The Law Teacher, Volume 3, number 1 (Fall 1995), p. 1-2.
About the Author
Gregory M. Stein is an associate professor of law at The University of Tennessee College of Law. Contact him at 1505 W. Cumberland Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37996-1800, (423) 974-4241, FAX (423) 974-0681, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the past five years, I have taught a Land Acquisition and Development Seminar. This upper-level course tends to attract the ten or fifteen students in each class who, like their teacher, cannot walk past a construction site without peering over the fence for a few minutes.
Several times in past years, students have suggested that it would be valuable to visit a construction site at some point during the semester; perhaps to meet with the owner, the general contractor, and the architect; and to get a sense from people in the business about how a project progresses. For some reason, I never followed up on their suggestions.
But an irresistible opportunity arose last year, when the University of Tennessee College of Law began a thirty-month renovation and expansion project.
Toward the end of the semester, the university's director of facilities planning, the general contractor's project manager, and the project architect met with the class and me. By this point, students had spent most of the semester representing the various parties involved in the construction of fictional Trumpet Tower. They had studied the intricacies of development financing and had drafted and negotiated construction and permanent loan documents. They had examined the American Institute of Architects' standard construction documents. But nothing that I did in class could simulate bargaining leverage, scheduling desperation, time pressure from actual clients (as opposed to a fictional client who grades students at the end of the term), sinkholes, unexpected aquifers, or heavy rains. In short, the students had been playing poker with chips not backed by cash, and I needed to bring in people not unlike their future clients to import some reality into the Trumpet Tower project.
I entered the special class session with some trepidation. Although I had practiced real estate law for four years and had been exposed to construction law, I had been teaching for five years and was increasingly worried that I had become rusty. Perhaps my background provided an accurate portrayal of the world of 1990, but was I hopelessly out-of-date? Perhaps the books and documents we had used in class were credible, but are the scholars who write in the field as knowledgeable about the construction process as I had always optimistically assumed?
I was introducing experts to the class who could credibly dispute my knowledge. I was reminded of the time in seventh grade when I became convinced my Spanish teacher was actually making everything up as she went along, perversely inventing grammatical rules and verb tenses, perhaps teaching us Portuguese or a fictional childhood language of her own. How would we have known? Back then, I would periodically turn on old UHF channel 47 -- the local Spanish-language station -- as a way of verifying her credentials. Today, the students would verify mine.
The class went quite well, at least as best as I could judge. Nearly all of the students showed up for this optional session on a beautiful spring Friday at the peak of the dogwood season. I had asked each of them to bring in a short list of questions -- in particular, questions about local practices that they had asked me during the year, and for which I had been able to offer only uncertain answers. Nearly all of the students asked pointed questions based on their increasing knowledge. They received straightforward responses from knowledgeable, skilled experts. They interacted, as professionals, with professionals.
The first hour of the two-hour session produced a few substantive law surprises. As it turns out, lien waivers, a topic on which we had spent a great deal of class time, seem to be infrequently used on projects in this part of the country. And the AIA form documents are only rarely negotiated in state projects -- the state simply drafts supplementary conditions, attaches them to the commercially prepared form document, and seeks bids on the package. But all in all, the first hour of the class accomplished exactly what I had hoped, by adding the one missing ingredient -- reality -- to my simulation class.
The second hour of the session probably was less valuable substantively but far more memorable. It also was the hook by which I had enticed everyone to attend -- a guided tour of the construction site, a journey inside the chain-link fence that had separated us from the various people doing mysterious and noisy things inside "the hole." I now can claim to have taught the first class in the new law school building, and so what if the building is not built yet and I did not actually "teach" the class?
The architect led us through the building plans, pointing out some of the more subtle features. We learned that fire-prevention systems are among the most difficult to design, because they must be connected to so many of the other building systems. And we observed how the Americans with Disabilities Act has altered building design.
Based on my two-hour experience with hardhat teaching, I recommend it highly. In some portions of the law school curriculum, such as clinical teaching, this is already standard fare. In other areas, it simply would not work. I could not, for example, offer a similar experience to my Law and Economics students (except, perhaps, in Chicago, or maybe Fairfax). But in those areas of law practice that occasionally produce the equivalent of a new law school building -- and there are more than you might think -- the benefits seem incontestable. Thus, a Securities Law teacher might take her students to an all-night session at the printer's, or a Health Law teacher might visit the general counsel's office of a major hospital. And Real Estate professors need not wait for their own law school buildings to be renovated -- any local construction project might work just as well.
The students benefited in several ways. They received more complete responses to some of the questions they had asked in class. They started to see how lawyers and business persons interact as useful members of a productive team. And they began to develop the confidence that they really knew more law than they thought they did, and that their own legal proficiency would continue to develop long after graduation.
I benefited, too. I was able to see students, who knew little about an area of law just fourteen weeks earlier, asking articulate questions and receiving answers from people who obviously respected their growing expertise. And I had the satisfaction of turning on old channel 47. Even as I increased my own knowledge, I was able to confirm that the teacher did, in fact, have something useful to offer, and was, in fact, teaching them real Spanish.
And, best of all, we were able to spend that second hour down in the red East Tennessee clay, watching the subs pour concrete, and crowding around the bed of the contractor's dusty red pickup to peer at the building plans that rippled gently in the spring breeze, on a warm Friday afternoon, at the peak of the dogwood season.