Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Welcome to law school!
Welcome to law school, we’re glad you’re here! Many of you will be hearing this statement over and over again during the next few weeks, and may have various thoughts as to why so many people keep saying the same thing. Are they truly glad I’m here? Is this some sort of veiled greeting that masks the torture that waits? Will they still be happy to see me if I ask a “dumb” question? All good questions that any cautious soon to be lawyer would ask when entering into foreign territory. Let me hopefully assuage your fears by responding to those questions.
Yes, we are truly glad that you are at your respective law school. When many people are making the choice not to embark on this particular career path, you have decided to follow your passion to serve others and make this society better through the law. We are glad that you will continue to enrich the legal bar with your soon to be acquired legal skills. Does some form of torture await? Well, I wouldn’t call it torture but more of an intensive training program where you are mentally challenged (sometimes physically too) in order to build a sharp, curious and critical thinking mind. It’s somewhat analogous to running a marathon (so I’m told) the preparation is grueling and at times you may want to quit, but when the time comes to actually run the 26 miles you are ready and crossing the finish line will be the best thing in the world. A victory like no other; much like law school graduation or passing the bar exam. Will they still like you if you ask a “dumb” question? Everyone who enters law school as a student does so not having practiced law before, so no question is a dumb question. You are here to learn and professors will be very happy if you ask questions. In fact, one of the ways that your professors get to know you is by your questions and comments. Ask questions in class and in office hours. Let them know that you are paying attention and that you are curious; let them know who you are. Think of your professors as your trainers for the marathon. They are there to give you guidance, knowledge and encouragement as you train. However, they can’t give you what you need if you don’t ask questions and let them know what you need to succeed.
So, welcome to law school, I’m glad you decided to join the profession! I really mean it. (LMV)
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Summer is winding down and the fall semester starts in a few weeks, which means it’s time for everyone to offer advice on law school success. Here’s my two cents on how to start the semester off right: understand, organize, analyze. That’s it. Seems simple, right? Of course there is a catch. You will be reading court decisions and reading a case is not like reading fiction or textbooks. It goes beyond understanding the material. A case is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. To put that puzzle together you start with understanding the words within the case but then you must understand the case as a whole and how it fits into the larger organizational scheme. Finally, you must analyze that information under different fact scenarios to predict outcomes and resolve client issues. It won’t be easy at first and you will make mistakes, but the concepts are foundational and it won’t be long before understanding, organizing, and analyzing becomes a part of your internal thinking process.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is my mantra for law school, the bar exam, the practice of law. There are always unknown factors and more than one right answer. You have to do your best to be prepared for anything but it still might not be enough. Certainty, absolutes, and complete control are not common. When asked a question, most lawyers answer with, “It depends…” Studying for the bar exam is a real test in getting comfortable being uncomfortable. You struggle to learn a massive amount of material yet are tested on only a fraction of it, and your score depends on how well others do. It’s a nerve-wracking process. I talk to my students about what it takes and how they will feel but I also experience it with them. Each summer during bar prep I do something that makes me uncomfortable. This year I decided to run. Every day. For the entire bar prep period and through the bar exam (66 days). Yes, I’m a runner but I hadn’t been consistent and was definitely not in peak condition. I had never run this many consecutive days and I kept making excuses to not do this challenge. I was a little scared that I would fail, which is exactly why I had to do it. Before I started I set some ground rules for myself: each week I would take a max of 2 “rest” days (under 2 miles) and do at least 1 challenging run (high mileage, hills, etc.). I would also go public (facebook) so I couldn’t make excuses. Then I started running. I started out cautious because I was afraid I’d get worn out. I realized that was wimpy and kicked it up a notch. I added cross-training two days a week to build up strength. And I kept running. By the end, I ran almost 200 miles in 4 states, lost a few pounds, and got some killer tan lines. I also learned a lot about myself and what it means to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Of all the challenges I have done, this is the one that most connected me to what my students are going through. Here are just a few take-aways:
(1) If you don’t take a break every now and then, you’ll get worn out and crash.
(2) There is rarely a good reason not to run but there are a lot of excuses.
(3) If you don’t have a plan you’ll find yourself running at 9:30pm and again at 6:30am the next day.
(4) A bad run is still a run and you will benefit from it.
(5) You must believe in yourself but don’t underestimate the importance of friends and family.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s what it’s all about.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
My article is due to go out to law reviews on Friday. I have learned many, many things while writing the article, but the most important lesson learned is about teaching. Specifically, the process of submitting my piece to outside reviewers has given me renewed insight into what our students experience when they receive feedback. I know the research on students and feedback. However, it is completely different to experience getting feedback. If you have been in ASP for a while, you probably haven't received feedback since law school. Getting feedback is very tough. To write something, to spend weeks and months preparing, and then weeks and months writing, is emotionally draining and personally exhausting. You cannot help but feel that your admittedly flawed, incomplete article is a part of yourself. But then you have to let it go out to reviewers. If you are lucky, you will have tough, critical reviewers who are willing to tell you everything that is wrong with the piece, so that you can make it better before the submission process. I have been blessed with some really tough reviewers, and my piece is immeasurably better because they spent hours telling me just what is wrong with my flawed, incomplete article. I am confident that what goes out on Friday morning is no longer flawed or incomplete, but a fully-realized articulation of a problem. And it is better, stronger, and complete because of the feedback I received from outside reviewers.
The process of receiving feedback has reminded me how tough it is on our students. They spend all semester struggling with the material, and then they are judged on their learning just once or twice a semester. They cannot help but feel like they are being personally judged, evaluated, and measured. Part of our job is to help our students see that critical feedback is not meant to measure failures and self-worth, but to show them how to be stronger, better, and smarter. It is a part of the "invisible curriculum" of law schools (to use a Carnegie term) that criticism will produce stronger lawyers. We need to make that visible to students; we need to explain that we give them critical feedback because we believe they can be smarter, stronger, better thinkers and writers.
If you are a long-term ASPer, try writing an article for a law review. It may not help you in your professional evaluations, you may not need it for tenure, but you should do it because it will make you a better teacher. Reading about feedback is not the same as receiving feedback. Write because it will help you understand your students.
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)
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.
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, 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)
Monday, January 13, 2014
Alex and Rebecca have made very valid points in their posts regarding grades and reactions to grades last week. I would like to add some additional observations.
Our law students with few exceptions have always beeen at the top of the heap. A and B grades have come easily to them during their educational lives. In addition they have been campus leaders, successful athletes, officers in community youth groups - and for the non-traditional students, community leaders and exemplary employees. Whether their grades are good for law school (but just not good enough for them) or in the great middle of the class (those ever present C grades) or at the bottom of the heap for law school (probation or dismissal), the shock is there when their expectations are not met.
To be very honest, I find that many law students have not learned good study habits in prior educational settings even though they got excellent grades. A variety of factors play into that situation:
- grade inflation (one study showed that 75% of college grades are As and Bs),
- multiple-choice "just recognize the right answer" exams,
- no papers or only short papers written,
- papers that focus on just ideas and not writing style/grammar/punctuation,
- spoon feeding of what will need to be regurgitated on the exam,
- multiple exams that allow for cramming pieces of a course rather than comprehensive understanding of material,
- grading that allows for the lowest grade on exams/assignments to be dropped,
- group work that allows slackers to coast for the same grade as the others who did the work,
- and many more aspects.
When students are suddenly confronted with the amount of material in law school courses and the one-grade phenomenon of many courses, their old study habits no longer work. This reality is especially true if they came from educational backgrounds that were not competitive for grades and handed out accolades for basically showing up and doing the minimum.
The good news for all law students is that solid study strategies can be learned and make a difference in one's grades. More efficient and effective reading, briefing, note-taking, outlining, and exam-taking can all boost grades. Time management and organization are key skills that can also be learned.
Attitude is critical as well. Realizing that one can change and improve is important to future success. Willingness to work hard and change one's habits are major steps. Some law students get discouraged and settle for being average or below average as though their destiny is fixed after grades come out.
Do not give in to that mindset! Students can change their academic study strategies and reach their academic potential. Students can improve their grades wherever they currently fall in their classes. All students can change their strategies and gain greater learning with less stress.
Why do I believe this? I work weekly with a number of probation students each semester to help them find more efficient and effective ways to study. Look at some statistics for grades this past semester from probation students who met with me regularly, changed their study strategies, and worked smarter. Some made greater strides than others, but improvement resulted. (I have not included information for 3 probation students whose grades for one course are still unreported.)
GRADE POINT PRIOR SEMESTER'S COURSES GRADE POINT FALL SEMESTER COURSES
(last enrolled regular semester GPA; not cum GPA) (fall semester GPA; not cum GPA)
- 1.321 2.666
- 1.428 2.750
- 1.571 3.045
- 1.607 2.678
- 1.642 2.607
- 1.642 2.678
- 1.714 3.000
- 1.733 2.250
- 1.750 2.650
- 1.857 2.500
- 1.892 2.785
- 2.107 3.384
- 2.250 2.333
And here are the statistics for 2 other probation students:
- 1.642 1.857 (cancelled many ASP appointments; up for dismissal)
- 1.866 3.600 (did not meet with ASP)
Intervention by the Office of Academic Success Programs is not the only variable that determines improvement as can be seen by the last example. The number of strategies implemented, the number of hours studied, motivation, individual appointments with professors for help, personal circumstances, sleep/nutrition/exercise, and other variables also have impacts.
The point is that for all of the students who implemented more efficient and effective study strategies, improvement happened. Once all the grades are in for the remaining 3 students, will all of the students I met with meet academic standards? Maybe not, but 13 probation students have already exceeded the standards they needed and are on the road to future success. By honing their new study strategies, they should be able to continue at their new academic levels and beyond.
The take away from this post: Put last semester's GPA behind you and move forward by seeking assistance from ASP and your professors so that you can implement new study strategies to help you improve your grades and live up to your academic potential. There is no magic bullet or guarantee, but there is hope. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
When I was a law student, I looked at Thanksgiving break as prime study time. Many of my friends and study partners avoided the travel rush in order to best prepare for final exams and catch up on much needed sleep. With over 25 million people traveling around Thanksgiving, it may be wise for many of you to opt out of travel as well.
However, maintaining traditions and building community helps strengthen bonds and provides comfort at a time of the year when we need it most. Therefore, circa 1997, my law school comrades and I decided to create a new Thanksgiving tradition- Friendsgiving. We all gathered on Thanksgiving Eve and feasted on roasted turkey, pecan topped sweet potato soufflé, and amazing homemade pumpkin and apple pies (with a mug of hot cider spiked with Tuaca). A foodies delight!
When we were overwhelmed by the semester and feeling gloomy from the rainy gray Seattle skies, we gathered for a night filled with delicious food and gratitude. I feel blessed to have found lifelong friends during my time in law school. I consider all of them my Seattle family. We spend several holidays each year together and now we are almost outnumbered by our children, but Friendsgiving started it all. This year I am hosting our 15th Friendsgiving celebration!
Before you jump into your weekend of studying, I encourage you to create your own Friendsgiving tradition!
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Sometimes, timing is everything. Law students need to learn to use their time wisely to effectively manage the demands of law school while balancing jobs, families, and self-care. Being at the right place at the right time makes a significant difference for law students who are networking for job opportunities and seeking support systems. Also, timing and pacing during a final exam (or the bar exam) can mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one. In this post, I have referenced song lyrics that incorporate the theme of time while relating them to the law school experience.
“If I could save time in a bottle…” I know I may be dating myself with this one, but I had to begin with this classic line from Jim Croce’s hit love song “Time in a Bottle”. Ask your students what they would do if they could save time in a bottle. Are they making the most of each moment? Are they being intentional with how they plan their schedules, spend their time, and balance their commitments? We all want more time (especially law students), but instead of focusing on the lack of time we have, highlight ways to use time more efficiently and encourage your students to be present when free moments avail themselves.
“I’ve got too much time on my hands…” This classic rock song by Styx was written as a reflection on the unemployment crisis in the 70’s. The underlying theme in the lyrics rings true in many respects for today’s law students. They are worried about their careers, finding a job, and performing well on exams. They may not be able to tighten their focus when they actually do find that they have “time on their hands." Time management does not always come naturally. Providing students with tools and resources to help them manage their time will help them prioritize, use their free time wisely, and establish effective routines.
Similar to the melancholy quality of Styx’s lyrics, Otis Redding hits a few low notes when he croons about… “sitting on the dock of the bay…wasting time….” Students sometimes sit and feel like they cannot catch a break. Redding’s hit resonates with students who are feeling like they have left the life they knew only to find that law school is challenging, competitive, and sometimes disappointing. When they feel like “nothing's gonna change”, we step in to give them hope. Providing the tools for success to law students empowers them to make necessary changes to ensure their success. Especially at the close of the semester, we need to recognize that law students are exhausted, overloaded, and feeling lost. As Cyndi Lauper so aptly sings in “Time After Time”, when law students "are lost, they turn and they will find [us]", Academic Support Professionals. We catch them and lift them back up.
After exams or a when facing a rough patch during the semester, students may need to turn to ASP for this lift or for help with creating a new plan for their upcoming semester. If their study strategies or exam performance are subpar, they begin humming, “If I could turn back time” (with Cher’s iconic diva-ness echoing in their minds). Reflecting on study habits, legal analysis skills, and exam performance are key components to succeeding in law school. Everyone has moments in their past that they wish they could replay (or delete). Using these moments as opportunities for growth instead of moments of failure, helps students see beyond their initial shock, shame, or disappointment.
Like the Stones, we want our students to sing (and feel) that "time is on my side, yes it is...." While this may not always be realistic, there are many ways to get closer to that dream. Here are a few ideas:
- Create sample study schedules for your students
- Give them calendars and checklists to help them plan their time
- Ask them to keep a journal that tracks how they use their time during a typical day or week and then ask them to reflect on their time management
- Provide a time management workshop or webinar
- Have them draft a to do list at the start of each day and evaluate their progress at the end of each day
- Pair 1L students up with a 2L or 3L mentor to discuss how to effectively schedule their time
- Challenge students to unplug for a block of time each day (This is a good one for all of us!)
- Teach students the art of delegation
- Encourage students to take time each day to recharge.
By establishing routine time management practices, students will feel more balanced and be more productive. Because as Pete Seeger so aptly wrote, there is "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We should all spend more time dancing.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Every year, I have a handful of first-year students who do not utilize ASP because they believe that it is only intended for students for whom "something is wrong." They think (or, more precisely, fear that others think) that ASP is for students who don't understand the law, or haven't slept in a week, or have a recurring dream where they are naked in class and the professor is beaning them with copies of the Restatement.
They are not wrong to think that ASP is primarily targeted at struggling students. ASP is usually built around specific programs targeted at students who have already "failed" at one indicator or another (low LSAT, low GPA, failed exams).
The problem is that the perception of ASP as a program for students who can't quite make it means that some students who could greatly benefit from ASP services are not taking advantage of them. They believe either that they "get it well enough" (a common feeling for weak first-year students in the fall) or they are embarrassed to come. In the past, some struggling students have told me that they feel there's something shameful about using ASP. One of the ways I've tried to fight against this problem is to work on "de-pathologizing" struggle in the first year.
The first year of law school should be a struggle. It should stretch students' minds. Law school asks them to think deeply and critically, forces them to analyze all that they think they know, and requires them to participate in class in an utterly new pedagogical style. The question that law school thrusts upon first year students is: How do you know what you think you know? This is not just a matter of learning to think like a lawyer. For some students, it can call into crisis their entire worldview. Of course they struggle. They must struggle, because it's in the struggle itself that thoughtful, critical thinking is born.
We tell them that law school is difficult and that they will think in new ways, study more hours, and do more work than they might have done before in their educational careers. Despite this, some students still seem to get the message that there is something wrong in needing help in that struggle. Perhaps it comes from their peers, or perhaps it's a result of the ease and success they had in undergraduate school. Perhaps it's a message from the larger culture and the image of what a "smart and successful" lawyer should look like. But wherever they are getting it from, the belief that struggling with law school is a sign of weakness is compounding their difficulty.
This year, I have made a great effort to not say things along the lines of "If you're not getting this for some reason..." or "If you need my help..." I have also tried to present coming to workshops, going to tutoring, and seeing me individually simply as something that successful law students do as part of their routine. I think it's worked -- I've had over 100 students at every workshop, and I've had to switch rooms for tutoring because of overflow issues. I've also been emailing as many students as I can to ask them to meet me individually to look over outlines or do sample questions. I've let them know in that email that they aren't being targeted for any other reason than that they were the next name on my list. Finally, I employ 18 tutors, all of whom are in the very top of the class. In hiring the tutors this year, I made sure that as first-year students each of them came to every ASP workshop and went to all of the tutoring sessions available. That way, I can simply point at the very successful tutors and say, "They came to everything -- they utilized services -- nothing was 'wrong' with how they were doing in law school -- they just realized ASP was a good idea -- and look how things turned out."
Luckily, I don't think this perception affects a majority of students. However, year after year, a majority of first-year students who get in serious trouble didn't use ASP when it could have helped them. Consequently, whatever small things I can do to reach students who might not have used ASP are worthwhile. [Alex Ruskell]
Monday, June 10, 2013
It’s summer now. All of the exams are scored, grades assigned. It’s time for a little reflection….
It occurred to me at the recent inaugural AASE conference (which was great, by the way!) that
this last year was really busy for me. Not in a “Wow, I surely did accomplish a lot this year” way, but in a “Man,this year was so busy that I feel like I got very little accomplished” way.
If you are like me, then any given day during the semester could look something like this:
9:00 a.m.: Eat breakfast while returning yesterday’s e-mails.
9:45 a.m.: Make a to-do list of the things I want to accomplish today.
10:00 a.m.: 1-on-1 meeting with struggling 2L.
10:30 a.m.: 1-on-1 meeting with 1L.
11:00 a.m.: Prep for 1:00 class.
11:15 a.m.: Interrupt prep to meet with a walk-in student.
11:30 a.m.: Return to class prep.
11:45 a.m.: Another drop-in.
12:00 p.m.: Skip lunch to complete class prep.
1:00 p.m.: Teach class.
3:00 p.m.: Return to office for office hours.
4:00 p.m.: Grab lunch.
4:15 p.m.: Eat lunch at desk while reviewing a past exam for the next student meeting.
4:30 p.m.: Place partially eaten lunch on credenza and meet with struggling 1L.
5:00 p.m.: Ask 5:00 appointment to be patient, because the 4:30 meeting is going long.
5:10 p.m.: Begin 5:00 appointment.
5:30 p.m.: Ask 5:30 appointment to wait about 10 minutes.
5:50 p.m.: Apologize to 5:30 appointment for the late start.
6:55 p.m.: End 5:50 appointment, which went over an hour due to my “late start guilt.”
6:56 p.m.: Look at partially eaten lunch on credenza. Decide to take a bite.
6:57 p.m.: Throw partially eaten lunch away. It has turned.
7:00 p.m.: Call my wife, and tell her that I’m working late tonight.
7:05 p.m.: Work on faculty committee work.
8:30 p.m.: Begin reviewing today’s e-mails.
8:45 p.m.: Begin reviewing student work sent in today’s e-mail.
9:30 p.m.: Look at the list of things I meant to accomplish today.
9:35 p.m.: Choose to leave work notwithstanding 90% of my to do list is not done.
9:36 p.m.: Promise to do better tomorrow.
10:15 p.m.: Grab dinner at a drive through to eat at home.
11:00 p.m.: Go to bed.
1:00 a.m.: Wake up with indigestion.
1:05 a.m.: Check e-mail before going back to sleep.
1:10 a.m.: Return e-mail from a troubled student.
1:11 a.m.: Troubled student responds.
1:13 a.m.: Respond to troubled student.
1:15 a.m.: Troubled student responds.
1:17 a.m.: Respond to troubled student with a very clear, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
1:20 a.m.: Troubled student responds with “just one last question.”
1:22 a.m.: Respond to troubled student.
1:25 a.m.: Troubled student responds.
1:30 a.m.: Turn off my phone and promise to e-mail troubled student tomorrow.
Does this seem at all familiar to you? Am I crazy? Because I have to be honest with you, I originally was trying to be funny when drafting the sample day above. But it occurred to me by the time that I finished that it was all too realistic. I absolutely have days like this. A lot of them. And please note that as I string days like these together, there’s nothing on that list that says “spend six uninterrupted hours working on scholarly writing” or “go off-campus for a weekly afternoon of community service at local high school” or “work out” or “read for fun” or “eat lunch at a reasonable hour” or “write that blog post that you promised Amy Jarmon months ago.”
As I think about this, I wonder how I get anything done. I’m so busy, and there’s always so much to do. I’m not complaining, mind you. I like to be busy. But I realize, looking at the schedule above, that my days are so full that a lot is getting missed. I realize now, in my head, that my thoughts sound a lot like a law student’s:
“I don’t have time to do everything.”
“Where am I supposed to find the time?”
“I’m working really hard, but I always feel behind.”
“I have so much to read. I can’t get anything else done.”
“I can’t think beyond tomorrow.”
“I’m not sure how I’m going to get everything finished.”
“I’m not getting enough sleep.”
“I don’t have much personal time.”
“I’m not procrastinating. I just can’t get to things until just before they are due.”
“I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to get all of my work done.”
“I guess I’ll just do the best I can.”
I hear these complaints from law students every day. And I genuinely believe that I give them really good advice. So, I wonder, how might I advise myself? Here is some simple, familiar advice that I now offer to myself, and possibly to those of you who are like me:
1. Make a schedule.
Plan out what you want to accomplish each day. Don’t just put “write” or “work” on your calendar. Plan days with detail. For example, set aside reasonable stretches of time to work on
individual tasks. Keep in mind all that you must accomplish in a given day. Set aside time in your schedule to accomplish each task and to complete the tasks overall.
In addition, engage in long-term planning. Look weeks (even months) ahead to see what deadlines exists or what longer projects must be completed. Estimate the amount of total time that you need to complete those projects and then spread the bigger tasks out, working on a little bit at a time, rather than trying to accomplish all of it at once. All nighters are often a reflection of poor planning. If you plan better, hopefully you won’t be spending the last day or two before a deadline working insanely to finish your project.2. Focus on one thing at a time.
Even though we all think we can multitask pretty well, you might find it helpful to isolate certain tasks. When writing, find an environment that is free of distractions – though you should know yourself and avoid an environment that is too quiet, if you know you won’t be productive there. An hour spent meaningfully on one task is probably more efficient than three hours spent on that one task while simultaneously trying to accomplish other goals or spending those hours in a state of distraction.3. Build in time to care for yourself.
It is important to eat and work out and spend time with family. Don’t just expect that time to appear. Plan it out. Put “Lunch” in your schedule, and put “Work Out” in your schedule at specific times. Then, respect those times. From now on, you are unavailable to do work during those times. You’re going to feel better if you eat and exercise regularly, and the remaining hours in the day will be more energized and productive.
4. Prioritize tasks.
On busy days, figure out what must be done and what can wait. Reschedule a meeting if you must; ask for extra time on a task when you can. Then spend your day focusing on the most important things but avoiding the guilt about the other, less important things.
5. Do not allow one task to dominate your time.
It is all too easy to get sucked into working on one task to the exclusion of all others. Don’t let this happen. Even though you have prioritized tasks, and one seems (or is) more important than the others, do not let that one task allow you to fail on all the others. I see this all the time with my students who are working on writing assignments. The writing assignment is due this week. It will get a grade. It seemingly is the most important thing on the schedule. Students work all day and night on the writing, simultaneously falling behind in reading, outlining, class attendance, and other obligations they have. While working on the paper with extreme multi-day focus is actually an understandable decision when one is taking a snapshot view of a student’s life, less so when looking at the “movie” version. Decisions have consequences, even the well-intended decision to focus on only one thing that happens to be due this week.
Sometimes, you will find yourself in a position where you will have to grind. By that I mean that you will be busy, tired, working late, irritable (is that allowed in ASP?), hungry, and overwhelmed, among other things. But you have to press forward; keep working and check things off of that to do list. Things will settle down, especially if you plan ahead a little better, and you’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
7. Just start working.
If you’re feeling paralyzed about work, sometimes the best thing you can do is start working. Overwhelmed by the amount of research you need to accomplish in order to write a scholarly article? Just sit down at your computer and start writing the article, figuring out the finer points of research focus as you go. Need to grade exams, just pick one up and start reading it. Need to give Paula Manning-type feedback on a paper, just get started. Need to write a blog post, just tap into your thoughts and get started. Don’t worry about perfection, just do some work.
One of my favorite pieces of advice for students who are having trouble outlining is the advice to just get started. The task seems so overwhelming to them, so I say this: Imagine riding a bicycle on flat ground, or maybe even a little uphill. When you first get started, you have to stand up, shifting your weight on the pedals, rocking the bike side-to-side, in order to build momentum slowly. But, after you have momentum, you find that the pedaling is easier, you can sit down on the seat, and you can still keep up your pace with less intense effort. So, dig down and spend a little extra energy to just get started. You’ll find that once you do, the going forward is much easier, as is forming the belief that you are able to keep moving forward.
I am going to follow my own advice. Starting today. (Well, maybe tomorrow, because today is almost over.) Ask me at the end of the summer if I finished my article and book. If I don’t give you the right answer, point me back to this blog post. Please. Because it’s going to be busy in the fall. Really busy. So the time for productivity and accomplishment is now.
Happy and productive summer months, one and all!
Friday, May 10, 2013
My law students are looking a bit ragged these days. Exams have started here, and many look tired, worried, or discouraged. Smiles and laughter have seemed to die out amid the seriousness of exams and final papers. The graduating 3L students are ambivalent about any elation over graduating because they know bar review will be immediately on the heels of that ceremony. For those who desire employment that requires bar passage prior to application and those still waiting to hear about jobs, additional tension is felt.
It is easy to get discouraged when under stress. My advice to my students is that they stay focused on their goals. Rather than get mired in the enormity of a difficult exam, future bar review study, or uncertainty about jobs, they need to remember why they came to law school in the first place.
Most of our students came because they were passionate about helping others and being of service. A few may have been motivated by future high salaries, but not that many in reality. We pride ourselves on graduating students who are ready to practice. Because of the large number of rural areas and small towns in the huge geographic expanse of Texas, we enroll many students who want to go back home to small or mid-sized firms and make a difference in their local communities.
Despite all of the current animosity generated about law school, the legal profession is still very necessary to the lives of ordinary citizens. There is still a nobility in helping others find justice and in solving legal problems for those who cannot be their own advocates. If students can focus on these purposes and the intrinsic values that brought them to law school, they can respond with greater resiliency during exams, bar review, and job hunts.
I hope that all of our students will be able to keep the faith in their goals and their chosen profession during the difficult times and when obstacles seem so great. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, December 20, 2012
If you have the opportunity to team-teach a course at your law school, jump at the opportunity.
With the close of this semester, I've had a chance to think about how team-teaching has worked in one of the new courses a colleague and I teach. Two advantages to the team approach were obvious: the broadening of the students' learning experience, and the broadening of the teaching experience for those of us at the front of the room (yes, I know, asp-ers, you are all over the room!).
This new course, “Practical Lawyering Skills,” was created to fill a gap in our academic support offerings. While we had plenty of academic support offerings in the first year, and a newly introduced third-year “just-before-you-take-the-bar” course for graduating students, the second year (or third year for our part-time students) was empty of academic support opportunities. Intervention in the second year seemed a natural extension of academic support offerings.
It also seemed natural to me to design the course as a team-taught enterprise in order to bring as much diverse experience to the class as possible, both in teaching style as well as in legal experience. My co-teacher in the fall semester is a senior faculty member, highly respected by faculty and students alike. As well as having impressive criminal law experience, she is also an experienced doctrinal professor having won “best teacher” awards several times. The two of us, having team-taught in other courses over many years, are comfortable together in the classroom.
In the spring I teach with a newer professor, but one with plenty of civil practice experience. While our experience teaching together is not as deep as that with my fall colleague, the teaching relationship is quickly maturing after just one semester together. I think students enjoy this ”double treat,” something we carry over into the grading of their assignments so that students get a broad spectrum of evaluation.
The "carry-over" effect of team-teaching reaches outside the classroom as well. My colleagues often ask about the "how" of our team-teaching, about the logistics of how we do it—the choreography. (More about that at another time.)
What I tell my colleagues, however, is that the strength of our team-teaching is more about what happens outside the classroom--in our preparation, debriefing, and shared evaluation of students--more so than in our dual presence in the classroom. While many of us have had someone observe our classes to receive feedback on our approach, the team-teaching model creates a constant stream of observation and evaluation, as well as a constant conversation about how we approach the course and, on any given day, how we approach and deliver specific, daily classroom goals.
That conversation provides endless opportunities for evaluating global teaching approaches as well as the individual components of a class session. So you can have a continual discussion and evaluation from the creator's point of view, and you don't have to wait for the student reviews some time after the final exam to make some navigation corrections. What I have learned from this experience has given me greater confidence in the classroom and a greater willingness to take risks.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
I know this title sounds like a new Hollywood apocalyptic action film; but, it is not. Instead, this is the next step that I suggest repeat bar examinees take in their journey to passing the bar exam. Once these grads have processed their emotions regarding their bar results, they are ready to look toward the future.
Diagnosing weaknesses from their past exam is helpful so that they know how to effectively structure their study schedule for the upcoming exam. I read through their essays and look for accurate and complete issue identification, errors or law, and their use of key facts in their analysis. (The WA bar exam is currently essay-only.) I also pay close attention to their organizational framework and approach to each essay. I find that students with weak organization likely did not write enough practice essays. Or, they wrote practice essays during bar review; but, they either did not write the essays under testing conditions (closed-book and timed) or they did not evaluate their essays after writing them. I ask them to assess how they studied for the bar the first time and to think about ways they could improve their routine.
Delivering tough love is also a necessary part of this process. Sometimes delivering tough love along with pointing out their imperfections is too much for them to take in one sitting. One must tread lightly and gauge emotional stability when dealing with repeat bar exam takers. While you may hear Aaron Neville crooning the song “Tell it Like It Is” in the back of your mind, these repeat exam takers may not be prepared mentally to hear what you have to say. If you recognize that they have not already reached a level of acceptance with their results, they may not be ready to move forward with the rest of the meeting.
However, it is counterproductive to merely tell these grads what they want to hear. They are in my office for my honest opinion about what they did wrong and how they can remedy those defects. Thus, I offer constructive criticism and try to deliver it with a spoonful of sugar (…it helps the medicine go down). As mentioned in my earlier post, I always have a basket full of chocolate nearby and that seems to help.
Likely, there are high points in their exam file. I focus first on a good example or concentrate on a higher scored essay. Then, I move to an essay that may need more work. By evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, they have a better understanding of which features to maintain and which to change. In recognizing their strengths; they build confidence. In understanding their weaknesses, they build up their determination and resilience, which they will need in order to move forward.
Together, once we have diagnosed the flaws in their past exam and identified their strengths, I instruct them to put that exam away and stop thinking about it. They can no longer change what happened during that 2 day exam. It was a snapshot in their life, which will be filled with a million more. In order to move forward, one must let go of the past. It is time for them to destroy their self-doubt. It is time for them to destroy the negativity around their past experience. They cannot make a new plan without first destroying any uncertainty that they have in their ability to pass.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
I would like to do a series of posts featuring my amazing ASP colleagues. ASP'ers are so dedicated to improving not only student academics but also student lives! Whether you have worked in ASP for just 2 months or over 20 years, your thoughts will encourage and inspire others.
Please send me 50 words or less on why you work in academic success work (this description includes bar preparation and pre-law work that you might do in addition to other academic success tasks).
With your submission include:
- either a link to your faculty profile on your law school website and/or a small jpeg picture
- your job title
- how long you have been in ASP work.
I look forward to receiving your thoughts. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
I have spent the past three weeks teaching gifted 10, 11, and 12 year olds in Palo Alto, CA. I do this every summer, and I learn a lot from the kids. I teach college-level Model United Nations and Advanced Geography, and all the students are required to formally address the class about their nation's position on the issue involved in the simulation. This year, the class had a student who was terrified of public speaking. Her terror mirrored what I see in 1L's approaching moot court. I learned a great deal from this student as she overcame her fear and went on to be on the the class's strongest advocates.
1) Trust rules of procedure.
The student, who I will call A, learned that rules of parliamentary procedure were her friend. All students needed to follow the rules, so she knew what to expect when she was asked to speak. No one could yell out or distract her, or they would be violating the rules. While moot court doesn't use rules of parliamentary procedure, there are rules that protect the speaker. Many students with a fear of public speaking are afraid of public ridicule, and the rules associated with moot court prevent the heckling they fear.
2) Preparation will make you feel better.
A knew her position on the issues. She could answer any question. She knew she had done the research. Her paper was approved by two different teachers. These steps helped allay some of her fears that she would be asked a question that she could not answer. Some of her fear of public speaking was a fear of being caught off-guard. Preparation, and guidance, make a huge difference when a student fears public speaking.
3) Everyone makes mistakes.
A was not the first speaker, which allowed her to listen to her classmates before she had to speak. We asked her to listen for mistakes, because even the best, most fluid speakers make mistakes. When she saw that the mistakes did not mar the substance of most speeches, she was able to relax.
4) If you feel the ideas flying out of your head, stop talking. Take a deep breath. Start again.
When A realized that no one would heckle her if she forgot part of her speech, it calmed her nerves. But we still needed to reassure her that she could forget her speech, and she could take a second to regain her composure and resume speaking. She had a 60-second time limit on her speech (far less than most appellate arguments in moot court) but she still had enough time to take a deep breath and start again if she felt like she was losing control. Just the knowledge that she could take a second helped keep her calm during her first few speeches to the class.
For those of you who are thinking "but the stakes are SO much higher in law school," take a minute to recall being in middle school. This class was filled with super-competitive, ambitious, and gifted middle school students who have never failed at anything in their short lives. These students choose to take a college-level class during their summer vacation. The thought of making a mistake feels life-altering to them. Because they live in dorms while they take the class, they cannot escape from their peers. The fear that A felt is not much different from the fear felt by 1L's. (RCF)
Monday, July 30, 2012
My feet are wet. In fact, my jeans are wet all the way up above my knees. I have been standing in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean watching lightning off in the distance.
I called my wife while I stood there. She isn't here, but she should've been. I had to come to a conference to speak, and we thought we should not spend the money it would take for her to come down with me.
You see, we just spent a couple of weeks in the Colorado Rockies on vacation. We figured that we should be a little more careful with our money after that trip, so we thought it better that she not join me this time, given how expensive flights to Florida from Kansas are.
It sounded wise and responsible at the time. She was originally going to come with me because our 35th anniversary takes place while I am in Florida. We had thought it would be romantic to spend it together on the beach, even if I had to take some time out to attend sessions and present a talk.
But money considerations won out, and she stayed home. We decided to celebrate our anniversary when I return.
Sometimes wisdom is not all that wise. Looking out over the ocean as it crashed against my feet, I realized that my wife should have been standing next to me, whether we could afford it or not. I called her from the surf and asked her to get on a plane tomorrow and fly down here –whether we could afford it or not.
Flights and other arrangements may not work out on such short notice. I wish I had gotten my feet wet three weeks ago and arranged for her to come with me.
I don't tell you this story to say that you should waste money. You know the saying by now, no doubt, "Live like a lawyer while you are in law school, and you will live like a law student when you get out."
On the other hand, when you look back at your life, you will realize that some things just mattered more than good money management. Or maybe, good money management includes making stupid decisions for wise reasons sometimes.
I don't really know. But after 35 years of raising kids, dealing with life, and falling asleep in each others arms, we should not have worried about the cost of a plane ticket on the eve of our anniversary.
Sometimes, you ought to get your feet wet when the opportunity arises, rather than stay dry and in miss something important. (Dan Weddle)