Monday, August 29, 2016

First time this has happened in 16+ years of law teaching . . . .

Imagine this: Professor walks into Business Associations class Monday morning at 8:00 am having prepared to cover 14 pages of reading when she assigned only three (intending, when creating the syllabus, as she later recalled, to use the time to summarize, contrast, and compare agency law rules that will again come into play in partnership and other entity law--and to catch up, if need be).  OK.  The professor is me.  First lesson (which I thought I had learned many moons ago): always double-check the syllabus on what you've assigned.
So, what happened in class?  Well, the students didn't let on that the outline for the class plan that I scripted out on the whiteboard seemed to go beyond the reading.  But they might not have recognized that, since it was only an outline.  However, once I started covering the unassigned material, someone did alert me to my error.  Shocked (!), I told them that I had been too nice (weak response) and that--obviously--I had not checked the syllabus to confirm the day's reading assignment before scripting out the class plan and preparing for class.
I didn't then let the students go after learning of the mistake (having covered in summary fashion those three pages in about 15 minutes of class time). Instead, I constructed a hypothetical set of facts relating to a business conducted as a sole proprietorship from the facts of the partnership case on the syllabus for Wednesday (which I had prepared to cover for today) and asked the students to analyze contract and tort liability based on the hypothetical using the agency law rules we covered over the past four classes.  Detriment: people weren't prepared for this based on the prompts in the syllabus for today's class, and it took a while (and a board diagram) to establish the facts of the hypothetical with some (albeit far-from-perfect) clarity.  Benefit: many students learned that they don't yet know/understand agency law, and I got the opportunity to give the students a few pointers on how partnership law will be different from agency law.
Did I make the right choice?  I am following up with a post on the course TWEN site to capture the agency law rules we covered in class (to which the students did not have many salient citations).  What else can I do to take this lemon and turn it into lemonade?  All suggestions are welcomed.

Agency, Business Associations, Joan Heminway, Partnership, Teaching | Permalink


Be sure to remind the students that, after all, law practice doesn't come with a syllabus and clients rarely call about things that they've advised you to brush up on in advance.

Posted by: Scott Killingsworth | Aug 29, 2016 8:38:23 AM

Right, Scott. Of course, I will have to do it in such a way that I don't just look like I am justifying my error . . . . But I do think that can be done. I make similar comments in other circumstances in response to student comments and behaviors. It is good to remind them.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2016 10:00:50 AM

Perhaps another way is to address it as a professional responsibility issue. Lawyers make mistakes and one of the most important things is to own up to it as quickly as possible. First, it increases the likelihood of that the problem can be fixed. Second, and probably more importantly, it is the right thing to do.

When I was a senior associate, a junior associate whom I was supervising made a due diligence error. I had reviewed the work early-on, but reviewed it again several days before the closing. Why the re-review? I have no recollection. But I immediately saw that a bank consent was required. I was a senior associate and the partner in charge of the deal had gone to Disneyland with his kids. I had to track him down there and ruin his evening at 9 PM. I took full responsibility for the error, and I assumed that I had just ruined my chances for partnership. I was later told that the way I had handled the error was a point in my favor.

Posted by: Tina Stark | Aug 29, 2016 10:38:47 AM

I think you made the right choice to make use of your class time as best you could under the circumstances.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Aug 29, 2016 11:45:41 AM

Nice, Tina. This is very good stuff. You and Scott have given me two new lessons that my students can get from this. Thanks so much.

And thanks for the endorsement, Matthew. It is hard to figure out, sometimes, how to best save a situation when one is under some pressure. It's also hard to self-evaluate, ex post, the quality of the decision. I appreciate the feedback.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2016 1:04:05 PM

Students to learn to think and reason when situations are new. I think you were right on point to proceed as you did. Kudos. I use to teach Business Associations and never let students off the hook even when they said they didn't understand something or read the wrong material. Grab those teaching moments whenever you can.

Posted by: Athornia Steele | Aug 29, 2016 4:44:23 PM

Thanks, Athornia. I know you're right, and I do plan to embrace it! These things happen for a reason.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2016 5:55:13 PM

Thank you for sharing that these situations happen, even to the most prepared and diligent among us. We all benefit from your reflection on this situation. The comments raise excellent suggestions.

Posted by: Anne Tucker | Aug 31, 2016 5:20:27 AM

Thanks for the gracious comment, Anne. I just came back from class, and I did follow up with the students on this (and tell them about this post). I shared professional responsibility comments on competence and diligence (including the importance of the "measure twice, cut once" mode of operating as a lawyer) and reflections on the just-in-time nature of IRL advice to a client seeking a lawyer's help. I got great wisdom, as you note, from comments made here and on my Facebook page, which carried a link to this post. I do appreciate everyone responding to help me to make this a super learning experience for all.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 31, 2016 6:36:50 AM

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