Wednesday, November 1, 2006
We have reached a time in the semester when first-year students are beginning to become especially discouraged. In most schools, the students have received grades on at least a couple of legal writing assignments and on one or more midterm exams. Their grades often do not reflect their effort because the competition is tougher than what they faced in undergraduate programs and because legal reasoning requires the development of new skills. As exams approach, their confidence may be flagging badly.
As a result, this time of year is a good time for us to go out of our way to encourage students. Ironically, nearly all of those students who are struggling right now will be much more competent a year from now and will go on to be fine attorneys. They need to know that the hard work will pay off in the end and that their present frustrations will ease as they become more comfortable with legal reasoning. Many, perhaps most, simply need more experience with legal analysis and help with strategies to engage the material effectively and to demonstrate their learning more effectively on law school exams.
That deficiency in skills, however, actually provides perhaps the greatest source of encouragement. The good news for students is that their current struggles have little to do with innate ability and much to do with skills that can be learned. In other words, today's performance need not define them or their futures because the skills are within their reach.
We can encourage them by reminding them that they can master legal reasoning and that they can master the learning strategies required for law school success. They will get better and better at legal reasoning over the next three years, and we are there to help them master unfamiliar learning strategies. In fact, one day many will actually wonder what it was that was so difficult about the first year. That day for many will be as soon as next fall.
This is a great time to let them know that they can and will master what seems so far beyond their reach today. They will not be entirely convinced, but we can give them a ray of realistic hope; and they can begin to focus their energies on the process of mastering new skills. They can begin to let go of the normal and very human tendency to beat themselves up over setbacks that they believe, at the moment, are most likely explained by their own intellectual inadequacy. (dbw)