Not quite three years out of law school, Rick Bales says he got lucky when a law professor needed someone to cover for her during sabbatical. Teaching at Southern Methodist University confirmed "what I already suspected "” that I loved it," he says.

Of course, it wasn't really luck. He was a magna cum laude Cornell Law graduate with published academic articles on his vitae. "Even in law school, I had my thoughts about getting back into the classroom," Bales says.

It's a perfect fit. Bales has just been named 2011 Regents Professor at Northern Kentucky University, where he has taught since 1998.

Unlike the old movies in which the bow-tied white-haired professor drones on from the podium, it's easy to imagine that Bales never stops moving, gesturing and challenging students.

Over coffee, Bales moves rapidly from his love of teaching to his attraction to labor law because it is, at its heart, about relationships and how people can or cannot work together. His eyes capture the writer's movements and, satisfied that the point has been made and processed, he moves on to talk about NKU.

There's an excitement at Northern, he says. "You see the growth, you see the growth in the numbers, you see the growth in the programs. You see the new buildings. You see the excitement of the students, you see the excitement of the faculty. Yet with all the growth, it's stayed true to the mission of being student centered," he says.

He describes his students as incredibly motivated. In the past year, Bales co-authored 10 scholarly articles with his students. "I have high expectations of them," says Bales, "that taps into their high expectations of themselves and their self motivation, and we take their work quite literally to the next level."

Student Melanie Goff, managing editor of the Northern Kentucky Law Review, says ,"He is always pushing his students to go just a bit further than they think possible."

C. Alyse Bender, an NKU grad working as a law clerk at Gerner & Kearns, says Bales "finds opportunities for all of his students "” whether it be through co-authoring articles, participating in competitive teams or leading a student organization "” to shine during their time in law school."

What Bales offers doesn't end when students pass the class or the bar. "He devotes his time, pushing his students to be effective litigators, not just effective students," student Matt Miller-Novak says.

Energy translates into innovation in the classroom.

About four years ago, Bales coached the school's arbitration team for the first time. Bales had been an arbitrator and had written on the subject. "But I wasn't a trial lawyer," he says.

So he told his students, "My job is going to be to get you the resources that you need to teach yourself. I'm going to connect you up with a trial lawyer who can help you try a case. I'm going to connect you up with an arbitrator who will show you how an arbitration works. I'm going to connect you up with folks from our communications department who will help you present yourself in a way that other people find persuasive and effective."

The students went on to the national competition.

"That got me thinking, 'You know what, this is how people learn most effectively, it's not by somebody standing up in front of the room "¦ People learn much better if you give them a problem, give them the resources they need to solve that problem and give them guidance to solve that problem.' "

For labor law students, there is a special treat when they sign up for his class.

Bales leans back and smiles broadly as he describes his 100-page class syllabus. Single spaced. "Everything you can think of to make a classroom really really awful, I put into that syllabus," he says.

On Day 1, "I treat them like dirt," he says, calling on students, making them stand up and then leaving halfway through class to play golf.

"They very quickly figure out that what I want them to do is form a union," he says. The goal is to negotiate a new contract, a new syllabus. The students send him an e-mail telling him they figured him out and they're forming a union. Oh? He then asks if the proper forms have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

No? "Then you haven't formed a union yet and, by the way, you are fired," he says.

"And the funny part is that every time they've e-mailed among themselves, 'I think this is what Bales is up to "¦'" And, failing to drop the message string, they send their decision to the professor with all the back-and-forth still attached. As a result, he knows "every one of the union rabble-rousers ,and I fire them all, too."

He borrowed the idea from other law schools and morphed it into his own, with variations every term because students do Tweet, talk and Facebook.

The "absolutely fantastic" people at the local NLRB office are deeply involved, coming to campus to hold a union election with voting machines and signs outside the law school.

The unions win in the Bales scenario, and the NLRB reps stay and work it all through by talking with students. "It's great fun," he says.

That's clear.