above helps to explain how pleasantly surprised I was to see a purely statutory issue on the February 2017 performance test on the Pennsylvania Bar Exam. The assigned task was to write a memorandum analyzing and supporting the client’s position on three legal issues raised by opposing counsel in a motor vehicle accident. One of the issues was whether a driver had violated the state’s law banning texting while driving. The text of the law appeared in the materials, and applicants had to dissect its language and apply it to the facts—all without the aid of cases in the materials, each of which was relevant only to other issues. This is basic stuff, but exactly the kind of basic stuff that beginning lawyers must be able to do well.

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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.

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:

“I won’t be in class; I have a job interview”: Dealing with a Changing 1L Experience

As I regularly teach first-year students, I note with interest a proposed revision to NALP’s 1L Guidelines that would remove all date restrictions on interaction between 1Ls and career service professionals (currently disallowed before October 15) and between 1Ls and employers (currently disallowed before December 1). I also note, with disappointment, the growing number of times that 1L students are missing my Legal Writing class for a job interview or, in one recent case, even for a work shift. A colleague of mine reports her frustration with the same trend.

If adopted, the change to the NALP guidelines would further chip away at the conventional but no longer sacrosanct wisdom that 1Ls should be almost exclusively focused on their academic studies, especially in their first few months of law school. I expect that many schools clinging to that wisdom would have to loosen up existing approaches to the 1L experience, if they have not already.

By way of example, the administration at the school where I teach intentionally schedules 1L classes on all five days of the week for each section. This is consistent with our policy actively discouraging 1Ls from engaging in any employment outside of law school. But probably it is not consistent with shifting realities affecting 1Ls—the very realities that give rise, no doubt, to the proposal to reform the NALP guidelines.

Career services offices, which coordinate many 1L job interviews, simply cannot avoid all potential class conflicts—or at least they cannot where all 1Ls have class five days a week. I am very curious if other schools set aside a whole day of the week or multiple entire mornings or afternoons where there are no classes for 1Ls. I expect that more and more schools will need to consider adopting such an approach.

The challenge to law schools arises not just from the growing priority for 1Ls to search and interview for summer jobs, but also, I think, from a growing priority for at least some 1Ls to actually work in jobs—law-related or otherwise—during the academic year. Indeed, I hear from more and more 1Ls that they are working outside of law school. However, I expect that there remain many schools that, like mine, actively discourage 1L employment.

Interestingly, presuming the ABA House of Delegates goes along with a pending reform to ABA Standard 305, law schools will no longer be barred from offering academic credit to students working for compensation in an approved externship. (As of now, Interpretation 305-2 prohibits law schools from granting credit to a student for “participation in a field placement program for which the student receives compensation.”) Most current externship programs or opportunities are designed for 2Ls and 3Ls. But what should schools do about 1L students who need to work during the school year to make ends meet? I imagine that, if the change to Standard 305 is adopted, some of those 1Ls might be savvy enough to ask for academic credit for their work—presuming it is law-related—and then complain when they cannot get it because the work does not fall within the prescribed curriculum.

Even if my imagination is too wild on that point, the reality is that there are 1Ls in full-time J.D. programs who are working. And, anecdotally, I sense their numbers are rising. If I am right about that trend, perhaps some 1L curricular or programmatic reform is appropriate in response. Whether that means the development of elective 1L externship programs (for unpaid work in government and public interest positions too, of course) or something else, I’m not sure. But I am sure that, for better or worse, employment–searching for it and engaging in it–is changing the 1L experience.

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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Building on Best Practices now available as eBook

Are you trying to:

  • Develop a meaningful law school mission statement?
  • Understand new accreditation requirements, learning goals, and outcomes assessment?
  •  Expand your experiential offerings?  Decide whether to use modules or courses?  An on-site clinic, an externship, or community partnership?
  •  Teach ALL of your students in the most effective ways, using a full range of teaching methods?
  • Add to your curriculum more of the professional identity, leadership, intercultural, inter-professional and other knowledge, skills, and values sought by 21st century legal employers?
  • Lead thoughtfully in the face of the challenges facing legal education today?

These and other topics are addressed in Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World,  now available in ebook format from LexisNexis at no charge.

The print version is not yet out.  LEXIS-NEXIS is taking advance orders for $50, plus shipping.  BUT we understand that they will make one copy available to every US legal educator for free upon on request.  Details on this and international availability still to come.

Thanks, and congratulations, to book project sponsor Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the more than fifty legal educators who participated as authors, and the countless others who assisted as readers and in numerous other ways.

And, a huge shout-out to my wonderful and talented co-editors, Lisa Radke Bliss, Carrie Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Helping Students Succeed in Law School

On the first day of class in every course I tell students that my job is to help them succeed in law school. I doubt that my students remember this, especially my 1Ls who are hearing all sorts of new things from their teachers and fellow students during the beginning of their legal education. So I remind students several times during the course that my obligations as a teacher include helping students succeed.

The last time I told students about my view of my job, I began reflecting on my statement. To begin, I admitted to myself that much of my job is not tied directly to helping my students succeed. Like many legal academics, my job includes teaching, service, and scholarship. Although I think that some aspects of my service and scholarship benefit students, only the teaching portion of my job has student success as a primary goal.

Then I began to think more deeply about what it means to say that my job is to help students succeed in law school. I recognize that what constitutes “success” varies tremendously among my students. For some, success means that they avoid academic dismissal and eventually graduate from my law school. For others it means that they perform at a very high level and create many options for themselves upon graduation. Some students define success in law school by their intense and varied “hands on” experiences that they hope will prepare them for the practice of law. And other students are driven by the opportunity to use their legal learning to help people in need during and after law school. And so on…

Finally, I started reflecting on what behaviors and attitudes on my part could help students succeed. I will continue to contemplate this, but here are some initial thoughts.

Learning Environment. I can play a significant role is creating a class environment conducive to learning for all students. How? By fostering three-way respect: Teacher to Student, Student to Teacher, and Student to Student. By learning students names and something about their lives. By my expectations – they should be high, yet achievable, for every student, and for myself. By making joy and celebration part of the educational experience.

Practice and Feedback. I ask my students to learn difficult doctrine, theory, skills, and professional values. Practice and feedback are critical for that learning. So I should provide students with multiple opportunities for practice and feedback, both graded and ungraded. Providing feedback to students during the course takes a significant portion of my “teaching” time. It takes place in the classroom with large groups of students and outside of the classroom with small groups and individuals. Perhaps the most valuable use of my time during my 1L course is meeting with students to provide feedback on the graded midterm exam. It provides me with an opportunity to reinforce each student’s strengths and troubleshoot their weaknesses.

Good Faith Assumption. I try to operate as a teacher with the assumption that there is a good faith explanation for my students’ behavior. Whenever I fail to do so, my students remind me of the importance of the good faith assumption. I have many examples of my falling off of the good faith assumption wagon. Here is one from this semester. A student identified herself to me on the first day of class as “very high maintenance” (her words) requiring lots of reassurance from her teachers. Several weeks later we had a poor interaction when she interrupted my conversation with another student to ask a question. A couple weeks after that, I noticed that she appeared very unhappy and distracted in class – never smiling, rarely even looking at me. I began to obsess about her poor attitude in my class. She hated me – it was obvious. Finally I asked her after class whether she was OK because I had noticed that she seemed unhappy and distracted in class. She told me that her parents had decided to separate and her high school aged siblings were taking the news very hard. She was doing her best to help her parents and siblings get through a very tough time. Her “presence” both in and out of class have continued to improve since our conversation. Or perhaps her “presence” was fine all along and it was only my attitude that needed adjustment…

I can’t succeed for them. I can strive to create an effective teaching/learning environment. I can provide opportunities for practice and feedback. I can operate according to the good faith assumption. But only my students can do what it takes to succeed. I can support them, believe in them, challenge them, but I cannot learn doctrine, theory, skills, and values for them. At the end of the day, my obligation to help students succeed in law school is not the key to my students’ success. There is no substitute for the passion, diligence, intelligence, compassion, and judgment that students must find in themselves.

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