Friday, August 11, 2017
New law students can improve their adjustment to law school if they consider several aspects of their educational background, study habits, learning styles, and lifestyles before they enter law school. By being more intentional in considering these aspects, law students can be more aware of their strengths and preferences. They will be less shocked by some of the differences between legal education and prior education. They can be aware of changes they will need in their approach for a successful legal education.
Three aspects to consider are included in this post; a follow-up post will consider two more aspects.
A professional school education. Many undergraduates take a variety of courses which they perceive as merely fulfilling requirements and not useful in real life. Courses are frequently one-off content rather than building a foundation of concepts for future courses or life tasks. One may take the history of fine arts, calculus, or physics to fulfill general education requirements without any thought of needing the knowledge again - and often with the hope of never using the information again.
Some undergraduates choose majors based on whim, reputation for easy grades, or popular trends as a means to get the degree without any expectation of having a job in those fields. Education seems less important if it has no relevance to one's future. For example, a survey several years ago showed that engineering students preparing for a career path studied nearly twice as many more hours per week as their liberal arts counterparts.
Law school curricula contain courses that are designed to improve skills that lawyers need every day (critical reading, critical thinking, critical writing). Many 1Ls consider their legal research and writing courses the bane of their existence. Those skills are essential to success in the legal profession where research and writing are daily tasks. Also, law students who regularly skimp on reading and briefing for doctrinal classes, find they are ill-prepared for efficiently and effectively analysing hundreds of cases in practice. For some students, the first summer clerking position can be a nightmare and hopefully a wake-up call for more diligence.
In addition, many courses contain legal content that is foundational to the bar exam and basic legal knowledge for practice. Most law school curricula require a number of the courses that appear on the bar exam. For example, even though a 1L vehemently declares he will never practice criminal law, that content is going to show up on the bar exam. (I also know from experience that some corporate litigation CEO client will walk in and want you to talk intelligently about what to expect after his son's drug arrest even though you obviously will refer him to a criminal defense colleague.)
The importance of long-term memory. Working memory (previously called short-term memory) is premised on the fact that the information is only needed for a short period: until the presentation is over, until the test ends, until the paper is handed in, until the course ends. After the deadline, concepts and information are immediately forgotten. The educational trash can is filled to the brim. Cramming promotes this short memory span because the brain is expected to retain the information for a use-by-date close at hand. There is no intention to retain the knowledge for reuse. The grade, and not the future, matters.
Long-term memory builds a foundation of concepts and information that are reinforced and applied over a period of time. Law school, the bar exam, and legal practice all go more smoothly with a focus on long-term memory. Briefing cases, note-taking, reviewing class notes, outlining, reviewing outlines, and applying the information to new scenarios throughout the semester build long-term memory. Long-term memory is like a filing cabinet of organized and readily accessible information in your brain.
When a third-year course refers to concepts from first-year contracts, law-term memory allows the concepts to come back with little or no review. When one's summer clerkship assignment focuses on a search-and-seizure issue, the concepts from criminal procedure are there as a base of knowledge on which to begin. When the bar exam course rapidly covers dozens of courses in six-eight weeks, long-term memory promotes review of those courses rather than the total re-learning of massive amounts of material that was lost if only working memory was used.
In practice a lawyer depends on long-term memory for building expertise in specialty areas of law. Lawyers want to recall similar client facts, prior cases read, statutory language, and more. Although they will constantly update their knowledge and research new twists on prior issues, they depend on a depth of knowledge and understanding of the law to gain competence and confidence. Even remembering the basics from law school courses can save time in interviewing a client or researching.
Active learning as a way of life. Active learning requires engagement on the part of the learner and self-monitoring. An active learner in law school does more than read the large number of cases to say that the assignment is done. The active learner asks questions while reading the cases, considers how the cases are similar and different, relates the legal concepts to the subtopic and topic, and considers how those legal concepts would be used in different scenarios. The active learner has thought about the material and tried to synthesize the different cases before going to class.
Although law professors will go over the cases at least somewhat in class, they will not tell the students everything they need to know. They will expect law students to prepare well and understand the basics from the cases and consider inter-relationships among cases. The class discussion will often focus on more nuanced concepts, policy arguments, and application of concepts to new scenarios. Professors may use the Socratic Method of questioning to get students to think about these aspects that springboard off of the cases. Professors may throw out hypothetical facts to get students to consider twists on facts and how the law will (or won't) apply. Students are asked to argue both sides of the scenario for plaintiff and defendant.
Memorization of the black letter law is important; however, it is only a beginning. Law students need to continue to review the legal concepts and inter-relate them to better understand how the law applies to the topics and subtopics through outlining. They need to actively engage in applying the concepts to new fact scenarios through practice questions so they know how to use the law to solve legal problems.
Passive learning promotes little engagement with the material and an attitude of just doing the assignment rather than critically thinking about the material. It is this type of learning that many students tell me they have most often experienced in prior educational experiences. The textbooks laid out the concepts without any need to think about them or ferret them out of the text. One just needed to read and memorize what the texts said. The professors often lectured to tell them exactly what they needed to know for the tests. Knowledge was clearly laid out to be learned in a rote way in many courses. The A grades went to those who could spout the most dates, facts, definitions, etc.
Some students relate that even in courses where they had to discuss themes or apply concepts across works of various authors, they were often expected to espouse the professor's stated views rather than apply the themes or concepts more critically or innovatively. If creativity was allowed, then some tell me that everything written was accepted as good ideas without having to carefully support arguments or consider counter-arguments.
These law school aspects of professional education, long-term memory, and active learning may be alien to some law students. As a result students might initially make learning choices that will cause them to falter. They will approach legal learning with strategies that worked in prior education but do not work in law school. They will not see each course as building skills and knowledge needed to pass the bar and become a competent professional. They will approach class preparation as a passive task to be completed rather than an active learning exercise. They will become frustrated by the law school classroom because professors do not tell them what they need to know for an A grade and instead expect them to make leaps in thinking through questions and hypotheticals they do not understand. They will mistakenly believe that a good grade will be produced by cramming and mere memorization of the law because that worked in the past.
If you are a new 1L student, consider what your background has been like in past education. If any of these aspects of legal education are different from your prior education, the good news is that there are academic support professionals who can show you new strategies tailored to learning in law school. You can succeed and not just survive in the different learning environment. Seek out the ASP resources available at your law school. (Amy Jarmon)