Clinical Law Prof Blog

Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
School of Law

Friday, November 17, 2017

An Open Book? Self-disclosure in Clinical Teaching

As a clinical teacher, how much of your self do you share with the students you are supervising? What effect does that sharing, or lack of sharing, have?

Thanks to a thought-provoking session at the Northwest Clinical Conference earlier this month, led by the University of Montana’s Eduardo Capulong, and Kim Ambrose and Lisa Kelly from the University of Washington, I have been mulling over these questions for the last few weeks.

In their session, titled Teaching Professional Identity and Values through Narrative and Our Own Stories, Professors Ambrose, Capulong, and Kelly, asked participants, including myself, to think about how law professors are perceived by our students. Then they asked us to look inward with a partner, sharing how we saw ourselves first and then how our students saw us.

The question is, when do you self-disclose with students, and what are the risks and benefits? In many ways, in a clinical setting we are asking students to become reflective lawyers. We ask that they constantly assess their goals, their progress, and what they bring to the lawyering experience. In a way, with self-disclosure, we are modeling for students what we ask them to do in terms of being introspective and self-aware attorneys.

One faculty member at my institution recently recounted an experience with a student years ago. The student was having panic attacks in class and requested to sit by the door. Rather than simply saying “yes” and moving on, this Professor shared that she too had the same anxiety challenges. She gave the students two options – “sit by the door, or, sit in the front row so that when I am struggling, you can help me out and we can support each other.” This message communicated to the student that she was not alone—that she and her Professor are on a learning journey together. The Professor humanized herself and made clear to the student that someone who struggled with anxiety can be a lawyer, and, eventually even a law professor.

With students struggling with statutory interpretation, do you share that in law school you in fact bombed the exam for course you are now in fact teaching because you neglected to closely read the statute? Do you share experiences of professional failure or struggle? How much do you share with students regarding your own career? Would you ever share the anxiety or stresses associated with promotion, tenure, renewal of your contract, or funding?

On an even more personal level, in many of our clinics, we introduce students to the concept of secondary or vicarious trauma or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies show that raising awareness of the issue can actually lower the chances of manifesting secondary trauma symptoms. In teaching this topic, do you share your own experiences with trauma? Does this empower students to do the same, or, can it pressure them to reveal experiences they would rather not share? In the moments where I have decided to share my own past trauma with students, I have felt that it has empowered them to think about how their own trauma experiences influence their lawyering and approach to working with their clients.

Do you share personal losses, such as the loss of a family member or a pregnancy? In the past year, I have been open with my students about the fact that I am grieving the loss of my beloved father, who passed away after battling with pancreatic cancer nine months ago, just two days after his 60th birthday. That openness has actually enabled me to be there for my students, one of whom lost her father not long before. Because she knew I faced the same new reality, she shared with me when her mid-semester evaluation was scheduled the same day as her father’s birthday. This semester, another student tragically lost a sibling. She was initially reluctant to even share the fact of the death, for fear of being given less meaningful clinic work, but after she did disclose, the fact that she knows about my own loss means I am able to connect with and support her in these difficult times in a more genuine way.

When, how, and with whom to share is definitely a question and a question that will be resolved differently at different times. This summer, when teaching a five week refugee law course, I did not disclose to my students, in standing up to teach the day after a miscarriage, what I had endured. One week I was pregnant and looking forward to growing my family, one week later, standing behind the same lectern, I was not. They had no idea. At that time, of course, the loss was too raw and I hadn’t done any processing myself. But, several months later, in discussing the topic of pregnancy with students during a long car ride to a detention center, it felt inauthentic to refrain from sharing with my students that I too had lost a pregnancy a few months earlier. What feels right and enables connection in one moment will not always in another. 

In the personal arena, as a parent, do you share the joys (and challenges!) of parenting? Does this present as unnecessary bragging (or whining?) or is it helpful insight and modeling being a working professional parent? On this line of sharing, I have erred on the side of sharing when a student asks or seems interested. I was pregnant and then delivered my first child as a clinical teaching fellow at Georgetown. Students obviously knew that I was pregnant and then that I had a small infant. A couple of female students wrote in my evaluations how much they appreciated our discussions of work-life balance and parenting and how it gave them hope for figuring out how career and family could work together.

Obviously, self-disclosure is context and situation dependent, but I appreciated the way in which Professors Kelly, Ambrose, and Capulong opened up this conversation.  Does sharing some of our personal journeys make us vulnerable to our students? Will they judge us and think less of us as “Professors?” Or, are we normalizing conversation around difficult topics and reducing stigma associated with so many experiences we have in life. Are we making ourselves more approachable and relatable? In sharing, are students more likely to share what is happening in their own lives with you? Is this a positive development, or are you crossing the line into quasi-therapist/friend? Is that so dangerous in the end – hierarchy and grading aside, are we not just human beings interacting inside and outside of the classroom in all the messy and confusing ways that human present?

In practicing self-disclosure, are you actually working to humanize a profession that is so often disconnected from emotion? Given that lawyers are prone to self doubt, drug and alcohol abuse, stress and over work, could self-disclosure by leaders in the profession, including law professors, work to undo some of those complicated and negative dynamics? Can self-disclosure help to humanize professors to help to undo some of the ways in which law school is an environment rife with the challenges posed by implicit bias and stereotype threat?

I think I tend to self-disclose more than average, and increasingly wonder whether this may introduce an unhelpful dose of casualness into the professor-student relationship. It’s possible that bringing our more authentic and complete selves to the table could potentially undermine students’ respect for us. This may be of particular concern for young professors of color and women who face documented biases in the classroom due to gender, race, sexual orientation, class, age, or other differences.  As a female law professor in my mid-thirties, I know students find me more accessible and less intimidating than my male and older colleagues. In disclosing tidbits of my personal or professional struggles here and there, am I encouraging a lack of respect? Am I crossing lines in a way that undermines my students’ ability to hold me in the same category of “professor” as some of my colleagues? Or, am I actually humanizing myself and enabling students to relate to me more easily human to human?

In conclusion, I have reached none, except that it is worth us asking ourselves, as clinicians, where we draw our lines and when, and what effect that may have. It is also worth opening up conversations with one another to understand how self-disclosure has played out, particularly across race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and other differences.

For myself, I am often a fairly open book. But, that book will be opened to various pages as and when I feel appropriate. There may sometimes be pages I wish I had not shared in that moment, but I am willing to experiment with self-disclosure because I believe that the potential gains in truly connecting with students outweigh the risks.

November 17, 2017 in Domestic Violence, New Clinical Faculty, Teaching and Pedagogy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Judgment By Social Media and Tweeted "Expertise" - Three Cases From The Cincinnati Zoo, The Forests of Japan, and Amber Heard's Marriage

As lawyers we oftentimes have to suspend our personal judgment of our clients, their choices and their circumstances.  As clinicians we regularly train and remind our students on this suspension.  Not only does this suspension preserve rapport, but it also allows for better representation of the person, as we just have to take them for who they are, not who we think they should be.  Best practices and professional rules also remind us of client-centered representation, directing that choices are the client's choices and not ours, and that's its not all about us. Professionally this suspension of judgment can be a struggle - as a lawyer you may know "what's right" or "what's best" but the client chooses otherwise.  And we must accept that. 

If only we as a society were charged with this suspension of judgment - but as anyone can tell from the news this week, people are quick to judge others, and their choices, and proffer various social media statements to tout their judgment and expertise.  (Ironically we also have a process for declaring and establishing expertise in the legal field, via our rules of evidence, which Twitter appears not to follow).  Anyone can judge or be an expert in social media - just take a look at this week's fodder:

1) The Death of Harambe:  Let's face it.  Everyone loses in this situation.  If the zoo didn't kill the gorilla, the child might have died and folks would be standing outside the exhibit with candles and posters in memoriam of the boy.  Instead the zoo kills the gorilla, and even though they saved a child, someone must be to blame - distracting iPhones, parents, zoo architecture - you name it.  Mom apparently is an administrator at a preschool, leading many to now call for her resignation.  Because the two go hand in hand. 

2) Abandonment in Hokkaido: To leave or not to leave a seven year old boy on the side of a mountain road in deep bear country forest for throwing stones? That was the question.  Parent's call? To leave. Is it neglect or within the boundaries of discipline? You decide. Everyone else is. 

3) Let's all kick Amber Heard while she's down: Maybe, in a couple of weeks, we will forget doing so, just like her husband allegedly did. It's times like these that make those us of doing domestic violence work cringe. Who is Amber Heard? If you hadn't heard of her (no pun intended) you certainly have now. Heard is the much younger wife of actor Johnny Depp who filed for, and was granted, a restraining order against him. Various photos of her with injuries have emerged, injuries that were allegedly caused by Depp - but where does the public support lie? Mainly with Depp. Why? Because it's her fault, of course, that this happened. She "exacerbates Depp's 'jealousy issues'" as allegedly Depp is incredibly insecure about her. She's also just in it for the money apparently, there being no prenuptial agreement and their divorce filed in California (the laws in California entitling her to fifty percent of what he has made during the marriage). Lastly, her bringing these issues out publicly just confirms that their marriage, and her involvement in it, have just been "nonstop drama". 

As lawyers we have standards for these sorts of judgments and admissible statements. We also have a saying, "innocent until proven guilty". Yet as social media shows us time and time again, judgement is swift, fleeting and generally contained within 140 characters. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that #glasshousesarefullofhotair.

June 3, 2016 in Children, Current Affairs, Domestic Violence, Film, Teaching and Pedagogy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Night in Question, a guest post at the Pepperdine Scotland theater company blog

Pepperdine Scotland is a company in our theater department, and they are producing an original play for debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. Irish playwright Lynda Radley is developing an intense, complex story of sexual assault on American college campuses, with production and direction from Alex Fthenakis and Cathy Thomas-Grant. I have had the singular opportunity to serve as a consultant for the play and to share time with the cast and crew.

Stepping out of our clinics and law schools to participate with other  disciplines in other departments can yield invigorating results. Consulting on the play has made me think more deeply about narrative structure and storytelling.  Thinking about this play and this story has reminded me that these issues and relationships always exceed the bounds of legal definitions and invoke cultures, structures, societies, and deep histories. Working with creative artists, writers, and students reminds me that we can always have more and different ways to do our work. To see a production take flight from scratch inspires me to create and gives me courage to take on new endeavors with faith that we can speak to the world.    

The Interference will be a powerful, important work. I can't wait to see it next year at Pepperdine.

I have the honor of contributing this guest post to the company blog, and I'm very proud to play even a small part in this production.

An excerpt:

I am grateful and proud to contribute some ideas for The Interference this year. Lynda Radley, Alex FthenakisCathy Thomas-Grant, and the Pepperdine crew and cast are undertaking a critical and hard project. The night in question will always matterthe facts, the tick-tock, the actions. But the night in question only really matters in the context of the lives and communities in question. 
 
The Interference is an ambitious attempt to explore the hyper-local relationship, on the night in question, between the young man who wants possession of the young woman’s body and the young woman who loses possession of her body to him. It is even more ambitious to explore the lives in question all around them, the life of the university, the life of fraternities, the life of friends, the life of the team and its fans, the life of the law, the life of the family. 

May 25, 2016 in Domestic Violence, Interdisciplinary Programs, Teaching and Pedagogy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Professor Sarah Deer Is a MacArthur Fellow!

I admit that the one email I dread every September is the announcement of the MacArthur Fellows --nothing like feeling totally inadequate three weeks into the new school year by reading about the exceptional accomplishments of this extraordinarily creative and hardworking group of individuals.  I personally much prefer the announcement of the Darwin Awards. 

But this year when I saw the dreaded email from the MacArthur Foundation, I quickly noted that the clinical community’s own Sarah Deer has been selected!  Professor Deer is on the faculty of William Mitchell College of Law and is co-director of their Indian Law Clinic.  She is a tireless advocate who has been instrumental in developing legal protections for Native American victims of domestic violence.  A description of Professor Deer’s work can be found here.  A full list of this year’s MacArthur Fellows can be found here.  Congratulations, Professor Deer, on a truly extraordinary and well-earned distinction!        

September 16, 2014 in Clinic News, Clinic Profile, Current Affairs, Domestic Violence, Faculty Profile, Family Law, Job Opportunities & Fellowships, Promotions, Honors & Awards | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Op-Ed on Paroline v. U.S.

Here is an op-ed I wrote for Gannett on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Paroline vs. U.S.:  http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/opinion/2014/04/25/congress-listen-child-sex-abuse-victims/8172953/.  The battle to help restore victims of child pornography will now shift to Capitol Hill.  There is a critical role for law school clinics to play and I hope that you will consider joining the effort. 

April 25, 2014 in Children, Clinic Victories, Current Affairs, Domestic Violence, Family Law, Juvenile Justice, Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SCOTUS Decision Issued in Paroline v. U.S. Today

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Paroline v. U.S. (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-8561_7758.pdf).  The case involved the question of how to determine restitution for victims of child pornography.  Although the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, agrees with the victim and the government that restitution is mandatory, it held that courts should determine on an individualized basis each defendant’s unique role in the causation of the victim’s losses and then be held liable only for that limited amount. 

This interpretation renders the mandatory restitution statute (18 U.S.C. §2252) untenable.  Child pornography victims are routinely harmed by thousands of perpetrators many of whom are never identified, let alone prosecuted.  It places a significant burden on courts, the government, and victims to try to calculate the relative harms caused by each individual perpetrator.  Moreover, perpetrators are routinely found to possess or distribute child sex abuse images involving numerous victims.  Thus, courts, the government, and victims would have to make this complex determination for each individual victim.  The process as described would be highly inefficient, ineffective, and will lead to victims reliving their sexual abuse trauma indefinitely through the court system.

Thus, a legislative solution must be generated.  According to the dissent, which was drafted by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, “Congress set up a restitution system sure to fail in cases like this one.”  Congress simply imported a generic restitution statute “without accounting for the diffuse harm suffered by victims of child pornography.”  According to the dissent, the mandatory restitution statute is untenable and Congress should be given the opportunity to fix it.

Justice Sotomayor also dissented, but on entirely different grounds.  She, essentially, agrees with the victim in this case, “Amy,” that each defendant should be held liable for the full amount of each victim’s losses.  She, too, invites Congress to recodify the mandatory restitution statute to make clear that its command to award full restitution to victims of child pornography.  Congress should accept the invitation.

Here is Amy’s response to the decision:

“I am surprised and confused by the Court’s decision today. I really don’t understand where this leaves me and other victims who now have to live with trying to get restitution probably for the rest of our lives. The Supreme Court said we should keep going back to the district courts over and over again but that’s what I have been doing for almost six years now. It’s crazy that people keep committing this crime year after year and now victims like me have to keep reliving it year after year. I’m not sure how this decision helps anyone to really know if, when, and how restitution will ever be paid to kids and other victims of this endless crime. I see that the Court said I should get full restitution “someday,” I just wonder when that day will be and how long I and Vicky and other victims will have to wait for justice.”

(http://www.childlaw.us/)

Willamette’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic originally filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children in this case (http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v3/12-8561_resp_amcu_dnrthbsvc.authcheckdam.pdf) and I previously published a guest opinion on Paroline v. U.S. with Jurist (http://jurist.org/forum/2014/02/warren-binford-paroline-supreme.php).

              

April 23, 2014 in Children, Criminal Defense, Current Affairs, Domestic Violence, Family Law, Juvenile Justice, Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)