February 10, 2012
Practical and Experiential Learning in Environmental and Energy Law
Increasingly, I find it important to bring the practical into the classroom. To be upfront, this view is not new for me. I joined the academy with the presumption that deep theory, legal doctrine, and careful analysis cannot stand alone; the best learning couples heavy doses of those with the real world. Five years in, consistent feedback from students and the bar have overwhelmingly confirmed what I initially assumed. At least some professors also seem to agree.
Injecting the practical is comparatively easy in some courses. In my civil procedure class, for instance, I am constantly trying to find ways to help students see that the rules are not just principles; they are tools that you can only truly understand if you pick them up and use them repeatedly. In the litigation context, avenues for making this clear are both discrete and fairly digestible, even in the first semester. Students in my class attend two court proceedings. They draft a complaint or an answer. They write a set of discovery. They complete a CALI exercise that tries to replicate the discovery process of a case. It is not uncommon on my exams for students to be asked to draft a motion, complete the next entry in a deposition transcript, or create a notice of appeal. Certainly, I have no illusions that any first-year student will leave my class a master of any of these tasks. But the hope is that by being exposed to some of them, students not only begin to gain an understanding of what litigators do on a daily basis, but also learn the material more deeply while laying a foundation of skills they will actually need in practice.
The question, then, is whether this kind of hybrid learning is also useful for more specialized, upper level law classes, particularly those in the environment, energy, and natural resource fields. More and more, I have become convinced that it is. Conceptually, this makes sense. Lawyers in any field have specific, practical skills they cannot be effective without. There is no reason this is not also true for the areas in which we teach. Having practiced for seven years, I know that's the case. The environmental lawyer is always translator: To handle a pollution case, you have to comprehend risk analysis and toxicology. To grapple with energy rates or mergers, a grasp of economics is essential. To do endangered species, biology is fundamental. In all these, an understanding of the industry the lawyer represents, or that the law at issue regulates, cannot be foregone.
The problem for the classroom, however, is twofold. First, there is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Students cannot really dive into the details of many topics on a practical basis until they have the basics of the law under control. But getting to how that law really works is tough without practical exercises. Second, there is an allocation quandary. Every minute spent on a practical exercise deepens students’ understanding of that topic but does so at the expense of another subject area that could be covered instead. In courses that present as many fascinating issues as ours do, making this choice is often more painful—for me at least—than deciding, for example, whether to do another day on summary judgment or covering standards of review in civil procedure. At some point, moreover, too much of the practical in the classroom converts the substantive topic to a clinical one; there is a balance to find.
Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to our students to add this dimension to their understanding of the field. To that end, here are a few things we are doing in my energy law class this semester.
- Field trips to various energy sites, including to PacifiCorp’s Gadsby Power Plant earlier this week.
- Mock cost-of-service ratemaking exercises, using a hypothetical utility’s rate base, debt structure, and production costs.
- Guest lectures and case studies on actual energy controversies.
I’d be thrilled to hear what others are doing in their energy, environmental, or natural resources classes to add practical or experiential learning to the classroom.
(photo credit: S.P. Hansen)
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In my courses, I often assign case studies based on complex, multi-party environmental problems. Teams of students represent the different clients, and usually a few students represent the decision-making body and get to grill their classmates. The adversarial format partially addresses your concerns about the tradeoff between covering material and doing a practical exercise. I find students will push themselves harder, and therefore learn more, when there's an element of competition to the exercise, and the practical exercise then doubles as an effective way to learn doctrinal material. They also have more fun.
Posted by: dave owen | Feb 13, 2012 5:36:35 AM