Thursday Thinkpiece: Mini-Law School–Civic Education Making a Difference in the Community

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Mini-Law School: Civic Education Making a Difference in the Community

Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 16, p. 381, 2018

Beth D. Cohen, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs| Director, Legal Research and Writing Program | Professor of Law at Western New England University School of Law
Pat Newcombe, Associate Dean for Library and Information Resources | Professor of Law at Western New England University School of Law

Excerpt: Abstract and Part VI
[Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above]


Western New England’s Mini-Law School Program increases civic engagement and awareness and provides opportunities for law schools and educators to help non-lawyers better understand the legal system. This article will discuss the Mini-Law School Program, a creative and extremely successful five-week community outreach program focused on demystifying the law. Our society is in dire need of greater civic education. Public policy surveys consistently reveal disturbing statistics about the public’s lack of civic awareness (e.g., 15 percent of the public knew that John Roberts is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but 66 percent could name an American Idol judge; 70 percent could name all Three Stooges, but barely 20 percent could name all three branches of the federal government). The need for increased civic engagement and the importance of education in this era of civic unawareness provides unique opportunities for law faculty to serve as a resource to help educate citizenry and bridge the town and gown divide. This article will describe the surprising success of Western New England’s Mini-Law School Program, an interactive lecture and discussion series focused on providing opportunities for participants to learn about different areas of the law and legal system. The authors provide details of the collaborative endeavor so that others may launch similar Mini-Law School programs in their own communities.


A. The Mini-Law School Program Mission

The Mini-Law School Program was designed to provide practical knowledge to assist people in understanding how laws are applied, why disputes occur so frequently, and how courts mediate this process. As we live in an increasingly complex world filled with laws and regulations, people want to become better informed in order to make wiser decisions. Additionally, understanding the fundamentals of our legal system helps people grapple with the many legal issues that dominate the news. This was our starting point in 2014, when we chose to create the Mini-Law School Program. Our goal was to increase civic engagement and awareness and provide opportunities for people to better understand the legal system. At first, we considered partnering with local bar associations and including local attorneys and a faculty member in each session. However, we ultimately decided that it would be more educational to partner with a federal magistrate judge who serves as “dean” of the Mini-Law School. The judge, now retired, moderates each session, presented by a law school faculty member, providing continuity and context for each topic and session. Also, the judge provides invaluable insight on the legal issues addressed in each session.

In order to keep the focus on education rather than risk becoming a legal advice clinic, participants were informed that the organizers and presenters for Mini-Law School would not answer any specific personal legal questions. Participants were provided a handout at the first class with a list of sources for accessing legal information, including local bar associations, Dial-A-Lawyer services, and state trial court self-help sources. We also announced the policy in our first class, thus preemptively avoiding conflict.

B. The Mini-Law School Program Structure

When the authors set out to plan and organize the first Mini-Law School Program, our expectations were modest. Originally, the goal was to have a class of at least fifteen to twenty people, but due to the overwhelming response, we needed to move the program to the largest lecture hall on campus. So far, there have been three Mini-Law School Program sessions. With minimal advertising, the Mini-Law School Program drew 200 registrants and a wait list of 150 people. It is worth noting that the first program was scheduled during a severe New England winter in a relatively small city; nonetheless, despite the cold and snow, there was nearly full attendance each week.

Classes met one evening per week from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The two-hour class sessions seemed sufficient to discuss the concepts introduced by each faculty member. The classes generally had a lecture period during which the faculty member discussed the topic and then provided an opportunity for participants to ask questions during or after the lecture. We chose topics of general interest, such as family law, criminal law, and health law, that we thought would hold the public’s interest. Additionally, we sought out our law faculty to serve as speakers, since they are uniquely qualified to serve as resources to participants and to reinforce the law school’s commitment to the community.

Each of the three Mini-Law School Programs that we have held thus far began with an introductory class to provide a detailed overview of the U.S. legal system and the courts. This helped level the playing field for all participants, which was necessary due to the diversity and demographics of the participants. Registrants of the Mini Law School Program ranged from high school age to senior citizens, all with a wide variety of education and employment backgrounds. Among the varied participants were doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, students, and parents of current or former law students. Some high school and college students were interested in possibly pursuing law or a law-related field, but most participants simply wanted to further their general understanding of the law. Many of the seniors and retirees valued the opportunity to engage in stimulating discussions about thought-provoking topics.

C. The Mini-Law School Program Curriculum

The first two Mini-Law School Programs were deliberately structured to be broad in scope. The first Mini-Law School Program, in spring 2015, began with an introductory session, An Inside View of Law School and the Courts, and continued with four sessions including: Family Law: What Defines a Family?; Health Law: End of Life Choices; Constitutional Law: Real Law or Just Another Kind of Politics?; and Environmental Law: Legal Solutions to Pollution Challenges. The second Mini-Law School Program took place during fall 2015 and also began with an introductory session, An Inside View of Law School and the Courts, and continued with four sessions including: The Law of Federal Income Taxes: Does It Have to Be So Complicated?; Criminal Law: Search and Seizure Law; National Security and Civil Liberties: Surveillance and Democracy; and Challenging Inequality in the Workplace: An Overview of Employment Discrimination Protections.

For the third program, we experimented with a subject-specific focus. We were asked by School of Law’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Studies faculty to coordinate a Mini-Law School Program on Gender & Sexuality Law. The third Mini-Law School Program took place during spring 2016 and included the following topics, all within the focus of gender and sexuality: Introduction to the Legal System, Professionalism and Cultural Competency, Sex Discrimination and LGBT Civil Rights in Education, Issues in Criminal Law, and Issues in Family Law.

We were able to offer continuing education credits for alcohol counselors, educators, and social workers for the Gender & Sexuality Mini-Law School. In addition to providing more depth and detail in a concentrated subject area, this approach helped us gauge the local interest in becoming more engaged with the law school’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies. Although this Mini-Law School Program had a narrow focus compared to the two prior programs, we were still able to attract 100 registrants.

D. The Mini-Law School Program Costs

Because we wanted to make the program accessible to as many people as possible, we limited the cost to a modest thirty-five dollars for all sessions. Although the first two programs included the option of free registration for students, the authors determined that when students paid a nominal registration fee, their overall attendance improved. The costs to provide the Mini-Law School Program have been minimal, and the Program has been self-sustaining. For each program, the only expenses incurred were costs associated with photocopying; supplies, such as folders for handouts and certificates for those who completed the program; pens branded with the School of Law name and logo; and pocket Constitutions that were greatly appreciated by the participants. We also distributed Mini-Law School t-shirts at the last session of each Mini-Law School Program, a small gesture of good will as well as a good marketing opportunity.

E. The Mini-Law School Program Evaluations

We conduct an evaluation after each class; participants generally rate speakers and topics “excellent” (the highest possible rating) and the information provided as “extremely valuable.” In fact, many participants express the desire for longer sessions. Although the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, there were, of course, a few challenges. First, some of the more controversial topics resulted in somewhat heated exchanges and dissatisfaction among the audience with respect to the different views expressed. Second, on a few occasions, a small group of audience members interrupted the speaker repeatedly to voice their personal and political agenda. Although these disruptions were challenging, and uncomfortable, particularly given the size of the audience, appropriate classroom management techniques proved effective to keep the sessions on track.

As administrators of the Mini-Law School Program, it has been reinvigorating to work with a new, diverse population and to be part of a broad outreach effort to improve civic knowledge. Participating faculty have also benefited from teaching to a different audience, further honing their teaching skills as they reach beyond their usual teaching environment and engage with a broader base.

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