Thursday, March 15, 2012
Several weeks ago, Lincoln posted about bringing practice into the classroom. On that theme, I thought I’d say a few words about a teaching approach I’ve been using for several years. To preview the punchline, I think it works well; I’m happy to share resources with other interested professors; and if there’s interest from others, I think creating a website for sharing teaching materials would be worthwhile.
The basic approach involves using case studies. That’s nothing new—the Stanford Law School environmental case studies series (which I love) has a whole library—but the studies I’ve created are different in a few ways. Most importantly, I usually divide the students into teams, some of which have shared interests and some of which are in adversarial positions. I also usually create some sort of hearing or other proceeding at which the students will speak, and designate a few students to play the role of the decision-making body. Often the “hearing” is somewhat contrived, but it still gives students a chance to practice speaking before,and answering tough questions from, a panel of decision-makers. Usually at the end of the class the decision-makers explain their resolution, and then we discuss arguments, tactics, and the relevant substantive law.
I think this approach has several benefits.
- It’s fun for students. Sometimes by the second year of law school, and often by the third, students are burned out on traditional lecture-and-discussion classes. Case studies, my students have repeatedly told me, are a welcome break.
- Students get to practice speaking. In a normal quasi-Socratic class, students speak for only a few sentences at a time, and the dialogue format, while better than pure lecture, doesn’t resemble the ways lawyers communicate in actual practice. These exercises give a chance to practice oral advocacy.
- Students get to practice identifying parties' interests. Environmental and natural resource disputes are often complex and multilateral, and it isn’t always obvious what positions a client should take, what positions potential opponents or allies will assert, and where opportunities for collaboration or compromise will arise. Case studies provide a good opportunity for that sort of strategic thinking.
- Students challenge each other. Perhaps it's just the culture of my law school, but I wish students were a little more willing to disagree. A case study with an adversarial format quickly solves that problem.
- Students prepare better. A little bit of competition does wonders to motivate students to read more carefully and critically, particularly when the reading involves the sort of dense statutory or regulatory materials that practicing environmental lawyers often confront.
- Case studies provide a good foundation for writing assignments. In my seminars, I’ve started asking students to write bench memos, client memos, or advocacy letters based on case study fact patterns. Students have told me they like having their written work approximate real-world legal writing.
- I don’t know what’s going to happen. The best case studies are usually a little bit unpredictable. That keeps the experience fresh for me as a teacher, even if I cover the same studies year after year.
There’s a downside, however, and that leads to a pitch. Writing case studies is a lot of work. In my first two years of teaching, while I was possessed of pre-parenthood energy levels that now seem unfathomable, I wrote a whole bunch of studies, including a set of water resource management case studies that now take up half of a course. My pace has slowed considerably. But I’d like to use more in my classes (and would be happy to share,and get external feedback on, the ones I’ve already created), and I’m wondering if other professors are generating similar materials. If they are, I also wonder if other professors would be interested in setting up a website where case studies could be shared.
If you’re interested in seeing a sample of the kind of case study I’ve used, you can click on the links that follow. This study addresses NEPA compliance in an urban environment. This one addresses water marketing (along with the case study, I also ask students to read articles promoting and questioning water marketing). This one (which I just finished writing this morning and haven’t test driven yet) addresses offshore oil exploration.