More Tips For Lawyers
Kennard R. Strutin
What are the keys to effective teaching for the busy lawyer? Technology and time
Kennard R. Strutin is a legal information consultant and legal educator living in New York. He
has written extensively on legal management and education topics.
ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON in late August, a lawyer sitting at her desk is deeply engrossed
by a respondent’s brief. A sharp buzz from the intercom interrupts her train of thought. “Dean
Smith on line one.” Instantly, she understands the import of this call. Dean Smith wants her to
teach a class this semester. While talking to the dean, her mind subtly shifts gears and gradually
she becomes a teacher again.
The hardest thing to master after teaching a course for the first time is teaching it a second
time. Like any learning experience, the first class is fraught with trials and errors that you
promised to avoid the next time around. In a previous article, Tips for Lawyers Who Teach,
which appeared in the January 1996 issue, I introduced a few concerns facing a lawyer teaching
a class for the first time. This article will concentrate on developing methods for managing the
enlargement of teaching responsibilities with the help of technology.
THE ADMINISTRATIVE CHECKLISTS • Routine can be a pitfall. “That was the way I did it last
semester…” is a familiar rejoinder to school staff who informs you that the procedures have
changed. It’s best to create a checklist to organize all the administrative details that can become
huge headaches later on.
At the Beginning of the Semester
When you inform the dean that you are available to teach this semester, to her great relief,
consider what you need to know or obtain from the school:
• Name and school code for each course you will teach;
• Class schedule;
• Room numbers (in some schools this may change before the first day);
• Class size and class roster.
You’ll also need to update and prepare copies of your syllabus, class assignments,
examinations, bibliographies, reading lists, reserve materials, and handouts, as well as line up
guest speakers. The library staff should be consulted to arrange time for bibliographic and
online instruction for your students.
Other Early Administrative Tasks
Other administrative tasks include placing textbook orders with the bookstore, arranging
Westlaw or Lexis access for your students, as well as permission to the use the local law library
and requisitioning audiovisual materials and equipment for later in the year. Look at the room
assigned to you to get an idea of the layout and the equipment in place. The Pre-Semester
Checklist in the appendix is a simple way of keeping track of details that crop up every
At the End of the Semester
Just as a good trial lawyer composes her closing argument before beginning trial, a good
teacher needs to think about the end of the semester before it starts. The classroom, like the
courtroom, is a laboratory where skills are tested and sharpened. New ideas will spring up and
valid criticisms made. These can be easily forgotten in the hurly-burly of the classroom. A
Post-Semester Checklist of items will help to monitor changes, improvements and updates for
the following year.
LECTURE NOTES • Lecture notes are living documents. A teacher will annotate them, change
them, and scribble reminders of things she should mention next time. Each semester the notes
will be updated or radically changed based on new ideas for the course. Many times a teacher
needs to refer to some point she will make down the road, but she doesn’t remember exactly
what it is or when she will broach it. The ability to make lecture notes fluid, flexible and
searchable can be achieved through word processing.
Transcribing and Bookmarking
Existing notes should be transcribed or scanned into a single computer file. Using the table of
contents function, you can create a list of the main points and subpoints. The printed document
will be readable and accessible. Online, it can be searched by word or phrase for the exact
page in you need. Bookmarking will enable you to make hypertext links between any two parts
of your lecture notes or between the notes and other documents (particularly handy if you bring a
laptop to class). To that end, use consistent headers and vocabulary, perhaps tracking the
language of the syllabus and textbook. The freedom to update and change any part of your
lecture notes, and still make them readable, speaks for itself. It will also make it easier to draft
supplemental outlines or post materials online drawn from your notes.
Another consideration is the format of your presentation. While lectures notes are important,
some teachers, myself included, have discovered the advantages of using computer-generated
slides on the big screen. My experiences using PowerPoint have been very positive. This
software can create slides that contain text, graphics, and scanned images. You can add sound,
animation, video and if you are ambitious enough you can put it on a web site. PowerPoint can
create text-based handouts, with or without pictures. Consider creating CD-ROMs containing
the entire semester’s PowerPoint presentations. Convenient for the teacher who wants to
update or review her presentation before class, the CD can also be left on reserve for students
to examine at their leisure. Check with the educational technology person at the school to see if
it’s possible to store these presentations on their server as well.
The Law Office Experience
Students need to acclimate themselves to the law office mindset. There are subtle ways to
inculcate professional thinking in students. Assignments can be issued in the same format as in
the law office, e.g., using a memorandum, complete with deadlines. Spend at least one class
hour teaching students how to manage their workload and negotiate assignments. It’s a good
way to prepare them to handle difficult problems they will receive from assigning partners.
Leaving assignments constructively ambiguous compels students to learn to ask the right
questions. Often the problems are missing an element that can only be discovered by referring
back to the assigning partner, i.e., teacher. Teaching a student not to accept everything at face
value will serve them well.
GETTING FEEDBACK • Former Mayor Ed Koch was found of asking people “How’m I doing?”
Taking a page from his book, a good teacher should test the waters periodically to see if she is
making progress. Naturally, examinations and classroom discussions help to evaluate student
progress. Still, there’s more that a teacher should do. Surveys, popular methods for measuring
client satisfaction, can be adapted to measure student satisfaction and teacher effectiveness.
A basic short answer or multiple choice survey can gauge a student’s opinions about the
value of course materials, guest speakers and assignments. This is also a good chance for the
student to express her views, expectations and criticisms. Many schools require student surveys
of teacher performance at the end of the semester. It’s a good idea to periodically survey
students throughout the term. A well-drafted survey can offer insights and identify learning
COURSE MATERIALS • Selection of course materials is critical. The dean of your department
or someone who has previously taught the same course can provide you with guidance in this
area. The program may use a standard text or outline. Usually, you can speak with someone
who has taught this course in the past. Her advice, along with a copy of the syllabus, will prove
Legal Publications and Periodicals
Many instructive publications are available free or at a low cost. Periodicals, such as
professional journals and legal newspapers, are discarded by law schools and law libraries to
satisfy their retention policies and conserve space. Analysis of periodicals can be used to
develop students’ information literacy skills. Other discards, including advance sheets, law
reviews, old volumes of statutes, encyclopedias, and some outdated treatises are valuable
Legal publishers such as West Group offer many free publications to subscribers educating
them about their products. Ask the school’s account representative about them. Associations
are another source of training material not available elsewhere. These are specialized items
and not found in most publishers’ catalogs. The Encyclopedia of Associations is one place to
find organizations that publish materials in an area of interest.
APPROACHES TO INSTRUCTION • Ideally, teachers would like to give each student
individualized instruction. Even in a small class, there are only so many hours that a teacher,
particularly a lawyer, can devote to each student. Outsourcing some basic teaching functions
can help the instructor to reach this goal.
Tutoring and Mentoring
A tutor or peer mentor can supervise skills and methods study. Properly trained tutors can