Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Our Own Skills 2: Empathizing

A law school's greatest strength can often be one of its greatest weaknesses:  its faculty's intellectual prowess.  Law professors are always those who were exceptionally successful as law students, so they are necessarily exceptional legal thinkers and are precisely the people who should make up our law school faculties.  Many of those exceptional legal thinkers, however, share a common weakness:  an inability to understand why some of their students struggle mastering the law. 

For many professors, the study of law, while certainly challenging and demanding, was fairly intuitive.  When they encounter students who do not seem to "get it," they have a tough time believing that those students are intellectually capable of succeeding in law school, and they have a tough time empathizing with those students' plight.  Too often, they believe that struggling students ought to accept their limitations and find another profession.

It is seldom the case, by the way, that these professors don't care; it is that they can't relate.  Having spent their lives in nearly unbroken academic success, they see law school success as primarily a matter of intelligence and hard work; when success is lacking, one of those elements must be missing.  They may empathize with dashed hopes and failed dreams, but not with academic failure where there exist the brains and drive to succeed. 

Therefore, it is essential that students find empathy in our offices.  We must be able to understand what our students feel when, despite their best efforts, they cannot seem to succeed; and, just as importantly, we must genuinely believe that they can succeed.  We must truly believe that bad learning strategies are more often the problem than lack of ability and effort, and that bad learning strategies can be changed. 

That sort of empathy is very different from what students often encounter in law school.  It is an empathy filled with hope and buttressed by real help.  In our offices, at least, students ought to find people who believe in them, who believe they can succeed and who can offer the means to do so.  In our offices, they should find people who know how it feels to fail and how it feels to succeed in the face of failure.  That is a helpful kind of empathy.

We need to deliberately cultivate in ourselves that sort of empathy.  We need to reach back into our own lives and find those times when we struggled, nearly gave up, and then found a way to succeed.  Remembering those times will affect our tone, our advice, and the tenacity with which we stick with our students until they do "get it."  That sort of empathy can become one of a law school's greatest strengths. (Dan Weddle)

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