Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, April 13, 2009

How May I Help?

Hi, folks. Happy spring.  Where I live, it’s happy autumn. The seasons in South America are the opposite of the seasons in North America.  So are the school semesters, of course. But here, in Uruguay, that doesn’t concern me – because, although I teach, I teach in the United States.  Sort of.  I work for Concord Law School, the nation’s first fully online law school.

Although Concord is not accredited by the ABA, our students are allowed to sit for the California State Bar after first passing the California First Year Law Student Examination. Concord graduates have also sat for the bar exam under various state bar admission rules in Washington, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.  In March 2008, four graduates of Concord became the school's first group of attorneys to be admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

When I began this Law School Academic Support Blog several years ago with Rich Litvin, I wrote from the point of view of one who engaged students face-to-face, either one-to-one in my office or in groups – in class, or in academic support information sessions.  Since leaving Roger Williams School of Law in 2007, I have “met” all my students only anonymously.  Other than some limited bar exam preparation efforts, my function at Concord is exclusively this: I read, comment upon, and grade examinations in six subjects.  

No longer do I teach students how to brief cases, take class notes, maximize their study time each semester, or juggle their family/work/school schedules. The law school has a fine staff of professionals dealing with those areas. I focus on those one-hour essay questions.

With the availability of online research tools, faculty advice, sample answers, and my archive of my own past essay exam comments, I am able to provide each student with a personalized critique – including both the “good” and the “bad” (no “ugly”) – of each exam effort, offering approbation, explaining misunderstood legal points, and suggesting methods of preparing for and writing essay exam answers.  The time it takes to adequately provide meaningful assistance like this varies.  I don’t believe I’ve ever spent less than a half-hour providing feedback on an essay answer; many have taken more than an hour.  All of my work is reviewed by the professor teaching the course then edited if necessary (thank goodness!).

The burden placed on an academic support individual at a typical law school includes providing a panoply of services to hundreds of students.  Individual meaningful attention is a luxury, often not affordable on a continuing basis.  One of the most powerful tools in the academic support toolbox is this: immediate personal feedback on a student’s essay exam effort.  Unfortunately, providing this requires such dedicated faculty buy-in (not only in theory, but in practice, by providing examination questions and sample answers, as well as review and assistance) and so many hours of labor, that it is virtually impossible on a grand scale in a typical law school. 

At Concord Law School, each semester includes three of these “feedback” essay exams per subject.  At your school, with an entering class of (for example) 200, with four substantive classes in the fall, that would mean providing feedback on 2,400 essays. Averaging 45 minutes each, that would take 1800 hours.  Because significant exam feedback can only be given after a few weeks of school and before exam study time, those 1800 hours would be limited to about 8 weeks of the semester.  That’s 225 hours per week.  Don’t attempt that.  It’s too stressful.  Concord accomplishes this miracle with a large staff and several semester start dates per year.

What a joy it is to be part of this effort!  Sure, I miss the group sessions, the hallway encounters, the one-to-one discussions; I miss the happy faces of successful or at least hopeful students; and (yes) even the sad faces of the discouraged ones.  But providing this level of individual assistance is a real pleasure.

Now – why am I telling you all of this?  Aha.  For one reason only.  Even though I’m a Contributing Editor to this blog, I have not been contributing to the Academic Support Blog for quite a while.  I have been reading it, and remain continually impressed with the high level of advice, encouragement, and all around supportive information and guidance offered each week.  No longer am I in a position to offer expert advice like Amy Jarmon’s “Rewards as Motivators” (April 8) or Rebecca Flanagan’s thoughtful piece on multi-tasking (November 7) – topics like these are better addressed by those front-line experts who deal with those issues daily.

But I can talk and write about exam-answering.  That’s been my sole focus for two years now.  The exam tips, strategies, methods of critiquing, and so on that I employ on a daily basis come from recipes devised by those on whose shoulders we all stand.  Had it not been for reading the books and articles many of you have written, by reading the entries in this and other blogs, by learning from my mentors at Concord Law School, and by soaking up the wealth of knowledge offered freely at the national and regional LSAC academic support conferences over the years, I wouldn’t know beans about this stuff.  I don’t have many “new” ideas.  But what I’ve got, I’m happy to share.

So here’s the deal: let me know if/how I can help.  Especially if you’re somewhat new in this field of helping law students become lawyers, I may be able to offer some advice that will help your effectiveness quotient. 

Best bet? Send me questions by email.  Pepper me with suggestions about topics. I’m in Uruguay.  My email is:  I hope to hear from some of you. I’m hoping your questions will generate some thoughts that will result in some blog entries!  (djt)

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