The importance of regulatory context: some questions for legal educators

By Justine Rogers

ANU College of Law hosted its annual legal ethics roundtable last week. The theme was ‘reimagining lawyer regulation’.

The regulatory ideas presented raised many worthwhile questions for legal education. I’ve selected two here.

From the talk given by keynote speaker, Professor Leslie Levin, expert in the legal profession, ethical decision-making and lawyer discipline, University of Connecticut:

1) How do we teach law students to be professional when the primary influence over their ethical attitudes, decision-making and compliance will be their particular, divergent work contexts?

Building on other research, Levin’s study of some 1300 lawyers revealed that of all the determinants of future ethical behaviour, most decisive is practice context (workplace, type of client, court etc) and the behaviour of those who inhabit it. Far less so or less significantly are the things that students need to disclose for admission (such as mental health).

Context shapes the importance given to the professional bodies outside the workplace when deciding what values and rules are worth following, such as, the associations, the regulators (or the disciplinary architecture), the court, and the insurers. For instance, big firms look within their own firms and otherwise interact with insurers, prosecutors are less concerned with criminal liability (when does that happen?), in-house counsel don’t worry about discipline, whereas sole practitioners do. In other words, different things matter to different practices.

Levin asked: How do we create professional training, sanctions, and incentives in order to motivate lawyers to behave the way we want them to and to teach them what positive norms there are in the profession? How do we regulate lawyers if context (what matters in each context) is the key variable?

This also means we need to think about how to develop professional integrity and core ethical skills among students for contexts that will introduce, emphasise and enforce professional values in very different ways.

From the talk given by Dr Stephen Tang, Lecturer, ANU College of Law:

2) What is the proper role of behavioural ethics (or any applied psychology) in legal ethics courses?

Behavioural (Legal) Ethics is ‘trending’ in legal ethics education. Popularised by books like Thinking Fast and Slow, and Nudge, this scholarship argues that people are fundamentally irrational and use cognitive short cuts that can lead to suboptimal decision-making. At UNSW Law, we use behavioural legal ethics material in our core course to allow students to better identify, prepare for and discuss ethics issues. Our material includes this leading Robbennholt and Sternlight piece and this wonderful series of ‘Ethics Unwrapped’ videos from UT Austin, both of which were commended by Tang.

This material is useful, he argued, at least as a set of cautionary tales of how irrationality can contribute to immorality and discrimination in routine, subconscious ways. But his concern with behavioural ethics, or the behavioural economics or applied psychological approaches from which it derives, is how the information can be used  – and is used – to manipulate behaviour, even if in a benignly paternalistic or ‘nudging’ way. Equally concerning, its use is usually guided by simplistic, narrow, short-term and consequentialist (eco-based) ideas of people’s motivations and values.

When regulating lawyers, he argued, we need to contemplate and include professional narratives, and organisational climates, and cultures – or more complexity. We will have, then, a better chance of success in fostering certain positive behaviour because we will understand bigger psychological dimensions and developments over time, not just quick, aesthetic behavioural changes, of the same sort as the etched image of a fly in a urinal used to lead to cleaner bathrooms (yes, that’s a real example of applied psych). “If regulation is inescapable, then we must understand people in context. We need to have a sense of our own limits as regulators when deciding what other people decide.”

Similarly, I would say, when teaching students behavioural ethics to more effectively engage in ethical discussions, it must involve a commitment to use the information transparently and inclusively as a way of better understanding and discussing mistakes and fallibilities, of broadening the range of harms considered, and not ruling out or underestimating other motivations, explanations and solutions.

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Working the nexus and drawing pictures

Two new articles from the Legal Education Review may be of interest.

Working the Nexus: Teaching Students to Think, Read and Problem-solve Like a Lawyer
(by Kate Galloway, Mary Heath, Alex Steel, Anne Hewitt and Natalie Skead) draws on our Smart Casual experiences and considers the way in which students need to learn to read, think and write simultaneously.  The paper explores how each is a both a separate and linked skill and the way teachers move between explicit and implicit reference to these skills in teaching. It argues that no one skill alone amounts to “thinking like a lawyer”, and that although the skills are often presented as lineal processes, for the student it is deeply iterative.

Where are the Graphics? Communicating Legal Ideas Effectively Using Images and Symbols (by Tania Leiman) looks at the history and current use of visual images to describe the law.  Tania provides an rich and fascinating set of examples of how lawyers use visual aids and visual thinking internationally and in Australia.  She finishes with a set of issues for legal education to ponder.  In a similar vein to the increasing concerns about coding and law school, Tania suggests we can’t teach students to be designers, but we can teach them to think in ways that enable them to both create and critique visual summaries of the law.  As she points out, her article contains no graphics, underlining the difficulty of converting complex arguments to accurate visual guides.

Big Data Analytics on student surveys

It’s the new “thing” – analytics applied to student responses to courses. And it is really quite scary.

To give an example, I will share my own results from a recently taught course of 22 students of which 10 filled out the survey. This is “small data”. It takes about 5-10 minutes (generously) to read and reflect upon the student feedback. Since I am sharing, they generally liked the course including guest lectures and excursions, but felt that one topic didn’t need as much time and that my Moodle page wasn’t well organised. All very helpful for the next time I run the course (note to self to start my Moodle page earlier and tweak the class schedule).

The problem is no longer the feedback, it is the “analytics” which now accompany it. The worst is the “word clouds”. I look at the word cloud for my course and see big words (these generally reflect the feedback, subject to an exception discussed below) and then smaller words and phrases. Now the smaller ones in a word cloud are obviously meant to be “less” important but these are really quite concerning, so much so that I initially panicked. They include “disrespectful/rude”, “unapproachable”, “not worthwhile”, “superficial” and “unpleasant”. Bear in mind the word cloud precedes the actual comments in my report. None of these terms (nor their synonyms) were used by ANY of the students (unless an organised Moodle page could count as “unapproachable”). And they are really horrible things to say about someone, especially when there is no basis for these kinds of assertions in the actual feedback received.

The problem here is applying a “big data” tool to (very) small data. It doesn’t work, and it can be actively misleading. One of the word clouds (there are different ones for different “topics”) had the word “organised”. That came up because students were telling me my Moodle page was NOT well organised, but it would be easy to think at a quick glance that this was praise.

So what is the point of this exercise? One imagines it might be useful if you have a course with hundreds of students (so that reading the comments would take an hour, say). But the fact that the comments can be actively misleading (as in “organised” above) demonstrates, you still need to read the comments to understand the context. Further, students often make subtle observations in comments (like the fact that too much time was spent on a particular topic) that are difficult to interpret in a word cloud where the phrases are aggregated and sprinkled around the place. So, it doesn’t really save time. The comments still need to be read and reflected on.

Big Data tools always sound very exciting. So much buzz! Imagine if we could predict flu epidemics from Google searches (that no longer works, by the way) or predict crime before it happens (lots of jurisdictions are trying this, particularly in the US). But the truth is more like the word cloud on student feedback – inappropriately applied, error prone, poorly understood by those deploying the tool, and thus often unhelpful. Data analytics CAN be good tool – but it is a bit like a hammer in the hands of those who don’t understand its function and limitations, everything looks like a nail.

Lyria Bennett Moses

Legal Writing Resources

Chantal Morton from the University of Melbourne has put together this very helpful list of resources for legal writing.  Many thanks Chantal!

  1. Professor Ellen Zweibel and Virginia McRae at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law (Canada) have led the design of a great website with modules on how to write legal memos and edit your own work: http://pointfirstwriting.com/.  They are in the process of designing two more modules.  The resources are fantastic – and why reinvent the wheel?  I have been pointing my students to the resource ever since I heard about it at the Legal Writing Institute conference in Portland.
  2. I am in the midst of turning the 2015 Legal Writing symposium website into a blog with broader reach with respect to skills for law (https://skillsforlaw.wordpress.com/ ).  If you have any resources, articles, or websites you would like to see featured, please send me an email.  At the moment, we are storing some teaching modules from Charles Calleros.  I love using his exercise Rules for Lina (slightly modified for an Australian audience – feel free to contact me if you’d like the modified script and tips for having students role play Lina and her parent).  The videos will be posted in the new year.
  3. I just received my ‘holiday reading’ and thought I’d mention two Australian resources: a second edition of Nichola Corbett-Jarvis and Brendan Grigg, Effective Legal Writing: A Practical Guide (LexisNexis, 2nd ed, 2017) and the new book by Kenneth Yin and Anibeth Desierto, Legal Problem Solving and Syllogistic Analysis (LexisNexis, 2016).
  4. I am just back from a two-week stint at Stetson University College of Law (Florida).  Professor Kirsten Davis has put together a new project called Teaching Legal Writing: Out of the Box Ideas (http://www.stetson.edu/law/academics/lrw/teaching-legal-writing.php?ad=20160702).  You can email her directly for your free ‘box’ (kkdavis@law.stetson.edu) – I have already developed one of the activities for a workshop I am running for my JD and masters students in 2017.
  5. The Legal Writing Institute is primarily USA-based but the (free!) membership includes legal research and writing faculty from Australia, Canada and the UK (etc).  They publish some really interesting (and helpful) articles through the Legal Writing Journal and The Second Draft (I just happen to be one of the editors of the latter).  They also have something called The Idea Bank where legal research and writing teachers will post modules for others to adapt and use.  You can get access to it for free – just post one of your own modules (although if you are not ready to share, they’ll let you poke around without a contribution): http://www.lwionline.org/
  6. The LWI conference takes place every other year – so the next big one is in 2018.  In 2017, there are two related conferences you might want to consider: a) the Association of Legal Writing Directors has a few opportunities for professional development listed here http://www.alwd.org/events/ and b) the next Global Legal Skills Conference (easily the best conferences I have ever been to) takes place in March, 2017, in Mexico.  Details here: http://glsc.jmls.edu/2017/ (although keep in mind I am hoping to get them to come to Australia in 2018 so if you can’t make the trip to Mexico, keep a watch on the announcements for 2018!)

Critical thinking in legal education: What? Why? How? By Lucas Lixinski

by Lucas Lixinski

An article in today’s The Conversation asks whether universities really do a good job (or any job at all) of teaching critical thinking. While acknowledging that defining critical thinking is incredibly difficult, and that most definitions out there are vague at best, the article then moves to discussing whether universities actually teach critical thinking in the way they promise they do. In what seems like a job market that increasingly pays a premium for applicants who can demonstrate having learned critical thinking skills, there is a clear financial incentive (beyond the obvious intellectual one) to be more self-aware of what critical thinking is in our discipline, and how we actually go about teaching it.

 

What is critical thinking in law?

I will not by any means attempt to give an all-encompassing definition of critical thinking more broadly, nor critical thinking in the law. Instead, let me just say where I come from, and try and make sense of the landscape from there. The intention here is to start conversations and provoke reactions, rather than lay down the law (pardon the pun) on the matter.

 

In my opinion, critical thinking has to do with challenging assumed wisdom, and showing students how to do that themselves. In the law, as far as I can see, there are two ways in which I can do that. The first one is to focus on the contingencies of the law, whether they are economic, historical, or political. Things like the old adage that “the law is made largely by, and for the benefit of, white, male[, heterosexual, able-bodied] property owners” tends to be a great starting point to unravel those contingencies. As is the broader historical context of critical moments in the formation of the legal system (like the influence of Protestant ethics in the shaping of the Common Law and its approaches to labor and property, which is different from the way the mostly Catholic Civil Law jurisdictions behaved in Europe at around the same time).

 

Secondly, another way of critically thinking about the law, in my view, is to look into the background. More specifically, when we think about, say, a contract for the purchase of milk, the foreground body of rules operating is contract law. However, in the background there are a number of other bodies of law that influence what is possible for a contract (even though on paper contract law is still the quintessential guardian of private liberty), such as food security rules, (international) trade law if milk is considered to be a strategic product the production of which is incentivized, the corresponding tax arrangements, etc. Admittedly, it makes teaching a simple case daunting, but I always tell my students that I don’t need to have all the answers to those all the time, nor do they. But they need to be mindful of those knock-on effects of the simplest legal rule (sort of a “butterfly effect”, but in the law, and hopefully not creating any hurricanes anywhere).

 

How can we “teach” it?

If you haven’t caught on to it yet, let me out myself here. The way I think about critical thinking, and consequently teach it, is influenced by the way I think and write about the law more generally. Which is to say, I have a hard time dissociating critical thinking as an abstract and transferrable skill from critical legal studies, which is a specific way of theorizing and understanding the law. In other words, the way I conceptualize and “do” critical thinking is deeply influenced by my own bias as a critical scholar (well, much of the time anyway), which is framed by my politics, rather than my raw analytical ability. Assuming this neutrality is desirable (and the article on The Conversation referred to above suggests as much), how do I counter my own biases?

 

Maybe the assumption is that teaching a lefty orthodoxy induces critical thinking, in that it challenges status quo and conventional wisdom students come to the table with. So, maybe the way to teach critical thinking is to constantly challenge student’s assumptions. Except that those assumptions vary radically within a cohort, and change a lot throughout the degree. Which is to say, it may be safe to assume that a first-year undergraduate class at an elite university is made up of students whom you can assume espouse certain center- to right-leaning assumptions about the world, inherited from their parents and their upbringing. But, after spending a year being challenged on those assumptions, it may be that an upper level class needs to be re-presented with the Liberal version of the world. That is, of course, if critical thinking is to be conveyed through “thick descriptions” of reality as a means to understand and apply the law.

 

Which is to say, maybe the way to teach critical thinking is to make the teaching less about what I think, and more about playing devil’s advocate all the time to what students think. And that is a fair enough proposition in a student-centric model of education, but, if teaching is also meant to be (at least to some extent) research-driven (not to mention students’ insistence on “answers”), isn’t it my job to convey what I think after all? I constantly try to strike a balance between what I think and other opinions out there, and present them all, but I’m not sure I’m always successful.

 

This discussion brings to mind an old and still current debate about the purpose of legal education. Is legal education about teaching substantive knowledge of the law, or just skills (“thinking like a lawyer”)? I tend to think the latter, but, in considering the legal profession is subject to an increasingly strict regulatory environment, content is also incredibly important. It is also easier to measure and assess. Problem questions have a way of assessing critical thinking, but often enough (as people marking exams everywhere may attest to), answers to problem questions can too easily devolve into knowledge-spewing for significant segments of the student population.

 

So, what to do?

I honestly don’t know, and invite other people’s views on the matter. As far as I can see, I will keep on trying to challenge students at every turn (and have they challenge me), but being mindful that my opinion counts, while certainly not the only one that does.

 

In one of my classes (an Introduction to the Legal System-type class, called “Introducing Law and Justice”), I have the privilege of talking to students in one of their early contacts with the legal discipline. And in doing that I present students with a list of questions that they should be asking of materials they read (cases, statutes, scholarly texts) as a means to stimulate critical thinking:

–        Why is the law this way?

–        Who stands to gain?

–        Who loses?

–        What does the law as is miss? What are its blind spots?

–        What do other people do faced with similar legal problems, and why? Can we learn lessons there?

–        When was this case decided? What was the broader context around this case?

–        What was the court / law-maker trying to say between the lines?

–        Who is the court / law-maker (white, male, property owner)?

–        What is this legal statement / assertion / rule a reaction to?

–        How does the private affect the public (and vice-versa)?

 

That strikes me as a fairly useful checklist to spark critical thinking, on the models above. But are there other ways of doing that in law teaching? Let me hear your thoughts!

 

 

New Wellbeing and Mental Health Guide for lawyers

Colin James

A new Guide on wellbeing and mental health for lawyers has just been released by lawyers and researchers associated with the Wellness Network for Law. It was produced as a collaboration between the NSW Law Society, NSW Young Lawyers and four staff at ANU Legal Workshop.  The chapters were primarily written by Stephen Tang, Margie Rowe, Tony Foley, Vivien Holmes and Colin James.  There are also contributions from Ian Hickie and profiles from other familiar Wellness Network names, including Michelle Sharpe and Mary Digiglio.

 

The Guide is free and can be viewed online, downloaded as a PDF, and be ordered as hard copies:

 

http://lawsociety.com.au/ForSolictors/professionalsupport/supportingyou/BeingWellintheLaw/index.htm

 

The authors provide a more optimistic and comprehensive approach to wellbeing and mental health beyond identifying high levels of distress.  It has a chapter specifically for new lawyers on ‘starting right’ but the rest of the Guide is useful for all lawyers, and also for law students. It addresses wellbeing, mental health, thriving, values/ethics and their relationship with wellbeing and the differing types of stress (there is good stress!) and how to deal with it.

New manual on ethics issues for learning and teaching research

A comprehensive manual on how to navigate ethical issues in learning and teaching research has just been released.  It provides very helpful guidance on how to develop ethics applications and how to avoid some of the ethics traps of action research in learning and teaching.   Innovations in teaching are often seen by teachers as just internal tinkering or improvements, but if the teacher is interested in an objective way to measure their success, the innovation is probably best seen as form of research into teaching practice.  Having ethics clearance from the start means successes can be publicised and justified to others.

Following is an overview by Mark Israel, one of the authors.

In 2014 the Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) commissioned AHRECS to undertake work to help OLT grant-holders and fellows avoid unnecessary difficulties and delays during research ethics review.

AHRECS identified several factors contributed to these problems, including:

  1. the inexperience of some Scholarship of Teaching and Learning researchers in approaching human research and human research ethics review;
  2. the unfamiliarity of some research ethics reviewers with standard practices in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; and
  3. the absence of resources relating to the ethical design and review of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research.

AHRECS produced a resource manual to support the ethical decision making of SoTL researchers and reviewers. The AHRECS SoTL Manual consists of six booklets that include academic references, recommended reading and prompts for ethical reflections. The booklets are practically focused and include example problems/suggested strategies.

The Manual is available from the OLT web site, and a copy is hosted on the AHRECS site:

Booklet 01 SoTL Manual: Research ethics and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Booklet 02 SoTL Manual: Ethics review and grant or fellowship funded research

Booklet 03 SoTL Manual: Risks and benefits in SoTL research

Booklet 04 SoTL Manual: Recruitment and consent in SoTL research

Booklet 05 SoTL Manual: Privacy and confidentiality in SoTL funded research

Booklet 06 SoTL Manual: Ethical challenges and practical strategies

Allen, G, Israel, M and Thomson, C (2016) Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Human Research Ethics Resource Manual. Sydney: Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.
http://www.ahrecs.com/?post_type=resource&p=1696

Please direct any questions about the SoTL Manual to Dr Gary Allen (gary.allen@ahrecs.com) or Prof. Mark Israel (mark.israel@ahrecs.com). You can find out more about the work of AHRECS at www.ahrecs.com.

Smart Casual teaching development modules now available

An innovative resource for specifically developed for sessional law teachers (but able to support permanent staff as well!) is now online.

The Modules

The first five modules of the Smart Casual suite of online modules to support sessional colleagues with law specific teaching strategies are now available at https://smartlawteacher.org/modules.  They are:

  • Reading Law
  • Critical Thinking
  • Legal Problem Solving
  • Student Engagement
  • Feedback

They are supported by an introductory module that highlights four themes that run through the modules and are key to legal education: diversity, internationalisation, digital literacy and gender.

A further four modules will be available in the coming months:

  • Wellness
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Law

Format

The modules are written in Articulate Storyline with links to video clips and are designed to allow viewers to either work through the slides sequentially or skip to areas of interest.    Modules take around an hour to work through, but can be skimmed for relevant content much more quickly.

The modules are designed to have a peer-to-peer approach, recognising the experience that sessional colleagues bring to their teaching.  They feature a range of short videos from sessional staff themselves discussing the issues in the modules.  The use of reflective questions throughout the modules means the modules can also be used a conversation starters for peer discussions.

Background

Smart Casual involves a collaboration of academics from five Australian law schools producing a suite of professional development modules for sessional teachers of law. Half of all teaching in Australian higher education is provided by sessional staff (and possibly more in law schools), so the quality of sessional teaching is critical to student learning, retention and progress. However, national research suggests that support and training for sessional teachers remains inadequate.

In law, this problem is compounded by the need for staff to teach discipline-specific skills and content to students destined for a socially-bounded profession. Yet sessional law teachers are often time-poor full-time practitioners weakly connected to the tertiary sector. The distinct nature of these sessional staff and the discipline-specific learning outcomes required in law demand discipline-specific sessional staff training.

The project was funded by grants from the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching.  The  project team is:

  • Mary Heath, Associate Professor, Flinders University (Project Leader);
  • Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Bond University.
  • Anne Hewitt, Associate Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide;
  • Mark Israel, Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminology, Flinders University; Visiting Academic, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia;
  • Natalie Skead, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia;
  • Alex Steel, Professor, University of New South Wales

 

Figuring out what works in Legal Education – the gaps in research and why it’s not all gloom and doom

By Julian Laurens and Lucas Lixinski

An article published in today’s The Conversation suggests there is a sizeable problem in the higher education literature, in that it is not sufficiently comprehensive, too anecdotally-based, and because of that lacks replication / transplantation value, making it difficult for other educators to apply findings in their own contexts. That is a fair point, even if focusing only on legal education helps address some of the article’s concerns.

One of the things some of us are trying to do at UNSW Law attempts to rise to some of these challenges. By seeking to clearly situate our teaching practice within the literature of what we do know, we are developing a body of work that addresses some of those gaps, with the caveat that it is in the legal education context, and may not be easily applicable outside the Common Law (or even Australian!) context. Which leads us to question whether there is such a thing as generalizable formulae in education. To be sure, in assuming the jurisdiction-specific nature of education, we may be tying ourselves to the notion that legal education primarily teaches content, rather than transferrable skills. But even if we are talking about skills, they are still historically, politically and socially contingent, so transplantability of findings about “what works” can never really be complete. So, not only may be the objective of a generalized wisdom on higher education be a utopia, there is also reason to believe that we do have generally a pretty good idea of some things that do actually work, at least in law (though admittedly there are glaring gaps in the Legal Education literature).

Part of the issue is how one can measure things like ‘success’ – whether it is a narrow, easily quantifiable neo-liberal inspired marker (test scores come to mind), or something broader, encompassing notions of justice (such as student well-being). An example is the difference between the education system in Norway and how they approach student learning and the education system in say the United States with its completely discredited emphasis on continual standardised testing and so forth.

So, yes, we DO know that some things work better than others and we DO have an idea of how they are situated very clearly in the relevant psychological and educational literature. And there is no reason to assume that many things cannot be transferred into University teaching that were found in, say, a secondary school setting. We need to bear in mind the contingencies that define the legal field (and, for that matter, any field of knowledge), but we think there is more reason to hope than to despair. The problem may be that we have people with MBAs designing educational policy, instead of people with MEd’s.

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