Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Oft-Forgotten Concern--Guest Column by Russell C. Smith

As we talk to students after first semester grades come out, I find that often I neglect to address one concern that I believe they all have, yet one that is not often expressed in our conversations with students.  We have no trouble focusing on grades, exam writing, study habits, briefing skills, etc.  Yet I find at the bottom of many of my students concerns, maybe subconsciously for some, lurk a couple of nagging questions.  If I am struggling academically, will I be a good lawyer?  Will I be able to make a living practicing law?  Embedded in these questions are perhaps the concern about repaying loans and living up to the expectations of others. 
    Students usually find some comfort when they realize that the correlation between academic performance and the potential for a successful practice career is not as strong as they might imagine.  I try to get students to think of the whole process of becoming a lawyer as hurdles to be jumped only once.  Once you’ve cleared the hurdles (LSAT, school, bar) then you’re at the finish line ready to practice and nobody really cares, particularly your clients, how difficult you found the hurdles.
    I usually tell students some true stories to help them with this concern.  We all know of students who struggled academically and then went on to fame and fortune or at least successful practices.  I share the stories of some people I know like this.  Also, we all know of superior academicians who, because of a lack of other skills, could never make a living as a practicing attorney.  In fact, some of these people would have trouble giving away legal service, let alone getting someone to pay them for it.  (If you are now thinking of some of the people you know in academia, shame on you!)   I practiced for ten years and never once did a client ask me what I made in evidence when deciding whether to hire me for a trial.  As an aside, I did hear a story of an assistant district attorney once who cited his performance in evidence class as authority for his argument regarding a piece of evidence.  The court was not persuaded.
    Students that struggle find some comfort in knowing many stellar legal careers have sprung from less than stellar law school performances.  Even if this is not verbalized by the student, I think most of the time they have concerns about their ability to practice and make a living.  It is a worry that we can help to alleviate.  And after all, every thing that we can help students become comfortable with is likely to take them to a better place, both emotionally and academically.

Russell C. Smith
Assistant Dean for Student Services

Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law
Campbell Law School
Buies Creek, NC

January 16, 2009 in Advice, Guest Column, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why did I ever go to law school?

As Liz stated in her wonderful posting yesterday, our minds are with our students who are struggling right now.  My posting below follows up on her theme.

Students are showing up in my office with the above question on their lips.  They generally fall into two categories.  Some ask because their grades are less than adequate in their eyes (and in some cases are actually probation grades).  For others, it is the thought of facing another semester of hard work and stress when they have begun to have doubts.

It would be easy to plunge in to a "Dean Fix-it" mode right away.  After all, we ASP types know lots of techniques and strategies and can usually see what needs to be "worked on" by each student.  Instead, I bite my tongue initially (fortunately, not all the way through yet), listen, and nod as the student tells me all about it.

The first thing most of my students want is the knowledge that somebody cares about how they are feeling.  My office is one of the places where they can check their machismo play-acting at the door.

The second thing most of my students want is the realization that no matter how embarrassed they are about their performing badly or questioning whether law school is still their goal, I do not judge them.  Life is full of obstacles and doubts.  My job is to help them move forward.

The third thing most of my students want is reassurance that they are not the only ones who have ever felt this way about grades or law school.  They are not failures though they may have failed or nearly failed courses.  They are not aberrant members of society if law school is no longer appealing. 

Finally, they want the reassurance that there are strategies and techniques that we can work on together that should be able to improve their grades and get them back on track if law is still their dream.  I am not a miracle worker.  But, I have seen students blessed with miracles when they worked exceedingly hard.  Does that mean that every student will make it?  No, but it means that I no longer think that I know which ones will or will not. 

[Of course, there are some students who definitely do not want to continue to pursue a law degree.  There are a few that statistically should not unless the law school has policies that provide options.  I help these types of students weigh the pros and cons, make a plan if they decide to withdraw or to stay, and believe in themselves after the decision.  If they stay, they need to know that I shall work 110% to help them (and expect them to do the same).  If they walk away, they need to know that law is not for everyone and that there is a life (and success and joy) outside law school.]

"Why did I ever go to law school?"  One of the reasons that I understand the question is because I asked it myself a few times during the process.  Fortunately for me, it was soul searching rather than grades that prompted the question.  However, the question was scary just the same.  (Amy Jarmon) 

January 14, 2009 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Feel Your Pain-Well, Now I Do....

My son's goldfish, Max, died yesterday.  Ben never seemed all that interested in him after the first few days and we were happy that we got our 13 cents worth of finny fun from him in that time alone.  Max was with us for about 6 weeks, but yesterday he was floating sideways in his little tank and was disposed of with all the pomp and flushing such an event requires.  But we didn't tell Ben last night and we didn't really think he would notice.  We were wrong.  This morning he came running into our room, "where's Max?"  Well, um, we stuttered, Max was sick and he couldn't swim anymore, but we can go to the pet store and get a new Max over the weekend.  Well, that was the wrong answer.  "I want the real Max back.  I don't want another Max; if I get another fish, he will have to have a new name because he will not be the real Max."  Then the tears--big, tragic, three-year-old tears--he was really and truly heartbroken.  We were surprised and a little ashamed that we assumed, wrongly, it wouldn't have much of an impact on him.

The first years here got (most of) their grades on Friday.  And I have seen my share of big, tragic, 22-25 year-old tears.  I was a little baffled when I realized that some of these students were crying about B's.  We have a B- grading curve here, so B's are actually considered above the pack-certainly not the kind of grades that will get you into academic hot water later on. 

I was as tempted to be dismissive of the students' angst over these grades as I was over the death of the 13 cent fish, but I realized that I had to take a step back and really listen to these students before I decided that they were being overly histrionic.  Some of these students have always been A students in prior educational settings; some have scholarships that are contingent on a certain GPA.  Either way, they have always defined themselves as smart, "good student" types.  To these students, a B can really shake the foundation of their self-definition--their very being.

We in Academic Support know that somewhere in the first year of law school, a student can get separated from the person they were--and the goals that they had--before they came to law school.  Grades that are unexpectedly bad (even if not objectively bad) can sometimes be the nail in the coffin of a student's prior persona.  This is scary stuff, especially when students are looking at two and half more years of school.

I find that reminding students to keep the grades in perspective helps.  Students need to know that while the grades are important (I can't tell them that the grades are not important, would you trust me if I did?); they are only important in their context and no other.  Your law school grades are not indicative of your worth as: a person, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a parent or even a fish owner.  You will most likely go on, not only to finish law school successfully, but to be a good lawyer.  Your grades are only indicative of how well you were able to communicate your skills in a particular area of law, to one professor, in a two to three hour period, on one day.

This is not to say that I don't offer advice and guidance on how to do it better next time-mere comfort without future planning is an incomplete response to these issues.  I do a post-mortem with students on the exams that includes asking:  how did you study?  with whom? how did you feel the morning (or evening) of the exam?  how did you spend your time during the exam?  did you run out of time? and most importantly, have you spoken with your professor?  I offer appointments throughout the semester at regular intervals and exercises that can be done now to help get ready for spring exams.  And above all, I offer tissues and chocolate. 

In the end, my response needs to be the same for any student who is disappointed or even shocked by their midterm grades.  Even if those grades will not effect their academic standing down the road, a student's human standing is just as important. 

As for Max, may he float in peace. (ezs)

January 13, 2009 in Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Moving away from large lectures

While this article is about MIT's move away from large lectures in introductory physics, the rationale behind the change is applicable to law schools. MIT has moved away from introductory classes in physics with 300+ students, and failure rates have decreased 50%.  Attendance is up. 

Most applicable to law schools is a quotation by Prof. Eric Mazur:
“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”

Just as you cannot learn to think like a lawyer by watching your teacher do it.  (RCF)

At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard

By Sara Rimer
January 12, 2009
New York Times

After years of debate and research, M.I.T. has replaced a large introductory physics course with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive learning.

January 13, 2009 in News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Notes from AALS ASP Business Meeting

(Please note: any errors are mine. If I made any egregious errors, let me know and I will fix. RCF)

Meeting of ASP Academic Support Business Meeting

January 7, 2009

Start of meeting: 6:25 pm

Kris Franklin: open meeting

Discussion of conflict with Balance in Legal Education Business Meeting. Motion to join the Balance business meeting was tabled until we addressed unique ASP issues.

Usually business meeting is held at close of the session, this is a change from previous years because we wanted an opportunity to talk with one another during a meeting when so many ASP folks are in one place.

First order of business: Last year, a number of committees were formed and met. They did a lot. Brief reports from the committees:

Bar Passage Committee: Many members, including the leader of the committee could not make it to the meeting. As a committee, they put together a letter regarding bar passage, that was not adopted, but there was a positive response to the letter. Move to continue the meeting.

Program Committee: Thank you to those presenting, did a wonderful job this year on the joint session with Teaching Methods. Thank you Vinita and Robin.

Website Committee: Started to help “jump-off” from Barbara Glesner-Fines website that we have been using as a group for some time. This year, AALS will be building a website for each section. Additionally, RuthAnn McKinney is creating an ASP resource website through LSAC, which is going “swimmingly”. Decision to wait and see what else is going on before we go forward and expend additional resources on a website.

Nominations Committee: Pavel is moving onto Chair, Kris is moving to immediate past chair, replacing Nancy Soonpaa. This moves Kristin Holmquist to chair-elect, Mike Swartz to secretary, Robin to treasurer, and moves onto and among the board members:

2009-2010 Slate:

Officers, serving one year terms:

Chair: Pavel Wonsowicz—UCLA Law

Chair Elect—Kristin Holmquist--Berkeley Law School

Secretary--Michael Hunter Schwartz—Washburn Law

Treasurer—Robin Boyle—St. John’s Law

Executive Committee Board Members:

Board A (expiry 2011)—Paula Manning—Whittier Law School

Board B (expiry 2011)—Rebecca Flanagan—Vermont Law School

Board C (expiry 2010)—Jeff Minetti—

Stetson Law


Board D (expiry 2010)—LaRasz Moody—Villanova Law (filling the seat vacated by Vinita Bali)

Kris Franklin moved to accept the board. Seconded. Kris moved to accept nominations from the floor. No nominations from the floor were put forward. Move to accept new board. Voted; Congratulation to the new board.

Carry-over business from 2009 business meeting:
Suggestion from last year—creation of a section award to recognize those who serve in ASP and have done extraordinary things for the field. The idea was put through the listserv as well as discussed at the meeting last year. There was some consternation about singling out one or two people when so many people are doing so many wonderful things; it doesn’t feel “ASP-ish.” A committee was formed that was favorable to creation of such an award. A draft has been circulated among the board, however, the AALS Executive Committee must approve. Because of this, the award can only be provisionally adopted at this point.

Commentary from the Award Committee—Jeff Minetti
Only three people responded from the listserv. Thank you to Barbara McFarland for her had work on this issue. The committee felt it was time to start honoring those who made significant contributions to ASP. Discussion of by-laws and how to approve the award. Discussion of what was meant by “present for quorum” in the bylaws, and how to approve such an award.

Barbara McFarland
Should note that the committee was not “balanced”; because those who volunteered for the awards committee were those in favor of creating the award.

Alison Nissen
This is one more thing, along with student support, to honor us, and additionally benefit our students when we are recognized for the work we do with them.

Jeff Minetti
This award will help us decide who we are as a field by recognizing who is the very best among us.

Kris Franklin moved that this year’s board tinker with the details on the award and get started. All in favor, vote was unanimous.

Open topics:
Should we have a section newsletter?
The Learning Curve hasn’t come out in a while, and isn’t an “official” newsletter of this section. Ken Rosenblum, as a past editor of The Learning Curve, volunteered to assist getting The Learning Curve started again. Noted that Hillary Burgess is working with David Nadvorney to get things started again. Also noted that we should be making repeated appeals for articles for a new issue of The Learning Curve by everyone in ASP. At this time, no new section newsletter was approved.

Transition to new chair: Pavel Wonsowicz

Continue with the nominating committee. Noted by Ken Rosenblum that this committee is actually required by the AALS bylaws. If chose t be on the nominating committee, cannot seek or accept an executive position while serving on the nominating committee.

Bar Passage Committee: Paula Manning noted that a number of people committed electronically to continuing the committee. If others want to join, contact Paula Manning, “the more the merrier.”

Planning Committee: Robin Boyle has served as the head of the planning committee for three years; Vinita would have taken over but has moved on from ASP. Emily Randon of UC-Davis volunteered to take over for Robin, with Robin’s wise assistance, Kathy Garcia, Hillary Hoffman, and Barbara McFarland also volunteered for the planning committee.

Joanne Koren noted how it was wonderful to combine with another section. This year ASP combined with teaching methods for a joint session at annual meeting, maybe explore joint session with Balance in Legal Education?

Kris Franklin moved to discuss whether to continue with the ASP breakfast. There is significant concern over the cost of the section breakfast.


LSAC National Meeting will be Wednesday June 3-June 6 at St. Louis University.  Barbara McFarland received approved from her Dean to host a small regional ASP meeting at Northern Kentucky. Contact Barbara if interested. The proposed date is immediately after the LSAC National conference to provide an opportunity to share materials with those that cannot attend.

Emily Randon solicited interested people for a western regional ASP meeting. Contact Emily if you want to get involved.  They will meet tonight after the meeting to organize.

No further business-Meeting adjoined.


January 12, 2009 in Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)