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Summer Plans to Plan for Fall

Summer Plans to Plan for Fall

By Prof. Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

As we now gaze out at the great expanse of the summer, it’s easy to get lost in the endless possibilities. This is the time we’ve set aside for major writing projects, for incorporating new exercises and assessments into our syllabi, and for getting up-to-date on the latest classroom materials.  We also need to recharge our batteries.

As I’ve come to learn over a dozen years of teaching (and thus a dozen summers teeming with endless possibilities), very few of these goals will be met without a specific and realistic plan of execution. I’ve had too many summers where I hung up my graduation robe, took a quick nap, and all of a sudden found that it was August 20.  So the following sets out a few suggestions for laying the groundwork for a productive summer.

First, finish grading. Attack your stack of exams and papers.  Students need closure for the semester, and so do you. Do whatever works for you to make it through the exams or appellate briefs or student papers. Make a schedule of when you’re grading what. Find a quiet comfortable place to set up shop. Take breaks when you need to. Reward yourself for progress.

While you’re at it, though, keep in mind that the grading periods are also some of the most convenient times to make notes for the next semester. This review does not have to be an intimidatingly formal process. I’ve found that simply keeping open a Word document, “Notes from Exam Spring 2017,” on my desktop while I’m grading can generate some very helpful insights for the next round. Most of the comments are similar to the following:

  • confusion on Trustee/Settlor distinctions
  • clarify uniform rule vs. state rule on prudent investment standard
  • Essay #2 (charitable trusts) didn’t work – refine call of question

Once you’re done grading, spend some time thinking ahead to the fall before jumping into the rest of your summer. If you took notes about your teaching throughout the semester (what worked, what didn’t, which classes ended too soon, which exercise was a dud), go back and review those now. Sort through the notes you made while you were grading. And make the changes now—revamp the worksheet, rewrite the assignment instructions, identify places in your notes you can cut if necessary in the future. At the very least, make a specific list of changes to be made before you teach this class again. But do that part now while it’s still fresh in your mind. Take a day or two at the office to focus solely on teaching, which is more difficult than it sounds with other major projects (and vacations!) looming over us.

Next, if your summer calendar looks like mine, you’ve got a few conferences scheduled over the coming three months. (Including hopefully the ILTL conference in Little Rock on July 7-8?!) Conference travel is great, but it can wear you out.  If you’re going to the trouble and expense of attending conferences, make the most of them. Go to sessions, engage in conversations, network with colleagues, meet new friends. I firmly believe that much of the value of conferences comes in the interpersonal interactions between sessions and over a shared meal. When you get back home, follow-up with emails to people that you connected with and presenters you really enjoyed. Nurture those contacts.

Do you also have a list of “work-related things to do” over the summer? An article to start? A fact-pattern to develop as a foundation for classroom discussion? A new edition of your textbook to work through? If so, plan accordingly. For me, those are the easiest projects to ignore (after all, I’ve got until late-August!), but in some ways, they’re the most important.  Schedule in time to work on these projects. Find an accountability partner with whom you can check in weekly to share your progress (or better yet, to share the work and combine ideas!).

I was going to add a paragraph about personal vacation travel and using that time to read law review articles you’ve been meaning to get through. That is a fine idea, I think, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it authoritatively because that’s not at all how I use my personal travel time during the summer! I’ve got an issue of US Weekly and the latest book club selection from Target in my carry-on. And that’s perfectly ok too! Allow yourself time to not be engaged in research, writing, or teaching prep.

But when you do return to the scholarly pursuits, it helps to break them down into smaller chunks, even over the “vast expanse” of the summer. I’ve found renewed energy in setting aside time to read one law review article a night by someone I’ve come to know personally (e.g., at a conference) or whose work is important in my field, even if it is not directly related to my current projects.

Regardless of your summer plans, plan ahead for the fall.  Give yourself the rest and relaxation you need so you’re ready to go in August, but also keep on task every now and then so you won’t be caught off-guard.

Steering Students Back to the Rule

Steering Students Back to the Rule

By Jeremiah A. HO, University of Massachusetts School of Law

It’s undeniable to me that each incoming class of 1Ls that I’ve ever taught has always exhibited a collective personality of its own from the prior one.  Despite this, I’m also amused by a commonality that each first-year Contracts class has shared with me—at least in the first semester of law school.  Whether it is because I teach in Massachusetts (where the politics can sometimes be loud, colorful, and brash) or whether it is just that law students—and lawyers, by extension—are intrinsically a breed of vocally assertive people, my first-year students always enter my class with a fervor to argue that they are legally “right” about a contract dispute, even though they are untrained and usually have little background in the subject area.  They like to reach for their gut instincts based on the facts they read in cases or hypos I give them.  They don’t always tend to realize that they’re to learn the law.

On the one hand, it’s great that they have this built-in passion for opinion and advocacy.  It shows me that they have energy and appetite for lawyering.  But if not soon reinforced by a method of legal reasoning (perhaps even à la “thinking like a lawyer”), this passion can also lead to bad habits and imprecise, undisciplined lawyering.

My lesson here is about how to train and direct students early on to remember that when they are faced with a legal dispute or hypothetical, their first strategy is to not go to their gut instincts and raw passion, but to go strategically to the law.  Thus, when they are given a fact pattern, they are not arguing why one side should prevail based on their own reading of facts or their own sense of justice or fairness, but that they first examine what rule of law might be pertinent for grafting onto this particular set of facts in order to come to a lawyerly conclusion.   This is a basic skill of legal reasoning that can be obscured by the excitement of starting law school, the mysterious (and sometimes confusing) nature of Socratic lectures, and the intensity of the first-year curriculum.  But by the end of the first year, if students don’t realize in a disciplined way that they always should go back to the rules, then their law courses have done them a disservice.

One way in which I have addressed and developed this habit of “going back to the rules” is by often introducing a new doctrinal unit with a “master” fact pattern hypothetical I can use to demonstrate a classic scenario that involves that new doctrine.  The reason I call this hypo a “master” fact pattern is because I will give it to students to try solve the problem when they don’t have the doctrinal rules yet, then use the same fact pattern to introduce and teach them the doctrine, and lastly re-visit the fact pattern as we get into the cases and pose variations on the hypo that illustrates the nuances in the doctrine.  My hope is multi-faceted:  First, without knowing the particular rules of law, my students first see the factual hypothetical and anticipate a resolution based on their gut reactions.  Then as they are taught doctrine in tandem with the hypothetical, they now have an active moment of discovery where the particular legal rules and doctrine reveal how the hypothetical might be resolved in a lawyerly way.  It’s also a good moment to emphasize the utility of the law and to redirect their instincts to reach for the law first, instead of resorting to arguing facts or fairness.  It can also be a good place to critique the law and bring in policy or demonstrate lawyerly analysis.  Lastly, now that they know the rules in tandem with a factual scenario, the variations on the fact pattern continue to reinforce their sense that they should always be thinking, “What’s the rule or doctrine?” at every step of the way.

One example of this is when I teach the unit on U.C.C. 2-207 Battle of the Forms to my students.   The unit is sequenced after we’ve gone through the mirror image rule for contractual acceptances.   Before unleashing the U.C.C. provision on the students, I start with an in-class hypo that involves a sale of goods between a wholesaler supplier and a product manufacturer.  Despite firm and identical agreement of the type of goods, price, and quantity, the problem involves differences in the boilerplate fine print on the back of the parties’ respective documents.  Students will know that under the classic mirror image rule there’s no contract technically.  But if I tell them that issues like this occur in business transactions countless times every day, involving tens of millions of dollars, they are usually perturbed and left trying to figure out what do we do when these parties incur liabilities, such as a product defect.  What do we do?

I like to stir up controversy because it usually makes them pay attention.  That’s when I tell them that as lawyers we have to go back to the law, and I then introduce 2-207 under the U.C.C., whose purpose, among others, is to resolve issues such as discrepant fine terms.  Then, we work through the fact pattern.  What I’ve essentially done is to first give my students a problem without the law, then incite their outrage or passion or inquisitiveness, and at last systematically direct them to reach for a legal solution by going to the rules rather than analyzing the facts first.  Use your brain, folks, particularly your left brain.

This works well as an assessment tool as well.  In most courses I teach, I usually begin with the first day with a fact pattern that runs through from A-to-Z all of the major issues of the subject area.  I make my students answer the question even though they don’t know the law yet.  I want them to feel inadequate without the rules of law that would otherwise help them investigate and problem-solve like lawyers.  Then gradually as we move through the semester, I will often find appropriate moments later, perhaps after we’ve learned a few units, to pull out that same fact pattern and ask them again to examine the problem and see how much better they can resolve the hypo now that they have had some law.  At the end of the semester, we usually look through the same problem one final time and hopefully students will have a good assessment tool for gauging how much doctrine they know now to analyze the question as well as a fundamental understanding that a basic strategy in legal reasoning is to reach for the law first.