Faculty Profile: Chris Coughlin (’90)

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Chris Coughlin

Chris Nero Coughlin is a recipient of the Joseph Branch Award for Excellence in Teaching and a two-time recipient of the Graham Award for Excellence in Teaching Legal Research and Writing.

The first time Chris Nero Coughlin (’90) stepped into the classroom as a professor she felt like she was home. “I had an opportunity to teach as an adjunct, and while I really loved practicing law, the moment I got in the classroom I thought this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I just really enjoyed it.”

It’s apparent.

Coughlin is the recipient of the Joseph Branch Award for Excellence in Teaching and a two-time recipient of the Laura P. Graham Award for Excellence in Teaching Legal Research and Writing. As the director of the law school’s Legal Analysis, Writing and Research Program for the past decade, Coughlin is always looking for innovative ways to help students–and not just law students–better understand the law.

“I love education and I’ve been lucky to have had many great role models throughout my education, particularly here at Wake Forest,” she said. “I know how energizing it is for students to have a teacher who is excited about teaching and trying to do something new.   I believe as a teacher my job isn’t only to teach but to provide a learning environment that motivates students to learn.”

This spring, Coughlin is teaching a new course, “Legal Methods for Medical Professionals,” that allows fourth-year medical school students to do a one month “rotation” in the law school.The purpose of this course is twofold:  (1) to provide fourth year medical students with an in-depth overview of legal education and the legal system, with a particular focus on health related issues that will affect their medical residency and future practice, and (2) to bring medical students, law students, and master of arts in bioethics students together for education, dialogue and debate of various legal, bioethics and biotechnology-related issues, with a focus on understanding the roles the different professions play in the advancement of medicine, science, ethics, law and policy.

Consistent with the dual course purposes, the course has two components.  In the morning component of the course, the medical students will introduce them to the legal system and will examine, in depth, a variety of health law issues.  In addition, the students will receive interactive instruction in legal analysis and research.  The students will also learn principles of business drafting and contract interpretation that may be relevant to their future medical practices, along with instruction in the legal education’s first-year doctrinal courses, specifically, torts, contracts, property, criminal law, and constitutional law, all with an eye toward health-care related issues within these doctrinal areas.

The second component of the course is a joint class with law students and bioethics students.  The joint afternoon portion of the course will be highly interactive with the students applying various legal and ethical principles in realistic legal/medical, biotechnical and research-related scenarios.  This component of the course uses simulation and role-playing as the professors and law and medical students act out the part of doctors, lawyers,  congressional representatives, agency representative, ethics committee members, etc., for many of the scenarios studied.

“My hope with this course,” Coughlin said, “is that all the students will develop a deeper understanding of the interests and the demands on other members of other professions when dealing with medical, biotechnical and bioethics issues.”  Coughlin further explained, “the anticipated outcome is to provide medical students with the relevant legal tools necessary to enhance their medical practices and to view the law not as an obstacle to patient care or research, but rather as a guide to providing the best possible patient care or research.”

“I’ve wanted to do this for years because I wanted medical students to have a better understanding of the law. I thought what can we do to help physicians understand the law and to promote dialogue between the professions?”

Coughlin said her newest course may sound different from her legal writing and analysis classes, but they are actually similar. “In both classes we’re trying to teach legal analysis,” she said. “Any student needs to understand the fundamentals of legal analysis in order to write or effectively study any legal doctrine including health law.”

With appointments in the Master of Arts in Bioethics program in the Wake Forest University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and in the Translational Science Institute for the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Coughlin’s teaching and scholarship are concentrated in the areas of legal analysis and writing, bioethics and health-care law.

Much of her recent research involves inter-disciplinary approaches to legal education, stem cells, and mandatory vaccinations and informed consent.

“I have recently written two articles looking at the professions of medicine and engineering and how best teaching practices in other professions can be applied to legal education,” Coughlin said.  “Legal educators are currently debating the effectiveness of the traditional law school model.  While I believe the traditional model has been effective in producing good lawyers, we can and should look to best practices from other professions to reach all of our students and to bridge the gap between law school and the practice of law.”

Coughlin co-wrote an article, “Pluripotent Stem Cells:  The Search for the Perfect Source,” with WFU School of Medicine Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Bioethics, Health & Society,  Nancy M.P. King, and the Director of the WFU Institute for Regenerative Medicine and W.H. Boyce Professor and Chair, Department of Urology, Dr. Anthony Atala. The work will be published this year in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, one of the nation’s leading science and technology journals.

“I’ve been very interested in the policies and politics behind our stem cell research and how the law has become involved and I think this is a very good example of where law and public policy have not kept up with science,” she explained.

“While we sit and debate old questions, new technologies develop and with those develop new questions and ethical concerns that need to be addressed.”

The abstract to the paper concludes: “Physicians and scientists facing ethical issues arising in biomedicine and research often reason that if they wait for certainty – more facts, more information, more data – the ethical issues will go away, having been answered by the science.  However, ethical issues can never disappear from scientific and medical research, and public discourse must continue as science advances.  Only by acknowledging, critically examining, and discussing the concerns that may arise from pluripotent stem cell research can we hope to minimize its ethical and social risks.  Ultimately, science and society must face the ethical issues openly, in order to move forward while searching for ever more perfect sources.”

Coughlin co-wrote another piece published in the Wake Forest Law Review (2010) with King and Dr. Kathi Kemper, the WFU Caryl J. Guth Chair for Complementary and Integrative Medicine and Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine titled, “When Doctors Become ‘Patients’:  Advocating a Patient Centered Approach for Health Care Workers in the Context of Mandatory Influenza Vaccinations and informed Consent.” “To protect themselves and their patients, the common thinking goes, health-care workers need to have flu vaccines,” Coughlin said. “As a result, as some health-care institutions have mandated workers receive these vaccinations as a condition of employment, regardless of personal preference or religious objection, and in the process sign a consent form.”  We conclude in the article, “that the practice of requiring employees to sign a consent form as a condition of continued employment when they receive the influenza vaccination conflicts with the ethical and legal doctrine of informed consent.”

Coughlin is also co-author of the textbook, A Lawyer Writes, which has received significant attention because of its innovative graphics and examples.  Coughlin credits much of the book’s format to an idea  she initially extrapolated from the work of Professor Andrew McClurg, who visited at Wake Forest and is currently the Herff Chair of Excellence in Law and the Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the University of Memphis that “we wouldn’t expect a doctor to perform an appendectomy without seeing one first.”

Prior to coming to Wake Forest, Coughlin represented health-care entities and health-care providers for nearly a decade at Smith, Helms, Mulliss & Moore LLP in Greensboro and she clerked for The Honorable Thomas Moore, Chief United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina from 1990-91.  She lives in Greensboro with her husband, Rick, and their four school-age children, Jacob, Jonathan, Addison and Isabelle whom she describes as “the greatest blessings in my life.”