Monday, July 28, 2008
Human beings are so good at losing perspective when they hit obstacles. Whether the obstacle is academic, medical, financial, professional, personal or of some other variety, humans tend to turn molehills into mountains, to worry themselves into insomnia or ulcers, and to despair quickly.
We do so because 1) we tend to focus on ourselves in times of disappointment or crisis and 2) we tend to expect perfection. These two aspects of human nature make it very natural for us to get down in the dumps instead of weighing our situations against a broader spectrum of life and experience.
Why am I thinking about this subject? Well, I have had several encounters that have reminded me of these human frailities: two encounters with students; two encounters with bar studiers; and one memory of my own law school experience.
I overheard a bar studier moaning and groaning about how tired she was of studying, how she was suffering with some relatively minor physical ailments, and how as a result she was at a disadvantage compared to everyone else. She was focusing on her little world and feeling sorry for herself. And she was oblivious to any problems of the other bar studiers to whom she was telling her tale of woe.
A few minutes later, I saw our blind graduate studying for the bar exam. Not only is he having to do all of the reading in braille, he also has to take the bar is one six-hour and two twelve-hour sessions because the bar examiners have given him double time but not additional days. This bar studier kept on persevering and working hard to succeed even though the bar examiners decision on his long days was a disappointment. If the first bar studier had thought about her colleague, she would have realized that she had lost her perspective.
In a previous post, I talked about our summer entry program and grading. This past week, I had appointments with all of the students about their first exams. Several were shocked about their grades. Most of them swallowed hard and then began to ask questions on how to improve. They quickly put aside their disappointment and decided not to let it overwhelm them.
However, several lost their perspectives quickly. One student even talked about quitting the program. On reconsidering after much encouragement on my part, the student decided to wait until the end of the four weeks to quit if the grade had not gone up to a perfect "A" by then. Only perfection was acceptable to the student, so one poor showing worth 15% of the grade was overwhelming. Many of our law students are perfectionists, I find, so it is a struggle for them to step back and gain the skill of doing their best each day instead of being perfect.
When I was a 1L in law school, I would at times get overwhelmed by the whole process. As a non-traditional student who had always been competent in school and at work, I felt suddenly incompetent. I had to learn patience with myself as I learned new legal reasoning skills.
I also had to regain perspective. The best perspective "medicine" for me was volunteering with the local housing partnership group while I was in law school. We would go out at least once a week to do repairs on houses owned by low-income families. As I repaired a front porch that was so rotted that the elderly owner was trapped in her home, I realized that law school was not so bad. As I helped a team install indoor plumbing for a family that only had an outside latrine, I realized how privileged I was to be in law school.
There is nothing like a dose of the "real world" to bring back one's perspective. We need to help our law students remember that they have worth beyond grades and that they still have lives outside of law school. When they lose perspective, we can help them get it back. (Amy Jarmon)
If you were a participant at the Humanizing Legal Education Symposium last fall, you should have received your copy of the symposium issue published by Washburn Law Journal (Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2008). In addition, you should have received a DVD of the presentations.
Michael Hunter Schwartz provided a wonderful conference. We were all invigorated by the opportunity to hear insightful speakers, to learn new ways to humanize our own law schools' programs, and to meet others who believe in changing law schools.
If you would like to see the symposium issue of the Washburn Law Review on-line, go to Washburn Law Journal Humanizing Legal Education Symposium Issue. If you want to request a print copy, you can contact the law review staff at (785) 670-1541. Also, if you wish to obtain a copy of the DVD, you can contact Michael Hunter Schwartz at email@example.com. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, July 21, 2008
I remember the shock my mother always expressed when back-to-school sales started in July...we just got out of school, how could it be starting again? That is a little of how I feel right now...I just sent my 1L's off for the summer, and I am already bombarded with new 1L's. I have hardly had time to catch my breath, and I am being bombarded with calls and emails from incoming students. I share their excitement for the new year, but I also have a few pieces of advice about the right-now:
1) Enjoy the rest of your summer. Law school will be your life for the next three years.
2) Enjoy time with your family. They will be your sustenance and support over the next three years.
3) Enjoy a summer off, if you have one. There will be no more "summers off" (if you are lucky) after this one.
4) Enjoy YOU. Do all the things that make you special and unique. Just as a strong core helps keep you standing straight, an emotionally healthy core of beliefs and values will help you stand straight when you are bombarded by rumors and intrigue that permeate (and poison) the first year of law school.
5) If you are not healthy, get healthy. Exercise, learn to enjoy healthy eating habits. Not only is this a life skill, it will help you through the next three years more than you know. And it just might help you get better grades.
I have different advice for all the new ASP professionals out there, but my message is the same:
Enjoy the right-now. Don't get overwhelmed yet; no matter how prepared you are, you are in for an amazing adventure this year. You will face challenges you can't anticipate. Anecdotally, I hear the burn out rate for ASP professionals is roughly that of public school teachers--many of us don't make five years. Don't let that be you--this is the best job in the world if you embrace the challenges and roll with the setbacks. (This is one piece of advice I need to take as well as give.) Get to know your colleagues this summer; they will sustain you. The veteran ASP professionals I know are some of the nicest people in the world. I could not have made it through the past three years without the support and wisdom of Gail, Ruth, Mike, Paula, Corie, Eric, Scott, Amy, and so many others. If you don't have a support team of other ASPer's you can call anytime for advice and encouragement, build one now. If you are a new ASPer, email me anytime (I am notoriously phone-phobic, but you can give me a call if you need help!) It may take me a few days, but like most ASPer's, I am here to help.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Summer is one of the few times in the year when I can reflect a bit about the past year, the upcoming year, improvements that I would like to make, and my reasons for being an academic support professional. Although I am still very busy with projects and teaching in our summer program, I have enough of a "breather" to look beyond the usual hectic rush of events.
It is actually this period of summer reflection that always recharges my batteries and gets me excited about the "new crop" of 1L students and the returning 2L and 3L students. Although none of us in ASP will probably have a "perfect score" of graduation and bar passage for every student with whom we have worked along the way, we can use this time to think about the successes that we have been a part of over the year and prior years.
Each one of you will have countless reflections that will make you realize that you have an impact every day on law student lives. If you doubt your impact, just take an inventory of students whom you have helped:
- The new 1L students who came up to talk with you after your Orientation session because they knew you would help when they were too embarrassed to ask someone else their questions.
- The 1L students who came to you for advice during the first few weeks of school because they were feeling overwhelmed.
- The 1L students who arrived in a panic before their exams and needed you to calm them down.
- The non-traditional students who came to you to work on time management so they could excel in law school and still have family time with their spouses and children.
- The discouraged students who felt better after some suggestions and words of encouragement from you during an appointment, in the student lounge, or in the hallway.
- The probation students whom you told that you believed in their being able to improve their grades.
- The probation students whom you congratulated on their hard work while you met with them throughout the semester.
- The excited probation students who came to tell you they got off probation.
- The excited probation students who came to tell you that they had gotten their first "B" or "A" grades.
- The ex-probation students who still come by for advice on specific study problems.
- The 3L graduates who stopped by to say thank you for your support and advice during their three years.
- The 3L graduates who walked across the stage and you remembered helping them through a tough semester, tough course, or life crisis.
- The bar studiers who came to ask for your suggestions on how they could study more effectively and efficiently.
- The bar studiers who have stopped by for some extra encouragement in these final weeks.
- The law students who have invited you to their weddings because you were a big part of their law school careers.
- The law students who bring by their babies for you to meet.
- The law students who bring by siblings or friends who will be 1L's to meet you so that they can get started right.
- The practicing attorneys whom you advised as law students who come up to you to talk about their practice and their lives.
- The countless others that you remember helping who may never say thank you, but whom you know that you had an impact on during a conversation.
I love being an ASP person. To me, my job is a blessing every day. My law students make it all worthwhile even when other areas of working at a law school may have some downsides (fill in the blanks for your institution: budget, status, group dynamics, etc.). (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, July 13, 2008
We had the welcome dinner last night for our Summer Entry Program students. These students are admitted through a one-month intensive course, Introduction to Legal Studies. The course is graded and is a two-credit elective.
Each student is admitted through a competitive process for this small class which focuses on students whose admissions files suggest great potential to succeed in law schol, but whose LSAT scores are not among our highest ranks for the 1L class. Usually, these students have high undergraduate grade point averages and many other accomplishments.
Last night as administrators and faculty gathered to greet these students, there was a sense of excitement in the air. As everyone in the room introduced themselves, these new 1L's got to know us and vice versa. Each table had 1 or 2 SEP students with the other seats taken by those of us who were old hands (including three 2L Teaching Assistants who had previously been through SEP).
As I sit here in my office putting finishing touches on the first week's lecture and discussion materials, I feel that "new school year" glow. There is always something very energizing about new beginnings. There is so much promise and assuredness for all involved.
I spend several hours with them the first day discussing the differences between law school and other educational experiences and the changes that they will need to make in their study habits. By the end of the second day, most of the students will have realized that there is a great deal of reading and the standards are higher than in their prior education. The TA's do a review session before the first exam on Friday. However, the first exam is always a shock because it is comprehensive and requires analysis as well as memorization.
I'll spend next weekend grading. And then, I'll start meeting with each student to discuss the results. There will be stunned looks from those who never received any grades except "A's" before now. There are usually some tears. I'll spend a great deal of time giving encouragement and reminding each student that it is one grade in multiple grades over the next four weeks. In addition to my individualized attention and detailed comments on the exam, TA's will also provide individual tutoring for those students who did not grasp the material sufficiently.
Part of me wishes that I did not have to give grades. However, I also know that my students need feedback to understand what they have grasped and what they have not. So, I walk the line between the reality of their performance (if weak) and the importance of their realizing that they can succeed if they make the changes necessary to succeed.
I would feel better if all of the students who do poorly on the first exam do so because they did not take the week's work seriously; however, only a few of the poor grades result from that attitude. For most who receive their first bad grades, they made the same mistakes that professors see on fall practice exams. At least, I have the knowledge that they are learning lessons now which if taken to heart can help them succeed in the fall semester rather than end up on probation in January.
The SEP students have a special place in my heart because they are often from disadvantaged backgrounds - whether economically or educationally or both. When I watch them cross the stage at graduation, I feel like my own children are graduating. And, when I see them later as practicing attorneys, I feel an almost parental pride in their accomplishments.
So, the next four weeks are especially important to me because I want all of my SEP students to succeed. I'll easily work fifteen hours a day on class prep and grading. It will be exhausting. So, I plan to go home now and enjoy the last few hours of "the glow." (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Friday, July 4, 2008
I am sitting at a computer in the University of Edinburgh halls of residence at the moment. This week has been a busy one lecturing to Virginia attorneys on the legal system of England and Wales and attending lectures by Scottish and English legal experts. My "undercover" legal persona is as a Solicitor for England and Wales and professor for elective courses in Comparative Law and European Union.
As I have been explaining various legislative and constitutional reforms that have occurred in the last 18 years in England and Wales, I have been struck by how important it is for our students to have a global perspective. So often, they take the view that the American system is the only legitimate system and close their minds to other ways of doing legal business. We can always learn from others - whether we learn about our own strengths or about our own weaknesses or about the treands abroad.
The U.K. is about the size of Oregon. So, some of the aspects of the legal system would be totally impossible for our country. Some of the aspects have been reformed so that they are more modern now than the traditions of 900 years - even the traditionalists in the U.K. would concede that some of the reforms have worked well. An example of where we could probably learn a great deal is their independent judicial appointment system. The new systemhas tried to remove even further the political impact of the Government of the Day. Additional reforms will continue this change if the Constitutional Renewal Bill 2008 becomes law. We would want more legal profession input into the selection process, but it avoids our constant political blocking of judicial appointments on state and federal levels.
However, the reforms to the legal profession itself have been downright frightening. Why should we care? Because what has happened in the U.K. could happen in part to us. So as not to bore you, I shall just list some of the items that have changed or are under discussion:
- Self-regulation is under attack in the U.K. for all professions. The Law Society (solicitors) and Bar Council (barristers) no longer have regulatory powers over the lawyers. Independent regulatory agencies under their umbrellas now handle the complaints systems and discipline. These regulatory bodies also handle education and training of the split legal profession.
- A governmental Ombudsman audits the regulatory complaint system each year and fines the Law Society and Bar Council hundreds of thousands of pounds if the complaint system timeliness targets are not met - even if most are and improvements have been made.
- Government is currently discussing inroads on lawyer-client confidentiality.
- The Legal Services Commission required law firms and chambers who wanted to provide legal aid in civil matters to sign contracts that the LSC could alter at any time. The Law Society had to take the LSC to court to get the provision stopped. (Legal Aid is widely received for civil and criminal work and is the bread and butter of many firms/chambers.)
- The Legal Services Commission froze all criminal legal fees for legal aid at minimal levels so that complex cases would not be paid what they were worth. A threatened strike by the legal professionals and pressure from the Law Society and Bar Council have caused a compromise. However, fewer firms and chambers now do criminal legal aid. (There is currently no public defender system though some pilots are working.)
- The same governmental LSC has an Ombudsman who is currently proposing a naming and shaming stage in the disciplinary process (during the complaint rather than only after discipline).
- The new Legal Services Board that will begin next year under the Legal Services Act 2007 (that will have oversight of all legal services) will be made up of a majority of lay members and will have a lay chair. It will be able to interfere not only in discipline matters but also alternative business structures and many other areas.
- Consumerism and market competition rule in the U.K. system. "Value for money" drives government reforms and professionalism is a dirty word.
- Alternative business structures (ABS) under the LSA 2007 will mean that non-legal partners will be allowed ownership of legal firms/chambers up to 25%. However, the details on how to prevent interference of the partners in legal work have not been worked out - nothing more than a gentleman's agreement seems likely since regulation of these new partners is hard to work out.
- ABS means that other entities will be able to offer legal services. To put it in U.S. terms, think Walmart-law or AAA-law.
In the United States, the separate state system of bar associations would make these changes harder to implement. However, lawyers are unpopular in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. Consumerism is on the rise. And, some states are already having some similar discussions on some of these matters. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
I just returned from the AALS Workshop for New Law Prof. Overall, the conference was a success. I learned a great deal, digesting some especially good advice on scholarship and course planning. But I was struck, throughout the conference, by the almost complete lack of ASP professionals in attendance. The absolutely wonderful LSAC New ASP Prof workshop was just a few weeks ago, so I know there are 50+ new ASP prof's. While attendance at the very recent LSAC New ASP Prof workshop may explain some of the absence, it does not explain why I did not see any familiar faces at the AALS workshop.
The dearth of ASP prof's at the AALS workshop concerns me deeply for many reasons. The first reason has to do with our status in the legal academy, or our lack of status in the legal academy. Too often we are seen as lesser professionals, beneath "substantive" or "doctrinal" professors, more like support staff with J.D.'s. The lack of respect accorded our profession is compounded when we are left out of workshops and conferences that teach young professionals how to research and publish. Without knowledge of how to produce scholarship, AS may be forever doomed to second-class citizenship. More disconcerting is the genuine need for more scholarship in the areas where AS is focused; how to foster achievement in disadvantaged students, how help students pass the bar exam, how to teach so students learn, and how to reform legal education so we produce a better bench and bar. But AS professionals are not attending workshops and conferences that teach them how to produce meaningful, important scholarship.
Why aren't we attending these conferences and workshops for new law prof's? Part of the reason we are not afforded respect is the belief what we do is easy. "Easy" fields are less likely to get funding to advance skills or scholarship. But the facts point in the opposite direction; what we do is anything but easy. If helping students pass the bar was such an easy task, why aren't "doctrinal" professors successfully teaching students to pass the bar in their substantive classes? Bar prep, bar planning, and bar courses for credit are some of the most rigorous and difficult classes to teach when they are successful. Not only does a successful bar course require rock-solid knowledge of at least six bar-tested subjects, but a firm knowledge of test-taking skills, and includes a very heavy load of exam grading and feedback. Those of us who don't work with 3L's and bar takers have a similarly heavy load. We work with the students many professors give up on, students deemed unable to handle the rigors of law school. Over and over, these students succeed when given the opportunity to learn and practice skills their peers either know intuitively or learned in (better) secondary schools. In an average week during an academic semester, I grade and give feedback on approximately 20-40 essay exams. I am looking for signs that my students may have learning disabilities, mental or emotional challenges, financial problems, or family concerns that are keeping them from achieving their best. And I am keeping up with the substantive coursework in their doctrinal classes so I can prepare practice exams that accurately mirror what they have covered in class. I am preparing workshops for the entire 1L class in exam and life skills. Yet, in so many places, this is "easy" work that doesn't merit scholarship or funds to travel to conference and workshops like "substantive" faculty.
Maybe some of the reasons we are not attending these workshops and conferences is feeling like we don't belong and we are self-segregating out of conferences were we feel marginalized. The focus at AALS was on doctrinal courses, but there was plenty of cross-over to AS topics. True, the small-group breakout sessions were labeled by doctrinal subject and I was relegated to the "speciality" category, but I still had a place at the workshop. One of our own AS folk, Kris Knapland of Pepperdine, gave a wonderful presentation on learning theory. But we will never get an "ASP" breakout session if we are not attending the New Prof Workshop. We are a part of AALS, and we belong there. We need the same (and more) skills and training as new doctrinal professors, on how to navigate administrative and budget concerns, how to maintain a work-life balance, how to network, and how to have challenging conversations in the classroom or the office.
My call to all new AS professionals is this: advocate for yourself. Push for the training you need to succeed. Put critical conferences and workshops on your agenda when you talk to your supervisors. Pursue meaningful scholarship, even if you are not tenure-track. Scholarship is important to the field, important to your development as a professional, and important as we seek to improve legal education for all students.