Monday, September 7, 2015

5 Tips for Helping Students Jump into a New Semester

It has been a typical summer in Washington DC with temperatures soaring. My local pool has been closed for repairs long enough to build a new pool in its place, so I was pleased to find out that the pool at my university was open for recreational swimming for a couple of hours a day. 

My experience with “serious” pools—vast pools with diving blocks and deep ends—is limited. It turns out the university has a serious pool. I am accustomed to getting into a pool via the steps at the shallow end or sitting on the concrete edge and sliding into the water. Serious pools, or at least this one, have a filtration system around the circumference, a gurgling metal gill that does not invite sitting. After walking all the way around the pool, I concluded there was only one way in. I jumped.

A law student enrolling in a clinic for the first time may be more than a little puzzled about how to get started. There is a lot we can do to ease the process. Here are five tips for helping students jump in:

1. Provide a Refresher on Legal Ethics. Even if students have taken professional responsibility as a prerequisite to enrolling in a clinic, they probably need a refresher on how the rules apply in practice. While most students understand that the rules on confidentiality bar them from mentioning a client by name and regaling their friends with details of a custody battle over a frosty mug of beer, they might not understand that they could reveal a client’s secrets inadvertently by tweeting about a case, by leaving client documents on the kitchen counter where a housemate could read them, or by having a private conversation with a client in a public place. In addition to confidentiality, we talk to students on the first day about dealing with unrepresented parties, the prohibition on communicating with represented parties, avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, and the role of the supervising attorney.

2. Offer Some Explanation for the Reasons Behind the Rules. Every clinic develops ways of getting the work done—the sign-in board that allows the office manager to know at a glance if a student has arrived, the conference room booking process, the practice of rooting out the refrigerator on Friday afternoons. Many office procedures allow a lot of people to work together harmoniously in a small space. Even if your clinic has an office manual (and it should), it is worthwhile to talk in detail with students about the why behind some of the rules. While it may seem obvious that one administrative assistant who works with 30 students cannot be reasonably expected to print and scan a brief 15 minutes before it has to be filed, it may not be obvious to a student who has never filed a brief or even worked in an office. 

3. Communicate Your Thoughts about Using Forms. Students are hungry for models and will ferret them out either in your clinic’s archives or online. There is great value in learning how to draft a motion from scratch, but I can guarantee that most students are just a couple of mouse clicks away from finding a sample “Motion to Quash” if that is what the case calls for. If you don’t want students cannibalizing documents, tell them. If you conclude, as I have, that it is inevitable that students will find and use models, talk with them about the importance of tailoring a model to the fit the client’s needs. As John Warnock observed, “A form, by definition, was developed on some other occasion for some other situation.”[1]

4. Talk with Students Explicitly About Their Role. Whatever your clinic is like, it is probably unlike anything students have experienced before. Think about ways you can help students understand these fundamental differences. There are various ways to do this. David Chavkin draws a helpful analogy between ways of learning to practice law and of learning how to organize a kitchen.[2] We ask our students to read it.

5. Disclose Your Own Eccentricities. No, I’m not talking about the fact that you wash your coins at night before releasing them to the world the next day or that your collection of garden gnomes now numbers in the hundreds. What I am talking about are those small things that students do or don’t do that bug you and whether by communicating your preferences, you might avoid some problems. Some people really don’t mind if a student starts every email with the salutation “Hey!” and some people mind very much. Personally, I hate chasing after students to find out if they received an email (and I’m pretty sure they hate being chased), so I ask my students to reply to every email I send. I let them know they don’t have to address the substance and that a quick “Got it,” “Will do,” “Seriously?” or “Yes, My Captain” will do. I also tell them that this preference may be peculiar to me and that other supervisors might be annoyed that students were cluttering up the supervisor’s inbox, so it is important to ask.

One final observation. When I told a friend about how perplexed I was about getting in the pool, he said, “You know, you could have used the ladder.” He is, of course, right about that. And so too, there is more than one right way for students to immerse themselves in clinical work. By offering a little more explicit guidance, we can ease our students’ transition into clinical work, however they choose to immerse themselves. The one thing we want to avoid is seeing students still pacing anxiously be the edge of the pool in October. We need to find a way to invite them in. The water is fine.

[1] John Phelps Warnock & Harold C. Warnock, Effective Writing: A Handbook with Stories for Lawyers 28 (2003).

[2] David F. Chavkin, Clinical Legal Education: A Textbook for Law School Clinical Programs 7 (2001).

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