GUEST OPINION: Don’t cut BSA out of FYL reform process

BY RON PRESIDENT

LAST WEEK, THE COMMITTEE on the First Year Lawyering Program released a report recommending an extensive overhaul to FYL. The proposal’s primary reform would be to replace the seven Lecturers with fourteen teaching fellows who are recent graduates seeking to work on legal scholarship and transition into academic careers. These teaching fellows would serve for a two-year period, and would each employ two or three students as teaching assistants. The report suggests, however, that these teaching assistants would not come from the Board of Student Advisers (BSA).

While the report offers substantial support for its recommendation to move to a system of fourteen teaching fellows, its proposal to radically alter the role of BSA receives little explanation or justification. Indeed, the Committee produces no evidence to indicate that BSA has inadequately performed its role as student teachers, nor does it offer any reason to believe that BSA’s selection process fails to locate the “best student teachers.” Rather, the report itself concludes that student evaluations of BSA teaching “have consistently been quite strong” and commends BSA’s “extraordinary commitment to the [current] Program.”

In this essay, we seek to respond to some of the report’s questionable contentions and spell out why BSA ought to remain an integral component of whatever new first-year legal writing program emerges.

The Committee suggests that the quality of student teachers is diminished by excluding Law Review and Legal Aid Bureau members from BSA and recommends opening up the application process to all students. This proposal overlooks the fact that the application process is already open to all students, and that the membership limitation is the product of a reciprocal rule observed by all three organizations. The rationale behind the rule is obvious: all three groups believe it is a way to ensure that students do not overextend themselves by taking on more than one of these significant time commitments. Legal Aid Bureau and Law Review members spend anywhere from twenty to forty hours per week on their respective responsibilities. The rule serves as an important self-selection mechanism that directs the most interested and motivated students to each organization and ensures that they will be able to make the commitment each group demands. The limit seems especially sensible given that the Committee proposes to reduce the number of student teachers from 60 to a maximum of 42 while increasing the number of first-year writing assignments.

The Committee also suggests that some students are disinclined to apply to BSA because of the other projects BSA oversees. The Committee, however, offers no evidence to support its contention. BSA members, by contrast, unanimously report that BSA’s additional responsibilities did not at all discourage them from applying. Rather, the opportunity to teach first-year students was the predominant reason they applied to BSA, and these teaching responsibilities occupy the vast majority of their time.

Finally, the Committee suggests moving to a TA selection system where the Program Director and the teaching fellows make hiring decisions with possible “student input.” While BSA is certainly amenable to adjusting its selection process to work within a reconstituted FYL, it firmly believes that substantial student input in TA selections is vital. The current BSA application is an holistic evaluation of the teaching, writing, and interpersonal skills required to work effectively with first-year students. It carefully considers an applicant’s performance on a mock student brief and follow-up conference, evaluations from an applicant’s current BSA instructors and Lecturer, prior teaching experience, first-year grades, essays, and diversity considerations. The Committee proposal does not assure similar extensive criteria and detailed consideration will be employed in TA selection.

The above critiques are not to suggest that BSA does not support reform to the FYL Program. BSA welcomes the effort to improve FYL and is unequivocal in its desire to remain a dedicated participant in whatever program emerges. Indeed, we believe that we can bring a number of assets to any new program. First, we have a wealth of institutional knowledge (as well as teaching materials) that can help get any new program off the ground. Second, we enjoy a distinguished history and strong campus presence, which can help attract applicants and provide continuity and stability to a program in which teaching personnel will be constantly in flux. Further, we bring a successful teaching-advising model that ensures that 1Ls receive quality instruction and a student mentor for advice and support.

While we applaud the Committee’s efforts to reform FYL, we do not believe that a radical revision of BSA’s role in the first-year program is merited or desirable. We encourage students who have experienced BSA’s commitment to 1L education first-hand to make their views known to the Administration and the Implementation Committee so that future students can enjoy the best possible legal research and writing program that HLS can offer.

Messrs. Varnum and Black write on behalf of the Board of Student Advisers.

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