Friday, November 16, 2012

Jean Sternlight Digs into the Psychology of Lawyering

Being able to understand the mindset of clients, witnesses, and fellow lawyers can have a profound impact on legal proceedings.

Jean Sternlight, Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution and Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law, has spent a sizable portion of her career helping drive that point home.

This semester, Sternlight is teaching a class on Psychology and Lawyering, which she said is based on her recently published book, Psychology for Lawyers:  Understanding the Human Factors in Negotiation, Litigation and Decision Making. She co-wrote the book with Jennifer Robbennolt, Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois College of Law.

Sternlight said this book was a long time in the making.

“I had the idea for this book as soon as I moved from practice to academia, but it took me a while to get around to it. For one thing, I had to find a good co-author,” she said. “So a couple of years ago, I hooked up with my co-author who teaches at the University of Illinois. She’s a Ph.D. psychologist; so I think between the two of us, we have a good skill set to try and address these issues.”

Sternlight added that this book should be beneficial to students and professionals alike.

“What the book is designed to do is teach both law students and lawyers a lot of cognitive and social psychology that we think would be useful to them as attorneys,” Sternlight said. “The first eight chapters of the book go into various types of psychology… and then the latter chapters take all those basic aspects of psychology and apply them to things like interviewing clients, counseling clients, negotiation, mediation, discovery, writing and ethics. Then the last chapter discusses lawyers’ productivity and success.”

Sternlight noted that while many applications of psychology in law are covered, the book avoids trial advocacy because that is what psychology is normally applied to in law.

“There’s been lots written about how you can use psychology in the courtroom, how you can use psychology with juries; and although that’s fairly important, it turns out that these days, hardly any cases even go to trial anyway, so lawyers spend a lot more time on the areas we chose to talk about,” she said.

One example she pointed to was a story of when she practiced law and realized that people’s memories were not as good as she thought, and that it was more suspicious if two people remembered the same traumatic event in the exact same way. She said that she gets this point across in her class by doing a social experiment.

“I did an exercise on the first day of class where my assistant came in to hand me an object, which was actually a rubber chicken, and she wore weird clothes like a backward baseball hat and an unusual purse,” she said, “and then I handed out a survey to see what [the students] remembered of the encounter. It turned out that they had very different memories of what had transpired.”

Besides teaching, Sternlight works as Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution. She will teach a course in Alternative Dispute Resolution in the spring semester.

For more information on the Saltman Center, click here. Click here for the latest issue of the Saltman Newsletter.

Terrill Pollman Helps Build Students’ Legal Writing Skills

UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Professor Terrill Pollman is a nationally recognized expert with a great deal of experience helping law students improve their writing.

Pollman is spending the academic year instructing in the Lawyering Process Program. The LP Program is a three-semester-long curriculum where students complete nine credits in legal analysis, research, writing and skills training.

“In the first-year courses, the students learn the basics of legal analysis, research, and lawyering skills,” she said. “The legal writing classes are active learning classes, where the students are engaged during the class in exercises and learning opportunities.”

Pollman added that she enjoys teaching legal writing because of the opportunity to work with students on a more individual level.

“My first teaching experience in law was teaching legal writing and I loved it,” she said. “You get a lot of time to work with students and it’s really a chance to get to know them in a different way. It’s the only first-year class where they get sustained individual attention on legal analysis, so that’s a great opportunity.”

She also teaches an editing course for an advanced legal writers group.

“The advanced writers group gives students the chance to develop the vocabulary to talk about writing,” she said. “Every firm has a few lawyers who are in demand because they are good writers, care about writing, and can help other lawyers with their writing by being able to articulate the way to turn a mediocre draft into something really good.

“So we give students a chance to sharpen those skills and go beyond the fundamentals and into a more reflective posture about writing,” she said.

Pollman has also written a textbook on legal writing, Examples and Explanations: Legal Writing, which she references while teaching first-year students.

“My book is mostly for first years. It gives students the chance to practice the skills they’re learning without taking the time to create entire new documents,” she said.

She added that she wrote the piece when the publishers asked her to write a book for their “Examples and Explanations” series. She wanted to give the students a textbook that would allow them to apply the skills they learn.

“There are many textbooks for first-year students, but there’s not a lot of help outside of textbooks on subjects like legal writing,” she said.

One thing she noted was that legal writing is unique from other types of writing, like prose or technical pieces.

“The conventions of legal writing are different. It’s more like business or technical writing, but it really is its own animal,” she said. “The principles of good writing are consistent no matter what the genre, but the legal genre is different from other academic or professional writing.”

She added that most students tend to use more elevated language, when in reality it’s better to get to the point and make the piece as accessible as possible.

“Legal readers are busy people, so they need very straightforward analysis that is both concise and precise,” she said.

International Refugee Law Expert Michael Kagan Brings Middle East Experience Back Home

After more than a decade building legal aid programs for refugees in the Middle East, UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Professor Michael Kagan is channeling what he learned abroad into the American immigration system.

Kagan first developed an interest in immigration and refugee law as a law student, taking a semester off in the Middle East.

“I was working for an Egyptian human rights organization in 1998. An Algerian refugee came in and said he needed protection and wanted to go to the U.S. or Canada,” he said, adding that he was reluctant at first. “I thought it would be really tedious and technical, but there was no one else so I took the case. I learned how difficult it is and how rewarding it is to see people at this turning point in their lives, when they could either be sent to the lions’ den or rebuild.”

He said that some of his most difficult experiences have been hearing stories from torture victims. He said the torture victim who really stuck out in his mind was a veterinarian from South Sudan.

“This man had been beaten, had all kinds of awful things done to his body. He could talk about these things with no problem, but when his torturers found out that he was a veterinarian, they made him get on his knees and make animal sounds,” Kagan said. “When he talked about that, that’s when he started to cry, and that taught me a lesson about what really hurts.”

Kagan, who has also worked in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, has published multiple works about Middle Eastern refugee policy. He published several recent papers on the politics of refugee policy in the Arab world, including proposals for how stronger asylum systems might be built after the Arab Spring.

"Refugee policy in the Middle East is close to my heart because I spent most of my career working there," he said. "No country in the Middle East has a genuinely working asylum system. So what I was trying to do is point the way toward a more functional refugee protection system that might be able to work within the politics of migration in countries like Egypt."

Kagan says that he received his first serious practical training in law from an Egyptian activist who had taken up law after being tortured as a political prisoner. “He told me that even though the law is never perfect, lawyers should always try to take it seriously,” he said. “I think it was in Egypt where I really learned what it meant to be a lawyer.”

One of the first challenges Kagan had to confront concerned the difficulty that asylum systems have separating genuine refugees from people who might be inventing their claims. His experience in Egypt produced one of the most widely cited studies of refugee credibility assessment, which was published in 2003 and has since been relied on by the 9th and 7th Circuit courts of appeal in precedent-setting decisions.

“Very few of the cases I saw in Cairo raised any controversial legal issues,” Kagan said. “But they turned on credibility assessment, and there were no clear standards about what should be considered believable. Every decision-maker was different, and the decisions were basically arbitrary.”

Kagan’s interest in credibility assessment has led him to focus on how American courts handle immigration appeals. He is currently working with Boyd Professor Fatma Marouf on a large-scale study of how the circuit courts decide whether to block a deportation while an appeal is pending, known as granting a stay of removal.

At UNLV, Kagan is teaching in the Immigration Clinic, Professional Responsibility, and Administrative Law.

The Clinic takes some asylum and torture cases, raising issues similar to those Kagan dealt with abroad.

“This is great for students because not only do they get experience and get to make real arguments, they get to see the complexity of how these rules apply to real people,” Kagan said.

Bryn Esplin Honored with Neuroethics Award

UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law second-year student Bryn Esplin is the latest student to be recognized for her academic contributions.

Her work, titled “Identical Prescriptions, Disparate Treatment: Anticonvulsant Usage in Frontal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar I Disorder,” received the Early Career Scholar in Neuroethics Award. She presented her work at the International Neuroethics Conference at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 24-25, 2012.

Esplin said it was an unexpected delight to be recognized for her work at the international level.

“It's an honor and very encouraging, but it's also a larger recognition of the caliber and commitment of Boyd's professors,” she said. “I simply wouldn't have received the award without Professor [Stacey] Tovino's support and guidance.”

Her paper discusses the advances in neuroscience and legislation that can affect the diagnosis and treatment of the conditions she studied.

“I conclude that, working in tandem, breakthroughs in neuroscience and legislative interventions can enhance understanding and access to care, helping to dismantle the philosophical heritage of persistent stigma,” she said. “This work is an outgrowth of a directed research project supervised by Professor Tovino.”

Esplin said that she became interested in researching this topic for the same reason she got into law school: being able to direct change to systems that need it.

“Part of the impetus for pursuing a J.D. is my belief that legal training affords the ability to effectuate meaningful, necessary change. Of particular concern to me is the marginalization of individuals with mental illness, which has been and continues to be reiterated and reified,” she said. “It's irrefutable that the categorization of physical versus mental illness as evidenced by Epilepsy and Bipolar Disorder is both problematic and conspicuously arbitrary.”

She added that she feels her work articulates why unequal treatment in health care and legislation is such a problem and how it impacts not just those afflicted, but the public at-large.

“More importantly, it proposes solutions to disparity and offers new modes of thinking and reconciling difference,” Esplin said.

As for post-graduation plans, Esplin hopes to continue working on things she finds to be fulfilling.

“I've been lucky to do the things I find enjoyable irrespective of whether they're lucrative or sustainable. More and more I realize there are so many paths to take post-law school, so I can't say which I'll follow,” she said.