Steel on Adjunct Law Profs Training

Alex Steel (from the Smart Casual team) on the New Legal Realism blog.

New Legal Realism Conversations

Legal education is a topic of much concern for NLR scholars, as can be seen in the first book of the recent NLR volume set published by Cambridge University Press.  During the academic year 2017-2018, we plan to feature blog posts on legal education research.  We begin with a guest blog from Professor Alex Steel, who educates those of us outside of Australia on the cutting-edge efforts there, based in part on survey research.  As he points out, Australia has been a leader in legal educational reform based on empirical efforts — and as such has much to teach those of us engaged in the legal academy in the U.S. as well as other parts of the world.  We hope in the months ahead to share research on legal education from many disciplinary and global perspectives, following the NLR tradition.   

Smart Casual: online professional development for adjunct colleagues


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The Smart Casual modules: Where to begin?

The Smart Casual professional development modules address a broad range of topics in legal education. If you’re wondering where to start, here are some suggestions, along with a quick summary of what’s covered in each module.



Where to start

The Smart Casual suite comprises nine stand-alone modules. They can be used in any order, so you can go straight to the content you need when you need it. For those wishing to work through the entire program, we suggest that the following order provides a logical progression:

1. Indigenous Peoples and the Law
2. Engagement
3. Feedback
4. Problem Solving
5. Communication and Collaboration
6. Reading Law
7. Critical Legal Thinking
8. Wellbeing
9. Ethics and Professionalism.

Indigenous Peoples and the Law was developed to provide support to law teachers to better engage with Indigenous students and with legal issues that relate to Indigenous peoples. It introduces concepts that are taken up across the other modules. It is relevant to teaching staff of all levels of experience, and of particular importance to those who are new to Australia.

The following three modules, Engagement, Feedback and Problem Solving address difficulties that we found sessional staff most wanted help with. They are pitched at an introductory level.

Communication and Collaboration builds on Engagement and Feedback with further examination of interactions in the classroom and beyond.

Reading Law and Critical Legal Thinking provide more detailed examination of how students develop their analytical skills and so follow on from the ideas explored in Problem Solving. They are intended to provide guidance for teaching staff of all levels of experience.

Wellbeing and Ethics and Professionalism discuss critically important issues in legal education that may not have been part of traditional law school curricula. These modules relate to and develop content presented in the other modules. They are likely to be relevant for teaching staff of all levels of experience.

What’s covered in the modules

Indigenous Peoples and the Law
All students need to develop their knowledge in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognise the many points of interaction between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Anglo-Australian legal system. This module provides background information on these issues and some suggestions for creating a supportive teaching environment. This module covers: the identity and culture of Indigenous peoples in Australia, Indigenous/non-Indigenous legal interactions, and Indigenous peoples and teaching.

Students learn most effectively when they engage as active players in the learning process. This module examines ways to increase your students’ engagement in learning. The module covers: ways to encourage ‘deep learning’, supporting positive emotions, capturing and developing students’ interest, making classes relevant, cultivating mutual respect, and fostering positive peer interaction.

Providing effective feedback on students’ work is essential to student learning both within and outside assessment processes. This module covers: providing legitimate, timely and appropriate feedback on a range of assessments; ensuring that feedback aligns with the assessment task and associated learning outcomes; providing feedback that is coordinated, equitable, transparent, and supports improved student learning.

Problem Solving
Teaching and assessment in substantive law subjects often involves hypothetical problem solving, which encourages students to develop skills needed upon graduation. This module examines how to use structured approaches to problem solving to assist students to develop their skills. The module covers: teaching structured approaches; teaching MIRAT (and other structures), legally material facts, and argument and application.

Communication and Collaboration
Law students need to develop their ability to communicate effectively, appropriately and persuasively, selecting from different genres, modes and voices; engage with different legal and non-legal audiences; and collaborate skilfully. This module is about developing students’ skills in communication and collaboration and covers the following topics: clarifying expectations, persuading, active listening, explaining and advising, negotiating, working with diversity, digital technologies, using language specialists, written communication, interviewing clients, and collaboration and teamwork.

Reading Law
This module explores how to help students build legal reading skills – skills fundamental to legal practice and important in law-related careers. It explores what critically reading law means, how it differs between types of legal documents, and how to help develop students’ close reading skills. This module covers: decoding, comprehension, metacognition, and critical reading strategies for a range of documents – case law, statutes, transactional documents, legal scholarship, policy and government reports.

Critical Legal Thinking
This is module addresses a discipline-specific form of critical thinking. Law students need to develop the ability to engage in critical analysis in a range of different contexts, make a reasoned choice among alternatives and understand law in its broader context. This module examines how critical legal thinking links to other legal skills and how students can be helped to develop it. This module covers: modelling dispositions, teaching thinking skills, preparing a supportive environment, social and theoretical contexts, and using structured discussion and Socratic dialogue.

This module is about the role law schools and law teachers can play in promoting the wellbeing of law students. This is supported by teachers cultivating our own wellbeing. We understand wellbeing as feeling healthy, safe and supported with the capacity to manage one’s personal, academic and professional challenges. This module covers: supporting student wellbeing, managing expectations, fostering respect, providing support, being sensitive, engaging students, creating inclusivity, encouraging collaborative learning, demonstrating delight, and looking after yourself.

Ethics and Professionalism
This module concerns ethics and professional responsibility as necessary parts of teaching law across all subjects. It offers insights into the ways in which we, as law teachers, might present learning law as an ethical and professional endeavour in itself, and how we might harness the context of substantive law throughout the curriculum to illustrate how ethics and professional responsibility work in practice. The module covers: discussing and modelling ethics and professionalism, learning from cases, using role-play, and responding to unprofessional behaviour.

Fostering ‘Quiet Inclusion’

Recognition of increased diversity within Australian legal education means law teachers have to respond to a broader variety of student needs, both at a macro level in admissions and curriculum planning and at a micro level through learning and teaching. Australian law schools have spent the last decade addressing the macro level rather than exploring the needs of the micro at which so much teaching takes place.
In creating professional development resources for sessional law staff in Australia, we have found a wide variety of approaches to proactively creating inclusive and welcoming law classes. Many have been contributed by sessional teachers who have agreed to be video recorded speaking about their high quality teaching for the Smart Casual modules.
From this work has emerged a paper which draws on Goffman’s ideas about how people engage in a ‘quiet sorting’ of others according to various attributes to outline strategies for creating and maintaining learning spaces that welcome and engage with diversity.

Having been presented earlier in the year, this paper is now available in Research and Development in Higher Education: The Shape of Higher Education Vol. 39  as Mark Israel, Natalie Skead, Anne Hewitt, Mary Heath, Kate Galloway, Alex Steel, Fostering ‘Quiet Inclusion’: Interaction and Diversity in the Australian Law Classroom. Presentation to Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Conference, Fremantle, Australia, 5 July 2016.  It can also be found here.


Creating a lesson plan

One of the requests we have had from a lot of sessional law teachers is for advice about creating lesson plans.  I am sure there are a lot of different ways to approach planning out a class. Here are some thoughts about how I approach it, focusing on classes in which a problem question or hypothetical is the focus of the time spent in the class, and on a face to face context for teaching.

I have several goals in planning out a class.  Some are entirely prosaic.  First, I want to make sure that I don’t forget to tell students about a crucial date or an upcoming event, or I want to make sure I have established groups for a task that will take place in the following week.  If a written document is expected in the following class, I make sure I will remind students about it.

Depending on the class, I might also have a list of needed equipment. Water for a two hour lecture? Whiteboard markers? Recording device? Handouts? USB drive?

Having a written plan allows me to think in advance about what sequence of activities and information will make best sense from the point of view of the class and to ensure I will be reminded to adopt that sequence and not the one that seems natural to me.  If I hope that students will connect what we did last week with what we are doing this week, I need to make that explicit, and setting that up as an early element of the class in my lesson plan is part of that process. If am aware of links between content in my subject and the topic being taught in another subject to the same cohort, I will create triggers for making that connection overt in my class plan. For me, one example would be reminding students in my first year criminal law class that they have been learning structured problem solving in their legal skills topic and that this is a great place to apply them. If I want to include a summary of this week’s key points, I need to schedule that in my plan.

I also like to have a map of key content and skills to be covered in the class, set out in a logical and structured form.  Sometimes I create this by creating a table with the elements of the main offence being addressed on the left, the key precedents we will apply in the centre, and some prompts about the scenario on the right. Sometimes it might look more like a checklist. Provided it keeps me on track, ensuring that I don’t miss some elements out or–when I am teaching many repeats, forget which class I taught this point to already–it is doing its job.

Time management can be crucial.  It took me a lot of years of teaching to be confident about managing the content of a class within the allotted time, given how diverse and unpredictable the interactions in my classes can be, even when they apparently cover the same material. If time management is a big concern for me I will have decided in advance which elements of my plan are crucial and need to be covered, which are optional and can be dropped if time does not allow, and what options I might have for delivering content more time efficiently if the class turns out to need more time spent on something I did not predict would be time consuming.

For me, though, the most important aspect of pre-planning a class is thinking about engaging learning activities and planning time in such a way as to make sure that they are not routinely dropped in favour of passive (for students) content delivery (by me) that is unlikely to provide an optimal learning environment for students.  I will figure out in advance whether ice breakers are needed; whether question time might be useful; whether I need to take paper for students to write down their ‘muddiest point‘ or ‘most urgent question’ or to undertake an informal, anonymous survey of how students are experiencing the class.  I will decide whether I should break the class up into prosecution and defence to prepare arguments, and if so, for the entirety of the problem or for smaller chunks of content.

I would encourage discussion among teachers who are teaching the same subject about how to approach running the class itself and what kind of lesson plan the person who is leading the teaching team would expect to follow or for the team to be following. Different institutions and different staff experience differing expectations, levels of support and levels of autonomy.

How do you plan your classes?  How do you plan for online teaching interactions?




Resources on casualisation

Higher education is one of the most casualised sectors of the Australian economy.  For those seeking concrete information about the experiences and perspectives of sessional staff or guidance in best practice responses, here are some key Australian links.

BLASST: the Benchmarking Leadership and Advancement of Standards for Sessional Teaching project   provides best practice guidelines, benchmarking standards and a whole host of resources. BLASST is ‘a project funded by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching to support and enhance quality teaching by sessional staff in higher education’. It has created ‘a national Sessional Staff Standards Framework to evaluate and support the learning and teaching, management and administrative policy, procedure, and practices affecting sessional and casual teachers in higher education.’

CASA: A home online for casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education    This blog provides insightful commentary by sessional staff about casualisation, including a semi-regular roundup of news about casualisation here and in other countries.

The National tertiary Education Union’s ‘I Stand with Casuals’ campaign offers information about the industrial rights of sessional staff in Australia (including ten tips for surviving casual employment), presents the voices of casual staff speaking about their experiences and resources for supporting sessional staff for everyone (sessional or not).

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Second semester is coming…

For those institutions still working on a two semester timetable, second semester is upon us.  For sessional staff new to teaching law, and those who would like to develop their skills, the existing three Smart Casual modules are available free for your use here.  They address the teaching skills involved in Engagement, Problem Solving and Feedback.  The next five modules are nearing completion and will be available free online in September here.

If you are a sessional law teacher, feel free to share these links with your colleagues as well as using them yourself.  If you are responsible for supervision and/or employment of sessional law teachers, please share these resources with your sessional colleagues.

Access to professional development is an important aspect of employment in higher education that many tenured staff take for granted.  We can all help to support our sessionally employed colleagues, and ensure that they are included in the ordinary expectation of workplace life by helping to and make sure that sessional teachers can access resources and opportunities available to other staff.


Smart Casual Goes Global!

In June, Natalie Skead took our Smart Casual project to the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s inaugural Conference on Teaching and Learning in Law Conference. With ‘Directions in Legal Education’ as the theme the conference provided a perfect platform to showcase the strides the Smart Casual team is making in supporting sessional law teaching in a rapidly changing legal education landscape.

Further afield, in July, Alex Steel presented Smart Casual to the home of Jazz and Blues, New Orleans. Stay tuned for Alex’s update.



Smart Casual via podcast

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Were you sorry to have missed the Australasian Law Teachers’ Association Conference in Wellington New Zealand? Well there is good news. The Law Radio team has recorded a few of the sessions, and published them on their podcast where you can download them via Soundcloud and iTunes.

Relevant to the Smart Casual project, the Law Radio series features Mary Heath and Kate Galloway presenting the Smart Casual project’s approach to teaching legal thinking skills.