Monday, December 9, 2019
Does generational theory have any relevance in Appellate Advocacy? Yes, particularly in its teaching. Dr. Corey Seemiller, an expert in generational theory, recently gave her insights on Gen Z, the cohort born between 1996 and 2010, and how they approach advocacy at the Reimagining Advocacy Conference at Stetson University College of Law. The oldest members of Gen Z are now 24, so many current law students are in this group. Dr. Seemiller's keynote kicked off a weekend-long discussion of how to harness the strengths of Gen Z and bolster some of the weaknesses. Whether you work at a law school with these students right now or are a practicing attorney who will soon have Gen Z colleagues, it’s helpful to learn about some of their strengths and challenges as a group. Dr. Seemiller’s presentation gave the conferenceattendees a shared vocabulary. As a caveat, anytime one deals with generational theory, one deals in broad categories, but individuals and personalities vary. Still, I see applications for how I teach students to work as a team, read materials, approach an audience, and prepare for an oral argument.
So what characterizes Gen Z? Among other things, they are curious, honest, kind, and fair. They are diverse. They have experienced a significant amount of vicarious trauma and do not remember a world before Columbine and 9/11. They are motivated by relationships and by what they believe in. They are constantly connected and often addicted to technology; according to Dr. Seemiller they have an average of 8.7 social media accounts. Gen Z students say that they prefer face-to-face communication, but smart phones have been a part of their world since childhood or birth. They may need coaching in how to have live conversations.
Now that Gen Z has officially arrived at law school, and as we try to train them in appellate advocacy, there is a gap between the advocacy methods they have used and appellate advocacy. Over the last few years they may have engaged in twitter wars, used hashtag activism, and witnessed cancel culture. Appellate advocacy in some ways is the polar opposite of hashtag activism and slogans. Professor Mary Beth Beasley identified mastery as the key to appellate advocacy. Mastery takes focus. When we overburden our short term memories with a constant stream of information (like from a smartphone), we diminish our long term memory capacity. Both long term memory and the ability to build connections between a mass of materials are necessary to effectively advocate at the appellate level. Of course, these skills are important to all of us, but Gen Z has never known a time with out smart phones constantly pulling their attention. Many of these students have not learned to read deeply and sustain prolonged focus. We need to find ways to help them pursue and recognized mastery.
We can also try to harness Gen Zs strengths. Hashtag activism requires the ability to boil things down and be concise, which are helpful skills when thinking about theme. These students care deeply about the causes that are important to them. While they may not be patient in the skills development process, once they see the value in a project, they will buy in.
Gen Z is not alone in being constantly connected to technology; most of us are. So as we prepare to teach the next generation of students how to advocate, we need to consider the way that the audience is changing, too, even though there are not yet Gen Z appellate judges. Ultimately, the boiled down, concise persuasion styles Gen Z gravitates to may be helpful to any audience with a shortened attention span. Fortunately, it’s also good writing. But we need to teach students to achieve mastery, think deeply, and make meaningful connections before they start condensing.