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Redesigning the Legal Skills Course for the Virtual Classroom

Legal Skills Faculty

This fall, as California Western School of Law moved its J.D. program online in response to the COVID pandemic, its faculty was faced with many new challenges in meeting the needs of the incoming class. Among them: how, in a virtual space, would the Legal Skills faculty maintain their longstanding commitment to providing students with a sense of academic community and opportunities to engage with peers and classmates? How would they provide their students with individualized feedback on written work and help them develop as legal advocates without ever setting foot in the classroom together?

It was immediately obvious to the professors teaching the course – Allison Cato, David Austin, Amy Day, and Liam Vavasour – that the answer was not merely to throw a webcam in front of the class as it had typically been taught in the past. Instead, they engaged in a rapid redesign not of what they would teach but rather how they would teach it, resulting in the implementation of the Unified Legal Skills program at the start of the Fall 2020 trimester. It is this course redesign that will take central focus when California Western hosts a virtual one-day conference of the Legal Writing Institute on December 9, 2020.

In structuring this year’s unified Legal Skills course, Professors Cato, Austin, Day, and Vavasour agreed to certain goals and values. In teaching the six-credit, year-long course on predictive and persuasive writing, research, and oral advocacy, they would ensure that students receive personalized support and feedback, help the students establish meaningful relationships with their classmates and their professors, and implement best practices in online learning.

“So many aspects of legal learning are made more difficult in the online space,” explained Professor Cato. “Attention spans are shorter, stamina is harder to maintain, and students can feel disconnected. We wanted this year’s program to take advantage of what is best about online learning, while addressing the unique challenges that this pandemic has handed our students. We were lucky that Dean Scott and Dean Brenner supported us as we adapted the course to meet these challenges.”

Achieving the goals of the program has rested on four pillars:

1) Employing classroom-flipping techniques

Classroom-flipping is nothing new; for years, educators have been working to shift lecture-based content to asynchronous forms of delivery so class hours could be spent engaging students in problems, exercises, and discussions.

These techniques take on greater value in the virtual classroom, where the need for active engagement is so acute. “When our students come together with us and with each other for those three hours every week, we need to make every minute count,” explained Professor Day. “To the greatest extent possible, we want those class hours to be used for students to engage with us, with each other, and with the content of the course. That has meant creating some lessons and videos students can watch outside of class, freeing up class time for more active forms of learning like class discussions and working together in small groups.”

Classroom-flipping techniques are especially workable in the virtual writing classroom. Unlike in a physical classroom, where sharing written work can be difficult or slow, sharing written work in the online classroom is quite easy. The virtual classroom enables students to work in breakout rooms where they can collaborate with each other, and it has enabled professors to view individual and group work quickly and easily, so that they may provide frequent, personalized feedback on student work during class time. The virtual classroom also makes one-on-one writing conferences more effective, because students can quickly and easily show professors their work by sharing the screen.

2) Teaching all Legal Skills classes on Fridays

Prior to the transition to online learning, Legal Skills classes, like other three-credit classes, were spaced throughout the week in two ninety-minute blocks. The unified Legal Skills program implemented this fall, however, has required that each section of Legal Skills take place in a single, three-hour session every Friday. The four professors teach half the first-year class divided across four sections every Friday morning, and the same four professors teach the other half of the first-year class in another four sections every Friday afternoon. This structure has the added benefit of allowing the faculty teaching the course to support one another, without any interruption for the students, in the event of an emergency.

This course design allows the professors to team-teach some classes. While the course is still primarily taught pursuant to a small-section model, periodic unified Legal Skills classes take place, during which all four sections meeting at the same time unite for a joint class. These sessions allow the Legal Skills faculty to teach to all first-year students on certain topics which play to their distinct areas of expertise or experience. They also allow students to interact with members of the 1L class with whom they do not share other classes.

The unified Legal Skills session experience is uniquely possible during the online trimester. In a physical classroom, students could not shuffle so easily between large sections, small sections, and breakout work. In the online space, however, the program has allowed students and professors to move between these differently-sized groups with ease.

3) The implementation of the Legal Skills Workshop

The Legal Skills faculty have been particularly concerned with the extent to which teaching and learning in the online space would leave students feeling alone and alienated. “The faculty recognized that during the pandemic, students cannot simply meet up with one another in the library or walk past their professors’ doors to stop in for a chat,” said Professor Austin. “We created the Legal Skills Workshop to foster a sense of academic community by providing extra opportunities for conversation and shared experiences.”

Twice weekly for one hour, the Workshop provides a space for students from all sections to come together in a single Zoom session facilitated by a Legal Skills professor – or often several of them – and honors instructors (the CWSL equivalent of teaching assistants for the Legal Skills course). Professors use the time to facilitate discussions and answer questions concerning that week’s work and long-term research and writing projects. Students also use the time to visit breakout rooms where they can take more particularized questions to specific professors or honors instructors. The sessions have been very well-attended, offering a supplemental opportunity for students to engage in conversation with their community and to receive extra support in the course.

4) Aligning the curriculum

Perhaps the biggest change to the Legal Skills program this year has been that the professors teaching the course have aligned the curriculum by agreeing to adopt the same textbooks, the same syllabus, and the same goals, assignments, and lesson plans, in their effort to deliver the best possible course. This represents a change from previous years, in which professors typically shared major goals and deadlines but otherwise mostly worked independently during the first trimester.

“One of the best parts of this year’s approach to Legal Skills has been our weekly team meeting,” said Professor Vavasour. “We meet every Monday to discuss our goals and plans for that Friday’s class, to plan assignments for the week ahead, and to talk about anything else we need to address, including how we are doing. This has brought us together as a team, fostered a real sense of camaraderie, and helped us learn from each other, to the benefit of our students and the program.”

“The weekly department meeting,” added Professor Austin, “has not only allowed us to ensure that we maintain consistent lesson plans; it has helped us maintain our sanity by acting as an antidote to the isolation that so many of us have been experiencing as a result of the pandemic.”

Legal Writing Institute and the trimester ahead

“We are thrilled to be hosting LWI’s one-day conference on December 9,” said Professor Austin, who is coordinating California Western’s role in the event. “Our participation in the conference will be a wonderful way to introduce our legal writing colleagues from around the country to the hard work we have been doing here this year, and we hope that other schools will benefit from learning about what we have done. We are excited for the chance it provides us to reflect on how we can improve our course for the trimester ahead, and to think about which aspects of the program can carry forward to a post-pandemic return to the live classroom.” The conference will focus on the positive takeaways from pandemic teaching and will include presentations from law faculty nationwide.

As the trimester ends and the faculty prepares for the conference, they are mindful that meeting the needs of students in the online world will require hard, thoughtful work in the coming months. “The challenges facing law students learning online are enormous,” said Professor Day. “There is much more we as a Legal Skills faculty can do to serve the needs of students. My colleagues and I are deeply committed to educating ourselves, to listening to our students, and to delivering the best program possible under these unconventional conditions.”