Tuesday, May 30, 2006
As you have surely noticed, our postings have been a bit sparse in the past few weeks. The wrap up of the school year and various grading and other demands have left all of the editors a little short on time and inspiration, so we are currently a little less productive on the blog than we would like to be.
But don't give up on us. As we settle into summer routines over the next couple of weeks, we'll begin posting at our normal pace again. I hope all of you get a chance as well to take a little breather from the flurry of end-of-the-year activities and can find some time this summer to rest and regroup for the fall. (dbw)
Thursday, May 18, 2006
I am always amazed this time of year by how many graduating law students fail to prepare intensely for the bar exam that looms just ahead. Most take the exam very seriously, but a few each year apparently seem to think the exam a fairly easy hurdle. I don't get it. After all of the expense, work, and stress of law school, how can anyone let up for the bar exam?
Perhaps they look at the pass rates and decide that there is no way they can end up in the bottom twenty percent of the takers. I remember the story of a student who graduated first in his class at a good school, obtained a prestigious judicial clerkship, only to fail the exam and lose the clerkship. I have always suspected that he became wrapped up in his clerkship duties and thought to himself, "How can I possibly fail the bar exam after graduating first in my class?" I was in law school at the time, and the story scared the socks off me.
I suppose it is understandable that students who have been far from the bottom twenty percent in law school would assume that they can avoid the bottom twenty percent of bar takers without much work; but that assumption overlooks the nature of the exam. The exam tests concepts many takers have not encountered since the first semester of law school. What makes them think that material that old can be recalled and applied with a half-hearted review, especially when the material required so much preparation for the final exam when the material was fresh?
Some, I am sure, fail to prepare properly because they do not believe they can afford the fee for a bar prep course. Again, however, I find it amazing that anyone who has invested three years of tuition, budget-breaking book purchases, and lost wages chooses the bar exam as the best opportunity to save money. Too much is riding on the exam to spare expense at this point. Anything spent on preparing for the exam will be more than offset by a year in practice, and no amount saved can justify gambling that year on recalling three years of legal rules without an intense review.
Perhaps some students take review courses but never devote significant time to further study outside the review classes . Again, the choice is amazing, given what law school exams require. How many students actually get through law school by reading through their class notes once before finals? What could possibly lead them to believe that the bar exam requires little study beyond sitting through a series of lectures in the weeks leading up to the exam?
Nevertheless, every year brings tales of top students around the country failing the bar. Aside from the cases of extreme test anxiety, lack of test preparation is the only thing that explains the failures. They may be saving money, becoming too involved in newly acquired employment, or merely underestimating the exam; but they are rolling the dice on the most important high-stakes test of their legal careers.
Throughout law school, they have had to prepare intensely in order to succeed on finals, and this final is the biggest one they have faced, covering vastly more material than any other they have taken. Should it be a surprise that it requires substantially more preparation?
The bar exam itself should not frighten students; but under-preparation should scare them to death. We need not terrify our students about taking the exam, but we should go out of our way to terrify them about failing to prepare. The exam is grueling, but ultimately no real threat for those who have spent the two months ahead of it preparing intensely, both in the review classes and on their own time.
No one who has worked as hard as our students have worked to get through law school should trip over the last hurdle. As their coaches, we need to make sure they keep running hard to the end of the race and that they not treat the final lap to the bar as a cool down lap. (dbw)
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Every conversation I have with my grandmother, who is 97 and lives alone in an apartment in the Bronx (the proverbial Jewish grandmother who still makes the best chicken soup ever), ends with me saying, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow;” and her answering, “Please god, I should live so long.”
I have the same conversation with my first year students around this time of year. “Don’t worry,” I say, “it will be much easier next year.” They answer: “if I’m still here.” I wonder if the whole first year experience is about whether students feel that they belong at law school. Law school is a major decision, and one that sets you on a clear, defined path. This is writing, “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up” in ink and not crayon. (Practicing law is not the only option a student has with a law degree, but I think a lot of students fresh out of college see it that way.)
Unlike European university systems, we don’t really ask students to make big decisions about their future until they graduate from college. We do require some forethought, i.e.: you shouldn’t necessarily choose philosophy as a major if you want to be a structural engineer (and I am by no means certain that this is entirely true…). But, for the most part, coming to law school may be the first decision a student makes about a concrete future. And that is scary.
I think first year law students spend a lot of time contemplating their decision: what if I made a mistake? What if I am not as smart as everyone has told me so far? What if I can’t do this? What if I hate law school? Perhaps, first year law students wonder most often, “do I belong here?” And sadly, they see their first year exams as the oracle that will answer all their fearful questions. But, exams are not the answer. They are merely a tool and never the finished product.
The first year of law school is the hardest for a number of reasons. We ask students to learn a new language and then become extremely fluent in it. We assign thousands of pages of reading in this new language and expect them to not only remember it all, but derivatively use it to answer other questions. Most of all, we ask students to go months and months without feedback on their progress, and then evaluate almost the entire academic year on the basis of a three hour exam. This is particularly difficult when you question everyday whether attending law school was the right choice. There are very few external cues to affirm a student’s choice to come to law school
Another factor in the mix is money. A law student, even one who does not continue beyond the first year, may have accrued a tremendous amount of debt. I remember, during my first year, asking myself exactly how smart could I be to pay someone to torture me and then pay interest for years and years on top of that. Not so much smart, I thought.
The reality is that there will be students who won’t be here next year. I can’t say every student makes it through their first year, but most will. And to the students who I will see next year, I say this, “It will be better. I promise.” I do remember vividly, at the beginning of my second year, feeling like I owned the place. And now that I’ve paid back most of the loans, maybe I do. (ezs)
Friday, May 12, 2006
About a week ago, I had a student come into my office after her Property exam. She tearfully told me that she didn't finish the exam because she had only left herself twenty minutes for the last question (where the exam had apportioned one hour). Nothing I said, or could have said (I now realize) made her feel any better. She left my office weeping. About thirty minutes later I left the building on my way home and saw an ambulance out front. I was frantic--had my student succumbed to the Property exam? I actually looked inside the ambulance to find out. It wasn't her and I was greatly relieved, but I still felt that I offered her no comfort.
And that bothered me. I have both described and criticized as being very maternal in my support style. Under rare and appropriate circumstances (and with consent and all sorts signed waiver forms), I will hug. I always have candy and tissues. I have helped students find bridesmaids dresses and doctor referrals, but I could not help this student.
I told my tearful student that it was not the end of the world; but to her it was. I told her that knowing her, the rest of the exam was great and what she did manage to write for the last question would probably have been another student's best effort given all the time in the world. She wasn't buying it. She asked about having to repeat the class if she failed. I truly do not believe that she failed, but I answered her questions after prefacing them with my belief that the information provided would not be useful for her. She stormed out of my office more upset than when she entered.
Basically, short of tap dancing (which would have been an ill-advised attempt at humor); I had used up my repertoire of "it's ok" tricks. My firm belief in her intelligence and preparedness wasn't enough and that is okay. I was more worried that since this was the first exam for first year students that her belief in herself was shot as well. I haven't seen her since and I don't expect to. I doubt she realizes that I am still worried about her or that I scared some lovely Boston paramedics by sticking my head in their ambulance because I thought she might be that distraught.
Today, another student came to me and complained about the same exam. I asked him if he finished it, and he said yes. His problem: the exam was too hard. Why? Well, he said that he had been surprised that there was a whole essay question on future interests on the test. He had believed, based on his empirical analysis of prior exams that future interests only appeared on the multiple choice part of the exam. I assured him that if he had studied well for the multiple choice that he was also prepared for an essay. He disagreed. So, I told him, in contrast to the first student, that the singer they voted off of American Idol on Wednesday was far more surprising than a future interests question on a property exam (in fact it was downright shocking, I thought the guy was a shoe-in, but that is another story for another blog).
In the end he wanted to know if I thought he should ask the professor if was going to fail. I told him that the professor had probably not graded the exams yet and that his answer was likely to be, "I can't tell you yet;" and that would not provide any comfort at all and might, in fact, be more upsetting. Again, I doubt I'll see him again.
In the end, I think I my reactions to these two students indicate that I have achieved complete ASP motherhood. And in that vain, I wish myself and all the rest of the ASP mothers out there, a Happy Mother's Day. (ezs)
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
I spent some time this morning in my daughter’s third grade classroom: you know, one of those family breakfasts where we let the children eat donut holes for breakfast and then leave them with the teachers. The cause for our celebration this morning was our children’s completion of their first research project. Each child researched and wrote a report on an animal of her choosing as well as completing a diorama. Best of all, they did it all at school so we didn’t see any of it until today.
I was blown away at what these kids could do, and even more blown away at the fact that the third grade teachers taught analysis and synthesis techniques to eight and nine-year-olds.
To begin doing their research, the kids did a bunch of reading on their animals (my daughter did owls) and then put their most important bits of information on index cards-the info on the front and the source on the back. They were given a chapter structure for their report and then had to sort their information cards into those categories (habitat, babies, etc.). After this activity, they had to write an informative and compelling report about their animals. Then they had to edit—three times-- before they were done.
Does this sound familiar? To me this seemed like all the basics of legal writing. Gather your data, sort and fit it to the format and write an educational and persuasive report on what you have found. This is also a lot like exam writing technique: sort out the issues, use your information (rules) and write a compelling report on your findings. My point here is not that legal analysis is so simple a third grader could do it, but rather, if it can be taught to third graders certainly we should be able to teach it to our students as well. But we do not always succeed in doing it. I plan to ask a lot questions at my parent/teacher conference about how it happened in the 3G classroom and will report back.
In the meantime, I am very happy that my child will have learned some of this basic writing technique in third grade. I hope it repeats in the curriculum as they go forward. Did you know that snowy owls (like Hedwig in the Harry Potter books and movies) are actually silent and therefore the complaints that Hedwig is noisy must be inaccurate? I am proud to say I learned that from my third grader's report. After all, why else did we spend an obscene amount of money to live in the world’s smallest house if not for the schools? (ezs)
Saturday, May 6, 2006
My wife gave me a ring the day I graduated from law school. I had never had a class ring before and had never really cared about having one until then. After three years of law school, however, I wanted that one.
It symbolized all that we had given up and all that I had poured into obtaining that degree. It reminded me that I had not been fooling myself when I decided to take on law school, that I had really been able to do it after all. It reminded me of the faith my wife had shown in me over those three years, never wondering if we had done the right thing or if I would do well.
During the bar exam, I deliberately stopped every so often, looked at the ring, and told myself, "Even if I fail this exam and never get to practice law, I earned that law degree and that fact can't change."
For those who never doubted their ability to succeed in law school, they will probably find it tough to relate to such feelings. But I didn't enter law school sure of my success, and even at the end I couldn't shake that "smoke and mirrors" feeling, that feeling that I somehow I had been getting away with something all along and that eventually I'd get caught and that everyone would finally know that I had no business going to law school.
In a couple of hours, I will watch another class walk across the stage to receive their diplomas and hoods. It will be their turn to bask in that glow of success that attends such ceremonies. Many of them, I suspect, will marvel, as I did when I graduated, that it all worked out, that law school wasn't beyond them after all. They will all be able to drop the anxiety and stress of the past three years and take a moment to relish the fact that they have earned law degrees and that nothing can change that fact.
The bar exam will be here soon enough, and those first years of practice will be upon them, with all the same fears and self-doubt.
Today, however, all those things should be in the distance. For a day or two, they deserve to look back and see what they have accomplished and forget about the challenges to come. They deserve to relish the unalterable fact that no matter what happens next, no one can ever rob them of the right to say, "I earned a law degree." (dbw)
Monday, May 1, 2006
How does Boston sound? If you are looking for a tenure-track position as a director of academic support in one of the country's best cities, New England School of Law may be looking for you. Below is the position posting, along with contact information.
DIRECTOR OF ACADEMIC SUPPORT
NEW ENGLAND SCHOOL OF LAW, in Boston, is looking to hire a director of academic support to develop, teach, and evaluate academic support programs. We want someone who is dedicated to providing academic support; experience in the field would be an advantage. The director of Academic Support will work closely with the coordinator of our Charles Hamilton Houston Committee and with the rest of the faculty. This is a faculty position, with a salary commensurate with qualifications. Applicants should send a cover letter and resume to Professor Judith Greenberg, email@example.com.
New England School of Law is an equal opportunity employer and invites applications from all interested persons. (dbw)
Here in the still chilly northeast, exams start later this week. Since part of any ASP office's duties include some exam time cheer-leading, I had seriously thought of wall-papering our bulletin board and office area with notices that read, "Good Luck on Exams from the folks at ASP!!!!!" (I do tend to use way too many exclamation points!!!!!! So I'm enthusiastic; is that a crime?????????) But then I thought better of it.
Certainly I have not taught my students that their exam performance has anything to do with luck. Sure, there can be some luck involved; as in: "wow, I am sure lucky that last question had to do with adverse possession because I knew that one cold." There is absolutely no luck involved in knowing it cold.
Knowing the material comes from doing the reading, going to class and outlining. Knowing the material comes from studying the outline and spending the time to study effectively and efficiently (Dan is right, sleep is very important!). So I have revised my sign. Instead of wishing my students luck, I wish them this instead:
Good Organization of your answer!
Good Timing on the exam so you can finish it all!
So essentially, I wish them all Good I OAT. I think it may catch on; and it may lower your cholesterol as well. (ezs)