Category: Law School (Teaching)

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Jeannie Suk on Teaching Rape

In this week’s New Yorker, Jeannie Suk laments what she perceives as the increasing difficulty in teaching rape to today’s law students. I was a bit surprised in reading Suk’s article because her descriptive account of today’s law school classroom environment regarding rape is at completely at odds with my own. A few years ago, I attended SEALS where there was a panel discussing teaching rape in the classroom. I asked the panelists whether the reluctance to teach rape, most famously described in James Tomkovicz‘s 1992 Yale Law Journal article on the subject, was simply outdated. Almost everyone else was teaching rape and students were reacting positively to that choice. And that is why Suk’s article struck me as particularly strange – teaching rape has become the majority rule in 1L Criminal Law.

Of course, the reluctance to teach rape articulated by Tomkovicz was somewhat different than the one now described by Suk. Tomkovicz was primarily focused on classroom controversy, potential professional consequences, and students being marginalized because of classroom discussions. In contrast, Suk focuses on trauma of rape victims in the classroom. She is concerned that students seem to want trigger warnings or no discussion of rape in the classroom.

I don’t want to entirely discount Suk’s assessment of modern criminal law teaching, but my experience has been radically different.  Since I started teaching in the Fall of 2007, I have taught twelve sections of Criminal Law and seven semesters of a Sex Crimes elective I have designed. I have probably taught 750 1L students in Criminal Law  and about 150 in Sex Crimes. In Criminal Law, I have never had a single complaint from a rape victim or person otherwise affected by sexual violence. In fact, I have received numerous anonymous reviews, emails, and comments in person from students thanking me for teaching about rape. This has been true at Kansas, in Chicago at John Marshall, and during my semester visiting at Iowa. After class discussions, students have often come to my office to share their personal experiences with sexual violence. Sometimes, they tell me stories that have just happened in the past couple of months. I am certain that if I didn’t teach rape in the classroom, those students wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to talk to me in private. A major theme of my classroom discussions of rape is that the dysfunction of America’s sex crime laws is due our failure to discuss the subject. And while I do my best to create a healthy learning environment, we do not shy away from the tough legal and social dimensions of sexual violence.

In my experience, it has been a net positive learning and personal experience for victims I have spoken with to have rape as part of the 1L Criminal Law curriculum. It has been beneficial much like when I had a student in a class who had experienced unfathomable trauma with a family murder. A few years previous to being in my 1L Criminal Law class, this student’s mother had killed his father. She was found guilty and sentenced to lengthy period of incarceration. He came and talked to me about it after we started our section on homicide, became my best RA, and I still keep in touch with him. I can’t speak with certainty as to Harvard students, but my experience has been that 1L Criminal Law has helped traumatized students deal with the violence and difficulty in their past. And, in doing so, many have found greater purpose and direction in their law studies. Some have harnessed that purpose to dedicate their legal careers to addressing the social ill that had previously plagued their lives. If Suk’s concern is with the victims of sexual violence, I hope she doesn’t give up teaching about it.

Of course, my experience might be atypical or I might be overstating the positives that have come from my classes. So, I welcome comments from other professors and will forward this post to some KU students to see if they want to chime in anonymously.

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“Be careful of those that meet you at the train…”

Every now and then, a fortune cookie dispenses with advice that is so spot-on you just have to keep the little sliver of paper tucked away.  Here is my fortune cookie keeper of all time:

“Be careful of those that meet you at the train for they know where they want you to go…”

It was 2007 and I had just accepted my first job teaching.   And the faculty at the time was in a bit of turmoil.  The dean had recently resigned and it was unknown who the future dean would be.  As a visitor setting foot on campus I was a bit blurry eyed and knee deep in figuring out how to teach, be productive and all the things you do to start yourself off right.  Many of the faculty who remain very good friends today reached out to me to be reassuring about the the stability of the faculty etc….  But one person reached out to me to tell me who on the faculty not to trust.  What was particularly interesting was they named names!  This person was actually one of the first people to reach out to me when I arrived.  So when about six months later I read this fortune cookie sliver, I took the waitress’s pen and wrote their name on the back.

In my experience, the people on a faculty who you should be most leery of are those that will tell you either the people or the kinds of people you should be careful of.  What sounds as if it comes from experience and insight most often comes from places of fear, mistrust, manipulation, and insecurity.  What it can tell you, if you did not already know it, is that there are fault lines on the faculty for which a subterranean battle for the institution’s soul may be playing out.  As a young faculty member, don’t choose sides without carefully understanding what is at stake.

When you are new to a faculty, there are some traits to be “eyes wide open” on.  One is the “do not trust” this person or group of people conversation.  Most of time, when people offer this advice it is rarely for your own well-being, but rather because of their own motives.  Likewise, advice about faculty members that reduces them down to one quality or another or suggests that they are one dimensional in their views of the world (i.e., this person only cares about scholarship, so you should talk to them about your work often; or this person is only a teaching faculty member and doesn’t really care about scholarship) is rarely accurate and should be taken with equal caution.  I recall, being told at one stop “this professor doesn’t do scholarship so you shouldn’t waste your time talking to them about yours.”  As I found out, that was some of the worst advice I had received.  That person did not write, true, but they were very interested in the scholarship I was working on.   Had I not been willing to talk about my passions to this faculty member, I would have missed the chance to build a great relationship with this person — who frankly was glad that people like me were interested in writing our voice into scholarship and wanted to be supportive of that for the good of the college.

Anyone that suggests that faculty members are one dimensional and will only care about X, whether X is how you teach or what you write, means that the person dispensing with the advice doesn’t know the faculty member they are dispensing advice about well at all.  If we know anything about people — whether they are faculty members, scholars or administrators — it is that they are rarely one dimensional and regularly surprise us with the way they see the world if we open our eyes to see from time to time.

The people that make the best mentors on faculties are those that do not spend as much time worrying about who else you are taking advice from or attempting to characterize others, as they do about what you are up to and how your year or writing is shaping up.  In other words, when you find someone that is spending far more time offering comments about others on the faculty (particularly when you are new) understand that you are not their primary interest.  Their interest is to shape you to be aligned in their view of what the law school should be doing.  And most often, after you have served your purpose, they will dispense with you as well.

A final anecdote on this line — at one of my many stops (I have had four)  a colleague had the “do not trust this colleague,” conversation with me.  Fortunately I had experience in these matters and took the advice with a heavy dose of caution (of the advise dispensing colleague) and with eyes wide open. As it turned out, the person I was told not to trust was also told not to trust me by the same colleague.  Had I listened, I would have been deprived of a person who has become one of my greatest friends in the academy, but also a really great mentor.

So now, my little Chinese fortune cookie sliver, has two names written on the back, and still sits in my office today..

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The Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills.   It may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves.  I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question.  The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.”  See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation.  The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law.  It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not).   In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views.  Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).  Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!).  It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical.   We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law.  A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title.  However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor.  Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven.  Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group.   At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual.   This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients.  Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard.   In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment.   There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment.  But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.

Legal Scholarship & the University

Just a quick note to make explicit something implicit in my last post: I not only agree with Dave Hoffman’s point about the enduring value of many modes of law teaching, but also think that we could do with a lot less defensiveness about the value of legal scholarship. It is not only the case that legal theories “have fundamentally changed our thinking about the law,” as Robin West and Danielle Citron argue. There are areas of social science presently adrift either because they have not adequately incorporated key legal insights, or because attorneys and legal scholars have failed to fully engage with key controversies and ideas. And there are fields–like political economy and finance theory–now being revitalized thanks to the efforts of legal academics. Legal scholarship exists not only to help the bench and bar, but to enrich the social sciences and humanities generally.

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“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

deathanddeclineAt high holiday services in my conservative Jewish synagogue, I reflected on the omnipresence of narratives of decline in my professional and religious life. Apparently, the approved sermon topic at many conservative pulpits this year was how to rescue the shrinking conservative movement.  The Pew Report’s stark figures on that decline, illustrated to the right, suggested the theme of the sermon (at least in my congregation): reaching out to new revenue sources applicants potential converts congregants.  As the rabbi stated, unless we find more congregants (and soon!) by opening the doors & working to engage new audiences, we will wither on the vine.

This sermon was explicitly delivered as a recruiting pitch, and I found it familiar.  Doesn’t the claim — “we’ve learned our lesson, we’re now going to innovate” — sound exactly like a thousand Law Dean speeches?   Here’s a summary of one, by an especially skillful and media-savvy Dean: Read More

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How Is Privacy Not a Class at all Law Schools?

Privacy law does not exist, but it should be taught at every law school. There is no one law of privacy. That is why I love teaching Information Privacy (Solove and Schwartz (Aspen) is the text I use). The class requires students to reengage with and apply torts, Constitutional law (First and Fourth Amendment at least), and statutory interpretation. It also lends itself to learning about sectoral approaches to regulation in health, finance, commerce, and education. Given that the idea and problems of privacy are everywhere, there are jobs in them thar hills. Yet, schools often see the course as a luxury or somehow part of IP. That is a mistake.

Schools should not pander to skills and job training demands, but sensitivity to areas of practice that have large needs is not pandering. Much of the skills, ready-to-practice rot comes from a small segment of the legal practice (i.e., big firms with huge profits who are not willing to pay for training their employees). That said, law schools tend to use the same playbook. For example, the rarified world of public corporation law is a standard part of business associations course materials. Yet according to the Economist, the number of public companies peaked at around 7,888 in 1997. Of course folks will say “Don’t teach to the bar.” Amen brothers and sisters, but why teach for a tiny portion of students in a core course? To be clear, I love teaching business associations and think it is useful, because agency and limited liability forms are so important. They are important, because being able to compare and contrast the forms for a client makes the attorney worth her pay. Grasping the beauty and nuances of the system unlocks the ability to be a true counselor. There are many, many businesses that are not, and may never become, public and that could benefit from having an attorney set up their project from the start. Privacy is similar. It reaches across many aspects of our lives and businesses.

Privacy issues come up in such a large range of practice that the course can allow one to address doctrinal mastery while also moving students beyond the silo approach of first year law. Seeing how property and trespass ideals reappear in criminal procedure, how assumption of risk permeates issues, and so on, shows students that the theories behind the law work in not so mysterious, but perhaps unstated ways. The arguments and counter-arguments come faster once you know the core idea at stake. That is the think-like-a-lawyer approach working well. It does not hurt that along the way students pick up knowledge of an area such as HIPPA or criminal procedure and technology that will make them a little more comfortable telling an employer or future client “Yes, I know that area and here’s how I’d approach it.”

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The Law Talking Guy

I just finished grading my exams from last semester, and I thought I’d make one fresh observation that adds to this post from a few years ago. Perhaps the most frequent mistake that I see on student exams and papers (not to mention some scholarship) is an undue focus on describing the law rather than analyzing it.

It is easy to see why this happens.  Description is safer and easier.  When you are doing analysis, you are on your own.  You might make a mistake.  The result is that on fact pattern questions I often get answers that spend 75% of their time stating what the law is and only 25% applying that law.  If anything, the ratio should be reversed (though not if the exam is asking a pure question of law).

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Sally can’t argue that (on law school exams)

PrintAt most law schools, first year students get back their fall semester grades this week.  This can be a difficult time for students who – often for the first time – are on the bottom half of steep curves.  If you are in that situation, I thought I’d offer one tip that might help you diagnosis a correctable problem with exam-taking technique.  When you get back your exam, and before you look at the model answer, I’d urge you to scan your exam for the following phrases:

  • could argue that; or
  • might argue that; or
  • has an argument…

Every time you see this phrase, highlight it in red ink.  It’s almost certainly leading you down a dark path.

Why is this phrase pernicious?  Because, very often, it signals that you are about to fail to actually evaluate the noted argument. Rather, you will simply list the possibility (in contracts, for example, “A could argue that the correspondence of May 1 was an offer”) and not tell the reader whether or not that claim is a plausible or winning one in court.  Though sometimes professors truly want to see a kitchen sink answer listing every possible claim, most, instead, are testing judgment. Judgment requires one to actually evaluate legal claims, not to list them.  The problem with “argue that” is that it leads you to think that you are actually saying something — implicitly, that the argument raised is plausible? — without articulating the predicate rationale and limiting conditions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with students in exam reviews, pointed out this phrase, only to have the student tell me that they knew that the argument was a good or bad one, but they failed to put that judgment on the page.  “Argue that” blinds you to your own failure to exercise your situation sense.

The great thing about this tic is that it’s a useful, concrete, red flag for conclusory exam writing, which typically distinguishes average exams from great ones.  If you are working on your computer, you can simply use the find function before handing in the exam to make sure that you haven’t fallen into the trap.  Other tics, like “obviously,” “clearly,” and “certainly,” are similar but aren’t as prevalent on law school exam answers. Eliminating “could argue that” also helps to omit needless words: instead of introducing issues before disposing of them, you can simply fold the analysis into the introductory sentence. Thus: “While the May 1 letter has some of the markings of an offer (it identifies price & amount), it fails to state the timing of delivery and most courts will follow Nebraska Seed in denying formation.”

Now, you could argue that this is all needlessly pedantic mutterings over style points, when the real skills that ought to separate good from bad exams concern doctrine.  But, if you did make that argument, you’d be wrong. Being conclusory – that is, assuming the conclusion in question and failing to analyze why the answer follows from the facts – is the key sin on most issue-spotter exams.  You can learn to be less conclusory over time by training yourself to see it in your writing.  And, if you got bad news this week, spotting conclusory writing before it’s graded will go a long way toward better news in May.