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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“-crastination”, Creativity & the Importance of Downtime

A colleague who was in my Civil Procedure class when I was a baby law professor tells me that what he remembers best from the class is my comment along the lines of:  “When you are stuck  — can’t make sense of what you are reading, struggling with a project — take a break, do something else, work in the garden.  When you come back to your task after clearing your mind, you’ll make better progress.”  (An illustration of Judith Wegner’s recent reflections on teaching, emphasizing sharing what we know??)  I have no memory of making such a comment (and no, it’s not old age kicking in; I couldn’t remember when he told me about it 15 years ago). But I like to think it’s something I would have said.

I was reminded of this story when I read the recent NY Times column “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate” by Adam Grant.   A professor of management & psychology, Grant is a self-proclaimed pre-crastinator who habitually used to meet deadlines in advance —  even months in advance for big projects!  Now, however, he’s trying to train himself to, as he terms it, procrastinate. Citing experiments by one of his graduate students showing that people were rated as more creative in coming up with new business ideas when they engaged in an unrelated activity for five minutes before answering the question, Grant  argues that procrastination can be a good thing.

This blog post is testament to the potential value of procrastinating.  When I read the column I was, in fact, procrastinating on my blogging efforts.  Reading a bit aimlessly, casting around for a topic. And voila, thanks to Grant, I found one.

Nonetheless, I happen to think that Grant fails to distinguish between people who are truly procrastinating  and those who simply  operate at a pace that provides downtime for recharging and percolating.  In my book, procrastinators stick their heads in the proverbial sand, put off the task, often feeling guilty or stressed about it, but aren’t necessarily mentally percolating it. For instance, until I became an attorney and my point of view was dictated, I habitually put off writing projects until the deadline loomed.  Unable to “find truth in fifteen pages”  — or worse, engage in creative writing — and not understanding that the point was typically the less daunting one of saying something interesting, I froze until the pressure of the deadline overcame the urge to procrastinate. I suspect that the delay was rarely  generative, as I won’t think hard, unless I write.  And it certainly left no time for the multiple drafts required for quality work. Prescribing procrastination for students like my younger self? Not productive.

With many present day law students, the challenge seems less to be procrastination of the type I struggled with, and more actual lack of time.  So many of our students are simply waaay over-committed.  In the current environment, students seem to feel they must take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. I suspect that for them, the remedy is learning to say to to over-busyness, incorporating the periodic downtime that a more human pace allows.  And we could do them a big favor by helping them with that process.  Whether we call that procrastination, or not.

 

 

 

 

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