Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Thoughts on Law School for Non-Traditional Students

Whether they are attending full-time or part-time law programs, non-traditional students with families have some unique challenges.  Unlike the single law student who can choose when to study and how long to study without considering others, the non-traditional law student is always balancing other lives in the law-school scenario.

Consequently, the spouses or children are also "going to law school."  They are as much a part of the experience as the law student.  For that reason, the law student and family members have to be committed equally to the process.  There have to be communication, compromise, and courage from all concerned for the law school experience to be successful both academically and personally.

First and foremost, the non-traditional law student has to decide that sacrificing the marriage/partnership or the children is not an option.  Family matters.  Divorce from a spouse or behavioral problems for the children should not be the outcomes of law school.  

So, how can the non-traditional student with family manage law school and family without faltering on either component.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Agree with family ahead of time as to the commitment that everyone has to this career path.  If it is not the right time for the family, then delay may need to be chosen.  There may never be a "perfect time," but some times are definitely more conducive than others for going to law school.
  • Discuss compromises and workload shifts that may be necessary.  Consider the following:
    • What effect on finances will occur because of law school?
    • What changes in lifestyle will be required?  Moving to another city?  Finding another job for the spouse?  Downsizing to an apartment?  Moving schools for children?  Altering childcare arrangements?   
    • What changes in family time may be necessary?  How can quality time be increased even if quantity is decreased?
    • What changes may be needed in family schedules to accommodate law school?  When will meals be scheduled?  When can quiet time for studying be scheduled?  How much time will older children be responsible for themselves and possibly for younger siblings? 
    • What changes may be necessary as far as distribution of chores?
    • What changes may be necessary as far as community organizations and social time with already established friends?
  • Realize that everyone will need to remain flexible as law school is experienced.  Until one is in law school, one cannot anticipate every challenge.  First year is often very different from second and third years because of the newness of the workload and study methods.
  • Explain to close friends and relatives why law school will be different and how they can help.  It will take them time to adjust to seeing less of the law student.  Avoid letting guilt interfere with what must be done academically.  If necessary schedule time for these folks that fits a necessary study schedule (but do not tell them they are being scheduled!).  
  • Attend any Orientation programs, panels, and social events that are provided for non-traditional law students.  These program aspects often provide tips and support for the family members as well as the law student.
  • Work with the Academic Support staff member at the law school on time management to come up with an optimal schedule that includes lots of quality study time with quality family time.  Put a copy on the refrigerator so that the family knows when their law student is in class, studying, or available for fun.
  • Work with the Academic Support staff member at the law school to become the most efficient and effective law student possible.  Being efficient and effective is different from taking shortcuts.  There are many strategies for getting the best results from studying in the least amount of time (effective and efficient).  Shortcuts are cutting corners for less results in less time.
  • Determine the best places to study for the specific family situation:
    • at the law school so home time is for family
    • in a separate den or study at home
    • after work at the office on non-class evenings (if part-time)
    • some combination.
  • Realize that the law student may initially have to withdraw from some community obligations or at least not take on new obligations.  A Little League coach may need to become an assistant coach or an enthusiastic spectator.  A Girl Scouts leader may need to become the back-up rather than the leader.  Teaching a new Bible Study may need to be delayed until summer or passed to someone else.
  • For married and partner relationships:
    • join the law school's student organization for families
    • attend the organization's social events and meetings to gain a support system
    • find out if the organization provides childsitting, meal swapping, or other services
    • ask for help if relatives live nearby.
  • For single parents:
    • investigate that law student organization for families as mentioned in the list above
    • get to know neighbors who may be able to "pitch in" if a class or study group runs late
    • find out what school and community clubs and teams are available for after-school activities
    • befriend other law students who are child friendly and will help if the student lounge is the only place a child can wait until a law class is over
    • ask for help if relatives live nearby.
  • For children old enough to understand the importance of study time:
    • remember that their law student is now their role model for the importance of education
    • explain how they can help in their law student's academic success
    • consider having older children help in study tasks such as drilling with flashcards, discussing interesting cases, or other tasks
    • provide quality time for them to have one-on-one time to discuss their own academics and interests.
  • For children too young to understand the importance of study time:
    • swap child-sitting time with a neighbor or another law student to gain quality study time in blocks
    • provide games, videos, and other amusements to gain some study time
    • take breaks with the children as a reward for their letting you complete tasks
    • come up with a child friendly way to let them know when studying is in progress (one family set up a red light, yellow light, green light system on the parent's home office door)
    • squeeze in studying during nap time and after bed time for the children
    • provide quality one-on-one time when they know nothing else is the focus. 
  • Law students who will be working full-time will have that additional time commitment.  A boss committed to the degree is a real boon.  Co-workers committed to the degree are also a plus.  Planning ahead is essential:
    • vacation time for exam studying,
    • flexible hours to match class times, 
    • project distribution and deadline flexibility, 
    • permission to use "down periods" for studying.

Non-traditional law students are used to succeeding effortlessly in careers.  Many of them will have completed other graduate degrees before law school.  Most have outstanding records of community service. 

Some of them will mesh into the law routine without problems.  Others will find the changes daunting at first.  Most will find that their families' adjustments may be harder because law school is not easy to understand if one is not in it.  Flexibility, perserverence, and love can pull all of them through the experience and make that walk across the stage a family celebration.  (Amy Jarmon)      

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