Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fall Finals Study Plan

Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing!  Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.

For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer.  Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.

For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year.  Plan to relax!  Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.  

Example for Contracts class:

A.  Outline completed by November 14.
B.  All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C.  50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D.  50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E.  20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F.  15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.

The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components.  How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.

Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions.  You can start gathering questions today.  Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.

Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!

Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams."  The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan!  (djt)

November 2, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #103011 - Focus on Key Facts

“Legal problem solving — identifying and diagnosing problems and generating strategies and tactics to achieve client objectives — is a legally trained person’s most basic function. Most legal problem solving activity involves some legal analysis — combining law and facts to generate, justify, and assess a legal problem’s merits.” (Legal Services Practice Manual: Skills (2010) Link)

All lawsuits arise as a result of disputes involving facts. Our legal system revolves around resolving disputes through the application of rules of law to the facts of a case. Yes, trials and appeals are about “law,” but remember that the trial court judge, or the jury, is referred to as the “trier-of-fact.”  Determinations of facts are so important that the Bill of Rights guarantees that facts once decided by a jury are pretty much the last word.  The seventh amendment provides that, “...no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."  This clause forbids any court from reexamining or overturning any factual determinations made by a jury, unless the factual determinations are clearly erroneous.

The two major components of the dispute resolution process are the applicable law and the facts of the dispute.  In the professional practice of law, you will be sifting through the case file to identify which of the hundreds or thousands of facts produced by discovery (for example, witness statements, deposition transcripts, answers to interrogatories, photographs, and correspondence) are “key” facts.  Key facts are those facts  that are critical to the outcome of the case. A key fact is so essential that if it were changed, the outcome of the case might well be different.

In law school, you are practicing this skill of focusing on facts – in order for you to learn to assess legal problems, you must be able to find the important facts ... the key facts, the facts upon which the outcome of the issue in question depends. When writing an answer to a law school essay exam question, you must ferret out these salient facts from all the facts presented in the narrative. Think of them as keys that unlock point-scoring issue discussions.

But how?  Here are the basic steps to determining which facts are key facts.

  • Identify each claim possibly raised by the exam question.
  • State the rules that will be used to resolve each issue of each claim. These rules include the elements which need to be addressed in the discussion of each issue.
  • Pinpoint which facts in the question possibly relate to the elements of those issues.

This last step involves determining which facts may be legally significant. Legally significant facts might be, for example, that a tenant with an eviction notice has never been supplied with hot water; or that the shooter was an off-duty policeman; or that a party to a contract may have been a minor; or that the geographical distance between the provoking incident and the killing may have been long enough to provide adequate time for a reasonable person to “cool off” the heat of his passion.

After outlining your answer, read through the exam question one more time carefully and quickly (you should be quite familiar with the question by this time, so the reading can go much faster than it did the first time through). Make sure you have assigned all the facts presented in the hypothetical question (the exam) to some issue. If not, ask yourself if these facts suggest another issue, can be used to further explain an issue you already noted, or are merely "red herrings" (facts in the question which might lead you to an errant discussion). Then use this fact-rich outline as a roadmap for answering the question. Note that your outline need not include explanations of why facts are important – the detailed analysis comes in your answer. The outline is only your writing guide.

As for the outline, you may want to follow a traditional outline pattern (bullet points, hierarchies, mind-mapping, etc.) … or, to accent the fact-finding, you may want to think about a two-column approach. You can outline your answer using two separate columns. Specifically, you can list the issues in one column, and then note the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the column next to it. This method will allow you to match the issues or sub-issues of law with the facts of the question. Skimming through the question quickly (again) before actually writing the essay, you can quickly note if you have skipped over a fact.

Long before encountering exams, work on recognizing key facts.  Focus on key facts when you brief cases for class. Some students find that including basic fact patterns in their self-made course outlines – as illustrations of the rules that appear in the outlines – helps them think of the rules in situational terms.

Many years ago, when I was a little boy, fictional Los Angeles police Sergeant Joe Friday, hero of the “Dragnet” television series, used to say to witnesses he interviewed, "All we want are the facts." Well, there’s more to it than that when you’re trying to score high on a law school essay exam … but Sgt. Friday was zeroing in on one of the two essential components – you should too!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

October 30, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Handling Life's Disappointments

I am going to elaborate on Amy's post from a couple of weeks ago about taking time to care for yourself. Bad, unfair stuff happens to everyone. Not everyone knows how to handle it when it happens to them. Most people take some time, dust themselves off, heal, and move one. When working with law students, some additional context may help explain why  our current students may take things a bit harder than previous classes.

The three classes that are presently in law school are different; widespread anecdotal report them as younger, which is the natural consequence of students choosing to enroll in law school after undergrad to avoid a depressed economy. Younger students may have less life experience, and less practice handling the ups and downs of life. Additionally, these students are getting bombarded with press telling them that they are fools and their decision to enroll in law school is a mistake. Add in some disappointments, such as a break-up, a family issue, or a fight with a friend, and it's harder for these students to put their troubles in perspective and see that this, too, shall pass. When all the news is bad and you don't have the life experience to see that everything is temporary, disappointment can morph into depression.

Taking some points from Martin Seligman and positive psychology, there are some strategies for working with students who need some advice handling life's disappointments:

1) Whatever state you are in now is not permanent. It may feel like the pain of a break-up, a bad grade, a fight with a friend will be permanent, but the pain will pass. Just like the excitement of a special day or thrill of a good grade passes, disappointment fades. The more you (the student)focus on the disappointment, the more permanent it will feel.

2) Remember your successes. Failure can seem pervasive when several disappointments hit at once. But no one got to law school as a pervasive failure in life. Everyone has successes. When you increase the level of challenge in your life, you increase the risk of failure and disappointment. Recalling the times you were successful can help you bounce back.

3) Remember that you choose how you frame events in your life. Events, by themselves, are neither good nor bad. Even severe traumas, like the death of a loved one, can be viewed from different perspectives. One perspective focuses on being grateful for the time you had with them, another perspective focuses on how much time you wish you still had with them. Similarly, students suffering through break-ups (so common in the first semester of law school) often spend disproportionate amounts of time focusing on their sadness because that person was "the one" and their whole life was built around them. While it is valid to be sad, focusing on how things will always be negative since the significant other is gone keeps the student in a bad cycle.

4) Remind them that the press doesn't focus on the happy, because that makes for boring news. This is the time of the year 2L's are getting offers for summer employment. Mix in the constant barrage of terrible news about law school, and it's easy for students without a big-firm summer placement to feel like a failure. Students depressed about their prospects need to remember that smaller firms and non-profits hire after the new year, sometimes late into the spring. Just because you, the student, struck out in OCI doesn't mean you will never get a job. The news media fails to note that even during the "boom" years of 2002-2007, not all student got big-firm jobs.

5) As trite as it sounds, failure is the key to success. If you are always winning, how will you handle it when you fail when the stakes are high? Learning from mistakes is critical to future success. Failed relationships teach us how to behave when we meet the right person. Fights with friends teach us how to handle disagreements appropriately. Failed interviews teach us how not to answer OCI questions posed by interviewers.

I realize that ASPer's already have these skills, and they sound obvious. Many of our students have not lived enough to have gained perspective on life's disappointments, which leads them to perseverate on negative events. This can have an immediate impact on grades, because dwelling on disappointments increases cognitive load and decreases the ability to focus on homework, reading, and studying. Focusing on disappointments also negative impacts on motivation.  (RCF)

 

October 22, 2011 in Advice, Current Affairs, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Structuring a hybrid ASP-doctrinal course

After my post on retrieval practice, I have received a few questions about how I structure my Remedies course at UConn. It is an ASP-Remedies course for 2L's, with equal emphasis on ASP and Remedies. Before I go any further, I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Mike Schwartz for helping me get the course started, and for his suggestion of Remedies as a good subject matter for an ASP-focused doctrinal course. In this particular area, he is the master, and I am still the student.

After two years of trying to incorporate ASP into the Remedies material, I decided to try something different this year. So far, I am liking this structire MUCH better than how I have structured the course in the past. The first hour of the course is usually a skills lesson. I explicitly teach a skill, such as case briefing or outlining, using materials we have previously covered in class. The first hour of class serves not only to teach ASP, but also reviews prior concepts in Remedies.

The second hour of the class is Remedies. Because I only spend an hour of a three hour, three credit course on doctrinal subject matter, I remind students that the course is not designed to be a comprehensive course in Remedies, but an introduction to the material. Unlike a traditional law school course, I make my thinking explicit as I teach.

The last hour of the course is an exercise, either group exercise or a mini-test, but something that tests their skills so students get immediate (or nearly immediate) feedback on their learning.

A little more about why I chose this structure...

I put the skills lesson first because it allows for review. Another teacher could probably put the Remedies lesson first, and then use the skills lesson to reinforce the Remedies lesson. However, I am (primarily) a deductive thinker, and starting with a review allows me to help students create a "big picture" of the course. I don't think there is a right or a wrong answer here, just personal preference.

I added the last portion of the class this year, to reflect the lessons from this year's AALS meeting. I think it is important to note that my skills practice also asks students to think about other issues they will be seeing in future classes. So my skills exercise on the day we discussed damages for conversion had an issue dealing with unique goods. I didn't expect students to answer the issue on unique goods, but I wanted them to start contemplating how damages for conversion might be different if the good was one-of-a-kind. I think that giving students a problem before they see the issue in a case helps them better understand how the issue could come up in the real world.

Another addition to the class this year is explicit connection to Remedies in the practice context. I have to rely on the expertise of friends and colleagues for this part of the lesson, since I did not practice in an area where this was relevant. But even small hints about how damages will be relevant to my students when they are in practice makes the course seem more useful to them. I had the great benefit of speaking with a very experienced state supreme court justice a few years ago, and he shared with me the ways he thinks Remedies is one of the most important concepts for students to learn. I, in turn, share his lessons with my students throughout the semester, as well as the lessons of other practioners I have spoken with about how damages work in practice. (RCF)

October 13, 2011 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #10411 - Avoid Expository Writing

In law school, as well as in the practice of law, you will have many opportunities to demonstrate your skills at many types of writing. One type of writing you will need to use from time to time is expository writing. Expository writing is a rhetorical mode of writing in which the purpose of the author is to inform, explain, describe, or define his or her subject to the reader.

However, when answering law school essay exam questions, you are called upon to demonstrate a different type of writing. Exams are opportunities to show your professor your skills of resolving legal problems by identifying issues, stating concise rules that will be used to resolve the problems, then applying your analytical talents to reason to conclusions. That requires a departure from expository writing.

By way of example, in order to prove a negligence claim, a plaintiff must provide evidence of several elements, one of which is the existence of a “duty” on the part of the defendant to act with reasonable care in relation to the plaintiff. The following is unnecessary in an essay response:

“Duty” can serve as a touchstone when trying to understand the essence of the concept of negligence. The notion of duty appears to be a universal keystone in legal systems throughout the world. In civilized societies, all human action is conformable to the law, which members of each society are required to obey. Duty may be obliged by law or by contract. When imposed by law, a duty is an obligation requiring the actor to conform to a certain standard of conduct for protection of others against unreasonable risks. The word “duty” is used throughout the Restatement of Torts to denote the fact that the actor is required to conduct himself in a particular manner; if he does not do so he runs the risk of becoming subject to liability to another to whom the duty is owed for any injury sustained by such other, of which that actor’s conduct is an actual and proximate cause. 

From an essay-writing standpoint (outside of law school) this may be a fine paragraph. Including it in an expository writing could be helpful. Although introductory explanations, historical justifications, moral discussions, and segue paragraphs tend to round out good collegiate expository writing, these are not hallmarks of good law school essay exam writing.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

October 4, 2011 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #92611 – Begging the Question

When grading exam answers, professors reward logical, persuasive presentations. Resolving issues using logical fallacies earns no points.

One pitfall to avoid is the use of a circular argument.  This is also known as “begging the question." This fallacy occurs when one assumes the truth of what one is attempting to prove in the very effort to prove it. In other words, an argument is fallacious when the conclusion lies buried in the premise(s) used to reach that conclusion. Question-begging arguments often mask themselves in clever rhetoric. They can be easy to miss because they often sound good.

Example: “The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review is inherently undemocratic. When unelected judges reign supreme in the exposition of the Constitution, it cannot be said that we have a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”

Explanation: The writer is assuming the truth of what she is trying to prove in the very effort to prove it. If you look at these two sentences closely, you will see that they are essentially paraphrases of one another. Because the second sentence is longer and more complex, it tends to trick us into thinking that it is a logically distinct idea — but it is not.

This example if from Neal Ramee’s Logic and Legal Reasoning: A Guide for Law Students, in which Mr. Ramee correctly explains, “Learning how to spot and avoid such logical fallacies can enormously strengthen your legal writing and advocacy by helping you adhere to the ‘pristine logic’ of correct syllogistic reasoning.”  (Recommendation: read Mr. Ramee’s 10-page “guide.”)

Begging the question — from the Latin petitio principii — arises all too often in exam answers. If you write, “The contract is enforceable because it fulfills the validity requirements” or, “Defendant is liable for negligence because of his negligent conduct,” you’re begging the question. Each of these statements lacks the point-scoring analysis your professor is looking for.  The Contracts essay answer needs to state the elements that establish validity (or enforceability) and to show how the facts in the narrative fulfill the requirements. The Torts answer ought to specify precisely what the negligent conduct is and the rationale behind the conclusion that this conduct is negligent.

Remember that stating the “right” answer (for example, that a party was negligent) is not what scores the points in an essay answer — rather, points are scored by your logical, organized interweaving of the facts with the elements of the law in a compelling analytical presentation.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose — and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt) 

September 26, 2011 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Right Attitude for Law School

I recently asked some of my former undergraduate students who are now 2L's if they could give me a short blurb on what they wish they knew before they started law school. My students have gone on to schools across the country, from schools ranked in the top 10 to lesser-known and regional law schools. I received some wonderful responses, but one stands out for me. The response was from a student who did well, but not outstanding, his 1L year, goes to a very good but not elite law school, and attends a law school that was his second choice. Doesn't sound like a recipe for happiness and success? Well, his response to my question is a good reminder that attitude makes an enormous difference in what is defined as “success.”

(I have edited his response to remove identifying details , but my changes are not substantive.)

On being ready for law school

"I honestly think the mental aspect of law school is harder than the academics.You need to be able to remain calm and collected and that is tough to do when you have hundreds of pages of reading, on concepts you won't immediately understand....Just remember, keep calm, and just try your best, try not to freak out, think big picture (you will be a lawyer), then think how foolish it seems to be worrying yourself sick over a reading assignment. Don't get me wrong, reading assignments do matter, but don't beat yourself up over it."

On not feeling guilty about taking time for yourself

"...don't stop doing the things you love to do. You need to do this stuff to keep a somewhat balanced life. Don't feel guilty about putting studies away for a bit to do stuff for yourself. It's important to keep your sanity. Don't feel guilty when your friends or classmates mention how much time they spent reading last night when you spent the night enjoying the [baseball] doubleheader. If you need a break, you need a break. As long as you get the work done, it doesn't matter when or how you do it."

Law School in the Bigger Picture

"Have fun, don't be afraid, push back--don't let your thoughts be completely dominated by other students, or even professors for that matter. I enjoy law school because I know I want to be a lawyer, and law school is training to be a lawyer."

I plan on sharing his response with both my undergraduates preparing for law school and my students in law school who feel demoralized by the process. The student reminds himself why he goes to law school--to be a lawyer--and has found a way to enjoy the process without getting sucked into the grind. Law school makes it easy to get frustrated by the day-to-day  pressures. Taking a step back can remind students of the importance of a longer-term perspective. (RCF)

September 23, 2011 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Retrieval Practice"-Creating Tests that Reaffirm Knowledge

What do you want your tests to accomplish? Are they meant to measure learning that has already occured? Are your tests meant to provide an end of term grade? Are your tests meant to assess how much material students covered in the semester? If you use tests in any of these ways, I challenge you to see tests in a new light: as a teaching tool. Before I begin, I want to hat tip several people who already use this technique in their teaching: Ingrid Michelson Hillinger of BC, Rory Baduhur, Jeremiah Ho, and Michael Hunter Schwartz of Washburn, and Paula Manning of Western State. I am certain there are more people who use this technique; these are the people I know off the top of my head on a Monday morning.

"Retrieval practice" uses tests as a method of assessment and reinforcement, seeing the test itself as a learning experience that helps consolidate knowledge. For students, retrieval practice means something they need more of but dread: tests. But testing should be frequent and involve self-quizzing, as well as tests that build upon previous skills so students are reviewing as well as consolidating new information. Each of the law professors above have presented at conferences on different methods of frequently assessing student learning in ways that build skills; there is no one correct way to use retrieval practice. Prof. Hillinger uses group work that challenges students and builds skills throughout the semester. Prof. Badahur and Ho use frequent mini-tests, which students can peer-correct or self-correct, to test skills as they are being learned. Prof.'s Manning and Schwartz use so many different testing methods throughout the semester to keep students active and engaged.

Based on what I have learned over the past year, I have dramatically changed the structure of the Remedies course I teach each fall. Instead of giving fours tests throughout the semester, I give four exams (each with increasing value towards their final grade) and a mini-assessment at the end of every class. I start each class with a lesson on a skill, such as outlining for learning. This is the most typical "ASP" part of the course. I move into a doctrinal lesson in Remedies. Unlike traditional doctrinal teaching, I use visuals, give note-taking guides, and explain my pedagogy as I am teaching. Students know why I am using any particular teaching method, how it is used in their other courses, and how this teaching method relates to a practice skill. I make my thinking explicit. In other words, I don't hide the ball. I give them the ball, and then explain why I use the ball, the other ways of using the ball, explain it's character and design, and how the ball can be used outside the classroom. The last part of my class is a mini-assessment that tests their understanding of the lesson and asks them to apply the skills they have been learning in class. This past week, when we reviewed the science and skills of reading and briefing cases, I asked them to brief next week's case in class, with me, trying the techniques they just learned. I gave them a 1/2 hour; far more time than they would take if they were rushing through the brief at home. I assured them their was no "wrong" answer, that this was a chance to experiment with technique and format and get feedback on their efforts. The benefit to me from this lesson is that I get to see if they understand before I move on to a new skill. Because skills build on each other, I can assess early in the semester if we need to spend more time on a skill, before we all become frustrated with a lack of understanding later in the semester.

While it is at best a brief introduction to retrieval practice, there is an article in the NYT's on it in practice. The article mentions Mind, Brain, and Education. There is a Mind, Brian, and Education journal from Harvard's Graduate School of Education; it is excellent and well worth the very modest subscription pric (I have been subscribing since 2007). I have also been to a Harvard conference on mind-brain connections in students with learning differences, and I regularly use what I learned at the conference. (RCF)

September 13, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, News, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #91311 – Spot the Issues

To score high on law school essay exams, you need to spot as many issues as possible.  They lurk in the narrative.  If you can't spot the issues on an exam you won't score the points.

Issue-spotting is the most fundamental activity in the process of writing an answer to a law school essay exam question. Those students who spend their exam time spotting issues then follow up by organizing their answers, formulating their legal analysis of the issue they have discovered, and then writing the answer in a way that demonstrates their lawyer-like thinking will get the best grades.

Consider making a mental checklist of the issues that continually arise in (for example) Contracts essay exams, then scrutinizing each question/answer by running through your checklist. Some students actually memorize a checklist of possible issues and scribble that down (quite abbreviated) after the test period begins … others use a “mental” checklist. This works for many students … think about it!

If you use the “checklist” approach, remember that it’s just for comparison against your answer outline. Don’t expect to write about everything on the checklist! Selecting and divining the right issues, and only the right issues, for discussion on an exam has its analog in narrowing and selecting the right issues to research and prepare for when you will be advising clients, or when you prepare for oral arguments in court.  Clients have neither the time nor the money to pay for unnecessary research.  Judges are even more demanding than clients! (In other words … try to find all the issues, but only the issues!)

To improve in the area of spotting issues, search through the question for facts that either side might use to fashion an argument that might help that side – then, if the argument is untenable, explain why. Here's a hint: as a general rule-of-thumb, most facts you find in the narrative can be used to support or attack a position.

On the other hand, if the argument would be merely specious (superficially attractive but actually of no real interest or value) it ought not to be raised. This is a decision a lawyer has to make in real life, asking herself, “Do I raise this as an issue, or is it too far-fetched?”  Likewise, it is a decision a law student needs to make in composing an answer to an essay question. But the law student has an advantage: most professors adhere to the policy that no points are taken off for including as an issue something that is not an issue. (Keep in mind, however, that you need to be prudent in this regard, because spending time writing about “non-issues” uses up time which would be better spent earning points by discussing actual issues.  Also, be sure to find out from your professor if this is the grading policy.)

Separating the actual issues from non-issues is a skill that you will pick up as you proceed through law school. If it seems difficult, don’t worry – you are on the road to learning this skill now, and as you answer more essays you will become better and better at it!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 12, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #9911 – Write with Concision

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.  William Strunk and E. B. White

Mr. Strunk and Mr. White got it!  Often, less is more, and simple is best.  I like the phrase, "...every word tell."  When you write your exam answer, every word ought to be a point-scoring word.

Example: When you're answering a Contracts essay exam question, there's no need to define Contract. That's right.  Just as there is no need to define “Tort” or “Crime” in Tort or Criminal Law essay answers, there is no need to define “Contract.” Simply begin with the first issue.  That's because your "audience" as you write an exam is not a "know-nothing," but rather, a (fictional) peer who is familiar with the facts of your case (the question you're answering) and the basics of the law ... but she needs a refresher on the particulars.

So writing that "...a contract is an agreement between parties that ..." (etc.) scores no points; whereas, it is important to state the applicable portions of the statute of frauds before using that as a defense.

Likewise, there's no reason to discuss matters that are not germane to the call of the question.  One mistake is to write about what the defendant should have done instead of what he did do, then explain how things would have turned out differently for the parties if that were to have occurred.  In other words, changing the facts of the hypothetical and writing about the issues that arise under the altered facts.  That's a no-no.  As in "no points."  It wastes your time.

Concision reigns.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 9, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NOW What?

Do you have to address the question, "NOW what am I going to do?  I have $100,000 in debt, and law jobs are drying up?" This is not just a Career Services question ... it definitely affects law school performance, and esprit de corps on campus in general.  So, NOW what?

According to Alan Scher Zagier, writing for the Associated Press, "The days of top law school graduates having their pick of six-figure jobs at boutique firms — or at least being assured of putting their degrees to use — are over.  Post-graduate employment rates are at their lowest levels in 15 years."

The article continues, explaining that because the employment rates have declined, so have the law school application rates.  "New student enrollment at UCLA law school is down 16 percent, while the University of Michigan reports a 14 percent decrease in applicants."

Now here's the good news (or maybe it's just speculation) for our students ... those who apply may be more committed, more sure of their career choice.  While a few years ago, very bright people with an aptitude for doing well in law school - but not necessarily with the desire and commitment you'd want to see in a lawyer representing you - were attracted to law school seeing it as "...a cakewalk to get a big salary," according to Sarah Zearfoss, the assistant law dean and admissions director at the University of Michigan.

According to the AP article, Larry Lambert, a 28-year-old U.S. Navy veteran struggled with the question of whether there were just too many lawyers before deciding to enroll in law school this semester.  He told the reporter that a candid conversation with a burned-out lawyer had "stopped me cold in my tracks." He began law school nevertheless, hoping to work as a federal prosecutor or in another position where he can "be a part of something bigger," and sees this diminishing application trend as "...one of the best things to happen to the profession in a long time. People don't go into social work thinking they want to get rich. They want to help people. The law should be like that."

Now THAT's the spirit!  Could it be that this trend - if that's what it is - will lead to more satisfaction among law students and then (am I the eternal optimist?) in the profession itself?  Click here to read the article.  (djt)

September 7, 2011 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Play Nice

As you may know, I'm a proponent of approaching law school as "practicing" law ... preparing for the professional practice by doing each day in law school many of the things laywers ought to be doing.  Example: attend every class.  There are hundreds of excuses ... even reasons for missing a class now and then.  But how many excuses or reasons stand up to the scrutiny of a client or a judge when a lawyer blows off a deposition or fails to show up for the second day of trial?  (Answer: zero.)

Now here's a real-life example.  In law school, students ought to be encouraged to learn to solve problems through dialogue, discussion, and respectful negotiation.   As Academic Support Professionals, many of us are the "go-to" folks for students who have "issues" with other students, faculty, or administrators.  That role doubles when we have dual capacities (like also serving as Dean of Students) as part of our responsibilities.

When students approach the office in tears, or in a heated rage, explaining how they have been wronged, think about how to counsel them with the "practice" idea in mind.  Law school can be a wonderful training ground for civil behavior under stress ... or the opposite.

Consider an order recently made by United States District Judge Sam Sparks in the case of Morris v. Coker.  "You are invited," wrote Judge Sparks, "to a kindergarten party on ... September 1, 2011 ... in courtroom 2 of the United States Courthouse, 200 W. Eighth Street, Austin, Texas."  His Honor includes a list of exciting topics to be addressed at the party, including, "How to telephone and communicate with a lawyer ... How to enter into reasonable agreements about deposition dates ... [and] an advanced seminar on not wasting the time of a busy federal judge and his staff because you are unable to practice law at the level of a first-year law student."  Later in the order, the Court encourages the invitees to bring their toothbrushes.  (Read the Court Order here.) 

According to Above  the Law, a web site for lawyers and law students, Judge Sparks is "...a colorful judge with a robust sense of humor, as well as a low tolerance for lawyer shenanigans and quarrels." 

Judge Sparks has campaigned for civility for years.  Another example of his impatience with purile behavior is his order of April 25, 2007, which includes several rhymed couplets.  Excerpts:

   Babies learn to walk by scooting and falling;
   These lawyers practice law by simply mauling
   Each other and the judge, but this must end soon
   (Maybe facing off with six-shooters at noon?)
   ... There will be a hearing with pablum to eat,
   And a very cool cell where you can meet
   And work out your infantile problem with the deposition.

(Read the whole "poem" here.)   Law school is a great place to learn to deal with difficulties.  After three years of practicing this skill, lawyers ought to be able to live up to the expectations of (even) Judge Sparks!  (djt)

September 4, 2011 in Advice, Miscellany, Professionalism, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82511 – Writing for your audience.

If you were to write a book for youngsters about how to play baseball, or an adult-oriented romance novel, your “audience” would be easy to identify.  In the first example, you’d be writing for an age group between 7 and 11; the readers would all be interested in baseball; and they’d be, let’s say, beginner-to-intermediate level of capability and sophistication in the sport.  In the second example, you could Google the demographics for who buys romance novels, and get a pretty good idea of who might purchase your book.  Audience identification is critical whenever you write—and that’s the case when you write answers to law school essay exam questions as well.

When you write the answer to a law school essay exam question, your audience is fictional.  Think of your audience (reader) as an informed attorney or a colleague (law student) who is quite familiar with the nature and purpose of law in general; who has read the fact pattern; and who has a passing familiarity with the law of the subject (torts or contracts, for example), but needs to be reminded of the precise rules of law. Then proceed as if you are explaining the situation to that person.

For example, that person would not need to read that often hunting knives have sharp edges, that if a person is the manager of a grocery store, one can assume that she is the person who ought to be in charge of the store, or that there is a difference between tortious battery and criminal battery in that the latter is punishable by imprisonment. 

Also, because the fictional reader has read the fact pattern, there’s no need to repeat sections or sentences of the question.  In other words, if the question includes, “When Mr. Slocum walked into the airport he noticed the aroma of something burning—and this immediately caused him concern” … then there is no need to include in your essay, “When Mr. Slocum walked into the airport he noticed the aroma of something burning—and this immediately caused him concern.”  (Rather, you could refer to Slocum’s location, refer to the aroma, or refer to Slocum’s concern, if they are key facts in your argument—no need to repeat what the reader has just read in the question.)

Although each step of your legal analysis ought to be in the essay, it is important not to waste your limited time by explaining what your audience can be expected to know.

Now let’s look at the “real” audience: your professor. Always write with your professor in mind. In general, hallmarks of an “A” grade answer include: identification of all issues, significant attention to “grey areas,” incorporation of higher-level argument techniques (example: using the “slippery slope” argument), integration of the legal principles and facts of the hypothetical with common sense notions, and policy support for a position taken.

However, professors differ in what they consider “A” grade material. Therefore, it is very important to obtain not only the old exam questions your professor has filed, but also—if available—her examples of quality answers. You should study these answers carefully, for there you will find which qualities your professor rewards with high grades.

You ought to also discuss with your professors what they look for in exam answers during office visits.  You will also get quite a bit of this information during class—be sure to put that in your notes! Do this with each of your professors to learn what he or she expects on a real exam. Whatever you discover, that’s what to practice!  Then incorporate your professors’ suggestions into your practice exam answers. 

Audience matters in everything you write … and the audience you write for when you compose answers to law school essay exam questions is likely to be a determinative factor in the grade you receive!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 25, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82211 – What “conclusory” means.

Professors and academic support professionals warn against writing answers – or addressing issues – in a way that is “conclusory.” Let’s take a look at what “conclusory” means.

Law examination answers that do not supply the explanatory information detailing how each step of the argument is arrived at are “conclusory.” That is, they recite conclusions without stating supportive analysis. A display of the thought process leading to every conclusion is essential in a law examination answer.

When you enter the professional practice, judges, lawyers, and clients will be asking, “How did you reach that conclusion?” Throughout law school, your professors will expect you to respond to that latent question in every class session and on every examination. The ability to conclude is not what “thinking like a lawyer” is about—rather, you are developing the ability to persuade another that the conclusion you have reached is supportable by application of rules of law to a set of facts.

To score the most points on each issue, the essay ought to specify the issue, indicate which rule (or set of rules) a lawyer would employ to resolve the issue, articulate an analysis of how the facts of this hypothetical case are affected by application of the rule, and reason to a solid conclusion.

Lawyerly analysis, in its most fundamental sense, boils down to an interweaving of the facts presented in the hypothetical, with the law you have identified. So to score more exam points, avoid conclusory statements—instead work on your analytical skills. {Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 22, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82011 – What an “issue” is.

Let’s take a look at what an “issue” is, within the context of answering law school essay exams. An issue is usually a question the court will be called upon to answer. Sometimes “major” issues, like whether a defendant is liable for negligence, are referred to as “ultimate questions” in the case – whereas the elemental questions are the determinative issues … the questions which, when answered, will determine the answer to the ultimate question.

For example, a major issue, or ultimate question in a Torts exam may be whether the defendant’s actions or omissions constitute the tort of negligence. The elemental issues which the trier of fact will be called upon to determine include whether the plaintiff can prove each of the elements of negligence: duty owed to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, causation, and damage. 

Many issues include sub-issues.  For example, when one finds a negligence issue, often it will require a thorough analysis of breach of duty, including a discussion based on the balancing of the gravity of harm against the burden on the defendant to have acted differently, and also including attention to the utility of the defendant’s allegedly negligent conduct.

To help identify issues and sub-issues, carefully read the facts to determine which elements of each rule ought to be discussed. As to issues, remember that it’s important to not only name them, but to explain how they arise in the circumstances set forth in the essay question.

After each issue is named, state the applicable rule that will be used to resolve the issue; then engage in discussion and analysis to reach a conclusion before moving to the next issue or sub-issue.

{Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 20, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Giving 3L's a time line

On the heels of my last post, I realized that a time line is appropriate for 3L's planning on taking the bar exam next July. This is especially important if your school does not offer bar prep; every year I hear about students who miss the deadlines for bar exam paperwork because they didn't know when they were due. The best resource when creating a 3L time line is Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz's Pass the Bar!; I would strongly recommend it to all 3L's.

A few pointers for 3L's and the ASPer's who work with them:

1) Know the state where you plan to sit for the bar and and the paperwork deadlines.

2) Know what paperwork is required for character and fitness and how long it will take to get the required documents. If students need to request their driving records from a state DMV or work summary from Social Security, they need to know how long this will take.

3) If a student is moving before the bar exam, they need to know when graduation is scheduled and when the commercial bar prep course starts. If graduation is on a Sunday and bar prep starts on Monday, it is good to be packed and ready to go before Sunday night.

4) Know the deadlines for signing up for commercial bar prep courses, and decide if they will need additional loans in order to pay for a course.

5) Ask recommenders how much time they will need to submit a reference.

There are many other pointers for 3L's that are state-specific. These are just a sampling of the things that trip up students and add stress to the 3L year.

(RCF)

August 18, 2011 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Giving 1L's a time line

As many ASPer's start orientation this week, I wanted to remind everyone that 1L's want (and need) a time line. I won't suggest a time line, because I think they are different depending on your school. Without a solid plan for their first semester, 1L's are left to rely on advice from the web and word-of-mouth regarding the proper time to start outlines, studying for exams, and working on practice essays. Here is a short list of things you might want on a time line for your incoming students:

1) Legal Writing Assignments: 1L's are always shocked at the amount of time they must devote to their first legal writing assignment. It's a good idea to give 1L's a rough idea of how many hours go into their first memo or brief. Encourage students to calendar the due dates and plan ahead. Students should understand that most professors do not want to see a "draft" 24-48 hours before the completed assignment is due, especially if they have been given weeks to complete the memo or brief. A time line should result in better assignments, and doctrinal teachers will thank you when they see fewer sleepy students the day after the assignment is due.

2) Outlining: I used to believe that there was a set time all students should start outlining. As I have gained experience, I realize this is something that is best decided school-by-school. Some professors finish a definable, set amount of material that allows ASPer's to tell students to start as soon as that topic is finished. Other professors start with an overview of the entire class, and then delve into topics in depth. When to start outlining depends on how your faculty teaches their courses and whether your school gives midterms. The only absolute advice applicable to all students is the need to start outlining before reading week.

3) Practice exams: Again, this is something that is best decided school-by-school. Some schools have midterms in each course, some have midterms in only one course, some schools still don't offer midterms.  Students should take a practice essay or exam before a midterm, especially if it is a graded midterm. Another variable is the amount and availability of prior exams students can use as practice. If your school offers only a few exams to students to use as practice, students should start later in the semester. Practice exams are crucial to success.

4) Take-home assignments (if applicable): If professors offer take-home assignments, students should have a rough sense of what it takes to complete the assignment. Like legal writing assignments, without a time line, students will either over-or-under prepare the assignment. This is not a result of student laziness (most of the time) but 1L's misunderstanding about the difference between undergrad and law school assignments.

I am sure there are many other things that can go on a timeline to distribute to 1L's; this is just a short list of things that baffle 1L's.

(RCF)

August 16, 2011 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #81411 - What professors look for when they grade essay exam answers.

In order to hit the target, you must have a clear view of the bulls-eye.  When you’re writing a law school essay-exam answer, you need to know exactly what your professor is hoping to find when he or she reads that answer.  It's true that some professors are looking for items, information, or methods of analysis that other professors don’t give a hoot about – there are differences in grading.  You ought to be able to pick up on these differences during class, during conferences with your professors, and by reviewing prior exam questions and (perhaps) prior graded answers.

Writing law school exam answers is different than almost any other writing you’ve done.  One of the most important differences is that – due in part to time constraints – you ought to focus on limiting each essay to point-scoring text. While wit, historical perspective, moral theorizing, and other aspects of what we consider to be “good writing” are definitely important to include in many genres – often even in legal writing – these generally lie somewhere between unimportant and deleterious when considering how to score the most points in essay exam answers.

Even though professors have their own preferences, when grading exams nearly all law professors award points for these characteristics:

  • Lawyerly skill in extricating the salient facts from inert, non-determinative facts presented in the narrative.
  • Capability to identify and specify the legal issues these key facts raise.
  • Ability to recall and accurately set out the applicable law or principle which leads to the resolution of the conflict.
  • Logical, organized interweaving of the facts with the elements of the law in a compelling analytical presentation.
  • Recognition of the driving policies and purposes of the law in question, and the ability to express how these policies and purposes support the resolution proposed by the answer. (Often you will find that there’s not much need for policy discussion.)
  • Proficiency in clear, concise, organized legal writing.

These criteria coincide with the several points stressed by Professor John Delaney, in his classic How to do Your Best on Law School Exams, and they continue to be the most important targets for high-scoring exam answers. 

{Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 14, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Road to Success

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)

August 6, 2011 in Advice, Miscellany, Professionalism, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Orientation Planning? A Great Piece by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder

The authors of "The Happy Lawyer" have authored a piece for students on what to do the summer before law school. This is a great article to use as a starting point for letters to incoming students and orientation planning. http://www.nationaljurist.com/content/summer-law-school

 

July 18, 2011 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)