Thursday, February 10, 2011

ASP (and legal writing!) reaching out to pre-law advisors/faculty

I will probably write a much longer law review/journal piece on this topic, but I think it's something that ASPer's can start thinking about now.

I live in two worlds. I teach an ASP course at UConn Law School, and I am the undergrad pre-law specialist. My experience in the pre-law world has been informed by my time as a full-time ASPer. The first time I attended a large conference of pre-law advisers and faculty, I was surprised by how few had JD's. Many advisers don't just advise pre-law students, but advise all pre-professional programs, or are a part of career services. While far more pre-law faculty have JD's, many of them are PhD's in Political Science or History. This is not a criticism of pre-law advisers or faculty; I have learned tremendous amounts from them, and many of them are excellent at what they do.

As ASPer's, we spend our days working with and thinking about what makes a successful law student. We see the characteristics of students who do not succeed, and we can usually recognize issues before the student knows it will be a problem. However, few of us reach out to undergraduate pre-law advisers to share what we know about what makes a successful law student. There are some ASPer's who are actively involved in undergraduate pre-law studies; my co-editor, Amy Jarmon, works with Tech's program, Corie Rosen works with ASU's undergraduate population, and I know a few ASPer's spoke to a pre-law gathering a year ago.

For many, it seems to be an issue of knowing who to reach out to, and at what school. Pre-law advisers as a rule don't know who to reach out to at the law school level, but it's easier for an ASPer to locate a pre-law adviser or faculty. Any school is a good school to reach out to, although many law schools are connected to or on the campus of a larger undergraduate university.

The message many pre-law advisers hear is that a broad-based liberal arts or business education is the best preparation for law school, and that any major can go to law school. That is correct, but incomplete, information. Students need to know how to write analytically and read critically to succeed in law school. Just because a student majors in English doesn't mean they know how to do read critically, and being an Engineering major doesn't mean that they don't have excellent critical reading skills. It's not the major, it's the skills. Pre-law advisers could provide much more guidance to their students if they understood the skills necessary for success. Students can acquire these skills in any major, in any college, but they have to carefully choose their classes. Many pre-law students avoid the classes that will give them these skills because they are hard classes, and they would prefer to maximize their GPA. I explain to my students that maximizing their GPA won't be as helpful as having the skills to succeed in law school, when the stakes are much higher, and the job you get will depend on how well you do in school.

I deal with this everyday at UConn. Law students need problem-solving skills, with a heavy emphasis on analytical reasoning. One of the best classes for this is in the Math department, in a class called "Problem Solving". My students avoid this class like the plague. They choose the pre-law track because they hate math. However, the problem solving class involves a lot of critical reading, and doesn't involve a lot of numbers or symbols. It is the best class to prepare students for the LSAT, along with the Logic classes in the Philosophy department. All students at UConn need to take a minimum of three math classes (called Q classes), and at least one Philosophy class, regardless of major. Pre-law students try to take what they perceive to be easier Q and philosophy classes, ones that have more of a focus on introductory math skills and philosophy in history. But these classes do not prepare students as well as classes that focus on analytical skills.

It is the same in almost all majors. I strongly advise students to take grammar, poetry, and rhetoric classes in the English department. They are three of the tougher courses in the English department, because they grade writing skill as well as content. They avoid all classes using the case method in the History or Political Science departments, because cases are difficult to understand. They run from econ classes because they fear econ will be too much like math.

I am not criticizing my students. They receive an overwhelming message that grades and LSAT are all that matter, thanks to for-profit websites and commercial LSAT prep programs. They worry about getting into law school, not succeeding once they are in law school. When I sit down and explain why skills are important, how to get them, and the importance of doing well in law school, they listen. For some, it takes more coaxing then others, but the majority will take some if not all of the tougher skills classes I recommend. Like many non-JD pre-law advisers, many students don't have the information to make an informed decision. Armed with the right information, they make smart choices. Which leads to better law students.

As ASP professionals, we know so much, and we have so much to give back. Far fewer students would be struggling academically if they had a pre-law adviser or faculty member who could steer them to the right classes that focus on the type of skills they need to succeed in law school. (RCF)

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