At this time of year, I begin to think about my next 1L class. Once again, I’m slated to teach Contracts in the Fall and I’m very pleased that Chicago-Kent continues to give me the gig. 1L Contracts teaching in the US is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my twenty year plus teaching career.
A recent article by Sean Darling-Hammond and Kristen Holmquist called Creating Wise Classrooms to Empower Diverse Law Students has got me thinking about how incoming students can best advance prepare for law school so as to hit the ground running come Fall. Ostensibly, the problem that Creating Wise Classrooms sets out to address is how law students from underrepresented groups often struggle in law school even though they enter with comparable accomplishments in high school and college as the rest of the entering class. According to the authors’ research, many Black, Latino, female, and low-income family students report that they suffer academically from “classroom…environments that [do] not encourage or allow students from diverse backgrounds to excel.” These are profound and important issues. The thesis of the article is that we need to “create wise classrooms” in order to address institutionalized features of the law school experience that work structurally in a way that unintentionally exacerbates what the authors describe as the “triple-threat of the solo status that accompanies being a member of an underrepresented group, the stereotype threat that accompanies being a member of a stereotyped group, and the challenges that attend lacking a background in the law before beginning law school.”
Creating Wise Classrooms has challenged me to think further about my own practice and, in particular, one teaching axiom that I have always tried to live by – that we should take our students as we find them and go from there. Of course, it is difficult to provide a truly differentiated educational experience with a class of 70 students. But we should always make the effort to work out the baseline from which students will then be adjusting and developing. 1L year is about adjustment and 1L grades are in truth the measurement of a process of adjustment. The As that I give out in December after one semester of law school are clearly not a good predictor of whether the ‘A’ students will turn out in ten years time to be better commercial lawyers than the students who get B minus. It follows then that the right approach is an inclusive approach that gives everyone a decent opportunity of making a reasonably quick adjustment.
Darling-Hammond and Holmquist have many useful and practical recommendations for how to go about creating the kind of learning environment that will ameliorate the “triple threat”. I am perhaps best qualified to say something about the third of the threats, namely “the challenges that attend lacking a background in the law before beginning law school.” The important thing here is for students to try to put in place some foundations before they arrive. I think there are three important foundational pieces: 1) general orientation and study strategies; 2) a very general knowledge of the legal system (which you otherwise tend to learn on the fly in your required classes; 3) emotional well being and building resilience.
If there are any soon to be new law students that want specific recommendations of readings in any of these areas, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have a few ideas. Though, equally, I think it is important not to overload on too much “pre-school”. There are some useful resources at Law School Interactive for anyone who wants to start exploring.
Do not neglect my suggested third foundation. I was reminded again of why I hold it so dear when I read about this initiative from the University of Wisconsin Law School the other day. It is important that the emphasis in law school on the “left-brained” reasoning and analytical skills does not end up as its own structural impediment to the development of effective, holistic, empathetic lawyering. In that vein, I am a big fan of Paula Franzese’s A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student and other books in the Short and Happy Guide book series.