Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Balancing academics and extracurricular activities

We have recently had our student organization fair for 1L students.  Board of Barristers is ending advanced competitions and is about to start its 1L competition soon.  Our daily announcements are full of organization meetings with interesting speakers.  Elections for class officers and student bar positions ended.  Pro bono activities have been announced as well.

Most law students were very active in a variety of organizations during college.  Many of them held multiple leadership positions concurrently.  They received academic accolades throughout their busy social and service schedules.  And on top, many of them also held down part-time or even full-time jobs.

The natural tendency for law students is to get involved.  They have been "doers" all of their lives.  High school graduates get into the colleges of their choice by being student leaders with solid academics.  College graduates get into the law schools of their choice by being student leaders with solid academics.  The resumes of our nation's law students are truly impressive.  Orientation speakers regularly extol their entering classes with statistics that they are the brightest group of 1Ls that law school has ever had.

It is not surprising that many law students plunge into the opportunities for leadership and service full-heartedly.  If they are married students, they often have a string of community activities added to their law school choices: assistant coach for a child's team; Sunday School teacher; Scout leader; and more. 

Despite warnings during orientation sessions that law school will be different than past educational experiences, it is hard for many law students to think that the warning applies to them.  Surely, it applies to other people who came with lesser grade point averages or fewer involvements.

When I talk with students in January who are unhappy with their grade point averages (whether or not they are actually on probation), I always ask them about involvements outside their academics.  Many of them list a multitude of commitments.  It is readily apparent that they were overextended in outside commitments and took their focus off their academics.  For 1L students, it is understandable that they do not realize the balance that they need to keep.  However, it is often upper-division students who make the same mistake.

I do not believe that law students need to be monks who never participate in anything outside the hallowed halls of the law library.  In fact, I often meet students who did nothing but study 24/7 but still did poorly in their academics.  So, having no outside interests also seems to result in less than desirable grades. 

The variable that makes the difference, I believe, is having a balance between academics and life outside the law school.  Students need to be involved in other pursuits than their grade point averages.  Students need to have outlets that are totally unrelated to academics.  However, they need to use moderation until they get into the swing with law school study strategies.

Here are some suggestions for law students to find the balance that will make them better people as well as better students:

  • Choose at least one student organization for which you have a real interest or passion.  Attend the meetings and social events regularly.  Not only will you meet others with similar interests, but you will have an outlet from studying.
  • Defer taking on any committee chairperson or officer positions until you have completed the first semester of law school and received your grades.  If your grades are below or near to the academic probation mark, defer such extra commitments until your grade point average has improved.
  • Once your grades are "safe," take on a committee or officer assignment about which you are excited and which will add to your enjoyment of law school.  If the tasks seem like drudgery, decline and volunteer to help in some other way.
  • Learn to delegate.  A good leader is able to let others help with the work and does not hoard tasks thinking s/he is the only one who can do them well.  Let your fellow members have the joy of serving and the opportunity of learning new skills.
  • Consider choosing at least one service opportunity in the community each semester.  By helping others, you will be grateful for the privilege of being in law school instead of bemoaning your miserable fate as a law student.
  • Remember that family is important.  You need to be there for family events and emergencies: your mother's heart surgery, your little sister's confirmation, your grandmother's 90th birthday party.  Plan your studying ahead when possible so that you can be with your family without jeopardizing your grades.
  • Realize your strengths and weaknesses.  Determine how much you can do and still reach your goals for law school.  Each person has a different capacity for balancing activities.  Make the choices that are right for you.  For one law student, it will be one major organizational position.  For another law student, it will be pro bono work rather than leadership positions.  For another, it will be family commitments.
  • Learn to study efficiently and effectively.  There are a multitude of study strategies that not only help you use your time more wisely but also help you get better results for your time.   

Law students who learn the skill of balancing their lives during law school will have better skills for balancing their lives in practice.  Isolation is not a positive choice.  Burn out is also not a positive choice.  My wish for every law student (and practitioner) is to have a balanced life with room for family, friends, fun, service, love, and work.  (Amy Jarmon)

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