First Teaching Excellence Award winners announced

December 02, 2010

Professors John Lopatka and Nancy Welsh, faculty members at Penn State Dickinson School of Law, have been selected to receive the 2010 Teaching Excellence Award which recognizes, among other things, “teaching at the highest level and engaging students in a rigorous exploration of intellectual and ethical challenges of practicing law.”

“Professors Lopatka and Welsh are both outstanding scholars who incorporate their scholarship in their classroom teaching, challenge their students creatively, energetically and respectfully, and inspire students to strive for academic and professional excellence.  The law school appreciates their dedication to teaching and to mentoring,” said Law School Dean Phil McConnaughay.

John Lopatka is the A. Robert Noll distinguished professor of law. One of the nation’s leading antitrust scholars, he has published extensively in the areas of antitrust, economic analysis of law, and regulated industries. Prior to joining Penn State, he was a professor of law at the University of South Carolina and the University of Illinois College of Law. Lopatka earned his juris doctor degree from the University of Chicago and his master of laws degree from Columbia University.

Nancy Welsh is a leading scholar in the field of alternative dispute resolution with research and writing focusing primarily on negotiation and court-connected and agency-connected mediation. She has examined the procedural justice offered by these processes, their potential to resolve nonlegal as well as legal issues, and the effect that the courts, lawyers and institutionalized “alternative” processes have had on each other. As a Fulbright Scholar, Welsh conducted research regarding the Netherlands’ nationwide implementation of court-connected mediation and taught in the Private Law Department of Tilburg University. She earned her juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School.

Lopatka and Welsh share insights into their teaching, mentoring, and scholarship.

Lopatka teaches students “how to think like a lawyer”

John Lopatka cites two areas of importance to him as a teacher. “First, I need to enjoy what I’m doing. It has to be fun. Second I want my students to ‘get’ what I’m trying to teach. It’s the light bulb experience--for students to have an idea that they didn’t have before they walked in. It’s palpable when that happens. You can see it and that in turn makes it fun,” he said.

Alison Kilmartin, an associate at Jones Day one of the top 10 law firms worldwide, said “despite his reputation as one of the hardest professors at Penn State Law, I took every class that I could from Professor Lopatka. He taught us how to think deeply about and process complex legal issues. His pedagogy was clear and easy to follow, which freed our minds to wrestle with the legal concepts he was teaching. He had a plan, he stuck to that plan, and he expected us to produce, which encouraged us to rise to the challenge.”

Over his 25-year teaching career, Lopatka has embraced new technology and the way it has revolutionized everyone’s access to information.

“The prevalence of electronic research has a huge and unnoticed effect on your ability to prepare for a class. Looking for an answer to something prior to class once required a trip to the library and going through several sets of books. But now we can turn to our computers and instantly access the answer. Teachers can be better prepared by multiples,” he said. In the classroom, it’s a different story. “The purpose of the classroom experience is the exploration of ideas, and ideas can be hard things to grasp. The types of intellectual exercises we engage in typically do not require high tech tools,” he said. He added that he does use PowerPoint to capture complicated graphs and charts that he previously created on the board. He also uses images to convey a message, “A picture is worth a thousand words sometimes. As an example of product liability, a photo of how a plaintiff might have altered a miter saw and the effect that would have is far more vivid and understandable than a description.”

Integrating scholarship into his classroom work is pretty much seamless, Lopatka said. “It is impossible to teach something without being affected by scholarship you’ve done when you get to that issue, and vice versa. When you’re teaching something you find areas that you’d like to pursue further, deeper. The difficult thing is to have the self-discipline not to spend three classes probing an area that is fascinating to you but deserves 10 minutes of class time in the context of the whole course.”

Lopatka has had a number of mentors in his career -- mostly from the ranks of his law school professors whom he wanted to emulate. Phil Neal, former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, was one of those. “With Phil it was his demeanor -- it was very professional and encouraging without being intimidating. Not too hard and not too soft. The material was always logically presented, and the presentation insightful,” he said. Lopatka cited other professors as well. “Jim Boyd White at Chicago was the most stimulating teacher I had. It was obvious that he loved ideas and it was exhilarating to be in his class.  Richard Posner, Bernie Meltzer, Ed Kitch – all were terrific, and I learned something about teaching from each.  From my perspective now as a teacher I can better appreciate some of the things certain professors did that seemed just ‘normal’ as a student. For example, I had Walter Blum for tax and he had 100 students or so and called on a quarter of the class, every class. Now I wonder, ‘how did he do that?”

Though he has admired the teaching style of others he advises those beginning their careers that, “the most important thing as a teacher is developing your own style.” He emphasized that developing a teaching style is a learning experience that takes time. “It takes a few years to evolve. And don’t be too hard on yourself. There can be a lot of needless anxiety in the beginning trying to hold yourself to too high a standard. When you walk back to your office after class, feeling bad about something not going the way you had hoped it would, it’s important to say, it’s OK -- it’s important to learn from those experiences.”

At the core of it all for Lopatka are the students. He points to a toaster signed by an entire class and a mug with a quote from King Lear given to him by a student. “Those pieces of positive feedback that you get make teaching great. But the hardest part of the job is to give students low grades. Some students that work hard and that I really like end up toward the bottom of the class. It’s painful to me to see the kind of suffering that causes. But I live by the idea that grades are sacred and if they lose their integrity then I have no defense mechanism. It does not make it easy, but it does make the path clear to me even though it hurts to do it sometimes.”

Kilmartin believes the teaching award is well-deserved, “Professor Lopatka taught me how to think like a lawyer and every day in practice I apply the skills and exercise the legal muscles that he helped me develop.  I cannot thank him enough.”

Welsh challenges students to become leaders

Welsh credits many people in her life in helping her to learn the craft of teaching – from inspirational teachers in her early years to colleagues such as Professor Bobbi McAdoo and Gary Weissman in Minnesota, and professors Christine Kellett, Bob Ackerman, Victor Romero, Laurel Terry and many others at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. Mentors including Professors Len Riskin and Frank Sander, meanwhile, have provided her with opportunities to explore more deeply some of the “next territories” implicated in her scholarship.

When asked what advice she would give to young law teachers starting their careers, Welsh shared two key pieces of advice: “First, I think it’s ideal to be teaching something that you’re really interested in, because the class will be better if you are excited about what you’re doing. It’s very tempting to find someone else’s style that you admire and try to copy them, but each of us is different and you have to find the particular issues and approaches in the subject that excite you,” she said. “There are certain things that can be regularized, but there is also a certain customization and a sort of magic – just like any real conversation is also a unique, individual conversation.”

“Second, it’s really important to be curious, because the students bring their own valuable life experiences to our classes. To the extent that we are able to treat the classroom experience as a conversation – a mutual exploration and discovery – I think that makes learning the law much more meaningful, the students learn it better, and as a faculty member you also continue to learn,” Welsh added.

Welsh challenges her students to speak up -- and listen to each other. “I think that if you want to be a lawyer, you have to be ready to be a leader. I want students to realize that in speaking up they may be competing with each other, but they are also supporting each other in achieving as much as they possibly can. Sometimes that looks like competition, but ultimately it’s working together for a common goal. That tension between competing with each other and being colleagues is something that not only occurs in the classroom but in practice, too.  As faculty members, I hope that we can help students -- future lawyers and leaders -- understand how to interact in this way, asserting and listening. This has been described usefully, I think, as ‘constructive confrontation.’”

Student Kelly Towns agrees that Welsh encourages her students to rise to the occasion. “Professor Welsh really takes an interest in her students and roots for them to succeed. She has been so supportive throughout my law school career and has helped me develop professionally. Her selection for the Teaching Excellence Award is very befitting.”

The decisive experience for Welsh in the classroom is when all the pieces of the puzzle start to fall together for students. “Civil Procedure can be as dry as dust. Why do you even have to have a course about this? Can’t you just read the rules?” she joked. “But, I love it when all of a sudden the students start realizing that if you really know what the procedural rules are and how they work together, you can also begin to use them in a way that’s consistent with our ethical obligations, the goals of our justice system and our clients’ needs. There’s tremendous power in that, as well as tremendous responsibility.”

Over the course of her 12-year teaching career at Penn State Law, Welsh sees technology as the most obvious change in the landscape of legal education. “We should be aware that our faculty is probably among the most technologically savvy in terms of combining technology with teaching. It’s an immersion experience for us as faculty and also for our students. Students are immersed not just in the classroom, but also when they are running their student organizations, interviewing with potential employers, and even setting up meetings with faculty members. It will be very interesting to see how these technologies move into the practice of law -- whether it’s in the process of negotiating agreements or representing clients in court.”

Welsh pushes her students to think about their use of technology and its real-world implications for future clients.

“In the last couple of years in Negotiation/Mediation, I have had students do an e-mail negotiation with students at another law school. The students get to compare the effects of different communication media on negotiation -- e-mail versus videoconferencing versus in-person negotiation,” Welsh explained.

“By getting a chance not just to use these technologies but then to reflect on the impact of those technologies, our students are able to make better and more intentional choices about which technology to use and under what circumstances. I believe that is going to help them when they leave law school and start practicing law.”

“Professor Welsh has been more than willing to help our efforts in polishing and expanding the "Yearbook on Arbitration and Mediation." Whenever I go to her with an idea, she is excited to help and I always exit the conversation with even more ideas than when I entered,” said student Zach Gray, editor-in-chief of the yearbook. “Her willingness to assist students exemplifies why she is receiving this award -- she genuinely cares about the progression of each and every student and takes an active role as a leader and role model within our law school community.”

  • Top: John Lopatka as he teaches; bottom: Nancy Welsh as she meets with a student.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated July 22, 2015