Saturday, August 6, 2011
Warning: this post is too long. Can we blame it on Amy? Thanks. Writing about stress a few days ago, Amy Jarmon suggested that our law students need to learn how to manage stress early in their careers. Hoorah, Amy! Yes, “…early in their careers…” is now.
If there is one universal and outstanding surprise to the new academic support professional it is this: it’s not all about showing students how to brief cases, read like lawyers, or handle study groups. There’s SO much more to academic support than that. I have had colleagues who (sort of) complained that they didn’t have enough time to get to the core skills (reading, briefing, note-taking, etc.) because they were inundated with requests – overt or subtle – to help cope with the meta-skills of handling time and stress.
Even more surprising (and here, I certainly include me as a surprisee in the first few years of academic supporting) is the fact that so many students honestly believe the road to success in law school is paved with formats for briefing, IRAC structures for exam writing, speed-reading techniques, quick and efficient course outline production methods, and fail-safe study strategies. Yup, those are important topics to cover. But they’re worthless if one does not (borrowing from Amy’s list) . . .
- Manage time carefully. Every student in this incoming first-year class has exactly one thing in common: 168 hours to use to his or her best advantage each week. If a student spends 8 hours each night sleeping – almost essential for most, and the first time rule to be broken by nearly every first-year student – that leaves 112 for studying law and handling the “other parts” of life. If one were to work a 65-hour week at law (not unlike many lawyers), that would leave 47 hours for exercise, church, shopping, cooking, eating, entertainment, _____, _____, and friends & family time. (Two blanks is enough, don’t you think?) Not bad. When you break the individual tasks associated with being a great law student down into their chunks, you can usually show students how 65 (okay, 70?) hours ought to be more than enough time to get the job done very well. More than forty hours completely away from the law is essential each week to maintain recognizable sanity. If students can learn to work within a framework similar to that, many of the time management issues will resolve.
- Recognize and minimize procrastination. I advise students to put off thinking about procrastination.
- Follow optimal sleep, exercise, and nutrition routines. Can you imagine hiring a lawyer who never slept a full night’s sleep, seldom left the office chair, and (remember: you are what you eat) lived on a diet of beer and junk food? Good luck I hope your lawyer isn’t representing you for anything important.
- Keep in touch with friends and family. Duh. Those who have loved you and supported you much or all of your life … uh, let’s see … could contact with them possibly help keep your head screwed on straight? But there’s more to it than that. The non-law-oriented spouse or significant other of a law student is in for some tough times. And the last one to notice the “change” in the law student’s behavior is (guess who) the law student. So all law students who have many hours of contact per week with someone who loves them but does not necessarily love the law need to receive some pretty strong advice about how to relate … and the non-student half of that equation needs a support group of some type as well (“No,” I have told some unfortunate adults in that position, “it’s not just you, and it’s not just her … it’s … it’s … well, it’s bigger than both of you – but you can handle it. You just need to know what to expect and how to get the job done. Love works.” (Sorry, I sometimes get carried away.)
- Talk to someone about the stress. Too many students find that most qualified people to talk to about stress is (either or both) their bartender or their equally stressed law student friends. Too few visit their Dean of Students, Academic Support professionals, law-school savvy psychologists, or other professionals who can support them and/or refer them. They need the way to these offices highlighted … like those little lights that the flight attendant promises will come on in case of an emergency to show you the way to the emergency exists. (Unfortunately, taping those yellow paper footprints to the corridor carpets is frowned upon by the Dean, and seldom works anyway.)
Help students realize that the “practice” of law begins near Orientation day. Help them (perhaps through a guest speaker or two at Orientation or soon after) realize that the pressures and stresses of law school (generally) pale when compared with those of the professional practice. “What you are practicing, students,” they need to know, “is less about how to revise a contract, and more about how to balance/juggle thirty things that need to be done during a day – with no possibility of ‘forgiveness’ if they are not all completed, and completed at your highest level of capability.” Would you hire a lawyer who settled for less?
Does this suggest that a trip to the gym for a 30-minute swim or a one-hour yoga class is more important than an hour in the library briefing a couple of torts cases? Not really … but it sure is meant to suggest that either one without the other will not lead to a student’s performance at his or her highest level of competence.
Teaching time and stress management ought to be a high priority in every academic support program. If the professionals in the department can’t teach it … by talk, by counseling, and most of all, by example … they ought to bring in those who can as guests. But … as you well know … he/she who is most stressed has no time to attend that guest presentation. And if you don’t believe that, stop by the cafeteria or the local pub later in the day and he or she will tell you.
We are not obliged to make every law student the best law student that person can be. But I think we are obliged to try as hard as we can to do just that. Your thoughts? (djt)