Postcard from Mexico

Anna Cody

mexico flag

 

Experiencing another law school, and particularly another legal clinic using clinical education methodology is always eye opening.   For the last 9 months I have been collaborating with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Human Rights program legal clinic. It has given me some fascinating insights into both the Mexican legal and political system, as well as what it’s like to be a law student in the biggest public university in Latin America.

The clinic here focuses on access to information in migration matters and disability rights cases. They have made over 100 access to information claims with some success but which demonstrate how un-transparent the immigration detention system is.  And as most clients are from Central America and are on their way to the USA, the clients don’t want to stay in Mexico to pursue their legal rights when they are mistreated, tortured or detained illegally. The disability rights cases challenge the automatic use of ‘guardianship’ for many people with disability. They have also supported various people seeking de-institutionalisation. Students are an integral part of these cases, researching them, interviewing and advising clients and representing clients in court. Cases in Mexico are mostly run on the papers without oral evidence, submissions or argument.

Three insights

1. Students, the world over, thrive when given responsibility for their legal work, and are supported in their learning by thorough and effective supervision. The students in Mexico are given a lot of responsibility and in order to succeed in this, they need intensive support from their supervisor who meets with them, drafts documents and discusses some of the pitfalls of the civil system. Writing in plain language is even more of a challenge in Mexico than in Australia where students receive little training in how to communicate effectively.

2.  Despite the various criticisms of Australian ethical frameworks and regulatory system, having some ethical rulings and requirements are definitely preferable to not having any at all. In Mexico there is no ethical code to guide and regulate lawyers. It is a real discussion between supervisor and students about how to influence a judge and whether or not paying bribes is appropriate. The fact that this can be discussed openly is a tribute to both teacher and students. And yet for an Australian lawyer this explicit form of “influencing” by bribe is shocking. It strikes me how hard it is to continue to act in good faith as a lawyer and to believe in a legal system which relies on bribery. This has meant some fascinating discussions with students about what our role is within a legal system as lawyers.

3. When we are working with clients with disability and teaching students about their and our own ableism, it’s essential to design a clinical course with people with disability at the centre. This means integrating speakers, readings, class content which has people with disability giving their perspectives. One of the most powerful classes which the Mexican clinic teaches its clinical students provides perspectives of people with disability, who are not clients. The clinic invites a member of the Colectivo Chuhcan, a collective formed by and for people with psycho-social disability to discuss their experiences of the health and legal system in order to give students an insight into these issues.

These are just 3 of the insights of my time in Mexico, on sabbatical from UNSW.

Academic Calendar Rationalisation (some benefits especially for the Southern Hemisphere)

The below will briefly (sic) address: (1) Southern v Northern Hemisphere calendars & (2) Academic Calendar Rationalisation.  It turns out these are related, for universities on Southern Hemisphere calendars the issues posed by their academic calendar provide extra incentive to consider the more efficient trimester approach.

1.  Southern Hemisphere v Northern Hemisphere Academic Calendars

Its at this time of the year that I more often consider my Southern Hemisphere academic calendar.  This is when my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere are wrapping up courses, marking/grading their final class papers/exams, or are perhaps even “done and dusted” with graduation ceremonies behind them and the long summer stretching ahead.  We, in contrast, are just now into exam period, followed by the winter break, and back to the semester by mid to late July.  We can, however, gloat when our classes finish in November and, aside from a few summer classes, do not start again till March.

Of course, any academic calendar is the manna from heaven of work schedules. We are truly lucky to work in academia. But, if one works in the international academic environment and moves between the two hemispheres’ calendars then one notices the negative consequences and issues of the two not fitting together too well. In fact, most of my Southern hemisphere colleagues do in fact feel these issues as they will typically work in an international environment of one form or another (it is the consequence of working and living in a smaller jurisdiction).  In contrast, Northern hemisphere academics typically have no idea that there is even a Southern hemisphere calendar.  When informed of it, they think it is so very strange and perhaps even a bit perverse.

Coming from a smaller jurisdiction we tend to try to adjust our interaction with the Northern Hemisphere, for they will certainly not budge – as they are the overwhelming majority.  Its true that from a population perspective, we are in a smaller jurisdiction.  Indeed most Southern Hemisphere states are somewhat off the beaten track.  Geographically most of the world’s land mass is in the Northern Hemisphere, as is a disproportionate share of the developed and dominating (often former colonial) states and legal systems.  (Though, here I do have to point out that Australia bats significantly above its weight in law, especially in the international fields.)

Thus, when we plan international conferences or invite guests from the North we try to ensure the timing fits with their calendar.  They never do the same for us (its not from being selfish, for they do not even know about our calendar).  Similarly, our visits to their institutions, by academics or students, also fits into their calendars – when possible.  While we generally are successful at such manipulations, there is no denying that we lose efficiencies and opportunities as a result of the significant differences in calendars.  Of course, we also gain some opportunities not available to those working with a Northern Hemisphere calendar.  For example, our students do not have to compete with the European and North American students for internships.  We can run programs in our breaks that permit our students to experience term time in Northern Hemisphere campuses (e.g. the UNSW Berkeley Law program).  Nonetheless, being the outlier to the major academic systems of the world may not be ideal.  Indeed, the University of Tokyo recently changed its undergraduate calendar to conform to the European and North American calendars (it also had not matched up with the European/North American model – despite sitting in the “correct” hemisphere).

Perhaps we should be taking our long holidays in the winter, to huddle under blankets at the beach – so as to maintain the integrity of and fit within a mythical world calendar.  Nope.  Not going to happen.  The beaches are, rightfully, too integral to our (as a nascent Australian I can now say “our”) culture to abandon those perfect summer holidays.   So – what can be done.  Perhaps academic calendar rationalisation.

2.  Academic Calendar Rationalisation Continue reading “Academic Calendar Rationalisation (some benefits especially for the Southern Hemisphere)”

The Legal Ethics of Better Call Saul

BCSaul

One of my students sent me this resource, a blog written by a New York ethics lawyer on the legal ethics of Better Call Saul. Better Call Saul is the spin-off and prequel to Breaking Bad – and is, in my view, a better show (get on it – you needn’t have watched Breaking Bad!).

The phrase “Better Call Saul” is the grubby slogan of Saul Goodman, the ethically depraved lawyer in Breaking Bad. In the prequel, he’s struggling public defender and elder-lawyer, Jimmy McGill – and hasn’t yet transformed into his badder-self. The show raises a bunch of legal ethics and procedural issues, which the blog analyses. Of course, it’s also, and perhaps more importantly, about the personalities, pressures and rationalisations that shape ethical behaviour, and how we judge that behaviour in ourselves and others.

Well worth watching, if not incorporating into the law classroom.

Justine Rogers

Wellness for Law

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China in the World Centre, ANU, photo: Melissa Castan

Justine Rogers

I attended the National Wellness for Law Forum last week. The 2-day event brought legal academics, practitioners, consultants and students to leafy ANU in Canberra to exchange their research and ideas about law student and lawyer psychological distress, and their solutions.

Linking the talks was a background debate about whether wellness is an individual brain phenomenon or one driven most significantly by neoliberalism and other social and political factors – I hope we can agree that it’s both, and much more than this, and that ‘treatment’ must be multi-layered and won’t always be called ‘treatment’. The Forum shared many approaches to supporting and improving wellbeing – in the classroom, law schools, in firms  – and at the bench!  – including mindfulness and creativity, developing ethical, interpersonal and emotional capacity, and legitimate flexible work.

One of the presenters said that treatment was useless or, more carefully, that no matter what coping strategy one chose, it didn’t materially matter. The focus, they argued, needs to be on prevention at the organisational level. After my initial reaction Continue reading “Wellness for Law”

Positive Professional Identities for Law Students

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Our own Anna Huggins (soon to be QUT’s Anna Huggins) has made a big contribution to a very important book in legal education. Co-written with Rachael Field and James Duffy, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (Lexis Nexis Butterworths 2014) is a book I think all teaching legal academics could useful study. Here at UNSW Law it is worth noting that the curriculum Theme ‘Personal and Professional Development’ is perfectly on point with this book which is aimed at students primarily but I think would be a useful read for most legal people.

In our first year program we have been targeting personal and professional development through attempting to enhance students’ understanding of themselves, and their ability to reflect on themselves whether through mindfulness activities or in other ways. One thing the literature emphasises is that ethical issues often are the tipping point before someone drops out of law school or the profession; and in Introducing Law and Justice we try to introduce the idea that you need to be able to articulate your own values and then be able to assess legal ethics and practice in that light. The latter is then very much developed by the later subject Law Ethics and Justice which Justine Rogers convenes.

So, as always, we like it when someone agrees with us!

Prue Vines

Continue reading “Positive Professional Identities for Law Students”

Do Charters ‘infantilise’ students?

Do charters infantilise students, as suggested in a recent article at the Times Higher Education? I think it probably depends on how it is done. Clarity in expectations is worthwhile and nothing is particularly wrong with contracts. I think at university, though, if you don’t know “I need to set aside time for private study”, you may just be in the wrong place. Better, I think, is a practical guide for students on how many hours they will need on average a week and/or how many hours of outside work is likely to put pressure on grades and/or life balance. I find students think they “need” to work 2-3 days a week, not necessarily for the money (obviously a different, and significant, issue), but because they think that it helps make them employable. We need to have conversations that help students make sensible choices so that university is not simply a pressurised study regime fit between days at work. I am not sure that charters are the best way to have such conversations.

Lyria Bennett Moses

The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom

The case for banning laptops in the classroom’ is an interesting article that looks at whether students’ use of laptops in the classroom has any real benefits. It includes a study by Princeton University on whether writing notes longhand, on paper in a classroom is more beneficial than using a laptop. The study suggests that typing notes on a laptop is actually impairing learning as it is a much shallower process decreasing effective modes of recall. The article also points out that laptops are hugely distracting both for the student and teacher alike. When the teacher looks up from the front of the class and sees faces down behind screens it gives a physical barrier between the students and the teacher. The students have a great temptation to check emails/facebook/surf the web in class and so their ability to concentrate on learning is greatly diminished. In a law context where the optimum learning environment is one where students are engaging in conversation and debate, should the laptop be banned?

The link to the article is here http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-case-for-banning-laptops-in-the-classroom
The link to the Princeton study is here http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/22/0956797614524581.abstract

Thomas Molloy

 

Introducing Behavioural Legal Ethics

Justine Rogers

Search the TV channels most nights, and you’re likely to come across the lawyer with “moral pluck”. You know, the witty and resourceful lawyer who has become, according to William H. Simon, the most depicted lawyer of popular culture. You’ll know him (and it’s almost always a ‘him’); the one who’s willing to commit moral transgressions to support an informal, sympathetic set of values. A local example is Cleaver Greene, the brilliant but slightly sketchy Sydney barrister in the series, Rake.

But it’s not just writers who are interested in lawyers’ ethics, legal scholars have long tried to understand their nature and effects. And now there’s a new approach that examines it from the perspective of psychology. It’s called Behavioural Legal Ethics.

Don’t let the psychology connection put you off. Rather than the waving about the diagnostic model like a judgmental teacher’s pointer, the starting position of Behavioural Ethics is that most people who do bad are not inherently bad. Research from this field has shown that these are simply normal people responding to environmental pressures, using typical modes of human thinking. In this way, for our purposes, rather than: Why are lawyers bad? Or, Which kinds of lawyers are bad? The question becomes: How can good lawyers do bad things?

Two examples of typical human thinking that can influence ethics are our obedience bias and our over-confidence in our own ethicality. In law, the role morality and partisan bias that characterises the ‘zealous advocate’ relies on and demands additional cognitive framing and filtering. Driven by our need for a stable identity, these patterns of thought serve our particular social and professional situations, including, for lawyers, the legal institutions in which they work. These processes can result in ethical lapses or blindspots or even the circumvention of ethics altogether. Through this approach, ethics and the thinking that it involves becomes something very social and very human.

This past semester, I have incorporated this new legal scholarship in our course, Lawyers Ethics & Justice, at UNSW Law  and I have found it immensely valuable. Among many things, it gives students a handrail to engage with the rest of the material. More specifically: Continue reading “Introducing Behavioural Legal Ethics”

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