Friday, August 3, 2012

The Art of Reading Carefully

A persistent problem with some of my law students is that they do not read carefully.  It troubles me that this problem seems to cut across class years and class ranks and appears to be getting more wide-spread. 

So much of our lives as attorneys revolves around tasks that call for precision.  If our students do not learn to be more precise during law school, how are they going to excell in their work?

I am not talking about common first-year mistakes in understanding cases.  I am talking about students who simply never learned to read with care.  Here are some examples:

  • Students regularly ask professors questions that were covered in detail in class syllabi.
  • Students do not follow instructions on an assignment or exam even when clearly provided.
  • Students are asked to read a document carefully, but come to class with only a gist of that document.
  • Students do not read a complete e-mail or the attachments provided - even when they know that deadlines and task completions are required.
  • Students fail to read law school announcements, Orientation packets, registration instructions, Student Handbooks, and other items that they told are important.

When I have talked to colleagues about this problem, the following thoughts have been shared:

  • The Internet, e-mail, and text messages have turned students into grazers who never read for depth.
  • The parents of this generation of students kept track of everything for them so they are unaccustomed to being responsible for reading carefully and retaining information.
  • Students these days do not know how to read because they do not read books in their leisure time; they watch video clips on YouTube, watch TV, play video games, but rarely sit down to read books that are not assigned.
  • Undergraduate professors told them exactly what they needed for the exams so they did not have to read carefully - in some cases did not read at all for most classes.
  • They think they can look everything up on the Internet later, so why worry about boring text.
  • They got As and Bs without having to work very hard because of grade inflation in lower education, so they do not know that precision might be important for graduate-level academics (and life). 

So, what can we do to get our students ready for the careful reading, thinking, and writing that they will have to accomplish successfully in law practice?  Below are a few things that I have become more conscious about doing with my students.  I am sure that my colleagues can provide other thoughts and techniques.

  • Discuss professionalism in one's work as a law student and how that becomes professionalism in one's work product as an attorney.
  • Go over a case or fact pattern in great detail so they begin to see the information that they missed with only a cursory reading.
  • Parse a complex statute so that they see why every word and punctuation mark matters.
  • Ask questions that go to the legal nuances of the material they have read so that they begin to see the depth of understanding needed. 
  • Resist telling them the answer.  At times I have to bite my tongue and reply along the lines of "turn to page 3 in your syllabus and read point 8 on the format for your presentation" or "read the facts paragraph again and tell me what the court said about the defendant's acts."   
  • Encourage them to review exams with C+ or lower grades with their professors to see how they could have improved the grade (more careful reading of the fact pattern, more care in the organization, more precise rule statements, more depth in analysis).
  • Give examples of where a lack of careful reading or precision would cause problems for an attorney in practice - real-life examples are best.
  • Allow them to experience consequences for missed assignment deadlines, incorrect format, lack of proof-reading, or misread instructions.  Consequences learned in the law school environment will usually be less dire than than consequences learned later in practice.  (Of course, there are times when a student's circumstances warrant an exception to this suggestion.)

Part of being a professional is being conscious of one's responsibility for a high quality work product.  By mastering care in their everyday reading and class work, our students will learn to turn out work products that are professional.  (Amy Jarmon) 

August 3, 2012 in Professionalism, Reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Mowing My Lawn Taught Me About Law School Learning - Part 2

LESSON 2:     YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT.

Optimal yard care involves proper performance of several critical duties: (1) cutting the lawn, (2) edging at the borders of the lawn to create clean lines, (3) pulling weeds from the garden, (4) pruning plants, bushes, and trees, (5) watering plants, and (6) other related tasks like fertilizing, overseeding, aerating, raking, stump removal, and replanting.  (Just writing that last sentence stressed me out!  I’m going to take a break.  Be back shortly.)  . . . . . So, when I am sitting in my house on the weekend, I know (really, I feel) that “mowing the lawn” is waaaay more than just mowing the lawn.  I find it really difficult to commit to what could be several hours of lawn care.

It’s not that I don’t have time to mow the lawn, but I don’t have time to do all of that other stuff.  I start thinking about the fact that the last time I was edging, the weed-whacker ran out of line, so I’m going to have to replace that.  I make a mental list of all of the things that I’m going to have to do in addition to the mowing.  No way I can accomplish all of that.  It’s too much.  I resolve to do nothing for now.  Save it until later, when I can do it all.    

Eventually, I say to myself, “The lawn isn’t going to mow itself.”  If I let the grass continue to grow, I’m going to need a pith helmet and a machete instead of a lawn mower.  The homeowners association is going to send me a notice.  My wife will start talking to me about the dangers of deer ticks.  So, I get up and mow the lawn.  It doesn’t take forever.  And, if I really don’t have time to do all of the other things, I realize that they can wait.  But I did what I really needed to do.  Maybe the lines aren’t as perfect as they need to be, but I have prevented my lawn from being a nightmare.  Even though I did not trim, edge, prune, plant, weed, cultivate, water, fertilize, or any of the other things I could have done, I finished the important part.  The rest can wait, and my lawn looks good.  Frankly, the other things I need to do seem far less daunting, now that the big part is finished.  

What this taught me about law school

Perfectionists come in two extremes.  The first type works her fingers to the bone, getting every aspect of a task right, laboring until that moment that the task is thoroughly complete, shiny, and, yes, perfect.  Type-1 perfectionists sometimes can lose sleep, go hungry, or otherwise sacrifice self-care in an effort to achieve perfection in their work.  The second type of perfectionist looks at all that needs to be done to achieve perfection and starts to feel a little overwhelmed.  This feeling of being overwhelmed may paralyze the Type-2 perfectionist, who may choose to do nothing, fearing that any attempt to do something just won’t be good enough.  I don’t think either type of extreme perfectionist is healthy, but I’m going to focus on Type-2 for now.

In law school, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.   4 courses.  2 classes per week per course.  50
pages of reading per class.  1 legal writing paper.  5 job applications due.  2 student group meetings.  5 gym workouts.  Saturday night party.  If you are a Type-2 perfectionist, all of this work makes you want to crawl into a hole.  Rather than attacking this invincible mountain of work, you do nothing.   

A better way to approach this might be to do what you can now.  You can accomplish a lot in the time you have, even if there is not enough time to make it perfect.  Do the reading, even if you don’t think there’s enough time to finish a brief.  Get the first draft of your paper done.  Do what you can, and don't try to do everything at once.  Good may not be perfect, but it's a darn sight better than nothing at all.

 (Writer’s Note: I am going to resist the perfectionist urge in me to hold onto this blog post any longer and edit it a few more weeks.  It may not be perfect, but I hope it is good enough to make a good point!)

August 2, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Get your feet wet sometimes, even if you shouldn't

My feet are wet. In fact, my jeans are wet all the way up above my knees. I have been standing in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean watching lightning off in the distance. 

I called my wife while I stood there. She isn't here, but she should've been. I had to come to a conference to speak, and we thought we should not spend the money it would take for her to come down with me. 

You see, we just spent a couple of weeks in the Colorado Rockies on vacation. We figured that we should be a little more careful with our money after that trip, so we thought it better that she not join me this time, given how expensive flights to Florida from Kansas are. 

It sounded wise and responsible at the time. She was originally going to come with me because our 35th anniversary takes place while I am in Florida. We had thought it would be romantic to spend it together on the beach, even if I had to take some time out to attend sessions and present a talk. 

But money considerations won out, and she stayed home. We decided to celebrate our anniversary when I return. 

Sometimes wisdom is not all that wise. Looking out over the ocean as it crashed against my feet, I realized that my wife should have been standing next to me, whether we could afford it or not. I called her from the surf and asked her to get on a plane tomorrow and fly down here –whether we could afford it or not. 

Flights and other arrangements may not work out on such short notice. I wish I had gotten my feet wet three weeks ago and arranged for her to come with me. 

I don't tell you this story to say that you should waste money. You know the saying by now, no doubt, "Live like a lawyer while you are in law school, and you will live like a law student when you get out." 

On the other hand, when you look back at your life, you will realize that some things just mattered more than good money management. Or maybe, good money management includes making stupid decisions for wise reasons sometimes.  

I don't really know. But after 35 years of raising kids, dealing with life, and falling asleep in each others arms, we should not have worried about the cost of a plane ticket on the eve of our anniversary. 

Sometimes, you ought to get your feet wet when the opportunity arises, rather than stay dry and in miss something important.  (Dan Weddle) 

July 30, 2012 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Getting ready for a new academic year

I am surprised every summer when August 1st comes around.  The summer looks so long and full of possibilities right after graduation.  However, it always ends too quickly for everything I would like to accomplish in my grandest dreams.

There are some things, however, that I try to complete each summer to prepare for the next semester as well as recharge my batteries.

Here are some of the things that I find help me most to "get my house in order" and approach the upcoming academic year with enthusiasm:

  • I critique the handouts and Power Point slides that I use for student workshops to see what changes need to be made.  Often during the academic year, I have thought of new examples to use, new ways of explaining information, or gained insights from my students.  By revamping my materials regularly, I am able to offer better information and get excited about the new techniques that I can pass on to students in the coming months.
  • I revamp my four-week course for our Summer Entry Program.  It is easy to get lulled into doing things exactly the same each year because the program works so well with our current format.  However, by challenging myself to find better ways of teaching the material and by incorporating suggestions from last summer, I keep myself and the material fresh.  The changes may be small tweaks in many places and major rethinks in a few spots, but they all focus on giving 100% to the students.
  • I review publishers' catalogs and order library books for our study aids/academic success library to get the newest editions or series within my budget allotment.  It is always exciting to see what new volumes my ASP colleagues have published! 
  • I critique administrative tasks to find ways to be more efficient and effective.  For tasks where I interface with other offices, I brainstorm better ways that we can communicate.  For my own tasks, I review my calendar for the last year to make notes about when I should schedule certain tasks during the coming year and changes that I need to make.
  • I sort through my e-mail archives and delete e-mails that are not needed any longer.  If I have time, I also sort through my Word files to delete outdated or unwanted items that have been overlooked.   
  • I catch up on some professional reading.  During the summer, I try to read at least one book related to legal education, academic success, or education theory.  I also work my way through a stack of articles that I have collected throughout the year but never had time to read.
  • I pull out my folder of thank you notes and e-mails from students and read through them.  This task allows me to remember why I do what I do and encourages me to continue to impact student lives for the better.  It reminds me to focus on being a blessing to my students in small as well as large ways.

By the time Orientation begins, I am ready for a new crop of 1Ls and our returning students.  My housekeeping for ASP is done, and I am ready to start the cycle all over again.  (Amy Jarmon) 

July 29, 2012 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)