Wednesday, November 19, 2014
In June 2014, the Supreme Court decided Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer holding that fiduciaries of a retirement plan with required company stock holdings (an ESOP) are not entitled to any prudence presumption when deciding not to dispose of the plan’s employer stock. The presumption in question was referred to as the Moench presumption and had been adopted in several circuits. You may have heard of these cases as the stock drop cases, as in the company stock price crashed and the employee/investors sue the retirement plan fiduciaries for not selling the stock. The Supreme Court opinion didn’t throw open the courthouse doors for all jilted retirement investors, and limited recovery to complaints (1) alleging that the mispricing was based on something more than publically available information, and also (2) identifying an alternative action that the fiduciary could have taken without violating insider trading laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it.
The Supreme Court in Fifth Third recognized the required interplay between ERISA and securities laws stating:
[W]here a complaint faults fiduciaries for failing to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or for failing to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, courts should consider the extent to which imposing an ERISA-based obligation either to refrain from making a planned trade or to disclose inside information to the public could conflict with the complex insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements set forth by the federal securities laws or with the objectives of those laws.
The Ninth Circuit decided Harris v. Amgen in October based upon the Fifth Third decision. In Harris, the plaintiffs’ claim alleged a breach of fiduciary duty based on the failure to stop buying additional stock in the ESOP based on non-public information. The Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss that defendant fiduciaries were aware (1) of non-public information, which would have affected the market price of the company stock and (2) the stock price was inflated. These same facts supported a simultaneously-filed securities class action case.
To understand the interplay between securities laws and ERISA fiduciary rules, as established in Fifth Third, one ERISA consulting firm observed that
The Ninth Circuit appeared to reach the conclusion that, if ‘regular investors’ can bring an action under the securities laws based on the failure to disclose material information, then ‘ERISA investors’ in an ERISA-covered plan may, based on the same facts, bring an action under ERISA:
"If the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price ... were sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their duties under [applicable federal securities laws], the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price in this case are sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their more stringent duty of care under ERISA."
The Harris opinion invokes a sort of chicken and egg problem. If the plan had dumped the stock it would have signaled to the market and pushed the share prices lower. In addressing this concern, however, the Ninth Circuit stated that:
Based on the allegations in the complaint, it is at least plausible that defendants could have removed the Amgen Stock Fund from the list of investment options available to the plans without causing undue harm to plan participants.
. . . The efficient market hypothesis ordinarily applied in stock fraud cases suggests that the ultimate decline in price would have been no more than the amount by which the price was artificially inflated. Further, once the Fund was removed as an investment option, plan participants would have been protected from making additional purchases of the Fund while the price of Amgen shares remained artificially inflated. Finally, the defendants' fiduciary obligation to remove the Fund as an investment option was triggered as soon as they knew or should have known that Amgen's share price was artificially inflated. That is, defendants began violating their fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to authorize purchases of Amgen shares at more or less the same time some of the defendants began violating the federal securities laws.
The argument, in part, is that if Amgen had stopped the ESOP stock purchases it would have signaled to the market regarding price inflation and perhaps prevented the basis for the securities fraud violations harm alleged in the separate suit.
For those who follow securities litigation, there is a potential for investors purchasing in an ESOP to have a secondary and perhaps superior claim for fiduciary duty violations based upon the same facts giving rise to company stock mispricing arising under securities laws.
This raises the question, as one ERISA consulting firm noted,
Are an issuer/plan fiduciary's disclosure obligations to participants greater than its disclosure obligations to mere shareholders? Isn't that letting the ERISA-disclosure tail wag the securities law-disclosure dog – will it not result in the announcement of market-moving material information to plan participants first, before it is announced to securities buyers-and-sellers generally?
I have long been interested in how what happens in the defined contribution (DC) context intersects with what we think of traditional corporate law and how, as the pool of DC investors grows, there will be an ever increasing influence of the DC investor in the corporate law arena.
Friday, November 14, 2014
As a relatively new parent, I have been amazed at the insatiable curiosity of our son (19-months old). Like most parents, I think my son is special, but I see this curiosity in most children around his age. These young children want to investigate everything and will try anything. They make a lot of mistakes, but they are constantly learning and they seem to love learning.
Curiosity comes quite naturally. Obedience, however, needs to be taught.
As a professor, I wish I could bottle my son’s curiosity and feed it to my students.
As a parent, I wish my young son obeyed as well as (most of) my students do.
But I wonder, do we sometimes trade curiosity for obedience? Sir Ken Robinson has spoken about the problem of schools killing creativity. (Creativity and curiousity are related, I think). As a parent and as a professor, his talk is challenging.
If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original…we are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make. We are educating people out of their creative capacities…Picasso once said this, he said that “all children are born artists; the challenge is to remain an artist as we grow up”…we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it, or rather we get educated out of it.
Sir Ken Robinson's talk is somewhat depressing, because much of it rings true. His talk has been watched over 29 million times. Unfortunately, I couldn’t clearly identify his proposed solution. Maybe I need to dig into his more detailed work.
How do we teach discipline (which may be a better goal than mere obedience) without killing curiosity and creativity? I do not think discipline and curiosity are mutually exclusive, but they seem to be in tension a fair bit. As a parent, I am already terrified that my son will lose his curiosity. As a professor, I want to help my students recapture theirs.
Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
1) Difference between LLCs, corporations and partnerships
2) Del. and ULLCA coverage of fiduciary duties, and especially the issue of contractual waiver and default
19) No right to distributions, and no right to vote for distributions if manager-managed
20) No right to salary or employment
21) Taxable liability for LLC membership
22) Exit rights—voluntary withdrawals vs. restricted withdrawals, and whether or not that comes with the ability to force the return of an investment or a new status as a creditor of the LLC
23) Liability for improper distributions
24) Veil piercing, particularly given the lack of corporate formalities
I would love some feedback from practitioners as well. What do law students and practicing lawyers need to know about LLCs? What's missing from this list? What should I get rid of? Please feel free to comment below or to email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 13, 2014 in Business Associations, C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Partnership, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
About four years ago, despite decades of actively avoiding the idea, I started running. I am no Forrest Gump, but I run 3.5 miles on a reasonably regular basis– usually four or five times a week, sometimes more, and rarely less. My primary running locations, North Dakota and then along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, are both quite windy. The North Dakota winds so are significant, that they can mimic hills, which is what allowed cyclist Andy Hampsten to train for hills in “one of the flattest areas in the world.”
I do a lot of out-and-back runs – out 1.75 miles and back along the same route. During such runs, I often notice a similar phenomenon: I may not have any idea it’s windy if the wind is at my back when I start running. When I get to my turnaround, though, I find a stiff wind in my face. This happens enough that I should probably figure out it is windy before I get to the turnaround, especially since it can lead to a faster pace on the way out, but I still rarely notice. I just think I’m having a good pace day.
In contrast, it’s pretty hard to miss when the wind is in your face. Everything feels hard. Everything feels sluggish and slow. And it feels like, all of a sudden, you have barriers in your way.
During these runs, it often makes me think about how many other places (in the figurative sense) this happens. We all have our challenges, and we often have much to overcome. But some have more challenges than others. Because our individual challenges are real, it can be easy to miss that we may have fewer challenges than other people have.
The things that are barriers to our goals are sometimes obvious to us. For example, as those in the current job hunt for a law professorship likely know, a lack of a top-14 law degree can be a significant limit on the number of options one might have entering the legal academy. It certainly felt like a barrier to certain jobs when I was on the market, anyway.
Because of that, it would be easy to discount other benefits I have because of who I am. I grew up in a safe neighborhood with good schools. I am a white male, which means people have expectations for me that are different than others. There is a level of presumed competence. And, comparatively, presumed authority and ability. If there's no more text visible, please click below to read the whole post.
Monday, November 10, 2014
As some of you know, I have been a defender (although perhaps not a staunch one) of student-edited law reviews as a good learning experience for students. I have worked with students in ways that I really have enjoyed over the years. I also have had some lousy experiences. But even I admit that between the overwhelmingly negative blog commentary (to which I now add), including posts here and here by Steve Bradford here on the BLPB, and the experiences I relate here, I am having trouble sustaining my support for student-edited journals . . . .
Friday, November 7, 2014
I subscribe to a few helpful law-related listservs:
- The LLC, Partnership, and Business Trust Listserv
- University of Missouri School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Listserv
- Multiple listservs from the Academy of Legal Studies in Business
All of these listservs provide useful information, through the helpful e-mails from the participants. Especially for those of us at business schools, where we do not have many legally trained colleagues, access to the collective wisdom of those on the listserv is invaluable. Occasionally, however, the listservs produce an avalanche of uninteresting e-mails. The LLC listserv allows the option of getting a single weekly digest of the discussion, which I prefer, though the Yahoo! formatting of the digest is unattractive and cumbersome.
What law-related listservs do you enjoy? Any thoughts on the best (free) platform for listservs?
Friday, October 31, 2014
At least two law reviews currently have exclusive submission windows. See below for details.
Exclusive submission windows seem like a good idea, in general, and more law reviews seem to be using them recently. Most of the traditional peer reviewed journals already require exclusive submissions and it is nice to see some law reviews following along. The exclusivity requirement should cut down, substantially, on the number of submissions, allowing for a more thorough review. Exclusivity will also likely lead to some helpful self-selection because professors will not want to submit to a journal that is either too far above their target (unlikely to be accepted, which will delay their process) or below their target (may be accepted and they will be prevented from trading up).
I still think more law journals should move to blind review, which these exclusive submission window announcements do not promise, but the fact that exclusive submission windows cut submissions to a manageble number is important as well. While law review websites usually say the editors review each submitted article carefully, I find that unlikely when some of those law reviews get 2,000 or more submissions. The editors don't even have time to read each abstract carefully.
The promised information about the exclusive submission windows is below.
The University of Memphis Law Review:
The University of Memphis Law Review has 3 immediate openings for submissions for publication in issue 3 of this year's volume, which will be published in April 2015. The Editorial Board is looking for authors willing to submit exclusively to The University of Memphis Law Review in return for a guaranteed quick and thorough review and response (not later than four days after receipt). This expedited, exclusive review will be open until November 8, 2014. Articles may be submitted after this date, however there is not guarantee of an expedited response and open slots will be filled on a first-come basis.
Please direct submissions to Nick Margello at email@example.com and include the subject line “Exclusive Review.” No specific topics are requested, but the Law Review seeks timely, relevant articles between 7,000-18,000 words in the text. The University of Memphis Law Review has an excellent staff that works professionally with authors and consistently meets its own strict deadlines. If you have an article looking for a placement, please consider sending it along. Thanks for your interest.
The Kentucky Law Journal (h/t Faculty Lounge):
The Kentucky Law Journal is opening an exclusive submission window for articles until November 14, 2014, at 5:00 PM EDT. All papers submitted during this window will be reviewed for publication in Volume 103, Issue 4, set for publication in Spring 2015. By submitting your article during this window, you agree to accept a publication offer, should one be extended. This window is available for articles on all topics, including articles previously submitted to the Kentucky Law Journal, though resubmission will be required. Submissions should be between 15,000 and 25,000 words with citations meeting the requirements of The Bluebook.
Submissions should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your article, a copy of your C.V. and a short abstract or cover letter.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
The West Virginia University College of Law is seeking applications and nominations to replace our former dean, Joyce McConnell, who is now the provost of the University. The College of Law just completed the addition of a new wing (part of a $26 million infrastructure project), and has made significant and exciting progress. We're seeking a dean who can help continue that trend.
Admitting my bias, WVU is a great place to be. It's beautiful, especially in the fall, and we have access to much more than many people recognize. In addition to a solid opportunities to enjoy music and the arts in Morgantown, we're a lot closer to other areas of interest, if big city access is desired. We're 75 miles to Pittsburgh; about 3 hours and 15 minutes to Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Cleveland, OH; 6 hours to New York City; a little less to Niagara Falls; 5 hours to Philadelphia, PA, and Lexington, KY. You get the idea.
The posting is below. Please apply if you are interested, and please share this with anyone else you think might be interested. And, of course, please feel free to contact me directly with any questions.
The full posting is available at the link above or just click the button below.
Monday, October 20, 2014
The following announcement comes to us from Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown). The 14th annual transactional clinic conference will be held at UMKC School of Law in Kansas City, Missouri and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is serving as a host partner. Proposals are due by December 15, 2014 and more information about the conference is available after the break.
14TH ANNUAL TRANSACTIONAL CLINICAL CONFERENCE
CALL FOR PROPOSALS, PAPERS, & PANELISTS
Teaching and Writing Methods of the Transactional Clinician
This year’s conference theme is Teaching and Writing Methods of the Transactional Clinician. The conference will have two tracks: (1) a “Nuts & Bolts” Teacher Workshop and (2) a “Pen & Paper” Scholarship Workshop. The Planning Committee seeks proposals for (1) presentations, (2) papers, and (3) panelists as outlined below.
Friday, October 17, 2014
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by Patrick Delahanty from Louisville, United States)
Alison Lundergan Grimes and I both graduated from Rhodes College, a small liberal arts college in Memphis, TN. I have not spoken to Alison since college, so I was surprised to see her mentioned on CNN a number of weeks ago as the democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Kentucky. Since then, she has been in the news quite a bit. She will face Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in what has turned into one of the hotter Senate races this year.
Even in college I did not know Alison well, but we did take a public speaking class together. Alison was the type of student who was often in a suit and pearls in class, while I wore flip flops year-round and whatever wrinkled, Goodwill-purchased clothes were the most clean. She was a Chi Omega (easily the most refined group on campus), and I was a part of the football team for all four years (if there was a rowdier group on campus than the football team, it was the rugby club, which I joined because my playing time on the football team was minimal).
The public speaking class that Alison and I took together was definitely one of the most practical classes I took. Each student gave short speeches almost every day, and we were video-taped. We then watched and critiqued the videos as a class. Almost all of us had at least a few nervous habits, but we all appeared to break them after our nervous habits were seen on the screen and pointed out in front of the entire class. It was all quite embarrassing, but effective. I think there were only about a dozen of us in the class, which made this sort of personal attention possible. Our final exam was a presentation to an audience of 100 or more people, and our professor had lined up enough options for each of us, which must have taken a lot of time to organize.
I had some opportunities to do public speaking in law school. I know those who competed in moot court and trial advocacy had even more opportunities, but I think we should try to give our students even more chances to hone their public speaking skills. Regardless of post-graduation job, almost all students will need public speaking skills, even if their audiences are small. I try to include student presentations in as many of my classes as I practically can.
While we can all work public speaking into at least some of our classes, a required class fully dedicated to public speaking might be worthwhile. Do any law schools do this? I know public speaking is usually a part of a legal writing or litigation class, but I have not heard of a required course devoted specifically to public speaking.
Update: I should note that Alison is also legally trained. She is a graduate of American University's Washington College of Law.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
I plan to write a more traditional blog post later if I have time, but I am in the midst of midterm grading hell. I was amused today in class when a student compared the drama of the Francis v. United Jersey Bank case with the bankruptcy, bank, and mortgage fraud convictions of husband and wife Joe and Teresa Guidice from the reality TV hit the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
I had provided some color commentary courtesy of Reinier Kraakman and Jay Kesten’s The Story of Francis v. United Jersey Bank: When a Good Story Makes Bad Law, and apparently Mrs. Pritchard’s defenses reminded the student of Teresa Guidice’s pleas of ignorance. Other than being stories about New Jersey fraudsters, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the cases. Based on my quick skim of the indictment I don’t think that Teresa served on the board of any of the companies at issue--Joe apparently had an LLC and was the sole member, and the vast majority of the counts against the couple relate to their individual criminal conduct. In addition, Teresa is also going to jail, and no one suffered that fate in United Jersey. But luckily, she may see a big payday from a purported book deal and reality TV show spinoff after she’s out, possibly disproving the adage that crime doesn’t pay.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Georgetown University Law Center invites applicants interested in establishing and teaching in a transactional clinic. This position is tenure track. The successful applicant will begin on July 1, 2015. Georgetown seeks to add to its spectrum of business related clinics. Currently we offer clinics that teach business formation in the field of social entrepreneurship, community development and strategic planning, and that assist low income residents in the acquisition, renovation, and operation of their buildings as long-term affordable housing.
At Georgetown Law, professors dedicated to clinical teaching are fully integrated into the faculty. Both entry level and lateral hires are urged to apply. The person selected for this position would join our large clinical community, develop the clinic, be assisted by a clinical fellow and teach the clinic each semester.
The successful applicant will have a strong commitment to promoting access to justice and a demonstrated interest in nurturing student development. Candidates must demonstrate intellectual engagement including scholarly promise (for entry-level candidates) or be a proven scholar (for lateral candidates). Successful applicants will also have subject-matter expertise and a positive reputation in the field, the communication, organizational and collaborative skills necessary to direct and manage a clinic and a commitment to teaching clinically over the long term. Georgetown values excellent teaching and a successful applicant will have pedagogical skills, creativity, and enthusiasm for the academic endeavor. This law school is committed to diversity, and candidates of diverse backgrounds are encouraged to apply.
Please send a resume, including the names of references and a statement of interest to Hope Babcock, the Chair of the Clinical Subcommittee of the Appointments Committee. Her email is Babcock@law.georgetown.edu.
[Posted at the request of Haskell Murray, who is traveling today.]
Monday, October 6, 2014
As on-campus interviews slow down, a lot of students now are coming to me looking for cover letter advice. Since co-blogger Haskell Murray more-or-less asked me to write on this topic in response to a comment on his super post on resumes and interviews, I thought I would take the bait. My principal thoughts on the subject are set forth below the fold. Some of my observations and elements of my advice are conservative and anally compulsive, I know. But consider the source: I worked in Big Law for fifteen years before I started teaching law and served on a number of office hiring committees over that time.
Thee are many good websites out there on cover letter drafting. Most of the advice they give is good, but it is somewhat varied. There are some things common and traditional in law job cover letters that may help students sift through the Internet prattle and settle on specific approaches. That's the overlay I hope to offer here.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Elizabeth Pollman (Loyola, Los Angeles) notified us that Loyola Law School, Los Angeles is hiring for an Associate Clinical Professor of Law/Director of the Business Law Practicum.
The details are below the break.
Earlier, I posted a list of legal studies positions in business schools.
Today, I decided to go through the helpful PrawfsBlawg spreadsheet on hiring committees to draw out the law schools that listed at least one business law area of interest. The PrawfsBlawg spreadsheet is a few months old, so it is possible that the schools' needs have changed somewhat in the interim. Also, many schools did not list any specific areas of interest, but hopefully this list is still helpful to our readers.
If readers know of any other law schools that have an interest in hiring in one or more business law areas, please leave the school name in the comments (with a link to the posting, if possible) or send me an email. Updated positions (that are not on the PrawfsBlawg list) will include a link to the posting, if possible.
Florida A&M (business law)
Fordham (international economic law)
Maryland (business law)
North Carolina (corporate finance, international business transactions)
West Virginia (entrepreneurship clinic)
I am back teaching law students again this semester, in addition to teaching business school students. Last class, I did my "mid-course" teaching evaluations in the law school, which I do voluntarily each semester to gauge how the courses are going for the students. Almost always, I pick up on some important trends from the responses. One somewhat frustrating thing, however, is that students often want contradicting things. (e.g., "the previous class review is extremely helpful" and "the previous class review is a complete waste of time.")
The Lon Fuller quote below, from his article On Teaching Law, 3 Stan. L. Rev. 35, 42-43 (1950), helped me realize that some of the contradition, even within the same individual, is natural and expected.
Herein lies a dilemma for student and teacher. The good student really wants contradictory things from his legal education. He wants the thrill of exploring a wilderness and he wants to know where he stands every foot of the way. He wants a subject matter sufficiently malleable so that he can feel that he himself may help to shape it, so that he can have a sense of creative participation in defining and formulating it. At the same time he wants that subject so staked off and nailed down that he will feel no uneasiness in its presence and experience no fear that it may suddenly assume unfamiliar forms before his eyes.
No teacher is skillful enough to satisfy these incompatible demands. I don't think he should try. Rather he should help the student to understand himself, should help him to see that he wants (and very naturally and properly wants) inconsistent things of his legal education. Much frustration will be avoided if the student realizes that an unresolved antinomy runs through his education, and that this antinomy cannot be resolved so long as men want of life, as they do of the preparation for life called education, both security and adventure.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
For the second time, I have assigned my BA students to write their own shareholder proposals so that they can better understand the mechanics and the substance behind Rule 14-a8. As samples, I provided a link to over 500 proposals for the 2014 proxy season. We also went through the Apple Proxy Statement as a way to review corporate governance, the roles of the committees, and some other concepts we had discussed. As I reviewed the proposals this morning, I noticed that the student proposals varied widely with most relating to human rights, genetically modified food, environmental protection, online privacy, and other social factors. A few related to cumulative voting, split of the chair and CEO, poison pills, political spending, pay ratio, equity plans, and other executive compensation factors.
After they take their midterm next week, I will show them how well these proposals tend to do in the real world. Environmental, social, and governance factors (political spending and lobbying are included) constituted almost 42% of proposals, up from 36% in 2013, according to Equilar. Of note, 45% of proposals calling for a declassified board passed, with an average of 89% support, while only two proposals for the separation of chair and CEO passed. Astonishingly, Proxy Monitor, which looked at the 250 largest publicly-traded American companies, reports that just three people and their family members filed one third of all proposals. Only 4% of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders. Only one of the 136 proposals related to social policy concerns in the Proxy Monitor data set passed, and that was an animal welfare proposal that the company actually supported.
I plan to use two of the student proposals verbatim on the final exam to test their ability to assess whether a company would be successful in an SEC No-Action letter process. Many of the students thought the exercise was helpful, although one of the students who was most meticulous with the assignment is now even more adamant that she does not want to do transactional law. Too bad, because she would make a great corporate lawyer. I have 7 weeks to convince her to change her mind.
October 2, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Yesterday, I shared with my faculty during our teaching conversations* my research and thinking on gender equality in the classroom. How do we handle gender in the classroom? My guess is that most of us teaching honestly strive to achieve and believe that we create a gender-neutral, or more accurately an equally-facilitative classroom environment. You can image the horror I felt when I received voluntary, anonymous student feedback last spring that said “you may not mean to or know you are doing this, but you treat men and women differently in class.” From whose perspective was this coming? How differently? And who gets the better treatment? I was baffled. As a female law professor, I was hoping that I got a pass on thinking critically about gender because I am female, right? Wrong.
This feedback launched my research into the area and a self-audit of the ways in which I may be explicitly treating students differently, implicitly reinforcing gender norms, and unintentionally creating a classroom environment that is different from my ideal.
Below are some observations and discoveries about my own behavior and a summary of some relevant research.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
There is a growing drumbeat for banning laptops in the classroom, as a recent New Yorker article explained. The current case for banning laptops appeared on a Washington Post blog (among other places), in a piece written by Clay Shirky, who is a professor of media studies at New York University, and holds a joint appointment as an arts professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts, and as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in the journalism institute.
The piece makes a compelling case for banning laptops, and I agree there are a number of good reasons to do so. I’ll not recount the whole piece here (I recommend reading it), but here’s a key passage:
Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion but creates a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.
I am sympathetic to this line of thinking, and I am even more sympathetic to another point made in the article: that the laptop distractions can leak from one student engaging in social media or other non-classroom activities to those around them. That is a serious concern.
Still, I don’t ban laptops in my classes, though I have thought about it. I let students use them in my larger-enrollment classes: Business Organizations, which usually is near the cap of 70, and Energy Law, which is usually in the 34-55 range. There is no doubt the risk of distraction in those courses is higher than in others. Interestingly, in my last two seminar-style classes, I did not have a ban, either, but students rarely used laptops. They opted-in for the discussions (self-selection for certain topics can certainly help on that front).
I continue to think about how I want to proceed, but for now, I see value in allowing my students the option to choose how they wish to engage. There have been some other defenses of the idea of keeping laptops in the classroom (see, e.g., here), but my views are an amalgam of different styles and rationales.
First, part of learning, especially in becoming a life-long learner (which is what lawyers need to be), one must choose to engage. Law students are grown ups, and they must learn how they learn. They must decide. I won’t be there when they get to their job and they have to use the computer to actually do the work of a lawyer. They will, at some point, have to decide when to focus and when to play.
Second, I value diversity of styles in the classroom. That is, if most other professors are using open-book exams or take home exams, mine will probably be closed book, and closed note. I have taught using quizzes, blog posts, midterms, short papers, etc., to add some variety to the experience. Now that more classes, at least at my school, are without laptops, it actually gives me a reason to consider keeping them.
Finally, at least so far, allowing laptops is part of my deal with students. It’s part of how I connect and model for them my view and expectation that they are grown ups. I give them power, and I expect them to act appropriately. As my friend, former colleague, and teaching mentor Patti Alleva (recognized as one of the nation's best law teachers) explained in a recent National Law Journal piece, teaching is ultimately about respect and what she calls “intentionality.” She explains:
The simple fact is that teaching does not always produce learning, even if thoughtfully done. Creating that causal link between the two can be a mystifying challenge, especially given the infinite number of unknowable factors and forces that may reduce a teacher's effectiveness or a student's willingness or ability to learn.
. . . .
Teachers, as fiduciaries of their students' educational experience, owe them compassionate deference, based on a benefit of the doubt, coupled with high but reasonable expectations for a meaningful learning collaboration.
. . . .
Ultimately, the best professors are themselves students who learn as much as they teach. And they seek, not to impose ideas on students, but to help equip them with the metacognitive tools to test those ideas and use them in service of problem-solving. Hopefully, students will develop their own senses of respect — for the legal profession, for themselves as aspiring lawyers and for the learning partnership we share. So, if years ago, in that tense seminar room, each of us left with respect for our disagreements and for the pedagogic processes that allowed us to critically and creatively examine, and grow from, those differences, then invaluable learning did take place that day with respect providing a bridge between teaching and learning when other things may have temporarily obscured the connection.
I hope that as teachers we can all appreciate that we, like our students, have different views on the best way to teach and to learn. Just because we choose different paths, it doesn't make any path wrong. As long as the path is thoughtfully chosen, with a purpose and a goal, there’s a good chance it’s right for that teacher, in that moment, for that class. And if it’s not, the key is not about dwelling on the mistake. It’s about learning, adjusting, and doing a better job next time, because the best teachers really are the ones who are trying to “learn as much as they teach.”
Monday, September 29, 2014
Belmont University's School of Law in Nashville, TN has posted a tenure-track assistant professor opening here.
(Disclosure: I am a professor at Belmont University's business school and am teaching Business Associations in the law school this fall.)