March 4, 2010
Settling for bronze, striving for silver, going for gold
Several law students were chatting with me this week and noted that most law students are divided into three categories: those who are satisfied to get just C's; those who are striving to do better than last semester's grades; and those who have done well in the past and believe that they will continue to do so.
With the recent Winter Olympics, I automatically started thinking about these categories in relation to the three levels of medals at the ceremonies. However, I would add a fourth category for those students who are "in training" for the qualifying rounds before the medal categories.
Training for the qualifying rounds: These students are those whose fall performance was far under the minimal academic standard but who were allowed to continue on probation (example, at schools where no one is dismissed after the first semester and given the full year to meet the standards). Many of these students will be able to turn around their academics with assistance from academic support. However, some will be enormously challenged by their very weak fall grades and mathematically will still be below standard.
For some of them, they came to law school with minimal study habits because A's and B's came easily in undergraduate school with little studying. They are learning how to study now for the first time.
For some of them, they just did not apply themselves during fall semester until too late and found that they could not learn it all in time for the exams. They are taking it all more seriously this time around.
For a few, they just took longer learning how to "think and write like lawyers." Now that it has clicked for them, it will get easier.
Settling for bronze: These students are content to stay with their current achievement of C's. They have consciously decided that they will not seek A's and B's. They see themselves as excelling beyond their classmates on probation, staying "safe" above the academic standards, and accepting their status as the "third quartile" of the class. Why do these students settle for bronze?
For some students, it is discouragement after fall semester (for 1L's) or consecutive semesters (for upper-division students). They have decided that they will never be more than C students in law school. Their performance did not live up to all their hard work last semester so improvement is seen as unattainable. They often talk about the "curve" being against them. Most of these students could in fact get B's and probably A's if they became more efficient and effective in their studying and incorporated new study techniques.
For some students, it is a lifestyle decision. Family commitments, part-time work, devotion to a particular student organization, or devotion to an outside passion may support the decision. Even these students may improve their grades without sacrificing life balance if they became more efficient and effective and adopted new strategies.
For a few, it may be a lack of willingness to work any harder than they did in their undergraduate experience. They simply do not want to study the number of hours necessary to increase their grade point average in law school. These students may respond to discussions of strategies with "I don't really want to work that hard; what is the shortcut that I can take."
Striving for silver: These students are motivated to move forward in their academics. They believe that they can make positive improvements in time management, study skills, and exam writing to do better than the past semester. They want to "go into training" to hone their skills. They are focused on a new goal. They evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, ask for coaching, and get to work. Why do these students strive for silver?
For some students, it is a matter of pride. They know they have greater academic potential than they have shown. They want to master law school studying and improve so that they succeed in their own eyes. The competition is often internal rather than focused on how others have done.
For some of these students, it relates to a goal of being the best lawyer that they can be. They know that striving for improvement will have payoff for the bar exam and in practice. They believe in themselves and in their ultimate role in society.
Some of the students in this group will actually be those currently on probation whose grade points are damaged but not irretrievable. They will not only get off probation; they will achieve a major jump in grade point that will put distance between them and the minimal academic standard. Some of them will then set their sights on going for gold in future semesters.
Going for gold: These students did well in the fall semester and have the afterglow of academic success. Many will continue their hard work because they want to replicate the achievement. They will use their confidence to push themselves to hone their skills and again come out on top. These students are the gold medalists who achieve their best semester after semester.
However, a few in this group of initial "gold medalists" will be overtaken by other classmates because they will become too smug at their standing and assume that they cannot be bumped from the top spots. As in the Olympics, the "best" are not automatically secure and should avoid resting on their laurels. Hard work and focus are still needed if one is to improve and stay at the very top.
The important thing to remember about law students is that whether they are training for the qualifying rounds or among the bronze, silver, or gold medalists, they were still the cream of the crop of our applicants. They are highly intelligent and have a history of success prior to law school. Some may not continue in law school next semester by their own choice or for academic standard reasons. Those who leave will still have successful and productive lives, just not in law.
For those who continue and graduate, many will pass the bar on the first attempt. Most will have competent and respectable careers. And, they may replicate their status while in law school or they may excel far beyond it. Academics do not always predict success in the "real world" of practice. New criteria in the work world may reconfigure where they are in the ranks of attorneys. (Amy Jarmon)
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