Category: Legal skills

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Moot court judging—once more unto the breach

Moot court student leaders and faculty advisors are now registering for 2018-2019 competitions. One factor in choosing a competition is the quality of volunteer judges at the competition. As anyone passingly familiar with moot court knows, most of the moot court judging is done not by actual judges but by attorneys volunteering to play the role of judges. Moot court is a massive annual undertaking in legal education, with approximately 75 competitions listed on LSU’s catalog of moot court opportunities nationwide. If each competition uses 20 volunteers (a conservative estimate) and if each attorney judges at only one competition, that’s 1500 attorney volunteers annually. And that figure does not include the many internal competitions at various law schools also utilizing attorney volunteers. It also does not include the many volunteers at mock trial competitions, ADR, and other litigation-skills competitions. This post is relevant to those as well—it’s relevant to any skills competition that uses attorney volunteers to play a role during the competition, score the competition, and give feedback to law students.

These attorneys are crucial to making moot court broadly available so students can demonstrate and use their advocacy skills in a (simulated) high-stakes environment. These attorneys also have tremendous influence over the quality of competitors’ experience. The volunteer attorney judges must ask questions, evaluate answers and transitions, and give scores that determine which teams progress to the next rounds. The volunteer attorney judges also are often given the opportunity to address the competitors and share some brief commentary and advice. Moot court is “moot,” but advocating for a client before strangers, accepting feedback with aplomb, and firing up to “go again” in another competition round on short notice does help prepare students for high-stakes experiences in practice.

On all of the volunteer attorney judges’ objectives—educationally valuable questions, fair scoring, and wise feedback—their performance can vary widely. When they ask judge-like questions, score fairly, and give useful, constructive commentary, moot court succeeds. But when they badger or dominate a round, give superficial, inconsistent, or unfair scores, or share unhelpful or unnecessarily damaging comments to competitors, moot court fails.

After hearing positive and negative stories along these lines shared by other faculty advisors, I invited contributions about moot court judging. The questions contributors could choose from included the following ideas:

  • What are some of the best experiences you’ve had with attorney judges at moot court competitions?
  • What can attorneys do to prepare for judging to make it an excellent educational experience for students and helps the attorneys share uniquely valuable advice and feedback with students?
  • What are some of the worst experiences you’ve had with attorney judges at moot court competitions?
  • How do you distinguish between critical feedback and scores that are poor but fair, and inappropriate feedback and unfair scores?
  • What can competitions do to prepare their attorney judges and minimize bad experiences for students?
  • Have you ever pulled your law school out of a competition because of inappropriate judging or other problems with a competition?
  • How do you prepare students to handle any type of attorney feedback they may receive?
  • Some attorneys argue that harsh words and even harassment are part of legal culture, so moot court can help students by preparing them for that too. What are your thoughts on that stance?
  • When moot court is done right, what does it offer students and attorney judges who are willing to volunteer?

In response to the call, this compilation features three contributions: Patrick Long of Buffalo, Susie Salmon of Arizona, and Barbara Gotthelf of Rutgers. Thanks to each contributor.

PLONGBy Patrick Long 

Legal Analysis, Writing and Research Program Coordinator and Lecturer, and Director of Moot Courts, University at Buffalo School of Law

Q: What makes a good—and a bad—volunteer moot court judge?

We tend not to hear about the good experiences with judging. Few people talk to us as directors when arguments go well, judges are engaged, and there’s enough coffee. So as directors, no news is really good news. As a result, my most vivid experiences are all bad ones. I know: we need to be thankful for our volunteer judges. CLE is not much payment for the work a good judge does, and we simply could not do moot courts without their help. Nonetheless, there can be some real stinkers. The bad judges fall into two broad categories: lousy humans and lousy teachers.

In the lousy human camp are these judges:

  1. The judge who told a student with mild cerebral palsy and a slight stutter that “because of your speech impediment, litigation is probably not a great fit for you.”
  2. The judge who complimented an Asian-American student on how well she knew English.
  3. The judge who reads the bench brief for the first time when he arrives at the competition.
  4. Any judge who says “I know the dean …”

In the lousy teacher camp are those lawyers who have forgotten what it means to be a student, or to be responsible to educate students. They expect 2L’s and 3L’s to match their own (self-inflated) knowledge of law and procedure, and they expect problems that present near-actual legal issues and facts. These judges are incapable of inspiring students about the profession, or teaching them what they need to know. They also refuse to understand that those who write the problems need to find two issues, on interesting legal topics, that are not factually on point exactly with cases pending (because students will just download the briefs from Westlaw):

  1. The judge who disagreed with a student’s version of the facts because she had not read the record or the bench brief. Then castigated the student for the ridiculous problem “that could never happen in real life” after the student showed her the fact pattern. At lunch, she spent 20 minutes complaining to me about the idiot who wrote the problem, not aware that it was me. That evening, that’s team coach told me in all the years he had been coaching moot courts, he had never seen so lousy a judge, and he was convinced she intentionally tanked his team’s score because of her own failure to read the record.
  2. The judge who tells war stories about his own fabled career for 25 minutes in the feedback portion, ruining the entire day’s schedule, and ignoring the students entirely.

There are those rare angels, however, who really make me proud to be a lawyer:

  1. The judge who actually reads all the cases cited in the bench brief.
  2. The judge who tells you she enjoyed the problem.
  3. The judge who says for an extra round because you are thin on volunteers.
  4. The (actual sitting) judge who told the competitor who crashed and burned how poorly she did in her first argument in court, and how she thought about quitting the DA’s office.
  5. Your former student who comes back to judge, because she knows how much she learned from the experience, and because she knows it’s part of her duty as an attorney to give back to the profession.

These angels make it worthwhile, but they seem more and more rare these days.

 

salmon_susanBy Susie Salmon

Director of Legal Writing and Clinical Professor of Law, The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law

Q: Some attorneys argue that harsh words and even harassment are part of legal culture, so moot court can help students by preparing them for that too. What are your thoughts on that stance?

I think that attitude is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous. How do we create a culture of civility and respect in the legal profession if members of the profession model this type of incivility and disrespect (and frequently seem to be having so much fun doing it) at moot-court competitions? And, honestly, I’d give that justification more credence if the attorneys who misbehaved while in role then told the students in feedback that their misbehavior—while not unheard of in the profession—should nonetheless be unacceptable. I strongly favor moot-court judges who hold advocates to account, force advocates to use law and fact to support their arguments, chastise advocates for making false statements of misrepresentations, and prevent advocates from evading difficult questions.

But I do not support moot-court judges modeling unprofessional, uncivil, or disrespectful behavior just because some real-world judges and attorneys will behave poorly.

Should we sexually harass students during moot court just because Kozinski existed? Should we make bigoted statements because students might be subjected to such behavior in the real world? No. Of course not.

We prepare students for those unpleasant realities—without perpetuating them—by discussing real-world examples and how to handle them, not by modeling that poor behavior ourselves.

Q:  What can attorneys do to prepare for judging to make it an excellent educational experience for students and help the attorneys share uniquely valuable advice and feedback with students?

Nothing devalues the moot-court experience for the students like unprepared or underprepared attorney judges. Unprepared judges cannot accurately assess the substance of a student’s argument and thus will reward superficial polish and bluster over truly proficient persuasion. Read the bench memo thoroughly and make sure you understand the legal principles and crucial facts. If you have time, read some of the key cases. Discuss the law and facts with your fellow judges, if possible, and ask clarifying questions as necessary. If the problem presents an area of law with which you are entirely unfamiliar, consider browsing a treatise or two. Try as much as possible to prepare as you would if you actually had to decide the issue.

Q: What can competitions do to prepare their attorney judges and minimize bad experiences for students?

Competitions can help by making it as easy as possible for judges to be well prepared for argument. Look: I know it’s often hard to recruit judges, and there is only so much a competition can do to control what busy volunteers do to prepare.

But competitions can make it easier, more fun, and more convenient for judges to be prepared. Many competitions—including our internal competitions at Arizona Law—provide not only thorough, well-organized written bench memos and judging guidelines but also instructional videos that include an overview of the key legal and factual issues and some tips on judging and scoring.

With the proliferation of online education, most educational institutions have access to the technology that will help you make the material accessible to judges in a mode and at a time that’s most convenient for them. Explore whether the jurisdiction allows you to offer CLE credit to attorneys who review the prep materials (maybe even create a quiz to make sure people have digested the key information); attorneys always need CLE credit!

When you create the problem, resist making the legal issues so complex and convoluted that lawyers of ordinary intelligence will struggle to get up to speed; the students will work hard to understand those issues and develop sophisticated arguments, and few things are quite so demoralizing to a moot-court advocate as having an ill-prepared judge favor your opponent’s slick but flawed retort over your nuanced, thoughtful, accurate argument.

And I love it when competitions give coaches comment cards to make it easier to share feedback on the competition, including judging issues. I provide many more suggestions in my article, Reconstructing the Voice of Authority, which came out in Akron Law Review in fall of 2018, but those would be my top tips.

Gotthelf-Barbara-photoBy Barbara Gotthelf

Professor of Professional Practice of Law and Director of Externship Programs, Rutgers Law 

Q:  How do you prepare students for comments from moot court judges that focus on superficial issues?

I’ve stopped calling our program at Rutgers “Hunter Moot Court.” Instead, I call it “Hunter Appellate Advocacy” because I want it to be seen—by students, faculty, and guest judges — as an educationally focused simulation course rather than a public speaking contest.

Hunter Moot Court, named for the late Third Circuit Judge James Hunter III, is a year-long, five credit course in which students brief the case in the fall and argue it in the spring—more or less the way it happens in real life, which is the point. The course is designed to approximate actual practice as much as possible. That goal—making it as real as possible—governs how we approach the judging of the arguments.

This is what I tell my students. From their perspective as advocates, the purpose of oral argument is to persuade the court by narrowing the issues; answering the court’s questions, rebutting arguments; and explaining in simple, concrete terms, how and why they should win. From the court’s perspective, oral argument is a chance to clarify, to probe, to challenge, and to resolve any issues that stand in the way of reaching a decision.

I also tell my students this: None of this has much to do with their oratory prowess.

As Justice White once commented, judges view lawyers as resources, not as orators. As long as the lawyer can be heard and understood, I honestly don’t believe the court cares one bit whether the lawyer appears nervous or pauses to gather her thoughts.

Judges do care, and care a lot, if the lawyer is prepared; if she is respectful; and, most of all, if she answers the court’s questions, fully and directly. I tell my guest judges this as well, and I ask them to evaluate the arguments from the perspective of an actual judge hearing a real argument, focusing on what truly matters to someone who must render a decision in a real case involving real litigants.

And then I warn my students that no matter how well we try to prepare the lawyers who will judge their arguments, some of them are still likely to give feedback on things like inflection, use of verbal fillers, dramatic flair, and rhetorical wizardry.  Worse yet, I tell them that at least one student—probably a woman—will be told to smile more, and another—probably a man—will be told to “come out swinging” on rebuttal. This is the cyclical curse of moot court. As law students, these are the criteria many of us were judged by, especially those of us who went to law school before much thought was given to what “practice ready” means.

The lawyer/judges don’t always get this. But the students do. By the time we get to the argument phase in March, they have lived and breathed the case for six months, and frankly they don’t want to be told to smile more. Because we’ve discussed this, they are able to filter out the superficial comments and focus on the substantive feedback.  This is one of many reasons I always invite Hunter alums to judge the arguments.

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Thanks again to the guest contributors above. For more information on moot court judging, see Barbara Kritchevsky’s law-review article Judging: The Missing Piece of the Moot Court Puzzle, reprinted in the Legal Writing Institute’s Monograph Series, Volume Six on Moot Court and Oral Advocacy. (Full disclosure: I was editor-in-chief of that volume.)

And good luck to every student competing in moot court and other skills competitions this year. You are making yourselves into stronger and more skillful future lawyers by all your work!

 

Law schoolLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skillsLegal writing

A digression: re-learning to swim

While attempting—as an adult—to learn how to swim properly, the experience gave me a whole new appreciation for what 1L legal writing students go through. The idea of adults trying new things in middle age is a whole genre, found in a variety of essays and books, e.g. What I learned as the worst student in the class and Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age. Law students may or may not start law school in their 40s, but they do bring beliefs, methods, and habits that may or may not help them adjust to legal writing. On this, my final class of the year teaching 1L legal writing, here are some thoughts.

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What you already know—or think you know—can block your learning.

I already “knew” how to swim. As a child, I took just enough swimming lessons to say I could swim. The P.E. teacher stood in the pool and led us in a lot of bobbing up and down, some survival sidestroke, and a little freestyle. Swimming was not an embedded part of my hometown’s culture, though. The local country club closed down and was bowled over to make a Super Wal-Mart. My exposure to swimming over the next 30 years consisted of watching the Olympics. As a result, I had some mistaken ideas.

Take breathing, for example. It seemed like a good idea take stop kicking and just kind of coast while breathing to the side. Swimming is supposed to seem effortless, is it not? This idea was really, really wrong. I also thought I should breathe on alternating sides—a belief that is not wrong, but also not necessary for a beginner. Other issues were far more important to address, such as body rotation and not putting my palm out like a stop sign.

Mistaken and distorted beliefs afflict beginning legal writers as well. Everyone in law school has some kind of writing background, even if it’s been years in between. Memories of long-past writing lessons may bubble to the surface. Some of these memories are good. Yes, a paragraph should have a topic sentence indicating what it’s about, followed by details. That was true in fourth grade and still valuable now.

But some of the writing memories are bad, at least for legal writing. Law students often come at legal writing brandishing a thesaurus because they don’t want to sound repetitive and, they fear, simplistic. In fact as experienced legal writers know, “elegant variation” (a term coined by Richard Wydick) may introduces ambiguity, which most of the time in legal writing is very, very bad. New legal writers should put the thesaurus away and focus more on reading legal language with a legal dictionary at their side. Experienced legal writers can certainly use the thesaurus; they know which words can be varied and which cannot. But that’s the wrong thing to emphasize at the beginning, just as alternate breathing is a skill to save for later in one’s swimming process.

Skills are like muscles.

What you do becomes who you are. Based on years of running, my legs were pretty strong even if orthopedically challenged. But swimming quickly revealed an upper-body deficit. My arms were accomplishing almost nothing. In fact, using arms actually slowed me down at first, as compared to kicking alone.

Similarly in taking on legal writing, students’ past experiences will have contributed to their strengths and weaknesses coming into the course. Those who have been writing lengthy liberal arts papers are more likely to be comfortable bringing in sources, generating content, and highlighting ambiguities. Those who have been working in business may be very comfortable with summaries up front and concise recommendations.

These strengths of each disciplinary background come with weaknesses as well. Spotting ambiguities is necessary but not sufficient to create valuable, reliable legal advice. Concise summaries and recommendations may not go far enough to help a lawyer or client understand the relevant legal context and possibilities.

Learning a new variation of a skill doesn’t mean ignoring what has worked in the past, but it does mean being willing to reflect and modify. Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb has written a handbook for translating various disciplinary backgrounds into strong legal writing in Legal Writing in the Disciplines: A Guide to Legal Writing Mastery.

It’s harder when people are watching.

Not knowing how to do something can feel very embarrassing. Swimming around other actual swimmers was a psychological obstacle. I would leave the pool rather than share a lane. I saw other people—kids and adults—working with swim coaches. Part of me wanted to get some advice too, but I felt really embarrassed.

When I finally let a swimming coach see me swim, her advice made a world of difference. She quickly diagnosed and suggested specific, effective corrections for the mistakes I was making.

Similarly in beginning legal writing, it can be excruciating for some students to share their work, or any of their thoughts. Raising a hand is the last thing many students would do. Even turning in early assignments just to the professor can be stressful. Just the thought of letting someone reading a piece of writing can interfere with the writing process.

But most of the time, almost everyone in the room is dealing with the same questions and issues in their work. Sharing one’s work is a huge step towards getting a genuine assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. No matter how bad the first attempt, it won’t be the worst piece of legal writing an experienced professor has ever seen. And it probably has some predictable patterns that can be recognized and re-shaped to create much more effective work.

Working with a coach is great, but the coach can’t do it for you.

The coach spent 45 minutes with me and vastly improved the efficiency of what I was doing in the water. She showed me what I needed to be doing with my arms and legs and breathing, correcting my misconceptions. She also let me know about some of the conventions of swimming that didn’t seem important to me but in fact are important to real swimmers. For example, you always touch the wall. Stopping a few inches short because “whatever, it’s just a few inches,” is not what real swimmers do.

As the lesson went on, my brain started to overload and my body started to tire. I got frustrated and may have dropped a particular profane word. The coach could have given me more advice, but I couldn’t learn. She ended with a gentle admonition: “You just need to swim. Are you going to come out here and practice?”

Students must have a similar experience when meeting with their legal writing professors. Skillful feedback can help a new legal writer cut through a lot of ineffective habits. The professor can help the student understand that some practices—such as sticking with the same legally significant term instead of resorting to the thesaurus—need to be accepted for the student to become a real legal writer.

But there’s only so many writing points that a writing conference can cover. At some point, the student (understandably) has maxed out on taking advice. And then the student has to leave the conference, go out, and just write.

Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you should keep going.

Swimming is really, really tiring. And people who are tired make mistakes. With swimming, at best this means slowing down. It can also mean a noseful of water and coughing fit in the middle of the lap lane. At such moments, the best thing seems to be just to calm down and reset for another try.

And so it is with learning legal writing. Sometimes the writing muscles just get tired. Just sitting at a computer does not lead to writing. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” The writing activity in marathon writing sessions may be particularly vulnerable to mistakes. And the problem there is not just sloppy or confusing writing but substantive mistakes that could affect legal advice to a client.

But that does not mean quitting at the first sign of fatigue. It doesn’t mean all mistakes signal break time. Any athlete must push the boundaries of fatigue to improve. As an adult-learner in the swimming world, my workouts are pathetic by lifelong swimmer standards. But challenging myself to do an extra lap or another short set will be what moves me forward.

Similarly with writing, pushing through the frustration is often crucial to making actual progress.

Accomplishment comes in tiny moments at first.

Breakthroughs can be subtle. At some point I started stretching out in front of me and “pulling” more water. (See how I used the word “pulling”? I am pretty sure that’s a real swimming word!) I was able to rotate in the water instead of swimming like a floating ironing board. Progress was slow, but the time in the pool made a lot of difference, and I knew I was getting better.

Similarly for new legal writers, real progress can be halting at first: Read a case and highlighting an important quote. Make an outline and look at how it has a point A without a point B (yikes!). Write a sentence and realizing that it is too specific to start a new paragraph; it’s a detail, not an idea about the law. Nobody else will be there to see these brief flashes, but they are so important.  The progress is subtle and private—but real.

The lesson and the learning are never really “finished.”

I’d like to say I’m a great or even just a strong swimmer now. That’s just not the case. But I’m a lot better. I wear a one-piece, cap, and goggles, and take a lane. I will continue to consult coaches from time to time and work on my own.

Learning legal writing is much the same. At the end of a year in legal writing, the transition is underway but incomplete. There is much to learn from the experts and from continued effort and experimentation. My hope for the students is that they know what to do to get better. My hope is that they feel the satisfaction of gaining a new skill.

Photo Credit: WordPress Photo Library

AdvocacyLaw schoolLaw school skills competitionsLegal educationLegal skills

“May it please the Court…”

It’s that time of year when 1Ls start preparing for their first oral argument. In a class on how to prepare, I’ll be sure to share this tweet from experienced SCOTUS advocate Bob Loeb of Orrick:

As the card shows, even expert advocates benefit from a sort of security blanket in a high-pressure situation. And precisely because a SCOTUS argument is so important, holding the card gives the advocates a small bit of extra mental bandwidth. They can reallocate this bandwidth to the actual substance of the argument. Of course, experienced SCOTUS advocates do not really need notes for the opening moments of their arguments. They probably never look at the card. But just having the card can provide some piece of mind.

Beginning advocates also need notes, partly to avoid the possibility of going blank.  (This happened to me in my 2L trial advocacy class and it was a lot like this, but scarier.) Beginners are more likely to cling to their notes and read them even when they don’t need to. But ideally, the notes serve a similar purpose to the Supreme Court card. Having them as a backup can reassure the advocate, freeing up mental bandwidth to think more about substance, and maybe even listen more intently to the questions.

There is one difference in the SCOTUS card and cards that 1Ls might make for themselves—a 1L’s creation does not double as a library card:

Question for readers: How do you make sure your notes are a help, not a hindrance, in public speaking—oral argument or any other formal setting?

Clinical legal educationCollaborationFact investigationLaw practiceLaw school

The hothouse of law school

The great law professor Larry Ribstein used to say that legal education has grown within a hothouse. Flora and fauna grow in different ways in a hothouse than in a natural environment.

-William D. Henderson, quoted in Katrina Lee, The Legal Career: Knowing the Business, Thriving in Practice (2017)

For sixteen years I’ve been teaching in the “hothouse” of legal education. I’m certainly aware of differences between how law and legal skills are taught in the hothouse and how they are practiced in the natural environment.

Some of these differences are unavoidable and in fact beneficial. Education is preparation, and preparation can thoughtfully sequence legal topics and legal skills in a way that law practice does not and cannot.

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But some differences between the hothouse and natural environment of practice are not necessary or helpful. It’s an essential part of the law professor’s task to be aware of this difference and make constant calculations about where to situate each assignment or discussion. A class that is all “hothouse” may leave its delicate, coddled students to wilt in the natural environment; a class that is all natural may damage and weaken its students before they have a chance to thrive.

A class that is all “hothouse” may leave its delicate, coddled students to wilt in the natural environment; a class that is all natural may damage and weaken its students before they have a chance to thrive.

One key to making those calculations is knowing what happens in typical natural environment of law practice. Ann Sinsheimer and David J. Herring did a fascinating study of what lawyers really do at work. Of particular interest to the legal-writing professors, they found that lawyers they spend a ton of time meticulously crafting emails.[i]

Sinsheimer and Herring also found that lawyers spend a lot of time reading—no surprise there. But what they are reading is not nearly as case-driven as expected:

The scope of what these attorneys read was surprising to both the associates and the law student observers, particularly given the emphasis on reading judicial opinions in the traditional law school curriculum. In fact, our law student observers were surprised by the relatively few judicial opinions these attorneys read. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the 2L observer who followed L, a third year litigation associate at a large law firm:

The types of documents L read varied based on what type of case she was working on and how big her role was within the case. What surprised me most about this was how little time she actually spent reading judicial decisions. While I was there, I witnessed her reading mostly treatises, statutes, case summaries, emails, discovery documents, and secondary sources. She did read some judicial opinions while I was there, particularly when she was researching a legal issue, but not as frequently as one would expect based on the strong focus on what seems like only judicial opinions in law school. A lot of L’s time was actually spent reading documents that most law students never see, such as discovery documents, business documents, contracts, and bids.

Thus, this study points out that legal education may in fact have a “hothouse” problem when it comes to reading. Classes on transactional reading and writing, administrative and procedural skills, and business skills would help bring their experience closer to what they will see in the natural environment.

I think there’s even more of a gap in how listening is approached in legal education versus how it’s practiced in the natural environment.

Yes, there is some excellent training in listening and communication, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. But what do most law students do, most of the time? This is what worries me because this is what I think the answer is:

Go to class. Sit somewhere between 5 and 100 feet away from the professor. Open a laptop. (Maybe) open a chat channel. Take notes. (Maybe) chat with classmates or others. Make eye contact—or not. Take good notes—or not. (Maybe) record the class and listen to it later. (Maybe) ask a question or be asked a question, every couple of weeks at best. Start to gather up books and electronic equipment in the last few minutes of the class as the professor wraps it up. Close the laptop. Leave. Get tested indirectly on listening skills during the midterm and final exam weeks or months later. Never find out if a weakness on that exam was the result of a listening, reading, or thinking deficiency.

This is bad training for listening in law practice.

A student may spend an entire semester never making eye contact, consistently multi-tasking, and never confirming whether the notes they took are accurate or complete. Not to mention the fact that these hundreds of hours spent staring at a screen conditions any human being to . . . want to stare at a screen.

This is a hothouse, big time.

There are some pockets of explicit preparation on listening—some places where legal education is closer to the natural environment of listening in law practice. Simulations and clinics present excellent opportunities for real-world listening skills. I’ve watched a video with Lyn Su of New York Law School where she brilliantly coached a law student on his interaction with a simulated client. That’s just one example of the helpful opportunities that are available for those who take advantage of them.

The Sinsheimer/Herring study did not explicitly address listening skills as such in the workplace. It did, however, suggest that preparation on listening to clients and judges, while better than nothing certainly, is not quite what many new attorneys really need:

Communication skills were fundamental to these attorneys, but the sort of skills they drew upon are not a key part of the traditional law school curriculum. Communicative acts in law school often involve preparation for courtroom appearances or client interviews. In contrast, the sort of communication engaged in by the attorneys we observed was usually intra- and interoffice or business communication. Despite what their law school experience might have suggested, these attorneys made few court appearances and had limited client communication.

So how to get out of the “hothouse” and into more of a natural environment for actively teaching these skills? Having more clinics and simulations is one solution, and the ABA’s new graduation requirement of six experiential-learning credits will definitely have an impact. But students need a lot more than six hours of credit to graduate and could still spend hundreds of hours staring at their screens and typing notes.

One highly promising solution is the idea of team-based learning, where students have to talk and listen to one another in small groups. Working in a small group that is accountable to one another means that each team member’s listening skills (and all people skills) will matter much, much more. Professor Lindsay Gustafson of University of Arkansas-Little Rock has spoken about using team-based learning not for a skills class or clinic but for . . . 1L property class.

I’ll say more in future posts about Gustafson’s work and team-based learning as an escape from the “hothouse.” Professor Anne Mullins of North Dakota has done good work on team-based learning as well.

And I invite comments about what are the right communication skills for the natural environment of law practice, as well as how to teach and promote those skills through legal education.

…….

[i] Legal-writing professors talk all the time about whether memos and appellate briefs are too much like “hothouse” assignments. The rise of the email assignment and shorter assignments in general are a sign that legal-writing classes are evolving to better represent the actual nature of practice. (It can never actually “be” the true experience but only a simulacrum for educational purposes. And that’s as it should be, since it is by definition education and preparation for that experience.)

In speaking, moot court is an excellent advocacy project that is also fairly criticized for being, at times, artificial. An example of a critique is Steven Berenson’s article in the New Mexico Law Journal, Preparing Clinical Law Students for Advocacy in Poor People’s Courts. He argues that students need to be ready to speak in a much less structured and more chaotic environment.

 

AdvocacyClinical legal educationLegal skillsLitigationTrial advocacy

New book: Litigation in Practice by Judge Curtis E. A. Karnow

What does a veteran trial judge have to say about . . . everything trial related? On my summer reading list was Litigation in Practice by Judge Curtis E. A. Karnow of the San Francisco Superior Court. It has some of the obvious—be nice to court staff; how to introduce documents into evidence—but also delves deeper into complex litigation, statistical evidence, expert witnesses, and the strategy of timing settlement.

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The book doesn’t directly address listening at trial. But it indirectly touches on listening by criticizing lawyers who interrupt the witness or use “body language such as a raised hand.” Judge Karnow advises lawyers to ask the judge for help directing the witness to answer. He points out that “[y]our questions, too, might be part of the problem, in inviting a meandering, narrative response.” And that leads to my favorite section of the book: “Bad Questions.”

I thought the section on bad questions would be good for this blog because I know I’ve heard many of these questions used repeatedly in depositions and at trial. In fact, one of the questions on Judge Karnow’s list was described to me by a senior trial lawyer as his favorite question.

So I’m interested in blog readers’ reactions to whether they agree these are bad questions. or perhaps just in California where Judge Karnow sits. What are other bad questions you’ve heard lawyers try?

“Is it possible that . . . .” Unless the matter is a logical impossibility (is it possible that 2+2=8?) or a factual impossibility (is it possible you saw a unicorn?) the answer to this question is always “yes.” Anything is possible. Accordingly the question is pointless . . .

“Didn’t you testify that . . . .” This is often a squabble about wording. I assume the jury has been paying attention, and testimony on what a witness has testified about poses the risk of a dangerous infinite regress. Find another way to impeach. . . .

“You heard witness X say . . . (or, “Assume witness X said . . . .) . . . are you calling X a liar?” This is either rhetorical flourish, argument to the jury, calls for speculation, or all of the above.

“Would you be surprised to know . . . .” or “Would it surprise you to learn that . . . .” Nobody cares if the witness is surprisable or not. The question obviously is designed to get a fact in front of the jury whose source is the lawyer, not the witness.”

“Is it fair to say that . . . .” What would it mean if the answer were yes? Or no? Fair to whom, exactly? . . .

Judge Karnow also says that “[a]ny question longer than fifteen words” is a bad question.

For cross examination, he agrees with the “common wisdom” of asking short, focused questions that avoid double negatives. His introduction to the whole section on bad questions serves as a conclusion here: “While most of these are ultimately harmless, they confuse the issues and are a waste of time.”

My question to readers is: Do you agree with Judge Karnow that these are bad questions at trial? Have you used these questions with success? Do you have ideas for better questions that do work across contexts? 

 

 

 

 

Clinical legal educationLaw schoolLegal educationLegal skillsMoot Court

Habit-forming classrooms     

How much time do law students spend in class? I’ve been thinking about the behavioral implications of so much time in front of laptop screens. I look forward to reading but don’t actually need to read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked to know that looking at a screen is some kind of behavioral habit. And the time students spend in law-school classrooms may be feeding that habit.

Yes, some professors ban laptops. Most do not. Yes, some law students use their laptops just exactly like a yellow legal pad and quill pen, never once checking any updated social media feed during class. But most do not. So just how much time do law students spend in front of laptop screens during a typical three-year JD program?

An estimate can be derived from ABA regulations for law schools, which I learned more about at the Legal Writing Institute’s recent conference for moot court advisors helped to answer this question. ABA Standard 311 requires 83 credit hours to graduate, 64 hours of which must constitute  “attendance in regularly scheduled classroom sessions or direct faculty instruction.” The broad topic of ABA requirements came up at the moot court conference because within this 64 hours, students graduating in 2019 and after will need six hours of experiential-learning credits to graduate. Moot court advisors from Oklahoma City College of Law, Mississippi College of Law, the University of North Dakota, and Ohio State University talked about the new ABA requirement for experiential learning.

That number—64 hours—is the key to answering my question about total laptop time.

Let’s use the ABA’s numbers to assume that a student takes only 64 classroom hours to graduate and the rest of the 83 comes from extracurricular activities, externships, and other types of educational activities.

Out of the required 64, let’s further assume six of those are experiential learning in a clinic or simulation, in which students should be closing their laptops and working closely with people a substantial portion of that time.

That leaves another 58 hours of course credit in lecture and Socratic law-school classes. Let’s assume the student uses a laptop during all of that time. Is this an unrealistic assumption? I don’t think so, but you can easily adjust the math below to reach estimates for 80 percent laptop usage or 60 percent laptop usage.

If we do assume the student opens a laptop for notetaking during all of these class sessions throughout law school, what’s the total time that student’s eyeballs will be on the screen?

A credit hour is 50 minutes of classroom time per week plus two hours of preparation time (ignored for purposes of this calculation). Each semester has 15 weeks, but one of those weeks can be used for exam review and exam taking. Thus the total amount of classroom time can be calculated as follows:

50 minutes a week,

14 weeks a semester,

multiplied by 58 credit-hours.

What’s the mathematical result?

40,600 minutes

677 hours

84-and-a-half business days

That’s a lot of time with eyeballs on screens. Taking notes in a law-school lecture may not be habit-forming like Candy Crush, but it’s still a behavior. Repeat a behavior enough, and you have a habit (colloquially defined). Walk into the room, take out the laptop, pop it open and turn it on. When the professor begins to speak, direct attention to the front of the room, and start typing. Listen for a while and keep up with class, typing notes in bullet and sub-bullet form vertically down a Word or notes page of some sort. Then a thought pops up about an expected email reply. Open a tab to quickly check. Keep one ear on the professor’s words and get them down. Close the email tab and return to the notes doc. Rinse and repeat.

The 58 credit-hours of classroom time make up almost two-thirds of a student’s academic time in law school. Assuming that a student gets excellent training and practice on interviewing (including listening skills) somewhere in the other 35 credit-hours, can that training and practice overcome the weeks, days, and hours spent looking at the laptop? Of course people use different communication skills and tools in a large classroom and a one-on-one interview. But are these communication habits so easily siloed and separated? What is the leakage—if any—between classroom listening habits and professional listening habits? As Will Durant said in paraphrasing Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

This month tens of thousands of law students are shaking off their final exams and going out into the “real world” for summer work. At courts, agencies, businesses, and law firms, these personal laptops will largely be left behind. But what habits won’t be?

__

Here are just a few of many recent articles on laptops in the law-school classroom:

Kristen Murray, Let them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate over Laptops in the Classroom

James Levy, Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School

Steven Eisenstat, A Game-Changer: Assessing the Impact of the Princeton/UCLA Laptop Study on the Debate of Whether to Ban Student Use of Laptops during Class

 

 

 

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Deliberate practice and lawyering skills

This past weekend, the Legal Writing Institute hosted its second Biennial Moot Court Conference at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Several of the talks touched on listening-related themes. Kent Streseman of the Chicago-Kent College of Law explored the concept of “deliberate practice” for moot court competitors. His summary of the tenets of deliberate practice could be useful for anyone who wants to improve their mental dexterity and ability to think on their feet. 

I once heard Rutgers Law professor Ruth Anne Robbins refer to moot court with an analogy to “muscle memory.” In sports, building up muscle memory can be a good thing—or a bad thing. If you learn how to swim the wrong way and then repeat the mistake over and over, she said, you won’t become a better swimmer no matter how much you practice. (Likewise for lawyers preparing presentations and arguments, creating wordy PowerPoint slides and then silently reading them to yourself may not be the path to great public speaking.)

In his Chicago talk, Streseman made a related point about sub-optimal practice: Even practicing correctly but in the standard, same way over and over is not going to produce results, especially if it’s ill-informed to begin with. Repetitive practice doesn’t help a learner progress beyond a certain fixed point, and in fact, “skills tend to regress.” 

The “gold standard” of preparation is “deliberate practice,” a concept from Anders Ericsson’s work summarized for a popular audience in Ericsson’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. The purpose of deliberate practice is to yield expert performance:

The hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well-developed mental representations.

To build up these mental representations, you need deliberate practice. In his talk Streseman outlined some of the conditions of deliberate practice:

  • The practices must be challenging, with the learner giving their full attention to a task demanded beyond the edge of their comfort zone.
  • The feedback needs to be informed by experts’ accomplishments and understanding of what they themselves do to excel.
  • The feedback must be followed by the opportunity to modify the performance in response, and to recover and reflect on the practice.

These types of focused practices lead to more effective mental representations of the argument in the competitor/advocate’s own mind. And having those effective mental representations mean the competitors can react more quickly to questions and make better decisions on what to say next and how.

The closest connection to listening seemed to be the crucial fact that deliberate practice requires the learner’s full attention. Moreover, the learner has to actually listen and adjust to the feedback provided. Speaking and speaking and speaking again without attention to feedback may be practice, but it’s not deliberate. You can do that in front of a mirror or your dog, and we all know sometimes that’s what a person needs to initially prepare. As beginners approach a task, they may need some repetitive practice with no feedback to get into their comfort zone. Once there, they can then start to push beyond that zone.

But rehearsing to a dog is too comfortable. It’s not deliberate practice, as the dog’s feedback is not informed by experts’ accomplishments and methods of excelling. My dog has been a lawyer’s dog most of his life, spanning three owners with a variety of practice experience both civil and criminal. All three of these lawyers were moot court types. But the dog still can’t coach moot court effectively.

Thanks to Kent Streseman for his talk on deliberate practice and moot court, and to John Marshall Law School and the Legal Writing Institute for hosting the conference.  I look forward to reading Peak and sharing any additional insights from delving into it.  I also hope to share more posts from the conference with additional connections to listening. Until then, you can access tweets from me and others at #LWIMootCourt.

 

Clinical legal educationDispute resolutionLegal skillsMediation

Facilitating Dialogue Across Difference

SilversteinMany thanks to Gail Silverstein, Clinical Professor of Law at the UC Hastings College of the
Law, for this guest post about the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution’s recent conference. Gail co-directs and co-teaches an Individual Representation Clinic and a Mediation Clinic at UC Hastings.

 

The 19th Annual Spring Conference of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution took place in my hometown of San Francisco, California, on April 19-22, 2017. While participants in the March for Science gathered nationally, conference attendees on Saturday morning learned about facilitating dialogue across difference from the team at the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School in a session entitled “Dialogue through Difference: Expanding the Legal Skill Set.”

Harvard’s political-dialogue initiative came out of observing both a national need for dialogues across political differences since the 2012 election and a need at the law-school level as students seemed unable to engage politically in the classroom beyond one standard “liberalish” viewpoint. The three goals of the initiative include:

  1. Educating students to skillfully facilitate and participate in dialogues across difference
  2. Serving the community by providing facilitation services
  3. Creating and sharing pedagogy in this area to build the field

The session described how the initiative is faring thus far and also introduced a new educational video, available soon, entitled “Police-Community Dialogue: A Facilitated Conversation Featuring Commentary with Harvard Law School Professor Robert C. Bordone.” (See trailer for this video here.)

Bookmark Side 2

Session speakers described how the skillset needed for facilitating dialogue across difference contrasts with those of the traditional lawyer. Three of these skills include building connection, unlearning control, and creating comfort with discomfort. Despite the contrasts with the traditional lawyer archetype, all of these named skills relate to listening as both a skill and value that is essential for today’s lawyers.

Building connection

In these dialogues, there is often not a particularized set outcome. Rather, facilitators need to help people connect to one another and their different perspectives and to try to understand where people are coming from in their viewpoints. For Tobias Berkman, who facilitated the police-community dialogue featured in the video, the most important questions used in this sensitive dialogue were ones that engaged the participants personally—for instance “How have these issues impacted you personally?” and “What to do you bring to this?”

Even more important than asking the right questions, listening is the key way we help to build connection with others. The kind of listening that these difficult facilitations require is likely the same type of listening that is helpful to lawyers in early client interviews or during emotionally laden conversation with clients: an open-ended, compassionate listening. I often refer to the work of Peter Elbow on “methodological belief” when I teach my students this type of connection-building listening.  To Elbow, methodological belief is the discipline of listening with the intention to believe what the speaker is saying.  This type of listening, Elbow advances and my experience confirms, allows the listener to feel the power of the other person and his or her ideas, which creates the connection and understanding to which we aspire.

Unlearning control

Second, political-dialogue facilitators need to unlearn that they need to control the process to have a smooth external appearance. Tobias Berkman shared that what looks and feels like a safe place to some participants is actually a “delusion” that privileges a certain kind of engagement. While some appreciate calm and rational conduct, anger and hostility are important for others to express, in order to command respect and power. To maintain a composed exterior on the dialogue does not indicate success for a facilitator as it may be clamping down on important emotions and modalities of expression.

Again, listening is a core component of unlearning control as it is the manner by which we allow the outside world to affect us. In comparison to speaking, which is one of the primary tools by which we impose ourselves on the world, when we listen we allow ourselves to be affected by others. As such, listening is a type of ceding control over ideas, emotions, and narratives to others. All lawyers need to find a good balance between speaking and listening to be effective.

Creating Comfort with Discomfort

Third, political-dialogue facilitators need to build their own comfort with discomfort as they work to move toward the disagreements, instead of shying away from conflict and the multiplicity of emotions. Berkman, along with his co-facilitator Danielle Bart, emphasized that being able to maintain and sustain vulnerability while facilitating can be incredibly powerful and can function as a model for participants. At the same time, it can be demanding for a facilitator to show up authentically as a whole person, particularly in high stakes situations. Rachel Viscomi who teaches Harvard’s “Lawyer as Facilitator” class to law students finds instructive Brené Brown’s vulnerability motto in helping others learning to be genuinely present in these situations:

“Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

One barrier to effective listening can be our discomfort with our own internal emotions or those that others are expressing to us. Instead of being able to focus on the other person, we become distracted internally or shut down. This lesson of leaning in to the discomfort, which I learned in my mediation training years ago, is a key piece in the internal work necessary to be an effective and skillful listener.

To conclude, in this increasingly polarized world, augmenting lawyers’ skillset to both lead and participate in political dialogue is an incredibly important effort. It harkens to Professor Anthony’s Kronman’s “lawyer-statesman ideal”—that he believed to be failing—where the lawyer possesses qualities such a great practical wisdom, sympathy for others, and a devotion to the public good.

Kudos to the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinic for responding to society’s needs and keeping this ideal alive.

Additional resources:

Anthony Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession (Harvard University Press, 1995).

Peter Elbow, “Methodological Doubting and Believing: Contraries in Inquiry,” in Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program’s Blog

Access to Harvard Law School’s Police-Community Dialogue Case Study (fee based)

Law schoolLaw school prepLegal educationLegal skillsLegal writing

Let the ice cube melt

The other day I had to have my eyes dilated. As they slowly came back into focus, I tested them on this week’s issue of The New Yorker. One of the essays focused on Allison Janney, currently starring on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Janney’s character in the play owns a Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists of the early 20th Century), and in the New Yorker essay Janney was viewing a Kandinsky at the Guggenheim as she gave the interview:

On her phone, she pulled up a Kandinsky quote from the play: “It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” She grimaced. “A sentence like that is so hard to understand,” she said. “It’s like an ice cube that hasn’t melted. That’s the way my father used to talk about learning the piano or learning a language. He said, ‘It’ll melt, just give it time.'”

Kandinsky’s actual quote seemed like a legal writing professor’s dream, in terms of editing issues to attack:

  • throat-clearing language (“It is clear that…”)
  • a gaggle of prepositional phrases (“of…of…in…of…by…in…”)
  • passive voice, of course (“must be decided only by…”)

But underneath the verbiage is the artist’s essential concept. How could that wordy sentence be rewritten without changing the concept? I came up with the following:

“The artist must decide on elements in the harmony of form only by seeking a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”

This edit cuts 10 words. Is it better? Even though it reflects standard writing edits, it changed some of the original. Most obviously, obliterating the passive means adding an actor. But maybe Kandinsky wanted to hide “the artist” by using the passive. The most concrete thing in the whole sentence is the last thought—“a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Using abstract, passive, verbose language leading up to the final culminating moment—“the human soul”—is itself a form of verbal artistry.

This conceptual verbal artistry is at home and welcome in art-theory discourse, not so much in legal writing. The values of plain language and efficient writing have little use for a quote like “It is clear that the choice of objects . . . blah blah blah.”

So after reading Kandinsky’s quote in the essay, I was ready to move on to another portion of the magazine. But luckily, I finished the paragraph, catching Allison Janney’s wonderful turn of phrase quoted from her father:

“It’ll melt, just give it time.”

I think she meant that after effort and thought by the person approaching this sentence, the sequence of words will break down. They will “melt” into meaning in the person’s mind. The sentence itself doesn’t change; after all, that’s what Kandinsky meant for it to say. But the person encountering the sentence can melt it in their own mind so it’s not so rigid and foreboding.

How does this melting occur? As Janney’s father advised her, through time and patience. Not through focused effort directly lasered onto the ice cube. An ice cube melts effortlessly through the passage of time.

This ice-cube metaphor seems to me a wonderful metaphor for learning the law as well. For new law students faced with old cases and new concepts in arcane and twisted language, at times the only logical reaction is to grimace—just as Janney did when she read the Kandinsky quote. And of course you can apply techniques, tips, and tricks (as shown earlier in this post) to break down what you hear and read into something you can actually understand and use.

But really, ultimately the only valid long-term strategy is letting the ice cube melt. It melts slowly and imperceptibly. But then, at some point, something has happened. You can speak the language, and you can play the instrument. The ice cube has melted. You are thinking like a lawyer.

 

 

Clinical legal educationLaw school skills competitionsLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skills

Postscript on “um”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating a Facebook chat on Rutgers law professor Barbara Gotthelf’s article The Lawyer’s Guide to “Um.” She published it in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD (for which, full disclosure, I’m a social media editor.) The Facebook chat, available here in LC&R’s ongoing Discussion Group, was a chance to explore and, in some cases, push back on her unexpected thesis:

Lawyers who speak before courts, clients, and other discerning audiences should know how fillers function to communicate information; they should understand that the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.

More specifically, Gotthelf shows in the paper how listeners comprehend speech better when it contains some discourse markers and “fillers” (also known more favorably as “planners”) such as “um.” Taking a text and reading it out loud perfectly, with no fillers, is less effective for speakers  than inserting some speech cues—including, yes, “um.”  Use of fillers such as “um” can signal delay while processing a thought, but can also preserve one’s “turn” to talk, attract attention, or actually help emphasize a point.

Building off of Gotthelf’s paper, the most heated part of the Facebook Discussion, if you can use “heated” to describe a respectful group of people who appear to care very much about the topic as well as one another, concerned whether to explicitly call students out on using “um.” Professor Gotthelf’s strongly held belief is NOT to point them out early in a student’s preparation cycle:

Many of my students begin the semester with annoying habits. Umms, giggling, hair twirling. It’s early nerves. That stuff melts away on its own as the students gain confidence from practicing and thinking about their arguments.

In that sense, Gotthelf said, “ums” are caused by natural unpreparedness, which can be cured naturally as well, by substantive preparation. Georgia Tech professor Brian Larson uses the opposite approach:

I DO point them out. In fact, we count each other’s (I subject myself to video as well) ums and uhs per minute in presentation videos (undergrad presentation class). We do so to draw attention to something that many audiences find annoying. I also draw attention to the fact that as a very experienced public speaker, I still average 4.5 UPM (ums per minute). Thus, there is no point freaking out about a few ums/uhs. Most of them start the semester at 12-15 ums per minute and are down below 8 by end of semester.

This debate is important because, as Gotthelf writes in the paper, there are two causes for uttering “um”: (1) task complexity and (2) task concern. Basically when a task is more complex and more vocabulary options to describe a single idea, the speaker is more likely to say “um.” And—in a painful but all-too-understandable irony—being self-conscious about speaking makes a speaker say “um” more. Which of course leads others to comment on the speaker’s use of “um” as a problem to fix, leading to even more self-consciousness.

Although there was disagreement about whether to be explicit in addressing “um,” the discussion participants seemed to agree that obsessively fixating on “um” is a mistake. As Gotthelf noted in explaining why people hate “um” so much, it’s partly because “um” is simple:

It’s easy and superficial to focus on things like “um.” It’s much harder to evaluate the content of what someone is saying.

She also noted in the paper that historically—in the classical glory days of spoken rhetoric—no one cared about “um.” Only with playback on radio and TV did “um” become a major perceived problem. And now a distaste for “um” has entered the popular view of what good speaking is:

I think people just accept the conventional wisdom about “um” and don’t dig deeper. So that conventional wisdom gets repeated and repeated and becomes cemented.

Still professors have to prepare students for the world that is, not the world we wish for. Thus some thoughtful approach to helping students avoid excessively distracting “ums” was a common theme—even if that means rigorously never mentioning “um” at all.