Even Law Professors Need to Laugh

For a break from polishing your article or prepping for fall classes (assuming you’re through watching political convention coverage), try viewing the original Australian version of Rake. This series features Richard Roxburgh as a deeply flawed but appealing barrister. Get through the first two episodes (I did not like the first one) and you might be hooked. The show is biting, bawdy, and profane, but well-written. It could help you laugh your way through the last part of summer. Also, for the technologically skilled, you may find useful clips for teaching purposes – many along the lines of “what not to do.” Students can develop momentum in learning to critique lawyering performances by starting with on-screen characters. This quirky and comedic drama provides vivid scenarios for stimulating discussion. Or just enjoy the show!cleaver_rake_e345_Master

Finding Meaning

As national and international events continue to develop in uncertain and unsettling ways, educating the next generation of lawyers continues to be obviously and critically important. What should our laws be, how are they interpreted and enforced, how are our leaders elected, and what can be done to move toward justice? Legal education prepares leaders to contribute (wisely, we hope) to all aspects of civic governance – and yet – the institutions that provide legal education are still finding their way.

Word got out that most graduates do not become rich law firm partners within 7 years, or ever, and this is among the reasons why far fewer people want to attend law school. The boom and eventual bloat in legal education shouldn’t have been about the money, but, for many, it was. Now some large firm salaries have recently increased, in perhaps a hopeful sign of a rebound. But Professor Frank H. Wu’s comments resonate:

I have nothing against a young person declaring that they wish to make money — of course they do. My point is if that is the primary consideration in your career choice, there are better methods for doing so. Joining a profession in which you represent someone else entails making a sacrifice in the name of principle.

Society needs members of the legal profession who embrace the significance of their noble, helping role, apart from whether it brings wealth (and even though in many cases it won’t). Likewise, legal education needs students who seek potential meaning in their work, and also faculty, staff, and administrators who recognize that educating new lawyers might be more of a helping profession than a ramp toward remuneration. The disruption of the past several years has taught us that lesson, but without this underlying nugget of optimism:  As described by Will Storr in his recent New Yorker article, maybe Aristotle’s prescription for the good life was on target. Preliminary findings show that being engaged in meaningful work improves health and lifespan. Guiding our institutions and untangling the current state of affairs provide serious opportunities for lawyers to take on and benefit from this vital, meaningful work.

The Campaign for Full Citizenship for All Full-Time Law Faculty

I’ve just returned from the Legal Writing Institute’s Biennial Conference held in Portland, Oregon.  With hundreds of attendees presenting on a variety of topics in workshops, panel discussions, coffee sessions, and a plenary, I am more inspired than ever to incorporate new and innovative teaching ideas into my course, produce scholarship that contributes to our field, and continue to serve my law school as we navigate implementation of the ABA’s new standards.  I want to thank all who contributed to the event for sharing their knowledge.

There was, however, one overriding issue which tempers this enthusiasm and inspiration:  the continued battle legal writing faculty face in striving for equal status within their law schools.  While it is true that many have made positive strides, the empirical and anecdotal information shared over the course of the conference shows that there is still far to go.   The Legal Writing Institute (“LWI”) the Association of Legal Writing Directors (“ALWD”), and the Society of American Law Teachers (“SALT”) have formally adopted a policy statement on full citizenship for all faculty.  Here is the text of the statement:

The Legal Writing Institute is committed to a policy of full citizenship for all law faculty. No justification exists for subordinating one group of law faculty to another based on the nature of the course, the subject matter, or the teaching method. All full-time law faculty should have the opportunity to achieve full citizenship at their institutions, including academic freedom, security of position, and governance rights. Those rights are necessary to ensure that law students and the legal profession benefit from the myriad perspectives and expertise that all faculty bring to the mission of legal education.

LWI launched a campaign for individual signatures which began at the conference and will continue.

A recent article also discusses the impact of the lack of full citizenship for a group of faculty who are largely female: Stars Upon Thars: Law Schools Use ABA Standard 405(c)’s Tenure Like Security of Position to Discriminate Against Female Legal Writing Faculty, 34 Law. & Ineq. 137 (2016) by Melissa Weresh from Drake Law School.  This article addresses the potential for exploitation of law faculty members who hold ABA Accreditation Standard 405(c) status (“reasonably similar to tenure”) and the likelihood that such exploitation will have a disparate and discriminatory impact on a predominantly female cohort of law faculty.

After attending multiple sessions which discussed the push for full citizenship, as well as the possible discriminatory impact of the lack of this citizenship, I’m left wondering: what message are we sending to female law students about the role of women in law school and the  practice of law?




Seeing Black: Unconscious Bias and Pro Bono Lawyers

ABA Center for Pro Bono Exchange

Lillian Moy Lillian Moy

The events of the last year in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore have focused the public and the legal community on racism and unconscious bias in the criminal justice system, particularly in policing. Seeing Black, an article by Jennifer Eberhardt and three other psychologists, discusses their research and findings that many law enforcement officers “see black” resulting in their unconsciously seeing criminal activity and criminal defendants. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that others in the justice system, including lawyers, also unconsciously and automatically “see black.” and may make negative judgments about key aspects of our work, e.g., the credibility of your client or a key witness.

I cannot explain unconscious or implicit bias in this blog. I commend to you this video which talks about one community’s study of implicit bias and their attempts to mitigate bias in their juvenile justice system. In the…

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Teaching Reading and Access to the Profession

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to listen to Doug Lemov speak about his new book on the WAMC radio show “To The Best of Our Knowledge.”  The book, co-authored with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, is entitled Reading Reconsidered:  A Practical Guide to Rigorous Instruction.  Doug is an expert on teaching and education (focusing on the K-12 space).  He happens to live in my town, and our daughters have crossed paths on the soccer field, so I’ve had the opportunity to chat with Doug from time to time about his work.

In the interview, Doug speaks about the latest research in reading instruction.  He makes a number of points that resonated with me as a practicing lawyer and law school teacher.  Any errors in summarizing Doug’s remarks are, of course, my own:

  • Interacting with difficult texts:  Doug explains how important it is for students to learn how to read difficult tests – particularly dense, non-fiction, and often highly specialized texts.  These are, of course, exactly the kind of texts one is likely to encounter in law school and law practice.
  • Developing close reading skills:  Doug offers a definition of close reading, and then explains why close reading is so important for developing readers.  He talks about the importance of moving beyond “gist” conversations (i.e., conversations where students recount and respond to the main idea, or gist, of a text) to conversations involving a more in-depth and nuanced consideration of language, themes, choices, etc.  Again, from my perspective, these are exactly the sort of skills one needs to develop to succeed in law school and law practice.
  •  Working with archaic textsDoug makes the point that archaic texts can be challenging for readers.  He argues that students who do not have the opportunity to interact with archaic texts during middle school and high school may find it difficult to make the jump to this sort of material  in college – where they will regularly encounter older texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The Canterbury Tales, Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc.  As someone who teaches contracts, this is (ancient?) music to my ears.  Try teaching cases like Hadley v. Baxendale to readers who have never encountered older British texts, for example!
  • Developing autonomy as a reader:  Finally, Doug talks about what it means to be an autonomous reader – i.e., a reader who can engage deeply with written material; a reader who asks his or her own questions and does not simply respond to the teacher’s prompts; a reader who examines author perspective, bias, etc.  This, too, seems relevant to my experience as a teacher and practicing lawyer.

For all of these reasons, my first thought was that Doug’s book might have useful teaching tips for me.  I am reading — and highlighting — the book for this purpose now!  In chatting with Doug over email, however, we identified another issue associated with reading skills and reading instruction – namely, justice and access to the profession.  If a student does not develop strong reading skills by the time he graduates from high school, that student may struggle in college.  If a student struggles in college, she may not be in a position to apply to law school.  And, if a student is not in a position to apply to law school . . .  well, it’s hard to become a lawyer if you don’t have the degree.  Reading and writing – along with legal reasoning – are at the core of the work of a lawyer.  The idea that talented students may not be in a position to apply to law school — or may struggle in law school —  due to gaps in reading instruction or experience pains me.

Here in New York, Doug’s points likely will get linked to debates about the common core.  The common core is, of course, a highly controversial issue in education.  Teachers, students, and parents have raised questions about the rollout of the common core (and common core testing) here in New York.  There have been discussions about the quality of the tests and curricular materials; debates about whether to let your child take the tests, or whether to opt out, etc.  As the mother of two children in the thick of standardized testing, I feel the pain on these issues on a personal level.  And, because I have to deal with the reality of the bar exam in my teaching, I think about strengths and weaknesses of standardized testing on a professional level, as well.

I am not writing today to comment on the common core or standardized tests, though I am an enthusiastic participant in debates about these issues.  Instead, I simply wanted to react to Doug’s thoughtful work as a fellow teacher.   As a teacher, I cannot assume that my students have had exposure to difficult or ancient texts prior to law school, nor can I assume that my students are trained in close reading.  I also cannot assume that my students are autonomous readers.   For all of these reasons, I need to commit — every single day – to helping my students master the reading skills that are necessary to thrive in law school and in the practice of law.    I also need to do more to ensure that students who want to be lawyers get to my classroom in the first place.

. . . because there is no social justice

Yesterday, I reviewed a student reflection that broke my heart a little bit. The student responded to my prompt, which asked her to comment on her summer work experience in the context of advancing social justice, by describing an intractable problem with her indigent client. She described hours upon days of work attempting to resolve an unjustified power shutoff for the client, and she ended her piece by explaining that she would continue to work with this case, this issue, and this client “because there is no social justice.”

My response to the student in part, was as follows:

As I sit here preparing to write a piece about the disintegration of our criminal “justice” system, prompted by yet another set of police homicides of men of color this week, your comment that “there is no social justice” certainly resonates with me. The need for us as lawyers, mentors and teachers to reflect with our students about that harsh reality, and to get up and do our jobs as public interest lawyers again the next day, is sometimes overwhelming. I share your frustration, which is not even the right term. I often feel in working with domestic violence victims in my clinic as if we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The fact that we do not stop, though, is what keeps the ship of justice afloat. Battered, barely making it, but afloat. I fear it is at greater risk now than ever in this nation, though, and advocates like you will be critical to affect change from inside. Please keep doing what you are doing.

I like the sound of that metaphor about a ship of justice. But I’m frankly not sure if it is even apt.  What ship? What justice? As my colleague Leigh Goodmark noted yesterday, “As soon as I saw the news about Dallas this morning, I thought, I can’t. I just can’t face another day of violence and death and destruction.

That’s privilege. I don’t have to face the reality that when my son leaves the house, he might not come back. That my husband–or I– could be pulled over for a broken taillight and shot as we reached for identification. I don’t have to go into the streets to protest and die trying to protect my children from sniper’s bullets. Because I don’t live in black or brown skin, with a threat hanging over me every minute of every day.

That’s why we have to keep looking. Keep talking. Keep posting. Keep letting our friends of color know that we hear them, we see them, we value their lives, and we love them. Keep demanding better from our police, our government, ourselves. Our friends don’t ever get to say, I can’t. We shouldn’t either.”

Our privilege as law professors goes beyond skin color, but make no mistake, it is seeped in elitism.  Today I am using that privilege on this blog to say these words. That is all. It is not enough. It will never be enough. But I won’t stop. I don’t know if there is social justice. But I know there is a movement towards it, and I want to be a part of it.



John Laude recently wrote a great article describing how faculty might anticipate changes that would affect legal practice and how to adjust their teaching accordingly.  Within the article, John specifically refers to dispute resolution.  This is the link to the great read:


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