Monday, July 14, 2014
I wish that I could say that I thought of the title to this posting myself, but I didn't. I have taken/borrowed the title of this post from my son's blog.
When we approach new and challenging tasks -- regardless of what those tasks may be -- repetition is important to mastery and, yes, to resilience. I would add one point to my son's sentiment: it is also critical that we do not always struggle in isolation as we work toward mastering new tasks.
Whether you are studying for the bar exam, whether you are a first year law student trying to master the myriad skills necessary to succeed, or whether you are, like my son, learning to use excel spread sheets, repetition is a key. But, you should also be willing to accept assistance and support that is offered to you.
For July bar exam takers, as you prepare to take the bar exam, employ repetition to achieve success (and resilience) and take advantage of all of the support and instruction offered by both your commercial bar prep class and by your law school.
For those about to enter law school in the fall, you will face new tasks. Employ repetition, but be sure to take advantage of the assistance offered to you by your law schools: attend academic support workshops and classes; meet with your professors; and meet with your law school’s academic support professionals. And remember that "nothing teaches resiliency like repetition."
(Myra G. Orlen)
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
I've started working out recently with this exercise DVD program called Focus T25 by Shaun T. It's incredibly hard and I often find myself wanting to quit half way through, it's only a 25-minute video. Whenever I want to give up Shaun T will chime in and say “stay focused, don’t quit.” After yelling several obscenities at the TV screen, I usually manage to crawl to the end by staying focused on the end goal, which is to get back in my skinny jeans and ultimately to have a healthy lifestyle. For those of you taking the bar exam, the bar review is much like that exercise video. There are times when you want to give up and may yell obscenities at anything bar related (aside from an actual bar), but I beg of you to please don’t lose focus and don’t give up.
Most of you entered law school with an end goal in mind. You wanted to help the underserved access legal services, you wanted to work on the next big deal or you wanted to fight crime as an ADA. Whatever the case may be, you entered law school with a goal. Don’t let the bar exam make you lose sight of that goal. I know it’s hard and you may want to give up at times, but that’ s when you need to stay focused and as Shaun T would say “dig deeper.” Ask yourself “why am I doing this?” If you can still answer, because “I want to help the underserved”, “I want to be a great litigator “or “I want to be the next great deal maker”, then you must hang on to that and power through.
The bar review and the bar exam will test your mentally, physically and emotionally, but stay focused and fiercely hang on to your goal. It really is worth it. (Larasz Moody-Villarose)
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Some may remember from Saturday Night Live the lovable character Stuart Smalley - “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Students studying for the bar will do well to heed Stuart’s affirmation. As a part of my bar review class, I begin each session by handing out a 3 x 5 index card and asking students to write an affirmation, prayer, statement, or to draw a picture that will help them form a positive mental attitude. In writing these, I remind students to phrase them in a positive voice. For example, rather than writing, “I am not stupid” write, “I am competent.” The mind tends to hear and remember the last word spoken. The affirmation should be short - preferably one sentence long. At the end of each class, we take a minute to have one volunteer share one affirmation for the group and then read aloud all the affirmations compiled up to that point. I was hesitant to do this for fear of being crtiticized as being too "touchy/feely" but decided to take the risk. I am glad I did. Many students report that although initially skeptical, they find this exercise helpful in maintaining calm. Because the affirmations are personal, they are powerful. (Bonnie Stepleton)
Saturday, June 28, 2014
I am in the middle (or actually, the middle of the end) of writing my first law review article in 7 years. It has been a monumental task, starting with the fact that I am terribly out of practice. The Bluebook has changed since the last time I published in a law review (and I wasn't great at Bluebooking to begin with!) I have only had a month of solid writing time, although I have been researching and writing piecemeal for almost a year. To get inspired this morning, because I am so tantalizingly close to the end, but just so burnt out and exhausted, I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed comparing writing to running. I am a long distance runner, primarily at the 10k to half-marathon length, so I thought the article could help inspire me. And she did have some good advice.
Done is better than perfect. As I write, I think about all the connections I should be making. However, I don't have the time to write the article of my dreams, I have to finish. And done is better than perfect. I think this also applies to bar takers. So many high-achieving students get stuck during bar prep because they have trained themselves to be perfect. On law school exams, aiming for perfect is important if you want to be in the top of your class. But for bar prep, just getting the work done is more important than perfect. You can't be perfect when you have so many subjects to cover, and so little time.
Writing and running each require one small step. An article doesn't come out whole in a day or a week. Neither does bar prep. Each are about taking one small step, then another, and so on. Because if you look at the project, the race, or the bar exam, as one giant monolith, you will never get started. And you have to get started. And you have to keep going when you only have 4 pages of a 30 page article, or you have only read one subject in a 15 subject outline, or you have run one mile, and have 12.1 more to go.
So with that, I need to get back to writing. I am working on one of my last sections, a section that is dear to my heart--ASP. And then I need to write my conclusions. Wish me luck. And to all of you working on the bar exam, good luck to you, too. I hope to see fellow ASPers at LWI next week.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
I am fortunate to work at a law school that is part of a major university. Physically, the law school is located at the northernmost end of the campus across a busy street (It is known as “Rio Lomas” -- which many do not dare to cross). There are amazing resources available to students, staff and faculty on main campus. Students can take advantage of all the services and resources available from training in a first class gym to attending a movie for two bucks, to taking advantage of a career fair that has cross over opportunities with graduate students. There are regularly national level speakers lecturing on a host of topics. At our school, law students can take up to 6 hours of graduate level courses in other departments such as Business, public administration, Latin
American studies and more. For staff and faculty there is top notch training for teachers through the Office for Support of Effective Teaching. Staff have tuition remission available to take classes. Take advantage of what your school has to offer this summer! (Bonnie Stepleton)
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Many bar applicants are unsuccessful on the written portion of the bar exam because they fail to adequately answer the question(s) posed by the examiners. However, telling our students to “answer the question” not only seems obvious, but can also feel patronizing. To avoid this, I clarify how a student can ascertain what the examiners are really asking by following these steps.
Step 1. Read the call of the question to identify the subject, parties, and cause(s) of action. If the call is narrowly crafted (i.e. Can Abel be found liable to Cain under a strict liability theory?), make sure that you are answering the specific direction within the call. If the call is broadly drafted (i.e. Discuss the liabilities of the parties.), you will need to determine the central focus from the facts presented.
Step 2. Before moving forward, recall the key topics within the subject area being tested. You should be able to visualize your checklist, flowchart, or outline for each topic area. You may even want to quickly write your mnemonics on your scratch paper.
Step 3. Now, it is time to “actively read” the fact pattern. What does “actively read” mean? Use a pen/pencil/highlighter (depending on your state bar policies) to circle, underline, or annotate the facts as you read through them slowly. Pay attention to numbers, quoted language, unusual FORMATTING, and repetition within the fact pattern. These are structural and factual issue signals. Pay close attention to these facts and use them liberally within your answer as you apply the law. Reading slowly and carefully will help you to fully synthesize and find relevance for all of the facts.
Step 4. Use your scratch paper. Yes, use the paper provided to sketch out your answer before you begin typing your response. Do NOT rewrite the entire fact pattern or your entire outline. Use your scratch paper to list the buzzwords and legally significant facts. But, you may also want to write the call of the question on your scratch paper to ensure that you answer it. These brief notes will help later with your IRAC.
Step 5. An important last step: reread the call of the question! Make sure that your scratch paper notes and initial impressions align to the actual question being asked. Now, you are ready to begin writing your answer.
Bar exam drafting committees are constructing fact patterns and questions to test various skills and abilities. The ability to identify legal issues and determine the legally relevant facts are two such skills. Knowing the law thoroughly will help you spot issues and will help you answer the question. But, practice will help even more.
(Lisa Bove Young)
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Summer bar preparation is kicking into high gear. The first week is a blur. The second week is overwhelming. The third week is a blur again. Bar preparation is excruciating- physically, mentally, and emotionally. One way to stay even and remain focused is to practice meditation.
Meditation can take on many forms. However, mindfulness, attention to breathing, and intentional focus are necessary components. First, try to create an environment where you can be quiet and free from distractions. You do not need to redecorate or go to extremes. Merely find a spot where you can feel relaxed for ten or twenty minutes per day without being interrupted.
Next, concentrate on your breathing. Think about good air coming in to refresh and satiate your spirit; and, the bad “stressful” air being exhaled and released. Attention to breath is essential to meditation. If the only one thing that you accomplish is sitting with your breath for 10 minutes, you will still be in a better mental place. Try to clear your mind and focus on your breathing and let everything else melt away. Thousands of assignments, rule statements, MBE questions, and life stressors will try to infiltrate your thoughts. Keep them out by concentrating on your breathing. Let this time be just about your breathing.
By making meditation a daily practice, the stress of bar review will slowly melt away…at least for a short part of your day. Even though schedules are strained, adding a 10-20 minute daily meditation can help add a deeper level of peace and contentment. So... turn off your phone and computer, find a soft spot to land, close your eyes, and breathe.
(Lisa Bove Young)
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Group work is essential to graduate programs in business. Group work is a staple of medical school. But law students baulk at the idea of group work. This is a problem that has baffled me for years. We hear more and more about collaborative work as the cornerstone of students learning, and the need to teach law students how to work collaboratively. But professors who do require group work find that law students resist, fight, and malign collaborative projects. Why do law students hate group work?
1) We teach them that their grade is only as good as the person next to them.
Competition for grades starts the minute law students realize they are graded on a curve. Students begin to fear their peers, because they perceive their peers as their enemies, not as collaborators. Students who fear and mistrust they classmates are not going to put in extra effort to work together. They w fear that anyone who knows what they know will use it against them, either in preparing for a final exam, for personally, to hurt them in the future. Fear and mistrust are not the building blocks of collaboration.
2) We haven't dealt with our "free rider" problem.
I have colleagues who assign group projects, and I always hear about the "free rider" who manages (scams) his or her way into a hard-working group, only to receive a (high) grade based on the work of others. The students mistrust the free rider, but other than tattle to the teacher, there is little the group can do about a free rider. I have seen teachers try to deal with the free rider problem by requiring peers to assign grades to their partners, but this often results in gaming. Entire groups can game the grading by agreeing ahead of time what grades they will give each other, or individuals can game the system by agreeing to a group grade, and later giving their partners lower-than-promised grades in order to boost their personal standing in the class (yes, our students know the "prisoner's dilemma"). The only way to deal with the free rider problem is to require law students to work together on many projects over a long period of time, so "free riders" have to fear their own reputation. However, collaborative projects are pretty rare in law school, so a "free rider" doesn't need to fear that they will be ostracized from other groups if they manipulate the system.
3) We have not taught them HOW to work collaboratively, and they fear what they do not understand.
I loved group work when I was getting my MA in education. Early in my program, we were taught how to collaborate. Our professors explained the expectations of the program; teachers must collaborate, so collaboration was a part of what we needed to learn in order to be successful classroom teachers. The professors were very clear about their personal expectations for the class. Any one person could be asked to explain all of the project, at any time, so no one could be a "free rider" without risking their grade. Probably the most important lesson imparted in my program was that we were all in this together. My MA program stressed that all of us are representing the Neag School of Education, and one person who is a failure as a teacher represents our entire program. No one wanted our program to be anything less than excellent, so we wanted to shine. We worked together because we saw ourselves as members of a team, not competitors.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Don’t’ have a summer job? Consider becoming a volunteer. If possible, it is preferred to find a volunteer position with a non-profit or agency to gain legal experience. Even a few hours a week can be beneficial and provides much needed help to the sponsoring entity. Have a goal in mind for the volunteer experience. Improve your writing, practice research skills, or observe other lawyers in action. Take this opportunity to network. Ask questions, and ask for feedback on your assignments. Students can contact their Career Services Office or Pro Bono office to learn of opportunities in their market. Students can make a big difference with a small investment of their time and talents. (Bonnie Stepleton)
Monday, May 26, 2014
We have all experienced many firsts: our first day of school, first car, first date, first victory, first defeat, first kiss, first heartbreak, and first day of law school (maybe not in that order). Today, you will experience another common first…the first day of bar review (cue Beethoven’s 5th).
No matter which bar review course you are taking, the first day of bar review is overwhelming. There are new books, new terms and acronyms, and so much new information. To say that this first day of bar prep is overwhelming is truly an understatement. Instead of going under-prepared and leaving in a catatonic state, here are a few suggestions to make this monumental first not only tolerable, but also productive and meaningful:
- If you have received a box of books or binders, envelopes filled with paperwork, or links via email, open them and read them PRIOR to attending your first bar review class.
- Start your bar review routine off right: Get a good night’s sleep before your first day, chose a wake-up time that will get you to your class with time to spare, and eat a nutritious breakfast.
- Be comfortable, but look presentable. You do not want someone to think you raided Barry Manilow’s wardrobe.
- Pack energy boosting snacks: pick your protein (nuts, yogurt, cheese, hummus, freeze dried ice cream, hardboiled egg…). You need to stay awake and feel energized.
- Bring a notebook to take notes and a hardcopy calendar or planner. You do not need your computer.
- Pray, meditate, practice yoga, or adopt another ritual that will help keep you centered. You must find a way to stay motivated, focused, and positive. Bar prep will wear on your psyche; thus, you must approach it with a clear plan and an open mind.
Above all, take your first day of bar prep seriously. If you underestimate the importance of this first day, you may miss valuable information and set yourself on a path toward failure. Instead, approach the first day in earnest. Show up physically and mentally and set yourself up for bar exam success.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Some students have engaged in early bar preparation prior to law school graduation, while others have chosen to focus their efforts on other tasks during their last year of law school. While I strongly advocate for the notion of “the earlier the better” for bar prep, many decide to live solely in the present and avoid the bar exam until it is imminent. "Ignorance is bliss"after all.
This sentiment brings to mind Thomas Gray’s poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, a personal reflection on the bliss of youth and the worries and trials that lie ahead in adulthood. Law school is by no means paradise, but it invokes “wild wit, invention ever-new” much more than preparing for the bar exam. Unfortunately, preparing for the bar exam feels much more like "comfortless despair."
Thus, I encourage students to take time now at the close of their legal education to reflect on their successes, their challenges, and the fun times that they had as a law student. This provides closure to their law school experience and helps invigorate their ambition to succeed on the bar exam. And, since the "folly" of bar review will be upon them next week, I hope they have one last weekend of pure, unrestrained bliss.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
I usually abhor things like Upworthy and Buzzfeed, but I do like the message of this video by Alan Watts and the South Park folks:
It points out that education trains us into thinking that a good and successful life means living it as a bone-rattling rush to some sort of electrifying conclusion that will once-and-for-all make us happy. Law students, who by-and-large have been successful in doing what school tells them to do, are particularly susceptible to this sort of thing. For myself, I went to law school wanting to save the squirrels and came out on the other side thinking that I had to go to big law or I was a total loser.
Although it might be hard to "dance" while learning the Rule Against Perpetuities, it's not a bad attitude for students (and their teachers) to develop. (Alex Ruskell)
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
As we get closer to finals, a lot of poor-performing students are struggling with outline and exam structure. At South Carolina, the second semester for First Years is made up of Con Law, Civ Pro, and Property, and all three of these classes seem to cause certain students to "over-write." For example, even more so than in their First Semester outlines, many students want to include all the minutiae of every case, so I have had at least a dozen students show up in my office saying something to the effect of "I have 120 pages on my outline done -- but I have a little more work to do."
A 120-page plus outline isn't going to help anyone, unless they are planning on clubbing someone with it. One thing I have found really helpful for these students is to go over practice questions geared to the bar exam (BarBri, Kaplan, Finz, etc.). These tend to be shorter than questions designed for doctrinal exams, and the idea that you can explain something like the rule for intermediate scrutiny or the Commerce Clause in three sentences is really helpful and mind-blowing. I've seen a real improvement in students' answers, especially since many of these students' exam issues were running out of time, missing issues, or spending time talking about things that were not going to translate into points.
I've also been using the longer essay questions from Emanuel's Questions and Answers for First Year. I don't know if this exactly counts as a self-serving plug since I wrote them, but I put them together specifically with this issue in mind. They are nowhere near the most detailed questions in the world, but they are good if you have a student who just needs to get IRAC together. I have a lot of these types of students -- who are bright, but write 16-page dissertations for a 20-minute question. Most of our meetings tend to revolve around focus and getting to the point.
I've also been working with these students using "Shortish Questions from the Realm of Stuff You Will Be Asked" -- so, for example, I have a question about an ordinance limiting firefighters to male citizens between the ages of 20-45 and a question about the state putting the kibosh on an individual's contract with an out-of-state company. This way, I can talk about breaking up the different levels of scrutiny and the four things that they will probably need to think about when the state messes with a private individual (commerce, contracts, privileges and immunities, due process). The weakest students have all of this in a jumble of premises and exhortations of fairness, which will clearly sink them on exams if they don't get it cleared up. (Alex Ruskell)
Friday, March 28, 2014
I'm a huge fan of Peter T. Wendel's illustration of the different "planes" of a case (from his book, Deconstructing Legal Analysis). The idea that there are three discrete levels of thought and analysis involved in cases seems to be helpful and rather mind-blowing for many students. I've also found it particularly helpful when I am trying to help students categorize and breakdown different rules and ideas (like breaking up the levels of scrutiny in a Con Law question, or splitting apart subject matter and personal jurisdiction on an essay). So, I drew a picture.
I'm not sure if it exactly inspires confidence, but it gives students something to look at during a lecture besides me.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Many students have problems with outlining an answer before writing it on the exam. When all you hear is typing fingers around you, taking the time to outline your answer might seem like a luxury you don't have time for.
Consequently, I have students make a short "attack" outline to use during the exam (if it is open book), and ask them to set up that outline in something of a fill-in-the-blank format.
For example, the attack breakdown for adverse possession might look something like this:
Open and Notorious --
On the exam, once the student recognizes that a question is asking about adverse possession, he or she can simply fill in the relevant facts on the attack outline and then write the exam answer. Especially for the weakest students, who might have timing issues and tend to leave out elements and specific facts, such an attack outline can be invaluable.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Now that the celebrations and champagne toasts have faded, bar examinees may feel lost, deflated, or generally lacking direction. This state of mind is what I refer to as the "Post Bar Exam Blues." As with other challenging life transitions, processing their bar exam experience will take time. They have been on a roller coaster ride with extreme highs and lows for the last eight weeks. Once the ride ends, it is hard to remember who you were before you got on.
In order to best move through this period, I suggest that students first reflect on their experience. Sharing their feelings with someone they trust can help them work through their fears, their doubts, and acknowledge the incredible accomplishment of getting through this test. Writing out their feelings is also helpful. Once they get these emotions out into the universe, it is easier for them to put the experience behind them and avoid replaying it over and over again in their mind.
Results generally take several months to be released. Thus, once they have the opportunity to reflect on their experience, it is best to redirect them toward something positive and productive. Second guessing their performance, or holding their breath until results are posted is fruitless. Instead, having them create a list of current projects or ways to use their free time can help them see that there is life outside of bar review. Also, jumping head first into a new job or a job search can help remind them why they wanted to become a lawyer. Ultimately, getting them to understand that they are not defined by their MBE score will help them remedy their blues.
Friday, February 7, 2014
Although there have been several signs of the Apocalypse lately, including a snowball fight in my South Carolina front yard and the appearance of Prince in a sitcom with Zooey Deschanel, I have been operating under the assumption that the world will continue to turn. Consequently, I have spent most of the past few weeks meeting with students who did poorly in their first semester.
There are many, many studies showing the importance of self-evaluation. The first thing I have students in trouble do is fill out a 5-page form asking them to relive the past semester. How many classes did they go to? How much time each week do they spend reading? When did they start outlines? What were there grades in each class? Better or worse than they thought? Did they go to tutoring? Did they come to my workshops? Ever meet with me? Ever meet with their professors?
Once they take a hard look at what they did, we start making a plan of improvement. Most of the time, the biggest self-reported issues are: 1. Started outline too late, 2. Spent too much time preparing for class (and no time preparing for exam), 3. Let Legal Writing get away from them, and 4. Never sought help.
When we've worked this out, I start helping them with outlines, scheduling, and we start with simple practice problems to get IRAC under control. I also make sure they meet with their profs.
While meeting with all of these students may be disheartening (and involve a large investment in Kleenex products), this semester I've had the great pleasure of having many returning, Second, or Third year students swing by my office and tell me how much they've improved (several CALI awards, many at least one entire letter grade jumps). So, I know this approach helps the vast majority of them.
Although, as always, there are the students I am extremely worried about. As I write this, the car keys of one of my in-trouble first years continue to hang on a hook outside my office. It has been three days since he left them here and I emailed him -- I haven't heard anything. How is he getting home? Is he looking for them? Did he forget he owns a car? Is he now living the movie "Badlands"? Did he steal someone else's car with his best girl by his side fleeing from one safe house to another with Boss Hogg on his tail as he tries to swing back to Columbia in time for Civil Procedure at 8 am?
At any rate, the fact his keys are still sitting here does not inspire confidence.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Hat tip to Jan M. Levine for reminding us about a Spring 2013 article in The Law Teacher. The article that Professor Levine wrote is based on a letter from a former student who had left law school years before and wanted to share his thoughts with the perspective he had gained. The issue of The Law Teacher can be found here with the article near the end of the issue: It's OK to Leave Law School.
Friday, January 24, 2014
Whenever I meet with students who have done poorly in the first semester, I tell them about the first English paper I turned in in college. I had never gotten less than an A in anything in my life, I was the “English” guy for big state contests, I’d won several creative writing awards, and I really thought I wanted to major in English. On my first paper, I got a C. When I went to talk to the professor, a man who wore seersucker suits and looked like a cross between Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders, he said in his genteel Virginia-tidewater accent, “Is English your first language? Your name is Russian. Are you translating as you write?”
The unfortunate thing was that he was genuinely curious and English is my first, and only, language.
And the thing was, he was right. The paper was too clever by half, full of elevated verbiage and ideas that got started but then petered out. Split-infinitives were everywhere, the Oxford Comma had apparently decided to hop a bus to Cambridge, and the whole thing rested on a very faulty argument I'd cribbed from an R.E.M. song. But, I took his advice and comments seriously, readjusted my writing process, and, in the words of my seventh grade science teacher, "Got back on the A-train."
I go on to tell my students that I bet most of their professors have a similar story somewhere back in their academic careers, so they should realize that 1) they’re not alone, 2) they can bounce back, and 3) this is an integral part of the learning experience that is often overlooked (as in, “Hell, I’m never taking Crim Law again! Let’s toss that exam and never look at it!”).
I honestly believe hitting a roadbump can sometimes be the best thing that can happen to a student. It forces the student to reflect on their learning and forces them to get better. If I had continued on my merry way without hitting that first bump I might still be scribing in bloviated sentences constructed entirely in the aether and intertwined with the thoughts and errs of beknighted folly -- or something.
So, I try to present a first semester failure as opportunity. I ask them to go over their exams with their professors to see where they fell short, then I meet with them and we make a plan to fix those holes.
And, happily, this year many, many second year students have been coming in to tell me about how they have been able to turn around their grades. While their egos may have been bruised, they have gained necessary insights into themselves and their education. And I know these insights will make them better lawyers. (Alex Ruskell)