Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Practicing Practicing the Law

After teaching Contracts for ten years, I'm giving it up to teach Torts. I recall the best law profs of my 1L year cycling through the "Big Three" common law courses (Contracts, Torts, and Property), and I've long wanted to emulate that example. Unlike those, my academic heros, however, I plan to put my students to work practicing practicing the law.

I'll miss teaching Contracts, I admit. Over the years, I've worked up lecture notes, sample exams for student review, and lots of supplementary handouts. I've even written a song about contract law! I've worked up a lot of stale jokes, too, and probably more than a few unchallenged misconceptions. Teaching Torts will give me a well-needed kick in the, uh, assumptions.

Teaching a new course has already inspired me try out some new teaching ideas. I taught Contracts in a fairly traditional manner, assigning casebook readings and using a mixture of lecture and socratic questioning in class. With Torts, I want to encourage my students to try practicing such lawyerly virtues as careful study, clear exposition, and teamwork.

How? By assigning student teams the job of starting each Torts class with a summary of the prior one. I'll form the teams randomly (in practice, you don't always get to choose your co-counsels, after all) and will expect each team member to present part of the review (in practice, you do not always have the luxury to skip speaking before an audience, after all). Each review team will have to produce a one-page written summary, which I will copy and distribute to their fellow students, and will also have answer questions after their oral report.

Some administrative details: Each team's effort will receive a pass/fail grade, worth 10 class participation points per person (which will work out to about 3% of each person's course grade). I will not police disputes among team members, and so will leave to them the problem of dealing with free-riders. I will, however, deny all 10 points to any team member who fails to present part of his/her team's review. Regarding that obligation I will, like a typical court clerk enforcing a filing deadline, accept no excuses.

My wife, who runs the Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of San Diego Law School, helped me iron out those administrative details. She remains a bit dubious about this idea, though: Let the students vote on whether a review team deserves a grade of "pass" or "fail." In my model of how this "practice practice" should work, after all, the students represent the client (I'm only the managing partner). Do those student voters risk evaluating a review team's efforts based on arbitrary or even irrational standards? Perhaps so. But clients risk doing the same to their attorneys.

What do you think? Should I let the student-qua-pretend-clients grade the students-qua-pretend-attorneys? Or should I, like a partner determining year-end bonuses, grade the review teams myself?

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, and MoneyLaw, and College Life O.C.]


Steve_Roberts said...

Students voting on each other enables political behaviour, ie you vote me down, and I will retaliate when you have to present / let's all vote each other up - not something you get between client and attorney. On the other hand, given the number of lawyers in politics, maybe it's not entirely a bad thing. But I personally would have the prof give pass / fail judgement.

Gil said...

Are you grading on a curve?

If so, then you'll have prisoners dilemma sorts of problems interfering with fair grading.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the two other postings and think that the professor grading will be the most subjective way of evaluating students. It will also be more consistent as well as like a boss evaluating you.

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, all, for your comments.

I predict that, if anything, students would tend to vote in favor of their colleagues too generously. Even if I tell students to close their eyes during the votes, it would be hard to police that stricture, and the small community effect (the same group of students in my Torts class will generally share all their 1L classes) would tend to encourage cooperative behavior. Granted, a student might calculate that, because I grade on a curve, dinging a competitor might offer some marginal advantage. But the offsetting losses--being tagged as "not nice"--would surely swamp the small prospective gains.

That said, I do now lean towards the "managing partner" model, wherein I solicit the "clients'" opinion but make the final call on evaluating the "associate."

Raph said...

Instead of doing a strict pass fail, you could ask students to rate their peers on a scale and average the student score with your own for a grade that comes out of the average. If you have access to hardware such as Turning Point(remotes where students can vote on anything), this activity would be extremely efficient and allow for the anonymity necessary to avoid quid pro quo en masse.

Tom W. Bell said...

Gil: I just realized that I forgot to answer your question about the curve. Yes, I do grade on one.

Raph: If you're talking about the tool I'm thinking of, it requires that I user PowerPoint, which I don't. It's a cool teaching technology, though, I grant.

Gil said...

Tom: You actually did answer it, although you didn't address the point to me, in your first comment.

You wrote: "...because I grade on a curve..."

But, thanks for the thought!