I'm writing this post (and those that follow) primarily to share how I've designed this year's Legal Problem Solving course. Since launching LPS last year, a number of legal educators and practitioners have contacted me, asking for more information about the how and why of my course. I've enjoyed these conversations, and they sparked the idea to share how and why more broadly via this blog.
I also write this for my current and future students. LPS is a new course, with a very brief and vague description in the course catalog. As we're only in year #2, there isn't a lot of institutional memory to be gathered by students about the course and whether they should take it. Interestingly, I've had a substantial waiting list for both LPS offerings. Which signals to me that students are hungry for experiential law school courses that help them understand the many practical things that law school traditionally doesn't address. So, in writing, I offer these posts to current students as more context for what we're doing right now. And for future students, hopefully, this gives you a glimpse into what the course is about. And whether it may be of value and interest to you.
Here's what we explored in LPS class #02.
I suppose it seems odd that a law school class would focus first on self-awareness. Few law school curricula focus intentionally on any "soft skills" teaching and training, and many folks likely view self-awareness as a particularly squishy soft skill. I start here for a few reasons, including the fact that much of our work over the semester concerns empathy — what it is, how to practice it, when to practice it — and a foundation for practicing empathy is self-awareness. You've got to understand yourself first, in order to empathize with others.
Another reason I start with self-awareness: students are at a critical juncture as they enter my class. As 2Ls and (mostly) 3Ls, they're about to accept their first job offer as a lawyer. They're making a choice that will shape nearly every aspect of their lives. What preparation do they have for this? Very little of the traditional law school curriculum provides any insight whatsoever into what it's like to actually be a lawyer. For the most part, students' knowledge is limited to summer work experiences. This isn't the forum to debate whether or how law schools should be helping prepare students to make career decisions, so I'll simply say this: students need tools to help them navigate this choice. Being taught to "think like a lawyer" does not generally help students make career choices (which, by the way, are likely to become even more complex in the near future as the nature of legal work and legal organizations shifts ever more rapidly). I think law schools should provide more tools. So, I do what I can in my class.
Finally, developing self-awareness is a vast undertaking and my approach in LPS is necessarily limited by time and other course constraints. So I understand that the small number of exercises we engage in could be greatly enriched by other tools and methods. With that said, I've selected some which I observe bring great value both to our efforts in LPS and to the students, generally. These are tools I'm familiar with in my own work and tie into the goals and themes of LPS and human-centered design.
VIA Character Strengths
I could write pages on the VIA Character Strengths Assessment and why I think it's so valuable. Instead, I'll refer you to the FAQ section of the VIA website, because I think it provides a nice and concise overview of the power and value of character strengths.
Over-simplified, the VIA Character Strengths assessment helps you understand your core personality characteristics through 24 character strengths that are recognized and valued across every known human culture. Unlike most personality assessments, VIA is a positive assessment — it focuses on your strengths, instead of neutral aspects (typical in assessments like Myers-Briggs and Strengths Finder). Also, VIA isn't focused on a single aspect of your life but crosses all boundaries between work, social, school, and beyond. It illuminates core characteristics that we all have and helps you understand those which are strongest.
Decades of data from global research across disciplines has validated the assessment — you can find a summary of research findings here. While you can drill down into specific research findings, overall the research reveals significant correlations between awareness and practice of character strengths with general life satisfaction, happiness, and well-being.
I've followed a character strengths practice for many years and have also worked with other legal professionals to use the assessment tool to improve work and life satisfaction and well-being. I share it with my students for the same reasons I integrate it into my life, as I've found understanding my strengths and being intentional in how I design my professional journey leads to a much stronger degree of work satisfaction. The assessment also increases our overall self-awareness of personality characteristics, which prepares us for exercising cognitive empathy effectively.
Our theme for LPS this year is "humble curiosity" (follow #humblecuriosity on Twitter!). I chose this theme because it captures so perfectly the primary superpower I want my students to leave Vanderbilt ready to wield in both their personal and professional lives. (I adopted the phrase for LPS purposes after hearing it on this podcast.)
Humble curiosity simply means being curious with a humble spirit. While we know a lot (we are lawyers, after all, and often think we're the smartest person in the room), there's a lot that we don't know and that we will never know. To be humble in our openness to continual, lifelong learning and growth is to position ourselves to live our most full and capable lives. I think humble curiosity is what Mary Oliver describes in her poem Luna :
in the open mindedness
of not knowing enough
I've been a student and (casual) researcher of curiosity for many years, and was thrilled the Harvard Business Review dedicated its September/October 2018 issue to curiosity, with articles validating its power as a critical element of successful leadership in business. It's also critical to a successful career in the law, and I think even more so now that so much about the legal profession is in a state of flux and evolution thanks to economic, technological, and other momentous forces.
In LPS, we focus a lot on what it means to be curious and how this plays out in legal practice and legal services delivery. Of course, curiosity is critical to a successful human-centered design endeavor so students get a lot of practice as we work through design exercises and sprints.
We start off with this Curiosity Profile (thanks again, HBR), and we'll take it again at the end of the semester. The class generally starts as an even mix between unconventional thinkers (most curious) and higher-level flexible thinkers (second most curious). We'll see if curiosity levels shift any by semester's end.
A look into the legal profession: the BUSINESS side and the HUMAN side
If you went to law school, you likely didn't learn much of anything about the business of law. And this remains the state of legal education for the most part. Students need some understanding about the industry they're entering, and this isn't simply my opinion. More than one student has shared with me since graduating that the business understanding they received in my course has been incredibly valuable as they enter practice. A pointed example: a student sent me an email at the end of her very first day in practice at an AmLaw 100 firm to share that the primary theme of the firm's orientation was this: You need to know two things to succeed in biglaw: 1 - Your practice area (technical expertise) and 2 - The business of law. How do you think this orientation felt to recent law school graduates who left school learning nothing about the business of law? My student, on the other hand, was confident and ready for the challenge. Because she had a grounding in the business of law.
We read a number of sources on the current state of the business for two reasons: First, students should have an understanding of the business they're about to enter so that they can make intentional decisions about their own career paths. It's mind-boggling to me that bright students enter a field with absolutely no concept about the challenges the business faces, or how law firms even operate, but they do. How can they make intentional choices without this information? I don't think they can.
The second reason references the student email, above. Law firms expect lawyers to know how the business works and to govern themselves accordingly. Students who don't are at a disadvantage. This is an easy problem to avoid. So I help my students avoid it.
But life as a lawyer isn't all business. It's a very human endeavor and the human side gets as short a shrift as the business side. We're more depressed, addicted, suicidal, and lonely than most any other profession. For law students, the numbers or even worse. I believe we have an ethical and moral obligation to deal with this reality in law school in a way much more meaningful than a presentation by TLAP during 1L orientation. So, I do.
We read a lot about the ugly toll law practice can take, and we hear from amazing lawyers like Lisa Smith who have lived through it to come out on the other side to create successful, healthy lives. We also talk about what students can do now, and throughout their professional lives, to manage the stress, anxiety, and other pressures that can negatively impact well-being. We engage actively in these tools in class, including a brief mindfulness meditation at the start of each class. I connect them directly with other campus resources so they know where to go when and if they need help. I do all I can to counterbalance the stigma our profession has placed on these challenges, and empower them to both make healthy choices AND be agents of change in helping make our profession healthier overall.
Work View and Life View Journal Exercise
LPS students journal the entire semester, sharing a weekly entry with me in a shared Google Drive folder.
I'll take this opportunity to point out that not a lot of innovation appears to happen in law school pedagogy. Our ever-growing understanding of how we learn — based in brain science and learning research — offers rich insight into how we should be teaching our students. Very little of this is reflected in how many law professors teach. I endeavor to be very intentional in the tools and methods I use to teach students and this includes learning as much as I can about what we know works. So I read a lot about current learning research, I seek help from Vanderbilt's teaching resource center, I try things, I seek feedback from students.
I use journaling as a pedagogical tool for a number of reasons. It provides students with a safe way to express their reaction to what we do in class, whether an exercise or a reading, and to demonstrate their grasp of (and engagement with) what we're doing. As well, I get a much better sense of how things are going in class and how much (or little) the students are connecting with the content. Most importantly, research shows that reflection, in conjunction with experiential learning (which LPS is), improves individual learning outcomes. Journaling provides this point of reflection.
The first journal prompt: share their Work View and Life View, an exercise I borrowed from Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. (They teach an entire course dedicated to this topic at Stanford, by the way.) In a nutshell, the prompt asks students to consider some queries both existential and practical about their view of the meaning of work and the meaning of life. Combining your Work View and Life View creates the "true north" of your compass that guides you in making all life decisions, according to Bill and Dave. Whether you buy into this premise or not, this exercise requires an intentional reflection about work and life at just the point in time my students are making important work decisions that will impact their lives. This exercise allows them to pull from their character strengths and curiosity assessment, as well as reflect on what they know about the profession they're about to enter, to answer some big questions.
The Persona Exercise
I tried something new this year as part of self-awareness work, taking a human-centered design tool (the Persona) and flipping it as a self-design tool. After the various self-assessments, readings, and class conversations, I asked each student to create their individual Persona to represent who they are as a potential first-year law firm associate or first-year [insert position they are seeking]. This exercise required them to think back on all of the assessments they've done, the reflecting they've done, and craft a description of who they are as a new lawyer.
I've already heard from a student who shared that this exercise, in combination with the other work we did, completely shifted how they viewed their career path and gave them confidence in choosing an authentic path, replacing a sense of insecurity and inadequacy they had been experiencing. This is the power of self-awareness. And why it is so critical for these students.
There's more to share about class #02 but I've already written much more than intended and it's taken a long time so I'm stopping now. I'll share more next week!