Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Looking Horizontally

One of the best pieces of advice I received before attending law school came from a friend who had just completed his J.D. at the same school a year or two earlier.  He said, "Don't look horizontally."  By that, he meant that I should not worry about what other first-year students were doing because they may be doing all the wrong things.  Hearing from a fellow student that he "studies every night until 2:00 a.m." can be terribly misleading; for all anyone knows, that student does not begin studying until 10:00 or 11:00 at night and is in fact experiencing significant diminishing returns almost from the outset of each study session.   He may also be blowing smoke. 

If we had an academic support program when I was in law school, I was unaware of it, so I was on my own as far as figuring out how best to attack the material and prepare for exams.  Looking to equally clueless first-year students struck me as probably unhelpful, and I followed my friend's advice for the most part.  If someone talked about a specific studying technique, I was willing to listen and evaluate it against my own experience; but I was already committed to working hard, so worrying about how hard others were working did not seem useful. 

Perhaps I felt that way because law school was the start of a second career for me, and I had already learned how to work like a professional, putting in a solid day's work while balancing the demands of family.  I knew how to use the hours of a workday efficiently, how to ignore the clock and focus on the task, how to put in long hours while recognizing the limits of my productivity over stretches of exceptionally long days.  As a result, I took with a grain of salt others' bragging about their studying into the wee hours. 

Most of our students do not have the advantage of having worked in a demanding professional position before law school.  They can easily fall for advice that is as likely to create debilitating fatigue as it is to create real learning.  After all, undergraduate students frequently "pull all nighters," so new law students reasonably conclude that all nighters are the rule rather than the exception in the more demanding atmosphere of law school. 

We should disabuse them of such notions.  They need to understand that professionals do not waste time during the workday, hoping to recapture the time in the middle of the night.  Professionals plan their work and move methodically through it over time.  Professionals, of course, also know that the project rather than the clock may demand exceptionally long hours for several days running and that sometimes a professional has to work all night to get a project completed. 

Studying, however, is best done when one is fresh and alert.  The workday generally provides plenty of time to study long and hard if the day is used efficiently. 

As exams approach, many of our first-year students will engage in cramming approaches that have a tendency to produce more disadvantages than advantages.  If we can help them replace those approaches with effective time management, realistically paced studying, and effective study strategies geared to the peculiar demands of law school, we will be doing them a great service.  That sort of advice is useful.  It is significantly more helpful than what they are likely to glean from their inexperienced colleagues. 

My friend was right:  looking horizontally is a great way to take your eye off the ball and miss it altogether.  We need get their eyes back on the ball and off each other.  So you might give them my friend's insightful advice:  Don't look horizontally; that way lies confusion and anxiety. (dbw)

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