Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

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)      

April 17, 2009 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cluttered thinking

I get frustrated when my students come to my office with a backpack overflowing with miscellanious papers of unknown origin spilling out of zippered pockets, unable to locate the one thing they came to my office to talk about.  I like to pretend I am an organized person. However, frequently it is my desk that is a stationary version of their backpack,  and I am the one who can not locate the paper I need to give the student.  I have found that the days when my desk is most chaotic are the days I suffer from most from cluttered thinking.  And students...frequently the reason they need to see me, with their overflowing backpack and stuffed pockets, is the result of cluttered thinking.

In our increasingly busy world, we are expected to have many balls in the air. As I have written previously, humans are not built that way. Multitasking is a myth; it's just doing many things poorly instead of one thing well.  A physical manifestation of that is the cluttered desk or the cluttered backpack. We pick up one task, only to be distracted by the other four that are screaming for our attention.  A student moves to put away their laptop, when the teacher passes out a handout, which has no natural "home," so it gets shoved to the bottom of the laptop case, where the student will not be able to find it when they are preparing their outline.

We aren't going to change culture any time soon. We need to find a way to manage our life without letting the clutter overwhelm us.  Physical clutter leads to or is the product of cluttered thinking. Cluttering thinking--including too many facts in a brief, monster outlines, disorganized essay exams--makes for an unhappy, unproductive law student. Amy has written some amazing posts about including too many facts in a brief (What Kind of Motor Vehicle is this Case? Feb. 27, 2009) and overly-inclusive outlines (Condensing Monster Outlines, March 23, 2009).  Here are some of the additional tips to help cut down on the clutter--both mental and physical--to help the thinking process:

1) One thing goes in the backpack (or on the desk) at a time. Credit for this goes to Professor Judy Stinson at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU.  Judy's desk is always immaculate.  She only has one thing on her desk at a time, and she puts away whatever she is working on before she leaves her office or moves on to another project. Everything has a logical, labeled home in Judy's office. The same principle can be applied to backpacks.  Don't shove everything into your backpack at once--you won't remember where you put important papers, and they are easily lost.  Everything that goes into a backpack should have a home; handouts to file folders labeled by class, each class should have it's own folder on a laptop or notebook section.  When a student has to dig into multiple places to find notes or handouts, they get distracted and it clutters their thinking when they should be focused on just one task. 

2) Only keep one webpage on your computer at a time.  Multiple windows are distracting, and it's too tempting to "just check email one more time" while researching or writing. By closing a window when you are done, you are less tempted to click to a webpage when you should be focused on the topic you are reading, researching, or writing. Even if you do receive an important email, you won't be able to attend to it if you are working on multiple projects at once, and you are more likely to write something that is too long, has too many facts, or leaves out information because your thinking became cluttered by extraneous information.

Keeping physical and mental clutter at bay is an ongoing process. It is not a natural thing for many of us, students and professors alike. But organizing your thinking by organizing your life leads to better work and a happier law student (or professor!)


April 16, 2009 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Helping Students "Let Go" of Academic Support

If you have a "formal" ASP for students in academic risk and ASP for the general student body, you are in dual mode right now; triage and separation.Triage for the students who had no academic risk factors, but come into your office in crisis; no outlines, no practice tests, maybe they have missed several classes.  We are trained to deal with these issues, even if there is no "magic bullet" to help students who have not done the needed work to achieve their best. 
But if you have a formal or institutionalized ASP for students who are at high risk due to poor first semester grades or other risk factors, this is the time to starting pushing the birdies out of the nest.  A formal ASP that is required per academic regulations, in the form of individual weekly meetings or a class, means most of the students knew they might not make it at the start of the semester.  Many of them spent weeks shell-shocked, unable to understand why they did not succeed.  Many of them form a dependency on ASP. This is not a negative thing when students need intensive help, because it brings them to your office to receive the skills training they need to succeed.  They form relationships with ASP professionals and staff, as well as their fellow students at academic risk if they are in a formal class. But these students also need to know that once they have internalized the skills lessons, done the hard work, and followed the advice, they need to know they can do it on their own.  Dependency turns sour when students feel they can't succeed without you; you can't be with them during exams, you can't be there with them when they take the bar, and you can't hold their hand in practice. They need to feel self-sufficient again, to know that one bad semester does not mean they are dumb or unable to master new skills without additional guidance.  To that end, there are some ways to help students "let go" of ASP:
1) Have the talk. Tell them it's time to try more exercises on their own, without your input.  Let them know you will always support them, but part of supporting them is making them self-sufficient.
2) Help them plan.  Some students need an explicit plan to help them see that they will be fine on their own. Plan when they will see you again, and what they should do in the interim. Make a triage plan in case they do panic; often the plan itself helps them through the process. 
3) Ween them. Spread apart your meetings.  If you have a class where you have been giving feedback on all assignments, provide global feedback, not line-by-line feedback.  Teach them as a class how to provide feedback to their peers, and give peer-graded assignments.  Ask them to critique their own work based on a rubric or a model answer. 
4) Brainstorm alternatives.  Help them find other areas of support. Many students are too ashamed at the start of the semester to talk to significant others and loved ones about their struggles, but now is the time to teach them how to relate and explain their challenges to those who will be in their lives long after law school.  It is critical that these students build support networks and learn to communicate their challenges without falling apart. We do students no favors by always providing the shoulder to cry on, because we can't be there after they leave law school. 

We all become attached to our students, but like good parents, we need to know when to let go.

April 14, 2009 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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)

April 13, 2009 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Director of Academic Success Position at Mercer University

The job posting for this Director of Academic Success Programs position can be found at the following link on the Mercer University web site: ASP Job Posting at Mercer University.   

April 13, 2009 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)