Welcome back to Ahead of the Curve. I’m Karen Sloan, legal education editor at Law.com, and I’ll be your host for this weekly look at innovation and notable developments in legal education.
This week, law professors reach two different conclusions about whether extra student outreach and feedback helps boost grades in law school. Next up I’m chatting with DLA Piper partner Jay Finkelstein about his international negotiations class, where students travel abroad for simulated deal making with international law students. And last, I’m eating a big slice of humble pie on my predictions about how Big Law would react to the pushback against mandatory arbitration agreements for summer associates.p call to students that they may need to step up and make some changes.
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The Word on Feedback
Giving law students more feedback and assessments such as practice exams translate into better grades, right?
Not so fast. An upcoming edition of the University of Detroit Mercy Law Review takes up the subject of so-called formative reviews, but the authors of two articles reach different conclusions about the ability of professor interaction and feedback to improve student performance.
First up is an article by a quintet of professors from Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law who analyzed what happened when first-year law students in Constitutional Law took a voluntary practice exam question and received an estimated grade and written feedback. (In this case, the professor was Ruth Colker, who you may recall recorded a podcast with me last month about how to improve law school exams and the drawbacks of the single final exam model.)
Before I go into the results of the experiment, which covers three years of data, let me tell you who was most likely to take the voluntary exam—female students and those with high undergraduate grade-point averages. Law School Admission Test scores and law school grades weren’t relevant in predicting who was likely to participate.
So what did they find out? The students who opted for the practice exam—which was not counted toward their actual grades—did perform better in Constitutional Law than those who skipped the it. The average difference was the equivalent of a B+ for those who received the extra assessment, compared to a B for those who did not. (The difference held true even after controlling for factors such as LSAT score, gender and race.) Perhaps even more interesting, the practice exam takers performed better than non-takers in their four other courses the same semester, which included contracts and property.
That sounds like a good case for feedback improving performance. But the second article throws a little cold water on that notion. David Siegel, a professor at the New England Law Boston tested the theory that individualized, personal outreach to low performing students would improve their grades. For two years, he sent personalized emails to students in his criminal law course who scored low on early quizzes, and had follow-up one-on-one meetings with them to review the quizzes, discuss study methods, and any other larger issues they may have with the class. His control group consisted of students who had scored slightly higher than the lower performing students on the quizzes, and they didn’t receive the personalized outreach emails. But in the end, there was no statistical difference between the final grades of the two groups, leading Seigel to conclude that the early interventions didn’t boost grades.
My take: There’s enough research out there on the benefits of formative assessments to put stock in the conclusion the Ohio State professors reached, that more feedback on tests and performance helps. But I think Siegel’s study tells us that the manner and context of how that feedback is delivered makes a difference. It’s one thing to have a general conversation with low performing students. But issuing a grade on a practice exam—even if it doesn’t count toward their final grade—I suspect is a real wake-up call to students that they may need to step up and make some changes.
An American (Law Student) In Paris (Or Vienna)
If you want to teach law students how to negotiate an international business deal, having them hash out a simulated deal in person with foreign law students is about the best you can do. That’s what DLA Piper partner Jay Finkelstein told me last week when we caught up to discuss the international negotiation class he has been teaching as an adjunct at various U.S. law schools for more than a decade.
I’ve written about Finkelstein’s class before. But Finkelstein has recently upped the ante, taking U.S. law students overseas to negotiate deals in person—a change that he says better replicates the actual dynamic when lawyers from different countries with different legal customs must work together to reach an agreement. Law classes that travel abroad aren’t unusual, but Finkelstein said he doesn’t know of any others that follow the model of a simulated international business deal.
“It’s opportunity to interact with international students face-to-face, to experience a foreign culture, to be able to have the sidebar discussions face-to-face that you can’t have over video conferencing,” Finkelstein said. “Those face-to-face interactions are so critical to building trust and rapport in a negotiation context between the parties.”
So far, Finkelstein has taken Northwestern and Berkeley law students to Israel in a collaboration Tel Aviv University and Stanford law students to Austria to the University of Vienna. The intensive classes are week-long experiences over law school breaks. In addition to the simulated negotiations, the students also have time to explore, often being shown around town by their hosts.
“They wind up socializing with them. They wind up exploring their cities with them. The negotiation often time continues over dinner and drinks in the evenings as the international students are showing the U.S. students their cities. It just has a natural flow to it that replicates what we do as international lawyers.”
My thoughts: Sign me up! Were I a law student, I’d love to hop aboard a plane and negotiate a simulated deal with students oversees. But there are a few drawbacks to the course model that I can see. First, the classes by nature are relatively small. Realistically, these classes can’t accommodate more than a dozen students and Finkelstein says he regularly turns students away due to limited space. They’re also expensive, though the schools generally help students defray their travel costs. But for any law student who is considering an international transactions path, this class offers a unique opportunity.
Little Migration on Mandatory Arbitration
Never let it be said that I won’t admit to getting it wrong, and boy did I get it wrong a few weeks back when I predicted that Big Law firms would quickly drop their mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements for summer associates amid criticism and the #MeToo era.
Last week brought the news that more than half of the nearly 400 law firms and legal organizations surveyed by students at the top 50 law schools didn’t respond to the query about their use of such agreements. And five firms—Cooley; Drinker Biddle & Reath; Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear; Paul Hastings; Stoel Rives; and Varnum—said they would require summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.
The logical conclusion is that at least some, if not many, of those non-responders are in fact still using the mandatory arbitration agreements. If they weren’t, why not just say so and stay in the good graces of law students who are angry?
The takeaway: I clearly overestimated the leverage I thought the law students behind this survey had on legal employers. I figured law firms would deep-six arbitration agreements to avoid the fate of Munger Tolls, which got raked over the coals on social media for requiring summer associates to sign them. I also believed that Big Law firms, which are always looking for an edge to recruit top students, would see broadcasting their lack of arbitration agreements as a way to get ahead—or at least keep up with—competitor firms. The lackluster survey results are a good reminder that the legal profession, and Big Law in particular, is fairly entrenched and that meaningful change comes slowly…if at all.
Extra Credit Reading
➤➤Could Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and the American Bar Association be headed toward a settlement in the school’s accreditation lawsuit? A judge has set a settlement conference for this week.
➤➤With the University of Southern California Gould School of Law boarding the GRE train last week, nearly half of the top 20 law schools now accept the alternative test.
➤➤Brown Rudnick has launched a scholarship designated for law students who are the first int heir family to go to college. The lucky 1L gets a summer clerkship at the firm’s Boston or New York office, as well as a $22,500 scholarship.
➤➤A bill introduced last week by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio would ban states from seizing the professional licenses—including law licenses—of those who default on their federal student loans.
➤➤Skadden Fellow Tarra Simmons was sworn into the bar in Washington Saturday, seven months after the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision denying her admittance due to an earlier drug conviction.
Thanks for reading Ahead of the Curve.
I’ll be back next week with more news and updates on the future of legal education. Until then, keep in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org