Saturday, December 10, 2005

Give It a Rest

As exams wind down, I think we would do our students a great favor if we reminded them to rest over the holiday break.  The first-year students are especially worn out, physically and emotionally; and the upper-division students often take on more than is realistic as journal opportunities, moot court competitions, clerking positions, and clinical experiences become available. 

All of that hard work is fine if it is kept in perspective, but it is easy to lose perspective both in law school and in the practice of law.  Too many lawyers are workaholics, and their personal lives suffer for it in ways that are often unfair to their families and unfair to the lawyers themselves. 

Whether that tendency to overwork is created in law school or is inherent in the types of people who enroll in law school, it behooves us to counter its pull on our students.  We are the first examples of legal professionals many students  have ever seen up close.  They look to us for guidance as to the right way to practice law; and they take our words to heart, probably more than we realize.  So we should be circumspect about the messages we send.

One of the great professional skills, I have always thought, is the ability to pursue excellence without unnecessarily sacrificing life's other important concerns.  If our students are going to master that balance, they need to begin doing so in law school.  The profession is not particularly forgiving, and pressures always exist to do more and do it better.  Those who enter the profession unprepared to manage those pressures in healthy ways are very likely to be molded by those pressures in ways they will later regret.

The concern always exists, I suppose, that we will encourage the slackers to slack or fail to prepare our students for the hard work of practice; but that concern is probably overblown.  The hard workers needn't be sacrificed to make certain the less motivated step up their efforts.  In fact, between the two, I'd rather spend my energy taking care of the dedicated, hard working student.

So let's tell our students to give it a rest over the holidays.  Let's tell them to take a few days and pretend they are not law students, or clerks, or journal editors, or whatever else wants to take them away from their personal lives. 

Let's remind them that, as someone once famously remarked, no one on his deathbed ever wished he had spent more time at the office.  Better to figure that out now, before it's too late to do anything about it.

And while we're at it, let's remember it for ourselves.  Let's step back from the incessant demands of our profession and, for a few days, say, "Oh, give it a rest." (dbw)

December 10, 2005 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

New Office Environment

As I am writing this, the facilities staff is completing some of the finishing touches on our new suite. Whittier Law School now calls us its Institute for Student and Graduate Academic Support, and has housed us in the main Administration building across the hall from the Dean's suite. It got me reflecting on the implications for academic support of a new and different office space. There are advantages and disadvantages.

An obvious advantage is newness the freshness of new surroundings is infectious both among the ASP faculty, and among the students. Every student to come in since I moved on Monday has commented on how nice and new everything looks.

Another advantage is convenience for the students. All the ASP faculty are in one place I as Director, and the five other ASP faculty can more easily confer and be available; so if a student needs a resource that one of us has, we can get it to the student more quickly. In addition, students now know there is one stop shopping for academic support.

Another advantage is just the environment: we have an open space, with sofas and easy chairs, ringed by our offices. We have nice pictures to hang (largely the many jigsaw puzzles of Monet and Escher prints that my daughter and I put together, glued, framed and hung) and a relaxing, inviting atmosphere for students. Moreover, because as Associate Dean and Director, I got to "decorate" the suite, I was able to include interesting photographs one from our 10th wedding anniversary in 1996 having dinner with George and Barbara Bush, and the other a picture of my late father-in-law with Whittier College's most famous alumnus, and my former San Clemente neighbor (the first and only reference to President Nixon, who attended Whittier College and Duke Law School, on the entire Law School campus).

Disadvantages? I feel isolated from the rest of the faculty I am now in a separate building from them. I miss the give and take discussions that came more easily when they were a few steps away. I am also concerned that it will be harder to work together as a community of faculty with this physical separation.

Still, in the end, this is about facilitating student learning; and I think the new, more student-friendly surroundings present more advantages than disadvantages. I look forward to discovering if that is true. (mwm)

December 7, 2005 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Exams: Last-Minute Advice

HramyThis smiling man, Professor Herbert N. Ramy of Suffolk University Law School, addresses a letter to students just before fall exams each year.

This year, he has offered it to us (via the Blog) as a template for what we might want to send to our students this week.  With his permission, I have revised the letter (based on personal preferences and institutional differences) and will be sending it to our student body this afternoon.  Take a look — you may want to e-mail a thanks to Herb.  (djt)

December 7, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Closest Thing to Junior High Since Junior High

The day after I attended orientation for my first year of law school, my son attended orientation for his first year of middle school.  I came down to breakfast to find him sitting at the table, holding a spoonful of cereal suspended motionless in front of his face, and staring into space.

"Are you nervous?" I asked.  He nodded with an expression of profound anxiety. 

"I'll tell you how you feel," I said.  "You are afraid that the work will be too hard, that the other kids won't like you, that the teachers won't like you, that you'll say something stupid, and that you won't be able to get your locker open."

He nodded again with his eyes wide and asked me in an astonished tone, "How did you know?"

I said, "Because I felt that way yesterday.  But I got through it okay," I added, "and you'll be all right, too." 

I think of that day fairly regularly as I work with law students, because I have always thought law school is the closest thing to junior high since junior high. 

In my first semester of law school, I somehow went from a confident and successful professional to a trembling mass of insecurity and self-doubt in a matter of weeks.  All of the old insecurities that I had thought were long vanquished were suddenly in front of me again as if I had never left the eighth grade.  I was suddenly an overly introspective, self-critical, anxious junior high kid again.

The reason is fairly simple.  For the first time since junior high, I was about to be placed in a pecking order and did not know how I would rank.  In junior high, being accepted and approved by my peers seemed life-and-death important:  if a girl rolled her eyes when I tried to talk to her, I was a failure as a human being; if I said something "dumb" and everyone around me laughed at me, my life was over.  The pecking order was constantly in front of me, and like every other junior high kid, my place on it was a roll of the dice every day.

In law school, the pecking order was all about class rank, but it had that same life-and-death feel to it.  Somehow all the things that had defined me were swept aside in favor of class rank.  My whole world suddenly seemed to depend upon how my grades came out and whether some law firm I had never heard of until law school would offer me a summer clerkship.

I remember stepping back and asking myself how they did it to me.  How could law school culture so redefine my priorities that my sense of self-worth could be determined by success or failure in that one endeavor?  How could a grown man be so easily turned into that insecure, bumbling junior high kid again? 

The answer, I decided, was that law school tends to be an all-consuming, closed world that ignores most of what has defined us up to then and challenges the validity of what it doesn't ignore.  Worse, we are placed in an explicit comparison with everyone else in this new little universe and guaranteed that half of us will be in the bottom half of the class.  If that isn't bad enough, we get the sense that anyone not in the top ten percent of the class is destined to be a mediocre lawyer in a mediocre law firm doing mediocre work.  If you can't make the top ten percent, you sure aren't going to be one of the cool kids.  And you'll get to tell your loved ones and friends that you aren't all you were cracked up to be.

So our students enter December like junior high kids going to their first junior high dance.  They face a clear-cut redefining of their place in the world as they begin final exams, and they have had a fairly regular series of reminders that they may not be as bright as they think.  Because most law students have been academically successful whenever they put their minds to it, the prospect of failing or of even being "mediocre" is daunting indeed. 

Law school strikes at a part of them that has been central to their sense of who they are, and it has made that part of them a central focus of the past four months.  Under the daily pressure of law school's first semester, it is tough to keep any kind of perspective because the outside world is so consistently relegated to second place in the fight to keep up.

Somehow we have to help them stop taking themselves so seriously while taking seriously the work they are doing.  Somehow we have to help them remember who they are, and somehow we have to help them regain their perspectives.

Like junior high kids, our students have to figure out what really matters and what really doesn't; but for the moment, they are pretty much at sea.  It's a whole new world for them, and the rules are unclear and the outcomes painfully uncertain.

They'll figure it out, of course, the same way they figured it out in junior high:  they'll find out that most of their perceptions of the world have become distorted by the claustrophobically small world of law school and that much of what makes them most anxious today is not going to seem nearly so important a few years from now. 

Not scoring as well on exams as one would like, not ranking as highly as one would like, does not really define what kind of lawyer one will become.  We all know that, but we have the benefit of hindsight and of having re-entered the larger world.  For the moment, however, our students are back in junior high, questioning all that they are and worrying that they are about to find out they aren't much after all.

In January, we'll need to help them come to grips with the aftermath of the equivalent of their first junior high dance.  They'll survive it; we did.  But we can make life a little easier for them if we can figure out how to convince them that junior high really doesn't define the rest of their lives. (dbw)

December 6, 2005 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Training for What?

Rod Borlase wrote, "I taught  Advanced Legal Research  at the University of Houston Law Center, among my life's more rewarding experiences."  But, the Professor (now mediator and advocate) explains, he became disenchanted.

"I worry," he explains in Why I Worry Today About Our Profession, "and that is why I left academe, why I'm here now to take up this critical issue with my favorite constituency, colleagues of my craft at bar."  And what is the "critical issue" that worries Professor Borlase?

SImply put—an inability to perform basic legal research and basic, competent writing ... the inability to articulate the law and to support a legal position either orally or in writing.  That's the issue.

"The problem," Professor Borlase opines, "is with our law schools, which no longer view their purpose (or very much of it, at least) as training lawyers in their profession's traditional arts, such as written or oral advocacy, but instead for academe itself, as if all those students (the worthy ones at least) aspired to be law professors just like them...."

Is he right? We've all seen examples of what he mentions, either in the professional practice, or in law school, or both.  Is the problem with our law schools?  Are we training lawyers for the traditional lawyering arts, or for academe? 

Which are you most interested in as an Academic Support professional?  (djt)

December 4, 2005 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)