First, let me say generally that these are fabulous teaching tools. They provide a welcome alternative to appellate cases, as they include the full factual context leading to relevant legal, rather than the distilled factual summary an edited (or even an unedited) judicial opinion provides. Although the study of law through judicial opinions is an important pedagogical tool given that lawyers must learn to succeed in that forum, lawyers generally must also learn to wade through large factual contexts to weed out the relevant from the irrelevant. Also, lawyers must learn to operate with the human dimension-politics, inept client employees, irate citizens, etc. The Stanford case studies strike me as an extremely viable pedagogical tool for adding that dimension of legal training to the law school classroom.
Overall, I expect that through the use of traditional casebook instruction, punctuated at appropriate intervals with in depth exploration of the Stanford case studies, an environmental law instructor will be able to present a more realistic and challenging picture of environmental law, policy, and practice. An especially ambitious instructor may even find that a very successful course could be built entirely around the Stanford case studies. I say ambitious because the size of some law school classes may make exclusive use of the case studies difficult, and there is some limitation as to how much doctrinal ground one can cover through in depth case studies.
The following discussions explain how I used the Philern Co. (Part I) and Balcones Plan case studies and how I believe they enhanced my classes:
Philern Co. (Part I)
I used the Philern case study in an executive training program at LSU last month (I teach two half-day sessions on environmental management to two sections of mid-level managers). They loved it! It was so engaging to them that I had to cut half of my materials! They are people who would fit the “plant manager” role, and they totally understood the many twists and turns of the management side of the case study. They really got into it.
I used the Philern case study, without the accompanying source materials, in a class titled Environmental Issues in Business Transactions. The course is essentially environmental law for the general practitioner/business law for the environmental specialist. The class meets three hours a week, divided evenly each week between lecture and “lab.” In the lab portion I use a variety of tools to get the students to think about and apply the doctrinal material to factual settings. They often have to work out problems in small groups, negotiate, etc.
I used the Philern case study in one of the lab sessions. Up to that point in the course, we had covered basic liability issues, a variety of transactional settings, and had most recently explored asset purchase transactions and the issues they present to buyer and seller. I distributed the case study and asked the students to read it for the upcoming lab with the following question in mind: What concerns should a potential acquirer of the Philern facility from the parent corporation have with respect to environmental liability and management? The point was to get them to focus on not only the obvious issues of spills and the government investigations, but also the long term problems associated with the government relations, lack of lab employee training, disgruntled employees, employees inept at dealing with government inspectors (all part of the real experience of environmental attorneys).
At the beginning of the lab session, I had each student write up a list of the five biggest concerns. Then I broke the class into small groups of five, asking each group to agree on the five biggest issues (I float around the room, listening in on group discussion and offering input). Each group then reported their list, during which class discussion unfolded.
What I found through use of the case discussion was a much more focused discussion, and increased student participation in the discussion, and a willingness by the students’ to “think outside the box.” Normally I can only get this kind of effect through invention of my own case studies, usually based on my own practice experience and much short and shallower than the Philern study. Indeed, as an impromptu assignment I asked the students for the next lab to hand in a written outline of how they would compose a letter to their client presenting the issues. This assignment led into the lab topic for the day-composing client letters.
I used the Balcones case study in a seminar titled Endangered Species and Ecosystem Management Law. During the first half of the course we study the nuts and bolts of the ESA and the students read a selection of materials plus Noah’s Choice. During the second half of the course we study topics in ecosystem management through selected readings and Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The transition class is a study of the Austin experience-i.e., moving from species-specific focus to an ecosystem focus-for which I usually use chapter 7 of Noah’s choice. The session’s discussion is based around the question: If you were dictator of Austin how would you get it out of this predicament? Because the case study picks up where that chapter ends (failure of the bonds), it provided a perfect segue into the discussion and a framework for students to use in their formulation of ideas. We referred several times to the discussion of alternatives to the BCCP and the alternative funding structures. Given the seminar setting and high LL.M. student content of the class, I did not use the case study in any more structured a manner. Clearly, however, the addition of the case study allowed a fuller exploration of the issue.
I am very thankful to Stanford’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program for allowing me to use the case studies and will continue to provide feedback when I use them, or other case studies in the series, in these and similar courses.
Professor of Law
Florida State University College of Law