Better Technology, Better Briefs
By: Professor Joe Regalia (UNLV)
“We’re not like computers,” explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos at the University of Sheffield. Our brains are not wired to pick up every detail, at least not without enormous work. Editing right takes forever. Some say that it should take as long to edit as it does to draft. A busy lawyer (or law student) may not have time for that.
We have two problems: (1) We can’t catch everything when editing our own stuff, and (2) even if we could, we don’t have the time.
These are problems for all lawyers. And so as a law professor, I spend a lot of time trying to help my students work through the same problems. One solution that I have turned to is technology—and most recently, Ross Guberman’s BriefCatch.
BriefCatch is a Word plugin that offers detailed editing feedback on legal writing. BriefCatch is something different from programs like Grammarly. Because BriefCatch is made for legal writing. It helps you spot more than grammar. Instead, it provides live editing suggestions on your legal prose, ranging from citation advice to wordsmithing recommendations and persuasive writing tips.
For legal writing teachers, BriefCatch could be a game-changer. We all lament how much law students and young lawyers struggle with basic writing style. Now, for the first time, we have a tool that can help students train legal writing techniques using their own writing.
That all sounds good, but I wanted to put it to the test. So several law professors and I created a working group to incorporate BriefCatch into first-year legal writing curriculum. Our goal was to use the tool to help students train many of the basic writing-style techniques that we don’t have time to drill in class.
Each week, along with their substantive writing work, students were asked to run BriefCatch on their assignment and to pay attention to a single type of editing recommendation. They recorded on a chart how many times the tool recommended that type of edit and how often the student agreed with it. The next week, students did the same thing but with a new type of edit.
Feedback from both the professors and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Students love that they can use the tool at their own pace. They love when they find new suggestions for word choice. And best of all, because they are the ones using the tool and calling the shots, they are learning to use these techniques themselves.
Of course, BriefCatch can’t replace a good writing teacher or a good editor. Tools like this are a powerful supplement to help train and spot style techniques; they are not meant to teach aspiring lawyers how to put together the meat of a brief.
But that’s the beauty of a tool like BriefCatch: it lets professors devote time and energy to what we do best while shoring up our students’ skills in ways they don’t even realize.
How do you use technology to improve your students’ legal writing skills? Share your good ideas at TeachLawBetter.com, and we might just post them.
Making the Grade
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with a wonderful colleague who is teaching Legal Writing for the very first time. She had just released Memo One grades to her anxious 1Ls. During the conversation that ensued, I shared with her several things I wish I’d known as a first-year professor that specifically pertain to grading – lessons that I’ve sometimes had to learn the hard way through the years. Here are just a few:
Is Law School Really Like the Hunger Games?
By: Professor Heather Gram (Wake Forest Law)
I recently heard a 1L say that she expected her first year of law school to be something akin to The Hunger Games, a brutal “fight to the death” contest depicted in the wildly popular book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. While law school is a competitive environment filled with diverse and talented people, it does not have to be such an overtly negative experience. In law school orientations across the country, incoming law students too often receive the message that they must “survive” law school. But I tell my students the opposite: that it is possible (and preferable) to thrive in law school, not merely survive. If you are going to devote three years of your life (and perhaps a significant amount of money) to law school, why not make it the most positive and productive experience possible? Here are some tips on how to make that happen: (more…)
Take One: The World Premiere of an Exciting New Resource on Pop Culture Pedagogy
Have you ever wondered what Star Trek could teach you about the U.S. Constitution or how an episode of The Good Wife could demonstrate best (or bad) practices during e-discovery? You’ll find the answers in an exciting new teaching resource — The Media Method: Teaching Law with Popular Culture, (Carolina Academic Press 2019).
Editor Christine Corcos of LSU School of Law has compiled twenty-seven interesting chapters chocked full of wonderful ideas for using pop culture as a fun vehicle to teach legal concepts on a vast array of diverse topics. She compiled works from law professors around the globe who integrate everything from poetry to comic books into their teaching.
While legal legend and author of Reel Justice, Michael Asimow, discusses how the lived experience of a lawyer often differs from its portrayal on the big screen, Deborah Ahrens shares how musical theater impacts her approach to covering difficult criminal law topics with her students. Other chapters showcase how to use pop culture as a vehicle to study Torts, Property, Civil Procedure, Evidence, Environmental Law, Professional Responsibility, and Constitutional Law. Nancy Soonpaa, JoAnn Sweeny, Sha-Shana Chricton, Terri LeClercq, and many more highlight creative ways to incorporate pop culture into Legal Research and Writing, including exercises focused on timely and important social justice issues. In Magical Thinking, Kelly Collinsworth explores how pop culture may be an equally effective vehicle to introduce college students to legal analysis.
My chapter — Pop Culture Pedagogy — explores the potential benefits and downsides of using pop culture in the law school classroom. I’ve included an excerpt of pages 68-69 below, although citations have been omitted:
Pop culture surrounds us. We lead “media-saturated lives” infused with influences from film, television, social media, and other aspects of pop culture. For better or worse, these influences significantly impact how we view ourselves, our profession, and our world. Our tech-savvy law students are particularly susceptible to these influences. Thus, if legal education hopes “to survive these pop culture ways of knowing and meaning, it too must transform.”
Prompted in part by calls for law school reform from the bar, legal educators struggle to find innovative ways to effectively reach the increasingly diverse and globally minded digital natives flooding our classrooms. This chapter suggests that when properly used, “pop culture pedagogy” may provide one such innovation — an “ideal medium” to “complement” black letter law and thus better promote learning and engagement, particularly with regard to professionalism.
As used herein, “pop culture” refers broadly to “the body of intellectual or imaginative work in which human thought and experience are recorded.” As such, it encompasses cultural references that derive from traditional and non-traditional print media, including poetry, blogs, and graphic novels, as well as the so-called “public arts,” such as film, radio, television, video games, music, social media, and other Internet sources.
Likewise, “pop culture pedagogy” refers to teaching both with and about pop culture. For example, a Trial Advocacy professor teaching with pop culture might assign a chapter from Mauet’s Trial Techniques regarding how to draft and deliver an effective closing argument. In class, the professor could show film clips of closing arguments from A Time to Kill and Ghosts of Mississippi and ask students to work in pairs to draft a short reflection paper explaining which closing argument was more compelling and why. An Appellate Advocacy professor seeking to reinforce how citing authority enhances an advocate’s credibility at oral argument might show the scene from Law Abiding Citizen when accused killer Clyde Shelton cites a case in support of his contention that he be granted bail. In part because opposing counsel is unfamiliar with the cited case and provides no authority to counter it, the judge proceeds to grant Shelton’s motion even though his citation was a ruse.
With the advent and widespread availability of new technology, pop culture has increasingly become an integral part of the human experience. Millennials – individuals born between the early 80s and mid 2000s — are indisputably the most “connected” generation in history, constantly bombarded with a vast array of cultural texts through which they construct meaning about themselves and their world.
Today’s law students undoubtedly consume more mass media than prior generations. With an IPhone in hand, AirPods in their ears, and an Apple Watch on their wrists, they experience the world amidst a backdrop of technological distractions, mentally multitasking every minute of the day. Given the sensory overload to which students constantly subject themselves, educators grapple with how to more fully engage them.
I ultimately conclude that “pop culture pedagogy provides an easy and inexpensive way to bring [the] world into the classroom and share a glimpse of it with our attorneys-in-progress.” (p. 93)
To learn more about how you can teach law with pop culture, purchase a copy of the book from Carolina Press, Amazon, or other retailers. That’s a wrap!
Do you use pop culture as a vehicle to teach legal doctrine or skills? If yes, share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just post them.
Wanted: Law Students Who Can Write
It’s that time again – the part of the semester when nervous students anxiously buzz around the hallways decked out in black, pinstripe suits and power ties. They carry fancy leather-bound portfolios and practice “firm handshakes” to make a good first impression during on-campus interviews. But too often when I speak to potential employers, I hear the same refrain: Law schools need to do a better job of teaching strong writing and editing skills.
I agree. Legal writing, analysis, editing, and research are fundamental skills at the heart of effective lawyering. No person can be a competent attorney without them. And even when we do our best to prepare students for the practice, we should always strive to do better. But as budgets tighten and the number of core faculty shrink at law schools across America, law professors in general, and legal writing professors in particular, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place expected to do much more for students with far fewer resources at their disposal.
This begs the question: What can legal employers do to identify and attract the best writers? Perhaps they should change the way that they hire. (more…)
Bringing Legal Tech Into the Law School Classroom with DISCO
By: Professor Joe Regalia (UNLV)
For modern lawyers, technology and innovation are vital parts of the job. Indeed, it’s impossible to practice law today without basic technology skills. And to flourish requires much more: tech-savvy that empowers lawyers to respond to our rapidly changing legal world.
A recent Wolters Kluwer survey found that most lawyers lack key technology skills. That also goes for digital-native Millennials whom many of us assume can navigate technology with ease. Nearly three out of every four Millennials said they have don’t have a “very good understanding of the technologies” that impact their practice. Only one-third of the lawyers surveyed believe their organization is prepared to keep pace with technology changes.
Why are lawyers so bad with leveraging technology? The survey found that it’s because lawyers don’t have the skills to use it. So what can we do?
Incorporating Technology and Innovation in Law School
My law professor colleagues and I think that at least part of the solution will come from law schools. Much of the resistance to technology comes from a lack of basic skills and a dose of cultural resistance in the legal field. Law schools are the perfect place to address both.
If technology is baked into the curriculum that law students study from day one, then they will not only have the skills they need when they graduate, but they will also have the mindset of an innovator — a mindset that encourages them to seek out new, effective ways to use technology and a better sense of how to navigate the evolving legal landscape.
With this goal in mind, I developed a pilot project with other like-minded law professors. Our goal: to meaningfully incorporate technology skills training into the first-year law school curriculum. We hoped that by introducing law students to technology and innovation early and often, we would help graduates finally start to close the technology gap.
Ediscovery was our starting point because it is arguably the most developed and integral legal technology out there. Nearly every lawyer must learn how to review and handle digital documents, and technology tools have transformed this process. So this seemed like the best first step.
But then came the hard part. How do you even go about teaching this stuff? The first hurdle was figuring out how to pay for ediscovery software for our students and professors to use. The second was training the professors—some of whom have never even seen ediscovery software in person, much less used it themselves. The third challenge was figuring out how to introduce new law students to this complicated technology, a technology that even lawyers struggle with, and many partners don’t even know how to use.
The pilot group was sensitive to our students’ busy schedules and the huge volume of information they already have to wrangle with in their first year. But we knew these skills were too important to ignore.
Teachable Opportunities with DISCO
Eventually, we found the answer: DISCO, an intuitive but powerful suite of ediscovery tools that is easy to learn and easy to teach. Everything about it is simple and straightforward. As a result, it’s perfect for law students and law professors. No hours of training or special support staff are required. After about thirty minutes of training, even fresh-eyed first-year law students can dive in.
Not only is DISCO so easy to use that our pilot group of professors believed we could teach it to new students, but the company that created it also turned out to be an incredible partner, committed to educating our next generation of lawyers. It agreed to help teach the basics of ediscovery and donated the use of its software and support to our pilot group.
With DISCO’s help, we built out two ediscovery curriculums for first-year coursework. First, we designed a short, two-hour program that is a completely self-contained ediscovery primer for law professors who want to bring technology into their classrooms but lack the time or ability to teach a more robust series of activities. This ediscovery primer introduces law students to the basics of document review: collecting documents, processing them, and reviewing them—the most common skills practicing lawyers need. It also includes simple demonstrations of ediscovery in action, with the professor working with the class to conduct document searches, tag documents, and walk through simple activities that emulate how an attorney might use ediscovery software in practice.
Our second curriculum enables professors to incorporate ediscovery on a larger scale. After the primer on documents and ediscovery, the professors upload documents relevant to an in-class writing exercise onto the DISCO platform, which is as easy as dragging and dropping. Several irrelevant documents are also uploaded as well as privileged samples. This creates a set of documents that simulate what a document collection might look like in a real case.
The students are then given access to the platform and the chance to conduct their own document review. They tag and collect supporting documents to use in their legal writing exercise. In other words, the students get to experience ediscovery firsthand. They learn about all the ways that DISCO and similar tools can help them sift through documents, identify privileged material, and analyze facts to support litigation.
Students and Professors Enthusiastically Embrace Technology
Both of our pilot programs were a huge success. We’ve had over 200 law students participate in at least one DISCO class! The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Participating law professors—even those who have never used ediscovery tools—reported having an easy time demonstrating the platform to students. Almost all of our participating law students uniformly loved the introduction to ediscovery technology. Many noted that their peers did not get this exposure and thought it was a big advantage for them heading into the second year and their first legal jobs.
At the end of the semester, students reported feeling better equipped for practice and more excited to explore the ways technology can help them succeed. Over 85% even asked for more technology training to be incorporated into their classes generally. Overall, students love DISCO, and they enjoy learning about legal technology.
With the success of the first phase of the pilot, the project is expanding and the hope is to encourage even more law professors to incorporate DISCO and other technologies into the classroom. Rather than just introduce technology into a single activity during the semester, we plan to incorporate technology into multiple exercises throughout the year.
How do you teach with or about technology in the law school classroom? Share your good ideas at [email protected], and we might just post them.
A Helpful Approach to the Bar Exam
By: Prof. Quentin Huff, Assistant Director of Bar Success at Wake Forest University School of Law
Everybody knows the bar exam is difficult. Indeed, it’s the very magnitude of the difficulty that causes us to lose sight of what’s important on the exam. In my view, when examinees misinterpret the rule of thumb that the bar exam is testing “minimum competency”, they risk losing sight of the many skills they acquired and developed through law school.
The bar exam tests what you can do in addition to what you know. So, before we get to that, let’s first breakdown the basics. I divide bar exams into two types: (1) the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) and (2) state-specific examinations.
The Uniform Bar Exam
The National Conference of Bar Examiners creates the UBE, which consists of three primary components: (1) the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) (200 multiple choice questions); (2) the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) (six essay questions); and (3) the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) (two closed-universe problems). Completion of all three components results in a test score out of 400 possible points.
The jurisdiction where you sit for the bar will determine the required passing score, sometimes referred to as the “cut score”. Passing scores range from 260 to 280. Alabama’s passing score of 260 is an example of the lowest. Alaska’s passing score of 280 is the highest. North Carolina falls in between, requiring a minimum passing score of 270 points.
MBE: Over a total of six hours, the MBE’s 200 multiple choice questions cover various areas of law, including Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts (including Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code), Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts. The subjects are tested based on “majority” rules, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, comparative fault instead of contributory negligence, and common law principles of criminal law instead of the Model Penal Code. The MBE is graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
MEE: The essays for the MEE’s six questions may cover any of the subject areas tested on the MBE as well as other topics like Business Associations (including Agency, Partnership, and Corporations, LLCs), Conflict of Laws, Family Law, Secured Transactions, Wills, and Trusts. The jurisdiction administering the exam will grade these essays.
MPT: For the MPT, the test makers provide the statutes, rules, and precedent necessary for examinees to complete a specific task. The examinee may need to use the materials to respond to a client letter or a directive from a senior partner, resulting in the synthesis of the given statutory material and case law into a particular type of written work product, such as a memo, contractual agreement, proposal, or other document. For many examinees, the MPT will resemble an assignment from a law school legal writing course. Once again, the MPT is graded by the individual jurisdiction where the examinee sits for the exam.
State-specific exams, on the other hand, tend to incorporate one or more of the above components, either created by the state bar or by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Some states administer short answer questions. Others administer 12 or more essays. State-specific exams usually require knowledge of state law, so examinees in these jurisdictions must be able to pivot between the “majority rules” of the MBE to the state-specific distinctions raised by the essay questions.
With this foundation, let’s now discuss “minimum competency”. (more…)
The Forgetting Curve
By: Professor Steve Friedland, Elon Law School
My first teaching opportunity arose less than a year after graduating from law school when I was asked to teach Evidence to approximately 70 upper level law students at a law school in South Florida. Without training or guidance, I did what many people probably would have done under similar circumstances — essentially replicate what I had seen as a student. I covered assignments day-by-day and waded through the traditional doctrinal topics contained in the traditional casebook I had chosen. For me, it was all about segmented coverage of material. From a student’s perspective, though, I am sure the class felt very different, more like a grueling teen tour through Europe — 13 countries in three days.
By framing my class as an educational assembly line, I thought I had done my job – cover doctrinal material and foster critical analysis. Now it was the students’ job to learn and apply the substantive doctrines on their own for the exam. Yet if I knew then what I know now, my teaching approach would have been dramatically different.
In the past two decades, scientists using advanced technology have learned so much about the brain, including more about how learning takes place. Scientists have studied what happens to information that is communicated to learners in a class. Do students immediately store that information in brain files like computers do for ready and easy access whenever the information is needed? Does the process of note-taking mean students can access what they have learned at any time? Does multi-tasking affect the learning process? If yes, then how?
The scientific answers to these questions are both nuanced and complex. They tell us that teaching does not equate to learning, especially long-term retention and recall. If the goal is to become a self-directed and effective learner, what first counts is paying attention, focusing on information, and then engaging in useful retrieval practices to make that information stick. (more…)
Of Books and Pen: Steinbeck’s Advice and Mine on Writing Your First Book
By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue
The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.
I first dreamed of writing a book when I was nine years old. A precocious fourth grader with a vivid imagination, I had always been an avid reader, going off on grand adventures from the comfort of my father’s study. The walls of that tiny room – not much larger than a closet – were covered from floor to ceiling with books on every topic imaginable. I would crawl on his chair and reach for the classics on the highest shelves. That’s where I first met Alcott, Austen, Hardy, and a host of other beloved childhood companions. I lost myself in his library, but perhaps I found myself too.
Like many insatiable readers, I soon discovered that I enjoyed creating stories almost as much as reading them. In the fourth grade, my teacher entered my short story – The Eagle’s Eye – into a writing competition. Much to my surprise, I won, and my first story was published. That unique experience reinforced two burgeoning desires – my passion for writing and my dream to one day publish a book.
Fast forward several decades later, and I’ve published two books and am currently waist-deep in a third. All the while, Steinbeck’s ghost has been whispering in my ear while I revisit his Depression-era classic – The Grapes of Wrath. So here are a few things I wish I’d known before naively embarking on my first book-writing journey: (more…)
Another Letter to my 1L Self
By: Bella Hohler (JD ’21)
Dear 1L Self,
Where to even begin . . . the entire year seems to have been such a whirlwind. I remember my first day of class and the hope, nervousness, and anticipation I felt. I knew I was embarking on something monumental, but I didn’t realize just how monumental it was. (more…)