Poverty Law Class a Learning Experience for Prof, Too

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Explore:  Poverty

This Fall, I had the privilege of teaching the Poverty Law class at the University of Alabama School of Law. Since it was my first experience teaching a law school class, I will have to leave it to my students to judge how well it was taught, but it was definitely a great learning experience for me!

First and foremost, I really got to see the depth of interest today's law students have in the areas of poverty and public interest law. Honestly, when I was a law student (eons ago, let's just leave it at that), no one even uttered the words "pro bono" to me. When I received the request to teach the class, I inquired how many students would likely take it and was told it would probably be around 20. So I was pretty shocked when enrollment hit 45! Really? 45 second and third year law students want to spend a semester on Poverty Law? That's pretty awesome.

The next thing I learned is that there are not any good textbooks for the kind of class I was interested in teaching - not about theory so much, but about the nuts and bolts of current legal issues facing the poor and how lawyers and courts and legislatures and politics impact them. Frankly, the textbooks I reviewed made my eyes glaze over. As a dear friend once observed to another friend, "that Lisa Borden is so practical." Practical learning is what I wanted to impart. What are the major legal obstacles that poor people encounter, and how can we, as lawyers, try to address them? There was no book for that. So I set about creating a syllabus and a curriculum gathered from numerous sources, including materials and awesome guest speakers from great organizations like Alabama Appleseed, Legal Services Alabama, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, One Roof, and the Jefferson County Public Defender.

I definitely learned to have a deep appreciation for the hard work of law school professors. Putting together a law school class and teaching it every week is no piece of cake. Many, many hours were spent piecing together statutes, cases, law review articles, news articles, and other materials to provide the basis for class sessions on a wide variety of topics. After spending on session on the various definitions of who is poor and for what purpose, we then focused in the ensuing ten weeks on issues like civil legal services for the poor, indigent defense, payday lending, homelessness and housing, heir property, mass incarceration, debtors' prison and voting rights. I found out that I know quite a bit about some of these topics, and really had not done more than scratch the surface on some others. I have now!

If you have 45 students and you assign them papers to write, guess what? You have to grade all those papers! It's tough too - like most law schools, Alabama has required grade distributions, and deciding which papers are really that much better than other ones isn't very easy. Foolishly, I had two paper assignments in addition to the exam. Part of my class was designed to be experiential, requiring the student to participate in a pro bono project and then write a short paper reflecting on the experience. The other paper required students to choose a poverty law topic, discuss the current state of the law and advocate for (or against) reform. I was really impressed with the quality of the papers and the thoughtfulness reflected in them, even when I sometimes did not agree with the conclusions drawn (no extra points for agreeing with the prof).

I confirmed something I already knew - as an inveterate introvert, it is not that easy for me to talk to a group of 45 people for two hours every week. It was sometimes tough for me to get discussion going, and I found myself wishing for the originally envisioned class size of twenty. Not that I did not like all the students - I actually did like them very much - but I concluded that both the subject matter and my personality would be better suited to a somewhat more intimate group in which discussion would come easier. On the other hand, I could not be happier that the subject of Poverty Law engendered such an enthusiastic response among soon-to-be lawyers. It reflects well on both the generation that currently makes up the bulk of law students and on the law schools, which are doing a wonderful job of encouraging engagement in pro bono and public service.

Finally, I learned that it is weird to be called "Professor Borden," and I am not at all sure I could get used to it!