Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

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A Pedagogical Twist for the 1L Appellate Brief and Oral Argument

For those who teach legal writing to first-year law students, it is the season for appellate oral argument. Yes, the long-standing tradition of requiring first-year students to complete an appellate oral argument in the legal writing course continues today at the large majority of American law schools–at just under 75% of them, according to recent data. At those schools, the oral argument, which is commonly the capstone exercise near the end of the spring semester, has become something of a rite of passage for the students.

In a 2011 article, Legal Research and Writing as Proxy, I argued that assigning an appellate brief and appellate oral argument in the 1L legal writing course remains a pedagogically sound practice, even though a large majority of practicing attorneys will never engage in appellate practice, let alone complete an appellate oral argument. I still retain that view but won’t rehash my arguments here. Rather, I will focus on a pedagogical opportunity afforded by the brief/oral argument sequence of assignments that I discovered more recently.

In the last few iterations of my legal writing course, the appellate brief and oral argument assignments have proven an excellent vehicle for a bit of a pedagogical twist: A few weeks before the brief is due, not after, I teach lessons on oral argument and require the students to complete a practice oral argument round in front of my 2L teaching assistants. (The formal rounds of oral argument in front of a trio of local attorneys still occur after the briefs are submitted.) For many years, I kept brief writing and oral argument entirely separate—only after the briefs were completed and submitted would I shift the students’ attention to oral argument. (After all, that mimics the realities of the “real world“ of appellate practice.) But as a pedagogical matter, just like writing the brief helps in preparing an oral argument, working on an oral argument–and thereby having to talk out and defend one’s positions–can help in preparing a brief.

A few weeks before the brief is due, most students will have a scattered and underdeveloped array of arguments. Completing a practice oral argument can help them–or, in the case of those students who are spinning their wheels, force them–to organize and further develop those arguments for the purposes of the brief. In pursuit of this goal, I ask my TAs to give extensive feedback to both students after each practice round. Moreover, I require every student to attend two additional practice rounds as observers. At each round, the student representing Petitioner, the student representing Respondent, and the students attending as observers also begin to appreciate the formalities and peculiarities of oral argument, thus helping them to prepare for the formal rounds that will occur after submission of their briefs.

This semester, shortly after the practice rounds (just over a week before the briefs were due), my students graciously agreed to provide me some feedback on the experience. One of my students volunteered to solicit comments from all of her classmates, anonymize those comments and her own, and then send them to me. Twelve out of fourteen students in my small section gave a positive review. I include two of the more thoughtful evaluations here:

  1. I found doing the practice oral arguments before my brief was fully written to be helpful. Arguing my side in the courtroom and fielding questions from the TAs helped me more precisely narrow the theme of my arguments and determine how I wanted to frame my position in the brief itself. After receiving pushback from the TAs on certain points, I was able to refine my responses to common criticisms that would come from the other side. Additionally, I now feel more comfortable going into the “official” oral arguments having completed a practice round. However, I would have liked to participate in another mandatory practice round with the TAs after my brief is written; the substance of my oral argument has substantially changed since my first practice round.
  2. Practice oral arguments were a large motivator to get my arguments organized. I found it really helpful to speak out loud about the arguments. Doing so really helped me understand what my points were and whether or not they held up against scrutiny. Speaking about the arguments also helped me understand how they related to each other. The TA’s did a good job of making us feel comfortable throughout the process. I think overall the exercise is going to be beneficial as long as the practice round is kept informal. We were all stressed about how to perform the oral arguments, so maybe there could be a concession in the formality/process of the oral argument that could make us more comfortable.

Good food for thought, as I continue the tradition of appellate oral argument again next spring.

New Blog on Teaching and Learning Features Contributions from Law Faculty

Touro College has launched a Teaching and Learning Exchange Blog that all are welcome to drop in on.  Some of the recent posts discuss topics this Best Practices blog has highlighted in the past. For example, recent postings from four law faculty include: Laura Dooley , Hypo Hell: Using Short Form Questions in Class to Engage Students with Important Texts; Jack Graves, Multiple Choice Questions as an Integral Part of an Effective Assessment Regime; Dean Harry Ballan (and Dylan Wiliam), In Defense of Multiple Choice; and Meredith Miller, Day One: You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression.  Other interesting posts from faculty across the College include: Attention, Memory, and  Learning: What Do We Know? So What?, “I’m Not an Actor?” and Curiosity Feeds the Cat. Please bookmark this blog, facilitated by Dr. Rima Aranha.

Leadership Education in Law School: You’re Already Providing It

Regardless of whether they think of themselves as leaders, our law students will play a leadership role for the rest of their lives. Certainly many will be leaders in their local legal community, in their law offices, and in various bar associations. But beyond that, all lawyers will be expected to lead outside of their law practices. As a lawyer (and sometimes the only lawyer) in their community group, family, or organization, they will be looked to for leadership.

Just as our students may not recognize themselves as leaders, we may not recognize ourselves as teachers of leadership. But we are. Most of our classes provide excellent opportunities to talk about leadership, even if “leadership” is not in the title. And we model leadership in how we treat our students and other members of the law school, how we contribute to and connect with our communities, and how we help move our law schools forward to address the changing profession.

Recognizing the growing interest in leadership education for lawyers, the AALS Section on Leadership was chartered in November 2017. The section describes its purpose as promoting “scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.” This section is a great place to start for a law professor who wants to learn more about leadership education.

Law professors interested in getting some innovative ideas for integrating leadership-related topics into their classes should consider attending a workshop and roundtable at the University of Tennessee College of Law on April 4-5, 2019. The program is titled Leadership Development for Lawyers. The “workshop” day of the program will give attendees the chance to choose two of four interactive sessions: collaborating with career services; integrating well-being into leadership curricula; assessing leadership development efforts; and effective leadership skill development exercises. Then, the “roundtable” day of the program will provide an opportunity for conference attendees and panelists to share ideas and experiences in leadership education.

The goal of the Tennessee workshop and roundtable is to bring together a large group of legal educators who are working in the area of lawyer leadership education–including professors who don’t (currently) think of themselves as “leadership” teachers.

 

 

More Resources Re Teaching, Learning, and Bar Passage

Thank you to Best Practices for Legal Education Blog for having me as a blogger this week.  I hope the examples I’ve provided about methods medical schools use to evaluate their curriculum, test the effect of new programs, and look for factors that affect success on licensing exams.  As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the most comprehensive source for research based information about bar passage programs as well as a source of funding for sources is AccessLex.  There is a growing literature of articles from schools which have implemented successful bar passage programs.  Here’s an article by Louis Schulze about his work at FIU.

You might also be interested in a series of articles from back in 2009-2010 when those at the front lines of legal education, first year faculty and legal writing and research faculty, began to see significant differences in performance between the students they were teaching and those in the past.  These articles provide information about how substantial changes to the k-college education system in the U.S.A. impacts law students’ transition to law school. This article by Rebecca Flanagan is a good overview.  Prof. Patricia Grande here.  A literature review of law learning strategies by Profs Jennifer M. Cooper and Regan A.R. Gurung.   One more by Profs Susan Stuart and Ruth Vance

Here are the proceedings of a 2014 Symposium entitled “Teaching the Academically Underprepared Law Student” and I invited readers to take advantage of the comments section of this blog to share other publications—including the many more recent ones.  My point here is historical, not bibliographical.  And here, as a quick reminder of one of the crucial skills the bar doesn’t test– research.  Caroline L. Osborne

Finally, something I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the new collaboration between LSAC and Khan Academy providing free, on-line, very high quality LSAT preparation may have something to offer law students.  The skills underlying LSAT performance, close reading and legal reasoning, are not immutable—students can get better at them after enrolling in law school and may find some time with these materials a helpful and interesting way to brush up on these skills.

 

 

What Do We Remember about our Teachers Decades Later?

This coming academic year will be my 20th in law school teaching. Truth be told, I don’t really need a milestone in my career to grow contemplative and introspective, as I am wont to do so under far more mundane circumstances anyhow, but this milestone is definitely doing the trick.

The grandest question that I might ask myself is what sort of difference I have made in the lives and careers of the students—well over one thousand, I expect—that I have taught or worked with since I joined the legal writing faculty at the University at Buffalo in 1999. (In 2002, I moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and am still on the faculty there.) That is a rather abstract query, bordering on the metaphysical, I suppose. A related but more concrete question that I have actually been pondering is this: Decades after someone has been my student, what will he or she remember about me or my teaching? Something, I hope! And something positive, I hope too! Is there a particular thing I said, lesson I taught, teaching technique I used, kind gesture I made, or even joke I told that will stick with them, and maybe have a positive impact, even decades later?

Thinking back to my years in college and law school, I can easily identify the most  impactful specific thing that one of my professors did. I can even remember the date—September 26, 1983—as it was my very first day of classes as a freshman at the University of Washington. The class was Political Science 101, and the professor was Reza Sheikholeslami.

After I and hundreds of my fellow undergraduate students (mostly freshmen) settled into our seats in the lecture hall, Professor Sheikholeslami, sharply dressed and looking the part, strode confidently to the lectern. He scanned the crowd of young faces. Then came his first words: “Would everyone please stand up.” I hadn’t the slightest idea why we needed to stand up, and I doubt that any of the other students did either. But, promptly and without any hesitation, we all complied. He paused and again briefly scanned the crowd. “Alright,” he said, “please go ahead and sit down.”

After we settled back into our seats and the lecture hall again grew quiet, Professor Sheikholeslami explained, “This is Political Science 101, and the goal of this course is to teach you why you just stood up and then sat down.” Being an impressionable 18-year-old, I was mesmerized.

Of course, standing up and then sitting down in compliance with a professor’s instruction does not begin to reach the level of gravity of what happened in the various societies and cultures that we ultimately studied in the course. Think Nazi Germany, for example. But the metaphor Professor Sheikholeslami delivered with his opening words was ever so powerful, and the course largely lived up to it.

Wherever I see demagoguery or other anti-democratic forces rearing their ugly heads, and people are blindly following an authority to their own detriment and the detriment of others, I think back to Poly Sci 101. (I’ll refrain from further comment on the current political climate in this country.) Moreover, in various contexts in the law school classroom, I have drawn from the simple but crucial lessons of that first class with Professor Sheikholeslami. Sometimes, in my Legislation & Regulation course, the substantive lesson about obedience to authority underlies a thread of classroom discussion. More often, regardless of the course, the pedagogical lesson—try to leave a lasting positive impression with one’s students—drives me to think more creatively about how to approach a class topic.

Among the numerous professors that I had across four years of undergraduate study and three years of law study, off the top of my head I could probably name one-third of them (a higher percentage from law school than from undergraduate, I expect).  And among those whom I can remember off the top of my head, only a handful of them sit prominently in my memory—because of how talented they were as teachers, how funny they were in the classroom, how helpful and supportive they were in one-on-one work on a research project, etc. But only one remains prominent in my memory for one particular thing that he did in the classroom: Professor Sheikholeslami.

A few years after I benefited from his creative and thoughtful teaching, Sheikholeslami became the Masoumeh and Fereydoon Soudavar Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Oxford. I was saddened to learn recently that he died earlier this year at the age of 76. I regret that I never succeeded in reaching him to tell him of the positive impact that he had on me—as a person and as a teacher.

To be sure, there are many ways to define and measure good teaching. Now that I will soon begin my third decade in legal education, what I often come back to when I ponder my own qualities as a teacher is this: What do I say or do as a professor that will stick in a student’s memory and still carry some positive influence—no matter how concrete or abstract—decades later? A fond memory of any kind would be great. A memory on the level of my memory of Reza Sheikholeslami in Poly Sci 101 would be a wonderful bonus.

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.

 

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