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Faculty of Law
UNB Fredericton

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Prof. John Kleefeld on new course offerings, research and dedicated service to UNB

Following his tenure as Dean (2017 to 2020), Professor John Kleefeld has been hard at work developing innovative course offerings for students, researching landmark decisions, and continuing his unwavering service to the University.

Designing career-focused coursework

Prof. Kleefeld has a long-standing interest in legal writing. He began his academic career as the Director of Legal Research and Writing at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of “Write Me a Memo,” an academic article that is widely used in legal writing courses. It’s no surprise he was approached to design and teach Advanced Legal Research and Writing. 

“I’ve been enjoying it tremendously,” said Prof. Kleefeld. “It’s a small class of 18. We're doing lots of work that's designed to help law graduates write better, faster and with greater attention to clarity, purpose and audience.”

Prof. Kleefeld has designed the course in two segments; the first focused on litigation/dispute-oriented writing—client advice letters, legal memos, factums, and judgments; the second focused on writing for transactions—contracts, wills, legislation, bylaws, and statutes. This semester, students have been working on dispute-related writing, producing a client opinion letter, a legal memo explaining research to a colleague, and a capstone assignment, where students choose either a factum for an appeal, a case comment, a judgment, or a tribunal decision.

“Some of the students have actually gone to small claims court and have watched cases. They are working with the adjudicator on their written decisions. It has made for a fantastic experiential opportunity.”

For the client opinion letter, Prof. Kleefeld split the class in two based on their choice to write on either family or criminal law. Students were then paired with a classmate from the other area of law to provide feedback.

“The focus behind the assignment is to teach students how to drop the legalese and write in a style that a layperson, untrained in the law, could understand. Students have told me that this was the biggest eye-opener for them. By third year they're so used to writing with all the legal jargon that it just rolls off their tongues—without them even thinking about it. This is the challenge.”

Peer-based learning and formative assessment are keystones of Prof. Kleefeld’s pedagogy. Students first work in pairs to provide feedback to each other on their draft assignment submissions. They are then given the opportunity to implement this feedback into their next submission, which is then reviewed and graded by Prof. Kleefeld. They can then choose to incorporate his comments into a final submission for an improved grade. Students are marked on both their work and their ability to provide useful feedback to their peers.

“I think what’s so effective about formative assessment is that you are continually learning from what you’ve done. If you think about it, when you learn music or if you learn to drive a car, that's actually the way that most people learn. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? How can I improve the next time? Then try it again with the new information you have.”

Ever the innovator, Prof. Kleefeld has also incorporated the new—and potentially game-changing—artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT into his coursework. He’s done a presentation, demonstrating ChatGPT’s potential to both generate new text that lawyers can then modify, and to analyze existing text to improve its readability, to correct grammatical errors, and even to search for technical flaws in content.

“I know there's been a lot of concern about ChatGPT in academia—it being used for plagiarism. In my view, lawyers are going to be using this technology, there will actually be an expectation that you have the facility to use it, and it is important that we figure out ways to do it ethically.”

In one in-class exercise, students drafted a client non-engagement letter. In this scenario, students had just met with the client who had brought documents that they quickly realized were pseudo law. They needed to advise the client that they could not represent them, and that they were returning the documents. Prof. Kleefeld asked the students to write this letter as quickly as possible and time it. The average for the class was around 10 minutes. Prof. Kleefeld then asked ChatGPT to complete the same task, which it did in around 90 seconds.

“It wrote a very good letter that needed little editing. I even showed them how to prompt ChatGPT to edit the letter it had just written. One of the students then asked, ‘What's my role? What's the point in three years of Law School?’ The point is that you are now free to do higher level work—to focus your advanced skills on tasks that require more time and effort.”

For Kaely O'Neill (3L) the course has been enriching. She has already seen significant improvement in her written advocacy skills.

“Prof. Kleefeld is an excellent professor,” said O'Neill. “Not only is he an extremely skilled writer, but his lessons are clear, and his demeanour is kind and approachable. Most of his lessons are interactive and “work-shop” style, so students have a chance to apply what they are learning as they are learning it. Your future clients, opposing counsel, and judges will thank you for taking this course!”

A snail, ginger beer, and beyond

Prof. Kleefeld’s latest legal research project focuses on the 1932 landmark decision, Donoghue v Stevenson, that established the principle of negligence in tort law and has been influential in shaping the modern legal landscape. Prof. Kleefeld's research aims to shed new light on the impact of the case by studying its global reach. 

“This can be thought of as the initial stage of a larger project on how judicial cases are adopted and then transmitted across different jurisdictions over time. Some cases disproportionately influence the law's development. In constitutional law, an example would be the famous Person's case, where the court not only advanced women's rights, but also framed the Constitution as a living tree capable of adaptation over time. In the area of tort law, Donoghue is such a case—it heralded the modern law of negligence.”

For Kleefeld, the influence of Donoghue is undeniable. The interesting work comes from measuring this influence—measuring its reach, its reception, its use over time, its influence in a given jurisdiction or across multiple jurisdictions, its use at various levels of court, and its use compared to other influential cases. This project aims to answer these questions and model the data—beginning with Donoghue and eventually moving on to other seminal cases.

“Practically the aim is to collect, index, and organize all citations to Donoghue, wherever they've occurred, regardless of any field of law to which they relate, and then to depict that data in a form that's very accessible and informative using graphs and an interactive world map. I would then make this data set publicly available for analysis by others.” 

His work is well underway. To date, Prof Kleefeld has collected over 3,000 citations from over 50 countries. In 2022, he presented his initial data set at the Law Society of Scotland’s Donoghue v Stevenson 90th Anniversary Conference. He will resume work on the project this summer, continuing to present and update the research.

In addition to his work on the “immortal snail,” Prof. Kleefeld expects to begin his work editing the fifth edition of Dispute Resolution: Readings and Case Studies—a collection of chapters by different authors on conflict analysis, negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

“These subjects continue to be timely, and some of them, like online dispute resolution, have seen a sea change since the last edition published in 2016. Before the pandemic, we were seeing the start of online hearings and mediations, but, of course, we saw an exponential increase with COVID. Online dispute resolution now can be seen as its own skill set.”

Commitment to serving the University

In addition to teaching and research, the third pillar for a faculty member is service to the institution. Prof. Kleefeld has volunteered on countless committees both within the Faculty of Law and for the greater UNB community.

This year, he was a member of the UNB Law admissions committee. His community committee work included acting on the Student Standing and Promotion Committee, an appeal committee that hears from students who are dissatisfied with their grade(s), or who have requested changes to their transcripts due to medical or compassionate grounds. He is also a member of the Dean of Arts search committee.

Outside of the University, Prof. Kleefeld is a member of the Canadian National Negotiation Competition (CNNC) organizing committee. A former negotiation and mediation coach, he now helps handle the logistics of the event, including helping draft the negotiation problems.

Prof. Kleefeld's dedication to his students and contributions to legal research and the University are undeniable. While he acknowledges the merits of all three commitments of a faculty member, there is one that stands out above the rest.

“What animates me the most, what drives me the most, is teaching. For me, there is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you've made a difference—when you see the light go on and you see the enthusiasm. Even after graduation, when students write to tell you something you have done has made a difference in their practice or lives, that's really one of the main things that has kept me going in this career for over 20 years now.”

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