May 22, 2007
A Little Gratitude
My neighbor's son just graduated from high school, and he stopped my wife the other day and asked question that surprised her, mostly because he of the way he asked it. He is not an emotional guy, and he is not one of those people who needs to hear a thank you when he pitches in to help out someone else. Nevertheless, he began to tear up a little and asked my wife, "Do they ever let you know they are grateful for all that you have done for them?"
My children are in their twenties, so my wife and I have been through high school graduations and sending children off to college, so my wife understood his question and the disappointment that underlay it. My wife assured him that they do, eventually, in one way or another, let you know they understand all the hard work and love that went into raising them; it is just that they usually do not do it until they are long past high school.
I taught high school for a number of years before attending law school, and I saw the same thing with my students. A few high school students will express gratitude to their teachers during commencement, but the malls are not teeming with those students. High school students mostly go on to college and the rest of their lives without saying thanks to the teachers who gave so much time and sweat to teaching them skills essential to their future success.
After I had taught a while, however, I found that former students, five or ten years down the road, would stop by just to say, "Thank you for all that you did." The longer I taught, the more often that happened. One time, I ran into a former student who ten years earlier had taken every opportunity to let the teachers and administrators know that he thought that our school was a waste of his time. That day, however, he told me that he had decided to go into teaching. He told me he had spent some time coaching kids in a summer baseball league and that he had suddenly realized what it was we had been trying to do for him all those years before. He said he decided then that he wanted to spend his life doing the same thing and that he was now teaching high school.
It took time to hear those kinds of things from high school students because students generally have to experience success for a while before they start to look back over their lives to see who contributed to that success. Until I had taught for a few years, most of my former students just were not old enough to be reflective about the people who had been there for them when they were young.
I suspect the same is true for those of us who work in academic support. I have worked in the field for only a couple of years now, and I have already had a few students go out of their way to say thanks, probably because law students are more mature than their high school counterparts; but few have expressed that genuinely deep gratitude that I still hear every so often from my former high school students.
Law school graduates are busy celebrating the end of law school, preparing for and worrying about the bar exam, moving on in their lives and careers. Down the road, I suspect some will come back to express a deeper gratitude, just as high school students go back to let their teachers know that things are going well and that they hope they have made their teachers proud, just as children one day realize just how much was required of their parents.
I say all of this because at the end of the year, teaching can seem like a thankless job sometimes. Students are not necessarily grateful for all of their professors' hard work, including the hard work of those of us in academic support. If you are new to the field, you may be a little dismayed that your students are not more enthusiastic in their gratitude, and you may wonder if anything you have done was really worth it to them.
I know we are not in this work so that we can have students thank us one day, but the gratitude of students can let us know our work was not in vain, so the thanks matter on some level. Anyone who serves others wants to know occasionally that the work was appreciated.
My experience, as a parent and as a teacher, tells me that the thanks will come someday. You will begin to hear from students, often long after they have gone; and they will let you know that they see all that you did for them. Some, maybe most, will never take the time to say it -- some children never tell their parents -- but most will think it, and some will say it.
What you are doing matters, and it matters to your students -- if not today, someday. Keep plugging along, thanks or no, because you are changing lives. One day, someone will stop you on the street or come up to you at a reception or maybe even drop by your office; and you will hear how much all that you did meant to him. You did not help him so that one day you would hear him say thank you; but when you hear it, you will see your work through different eyes. (Dan Weddle)
May 09, 2007
Every August, I watch a new crop of first-year students milling around, waiting for orientation activities to begin. Some look confident, others a little anxious; some talk, and some sit quietly, avoiding conversations; some seem nonchalant, others cautiously excited. As a group, they seem ready for what's coming as their first year begins.
And I always think to myself, "They're about to get hit by a train, and they don't even know they're on the tracks."
It is true, of course. They are about to be hit by a train they have not anticipated, even if someone has warned them ahead of time. Until you have been to law school, you just can't get it. You can know it will be challenging; you can know that it will take hard work and long hours. But you can't really know what is about to hit you until it hits you.
Some might say that law school itself is the train, driven by professors who delight in driving it over unsuspecting students who cannot possibly hope to compete with scholars that have devoted much of their adult lives to mastering their particular areas of law. Students understandably believe that to be so, and many lawyers believe it was true of their own law school experiences.
I do not think the train is law school itself, however. I cannot deny, of course, that some law professors have a sadistic streak or a simply arrogant streak that leads them to belittle those who cannot play at the same level as they. Those professors, in my experience at least, are a small minority. Most law professors genuinely want their students to learn; and while they may be demanding teachers, they are not deliberately cruel.
So what is the train that runs over first-year law students? It is the law itself. The law demands students to develop new thinking skills, new learning strategies, new attitudes about the complexities of life, and a new respect for the pitfalls of shallow reasoning. The law requires an intellectual humility at the outset because it constantly engages perplexing but important questions of justice. The law requires precision and care in the balancing of rights and duties, responsibilities and harms. It grants no room for sloppy or cavalier thinking.
It may seem that law school is the culprit, but it seems so only because law school provides for most students their first encounter with the demands of the legal profession. The train that hits them is an unavoidable and exceptionally challenging learning process qualitatively different from much of what they have encountered in their schooling to that point.
The good news, however, is that they will master the law, insofar as one may do so in three years. By the end of their law school careers, they will have caught the train that hit them, and they will have learned not only how to ride it; they will have learned how to drive it. In a short three years, they will have gone from generally dumbfounded and often shell shocked to generally competent and appropriately confident in the very endeavors that seemed so daunting in the first months of law school.
As a result, at commencement I am able to sit back and think, "Ladies and gentlemen, the train is yours." (Daniel Weddle)
May 01, 2007
More Food for Thought
Several people have sent me items that relate to students studying law. So, I thought I would share them with you. Natalie Tarenko, Texas Tech School of Law's Writing Specialist, sent me two offerings:
- Repetition is the mother of learning. Russian proverb
- Skill is not won by chance. Growth is not the sport of circumstance. Skill comes by training; and training, persistent and unceasing, is transmuted into habit. The reaction is adjusted ever to the action. What goes out of us as effort comes back to us as character. The alchemy never fails. 'Let no youth,' says James, 'have any anxiety about the upshot of his education whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out . . . .' The main quotation is from a 1925 commencement speech at Albany Law School by Justice Cardozo titled "The Game of the Law." Cardozo attributes the inner quotation to James, probably Henry or William.
Norman Otto Stockmeyer, Professor Emeritus, from Thomas M. Cooley Law School shared with me the following quotes from his TWEN site:
- Writing is thinking made visible. Joe Kimble
- The beginning of knowledge is learning to call things by their proper names. Chinese proverb
- The point of a question is to get you to think, not simply to answer it. What Smart Students Know
- You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
- Assumpsit happens (Prof. Stockmeyer teaches Contracts.)
- If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it. John Searle
- To know the law is not merely to understand the words, but as well their force and effect. Justinian
- We do brain surgery here....You enter with a skull full of mush, and leave thinking like a lawyer. Professor Kingsfield in Paper Chase
- Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself. Chinese proverb
- There are no answers without questions. Fidelity Investments advertisement
- "Learn" is an active verb. Dennis Tonsing's 1,000 Days to the Bar - But the Practice of Law Begins Now
- Out of the facts arises the law. Old adage
No doubt, all of you could add more sayings to the collection! (Amy Jarmon)
April 25, 2007
Food for Thought for Students
I have a section of the bulletin board in my study aids library where I post a quote for the students to consider. Having collected quotes for several years now, I thought some of them might be of use in your work with students. Here are the ones that I use most often:
- If you study to remember, you will forget; but, if you study to understand, you will remember. Unknown
- You'll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind. Irish Proverb
- Borrowed brains have no value. Yiddish Proverb
- Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence. Abigail Adams
- Every step you take is a step away from where you used to be. Brian Chargualaf
- There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving...and that's your own self. Aldous Huxley
- You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it. Charles Buxton
- It's not the time you put in, but what you put in the time. Burg's Philosophy
- Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff that life is made of. Benjamin Franklin
- Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is the only cash you have, so spend it wisely. Kim Lyons
- The leading rule for a lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Abraham Lincoln
- If you nurture your mind, body, and spirit, your time will expand. You will gain a new perspective that will allow you to accomplish much more. Brian Koslow
- Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. Ralph Waldo Emerson
- You can eat an elephant one bite at a time. Chinese Proverb
- To succeed, we must first believe that we can. Michael Korda
- Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Thomas A. Edison
- Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius
- Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes. George Soros
- A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else. John Burroughs
- Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Thomas A. Edison
- We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt
- Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly. Langston Hughes
- Stress is an untransformed opportunity for empowerment. Doc Childre and Howard Martin
- It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. Hans Selye
- People who cannot find time for recreation are obliged sooner or later to find time for illness. John Wanamaker
- Laugh every day. It is like inner jogging. Unknown
If you have favorite quotes that you use with your students, please share them with me! (Amy Jarmon)
April 17, 2007
Why do we do what we do?
We are all well aware of how tired our students are at this point in the semester. However, we need to remember to take care of ourselves as well as them. Most of us are probably feeling a little "shop-worn" as the semester slides into final exams.
Have you noticed that almost every committee is trying to get one or two more meetings in before the end of classes? Are many of your deadlines converging to the same one or two days? Is there at least one dinner, reception, or other end-of-the-year event scheduled every week? If you are a student organization advisor, are you involved in semester wrap-up and training of a new set of officers?
Yes, I have accomplished many things already in this last rush to hooding ceremony. And, I have a number more to accomplish. I am often glad that my profession gave me skills for time management, stress management, and project management. But, I must admit that I would not mind a slower pace at the moment.
However, just as I begin to tire, I am reminded of the importance of what we do each day as academic support professionals. If I get really drained of energy, I pull out a file that I have added to over the years. The file includes thank you notes, Christmas cards, e-mails, and other items sent to me by students who wanted to let me know that I made a difference.
I really enjoy my law students - not only as learners, but as people. Being a cheering squad of one when they need it has definite rewards. Their accummulated successess (even the tiny ones) remind me of why I do what I do. Just this week, my students gave me several reasons for ignoring my tiredness and waking up with new energy.
All of you have the same reasons for an infusion of new energy in your role. But, in case you are wondering during this frenetic time why you do what you do, here are some reminders of what makes our work so rewarding:
- Seeing a student smile for the first time in days because an exam study schedule has emerged during an appointment.
- Having a student drop by to relate excitedly that the grade on the returned midterm was a good one.
- Creating solutions with a student for a problem that was believed by the student to be insurmountable when the appointment began.
- Providing a student with an awareness about learning styles that has immediate practical implications for success.
- Helping a student keep perspective on grades in the scheme of life.
- Sharing the celebration with a student who has gone from less than a 2.0 GPA one semester to over a 3.0 GPA for another semester several academic terms later.
- Seeing a stressed student's pleasure at finding a Laffy Taffy at the bottom of the candy bucket in the study aids library.
- Having a student drop by for a five-minute pep talk because academic support is seen as an encouraging place.
- Eating cookies, cakes, chocolate, and other unexpected goodies left as thanks.
- Drinking morning coffee from a mug presented as a thank you gift.
- Watching a student who has struggled finally walk across the stage for the traditional hooding ceremony.
- Talking with grateful parents who know that academic support helped their student survive first year or finish law school successfully.
- Greeting new babies, seeing wedding photos, hearing about vacations, learning of job offers, and sharing all the other joyful moments in students' lives.
- Remembering what it was like to go to law school when academic support professionals were few and far between.
So, have a good night's sleep tonight. Indulge in one of your favorite meals. Wear your favorite outfit tomorrow. And, get ready for making a difference one student and one day at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
March 23, 2007
The Confidence Game
Law school can be a place where confidence goes to die. A student comes into law school believing she can excel and finds herself struggling near the bottom of the class, not entirely certain what went wrong. The effort was there; the time and energy were there; but the good grades were inexplicably out of reach. After a couple of semesters, all she knows to do is to tough it out. So she slogs on towards graduation, reminded every January and June that she is not what thought she was.
Ask her how she's doing, and she may pretend not to care about the disappointments. Get her to be honest, and she'll just shrug because she is discouraged and has lost faith in herself.
Even so, like most law students, she will hang in and graduate; and, like most law students, she'll maintain through it all a genuine desire to be a good lawyer, whatever her grades and whatever her rank.
And here's the great thing: she will indeed be a good lawyer, even an excellent lawyer. But she doesn't know that now. She knows about GPA's and class ranks and lucrative offers to the top ten percent.
Eventually, she will learn that preparation wins the day in the real world of practice, not GPA's. She will find that not all great lawyers were great law students. It will dawn on her one day that, as a matter of simple mathematics, 90% of the lawyers out there did not graduate in the top 10% of the class.
Of course, she can't see any of that now. All she sees is the closed-in world of law school, the immediacy of another set of exams. That isn't all bad, I suppose; she needs to focus on the task at hand. But it couldn't hurt if we took a minute to help her see down the road a little, just so she knows that she still has every reason to be confident. (dbw)
January 17, 2007
Everything I know I learned from a fortune cookie...
This year, among many resolutions made in the haste of New Year’s Eve, I resolved to cook more and order in less. However, in the wake of a cold and rainy three day weekend at home with three children (who seem much smaller and less destructive outside the house), I caved. Yet, despite my lack of resolve, I found it an educational experience nonetheless. Why? Because my fortune cookie held the Secret Essence of Academic Support (in its slightly stale and crumpled state). It said this: “correction is one thing, encouragement everything.” (It also informed me that my lucky numbers were: 5, 12, 17, 33, 36 and 45 and how to say the word “egg” in Mandarin).
In the last two days I have seen over twenty panic-stricken first year students. I have received some e-mails from professors confessing the large number of unsatisfactory grades they distributed this semester. Some professors are just not stopping to chat as usual. I knew it was coming, but, like the cold of winter, (which is finally here) I am always surprised when it arrives each year.
The first question the students ask me is always, “what did I do wrong?” Sadly, that’s probably the one question I cannot answer without more information. I could guess-and it would be a fairly educated guess-but the answer really lies in the conversation that students need to have with the professor that gave them the grade. Why speculate when the actual truth can be easily uncovered? Students, however, are extremely reluctant to do this and while I understand why, it needs to be done.
Often I can convince a student to make an appointment with a faculty member with a small and simple truth: let’s find out what the problem was, make a plan and fix it. If the problem was the multiple choice questions, then we’ll practice those; if it is was issue spotting, then we’ll practice that and so on. And I think the part of that simple truth that is most effective in relieving students of the despondency that comes with unsatisfactory grades is the plan making.
Facing the music (that is, looking at the exam itself) is only the first step, because it involves correction, and it is (as the wise and crunchy cookie tells us) only one thing. What we can do in Academic Support for our students is provide encouragement, and that, says the cookie, is everything. (ezs)
November 28, 2006
Do you ever have the student who comes to your office and acts as though nothing you say is useful? You have gone to the trouble of offering your help, but he behaves as if he has been summoned to the principal’s office for a lecture. Or perhaps you have had the student who listens intently to all you have to say yet spends the semester doing none of the things you suggested and is back the following semester asking your advice.
Those encounters can be really disheartening because they make us feel that our efforts are having no impact. They can trigger bouts of insecurity because they make us feel that our efforts are somehow deficient. They can trigger resentment because they make us feel that our efforts have been wasted.
At those times, it is good to remember that everyone wastes another’s efforts somewhere along the line. We have all ignored the time, effort, and even friendship that others have offered; and we have no real excuse for having done so. Yet still we do it.
I think it may be simply a part of being human. Self-involved, we look past the gifts in front of us, ignore the time and energy expended on us, underestimate the importance of the efforts made on our behalf. We do not do so because we are mean-spirited. We usually do so because we are blind to what is ours for the taking, looking for a better answer, or at least an answer that better suits our short-sighted desires. In other words, we do so out of run-of-the-mill ignorance and self-centered ingratitude.
So why be surprised or disheartened when some of our students ignore or even scorn our efforts? They are just being human, thinking they know more than they do and dismissing sound advice in their ignorance. As Ellen Suni often says, they don’t know what they don’t know. Most of the time, their ingratitude stems from their frustration at falling short in an endeavor – schooling – that has never been a challenge to them before. It is only human that they resent our suggesting that they need help. It is only human that they believe they need do nothing more than work a little harder or find professors who “grade more fairly.”
It is also human to wake up at some point and realize what has been offered. Sometimes it is too late; sometimes it is just in the nick of time; and, I suppose, sometimes it never happens. Most of the time, it is somewhere in between. Most of the time, despite their embarrassment and their natural tendency to cover it with a sham confidence and indifference, they actually learn from us.
It is also human to do what we sometimes do: to let the few obscure the many who show their appreciation by taking our help seriously. Most students are grateful for the help we give, and most put it to good use. We should resist our natural reactions to those who do not and remember that even those who seem to waste our efforts learn more than they let on. Sometimes they are just busy being human. (dbw)
November 01, 2006
Let Them Know They Can and Will Make It
We have reached a time in the semester when first-year students are beginning to become especially discouraged. In most schools, the students have received grades on at least a couple of legal writing assignments and on one or more midterm exams. Their grades often do not reflect their effort because the competition is tougher than what they faced in undergraduate programs and because legal reasoning requires the development of new skills. As exams approach, their confidence may be flagging badly.
As a result, this time of year is a good time for us to go out of our way to encourage students. Ironically, nearly all of those students who are struggling right now will be much more competent a year from now and will go on to be fine attorneys. They need to know that the hard work will pay off in the end and that their present frustrations will ease as they become more comfortable with legal reasoning. Many, perhaps most, simply need more experience with legal analysis and help with strategies to engage the material effectively and to demonstrate their learning more effectively on law school exams.
That deficiency in skills, however, actually provides perhaps the greatest source of encouragement. The good news for students is that their current struggles have little to do with innate ability and much to do with skills that can be learned. In other words, today's performance need not define them or their futures because the skills are within their reach.
We can encourage them by reminding them that they can master legal reasoning and that they can master the learning strategies required for law school success. They will get better and better at legal reasoning over the next three years, and we are there to help them master unfamiliar learning strategies. In fact, one day many will actually wonder what it was that was so difficult about the first year. That day for many will be as soon as next fall.
This is a great time to let them know that they can and will master what seems so far beyond their reach today. They will not be entirely convinced, but we can give them a ray of realistic hope; and they can begin to focus their energies on the process of mastering new skills. They can begin to let go of the normal and very human tendency to beat themselves up over setbacks that they believe, at the moment, are most likely explained by their own intellectual inadequacy. (dbw)
August 03, 2006
Achievement vs. Success
"My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that 'achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that's nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.' " – Helen Hayes (US actress [1900 – 1993])
Good advice for first-year students. It isn't the grades or the rank; it's the learning that matters. High grades and high ranks are nice, but it's the learning that carries the day when a client's interests are on the line. (dbw)
 From The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com
July 14, 2006
Last week, I wrote here about my "getting stupid" as I took on the directorship of my school's ASP efforts a year ago. What I described is the phenomenon that when otherwise competent people take on new, complex responsibilities they can experience a temporary drop off in skills they had earlier mastered. I was surprised by how much the phenomenon affected me as I tried to get my mind around a host of new responsibilities.
I was equally surprised by something more pleasant, however. My students started getting smart. As part of my new responsibilities, I was working with 2L's and 3L's who were in academic difficulty, and I was startled by the dramatic improvements they experienced in both grades and classroom performance.
I was introducing the students to the strategies found in the several academic support books that are available and to strategies and materials graciously given to me by ASP folks around the country. I expected to see an improvement in students' learning as I helped them refine their class and exam preparation strategies, of course; but I was surprised at how much they improved.
Some came to me only a few weeks into the first semester and reported that, for the first time in their law school careers, they understood what was going on in class and could accurately anticipate where the professor was headed during class discussions. Nearly all those who worked with me experienced dramatic improvements in their grades.
What I found intriguing was that all of these students had been working very hard for a year or more, with little success. Simple adjustments and adoption of a few learning strategies turned them completely around. They found out that in fact they had been smart enough to excel in law school all along.
The problem was not with their motivation or intelligence; it was with their study strategies. They had been exerting great effort but spinning their wheels. A few adjustments allowed the wheels to gain traction, and they were off to the races.
I know it was not some brilliance on my part that had the effect because all I was doing was showing them techniques I had learned from others. What I was witnessing was the powerful effects of the learning strategies that have been identified and developed by the ASP community.
So if this is your first year in academic support, take heart. While you will find the new responsibilities daunting (and you may even "get stupid" at times), you'll find the impact in your students' lives among the most satisfying experiences of your teaching career. The good news is that you do not have to figure all of this out on your own. Many good texts exist, as well as ASP websites, conferences, and the materials of ASP veterans who are eager to share their materials and expertise.
If you are new to academic support, welcome to an immensely satisfying area of law teaching and a great, sharing ASP community. You will find that those who have gone before you are wonderful resources, and you will likely be surprised at how fast your students "get smart." (dbw)
July 06, 2006
This last year as director of academic support was my first involvement with a year-long ASP program, and one of the strangest and most unexpected things afflicted me: I suddenly became incompetent in things I normally do well. I found, for example, that I made stupid mistakes in writing letters and emails, sometimes in really important letters and emails that I had edited several times. And I have been teaching writing at one level or another for twenty-five years! At one point, I sent an email announcing a deadline for applications to a program; and within the few paragraphs of the email and its attachment I gave three conflicting deadline dates, not one of which was the actual date I intended to convey.
I would have concluded that senility had finally set in with a vengeance, but I remembered that the phenomenon is often common among first-year law students. Studies have revealed that when trying to master high levels of especially complex and challenging material or skills, people often experience a temporary drop off in their existing skills. Because of the overwhelming nature of the new learning they are encountering, law students find similar drop offs in skills that earlier in their academic lives they had acquired with a significant level of mastery.
Taking over our academic support activities at UMKC presented a very steep learning curve for me, not only about the theories and methods associated with effective learning in the law school context, but about the simple mechanics of our existing support programs. I found that in trying to juggle all of those aspects of the job, along with preparing for my normal classes, I suddenly became stupid about the most routine kinds of activities.
The phenomenon was terribly unsettling at times and made me frequently question whether I had any business doing what I was doing. That same phenomenon afflicts many, if not all, of our first-year students.
We need to remember to tell our students that such reactions to the stress of their new endeavor are only temporary and that they are not an indication of anything other than the intensity of the learning curve. Half the battle in getting through the first year of law school is knowing that one's struggles are common and to be expected. Knowing that "getting stupid" is a normal response to unfamiliar pressures can take some of the sting out of the experience and replace it with a realistic hope that old skills will return once the new skills begin to settle in. (dbw)
May 16, 2006
Every conversation I have with my grandmother, who is 97 and lives alone in an apartment in the Bronx (the proverbial Jewish grandmother who still makes the best chicken soup ever), ends with me saying, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow;” and her answering, “Please god, I should live so long.”
I have the same conversation with my first year students around this time of year. “Don’t worry,” I say, “it will be much easier next year.” They answer: “if I’m still here.” I wonder if the whole first year experience is about whether students feel that they belong at law school. Law school is a major decision, and one that sets you on a clear, defined path. This is writing, “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up” in ink and not crayon. (Practicing law is not the only option a student has with a law degree, but I think a lot of students fresh out of college see it that way.)
Unlike European university systems, we don’t really ask students to make big decisions about their future until they graduate from college. We do require some forethought, i.e.: you shouldn’t necessarily choose philosophy as a major if you want to be a structural engineer (and I am by no means certain that this is entirely true…). But, for the most part, coming to law school may be the first decision a student makes about a concrete future. And that is scary.
I think first year law students spend a lot of time contemplating their decision: what if I made a mistake? What if I am not as smart as everyone has told me so far? What if I can’t do this? What if I hate law school? Perhaps, first year law students wonder most often, “do I belong here?” And sadly, they see their first year exams as the oracle that will answer all their fearful questions. But, exams are not the answer. They are merely a tool and never the finished product.
The first year of law school is the hardest for a number of reasons. We ask students to learn a new language and then become extremely fluent in it. We assign thousands of pages of reading in this new language and expect them to not only remember it all, but derivatively use it to answer other questions. Most of all, we ask students to go months and months without feedback on their progress, and then evaluate almost the entire academic year on the basis of a three hour exam. This is particularly difficult when you question everyday whether attending law school was the right choice. There are very few external cues to affirm a student’s choice to come to law school
Another factor in the mix is money. A law student, even one who does not continue beyond the first year, may have accrued a tremendous amount of debt. I remember, during my first year, asking myself exactly how smart could I be to pay someone to torture me and then pay interest for years and years on top of that. Not so much smart, I thought.
The reality is that there will be students who won’t be here next year. I can’t say every student makes it through their first year, but most will. And to the students who I will see next year, I say this, “It will be better. I promise.” I do remember vividly, at the beginning of my second year, feeling like I owned the place. And now that I’ve paid back most of the loans, maybe I do. (ezs)
May 06, 2006
A Day to Savor
My wife gave me a ring the day I graduated from law school. I had never had a class ring before and had never really cared about having one until then. After three years of law school, however, I wanted that one.
It symbolized all that we had given up and all that I had poured into obtaining that degree. It reminded me that I had not been fooling myself when I decided to take on law school, that I had really been able to do it after all. It reminded me of the faith my wife had shown in me over those three years, never wondering if we had done the right thing or if I would do well.
During the bar exam, I deliberately stopped every so often, looked at the ring, and told myself, "Even if I fail this exam and never get to practice law, I earned that law degree and that fact can't change."
For those who never doubted their ability to succeed in law school, they will probably find it tough to relate to such feelings. But I didn't enter law school sure of my success, and even at the end I couldn't shake that "smoke and mirrors" feeling, that feeling that I somehow I had been getting away with something all along and that eventually I'd get caught and that everyone would finally know that I had no business going to law school.
In a couple of hours, I will watch another class walk across the stage to receive their diplomas and hoods. It will be their turn to bask in that glow of success that attends such ceremonies. Many of them, I suspect, will marvel, as I did when I graduated, that it all worked out, that law school wasn't beyond them after all. They will all be able to drop the anxiety and stress of the past three years and take a moment to relish the fact that they have earned law degrees and that nothing can change that fact.
The bar exam will be here soon enough, and those first years of practice will be upon them, with all the same fears and self-doubt.
Today, however, all those things should be in the distance. For a day or two, they deserve to look back and see what they have accomplished and forget about the challenges to come. They deserve to relish the unalterable fact that no matter what happens next, no one can ever rob them of the right to say, "I earned a law degree." (dbw)
March 26, 2006
My friend Ellen Swain (Vermont Law School Academic Success Program Director) recently directed me to an interesting ABA Journal article.
In Discontented in the Law, author Jill Schachner Chanen explains: "It’s no secret that law and job satisfaction don’t always go hand in hand, but a recent survey shows just how miserable some lawyers really are, especially those newer to the practice. ... The reason boils down to work-life balance, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement Foundation. The struggle to find that balance is especially pronounced among lawyers in supervised or nonmanagerial positions, the survey found."
Consider this: what do students learn in law school?
If they don't learn to "balance," then their learning of legal concepts, analytical processes, preferred methods of citation, and tax regulations is for naught.
Excellent law students become excellent lawyers. Miserable law students (even those—or maybe especially those—with high GPAs) become miserable lawyers.
Ms. Chanen writes that Milwaukee lawyer Christina Plum, chair of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, also is not surprised by findings in the survey (mentioned above). "It’s hard for me to imagine a lawyer not having to struggle to balance work with all of the other choices in their lives," she says.
Yes, it is a struggle. But it would be far less of a struggle if students spent their (pardon me, please) 1000 days in law school practicing how to achieve this balance.
This, I believe, is the most critical message of academic support. Yes, students, you need to learn how to read casebooks. Follow the exercises in Ruth Ann McKinney's book. You need to learn how to brief cases. Check out the examples in Bridging the Gap. You need to learn rules, strategies, and so much more. But if you don't learn "balance," it is all for naught. Spend three hours outside of class for every hour in class. That's 60 hours each week, right? Sleep eight hours each night. 56? That gives you 52 (awake) hours each week for the other stuff of life. Use it. Or lose it.
If we don't make this message explicit to our students, we are doing them a disservice. (djt)
March 24, 2006
It's the Majors
I once had a student whose husband was a professional baseball player; and when, during her first year of law school, she complained about how frustrated she was with the results of her hard work, he responded with what I think is one of the best analogies I have ever heard regarding the law school experience.
He said, "When I played high school baseball, in that league I was it. When I played college ball, in that league I was still it. When I made the pros, everyone had always been it; suddenly, I wasn't it anymore." Then he told her, "You've just found out you're in the majors."
I like that analogy because I think it holds up pretty well. Those who make it into law school tend to have been it everywhere else, and what served them well before no longer sets them apart from the crowd. But there is also an important corollary: in the highest levels of competition, minor adjustments in technique can have startling impacts on performance.
For example, when George Brett first began playing for the Kansas City Royals in the '70's, he was no hitting phenom. He was hitting around .200 and was worried about staying in the majors. Charlie Lau, Brett's batting coach, convinced him to change his hitting style, to shift his weight and improve his extension. Brett won his first batting crown two years later and finished his career having won batting crowns in each of three decades, something no one had ever done before. He's in the Hall of Fame.
My students sometimes think it sounds crazy that something as insignificant as changing a studying technique here or there could actually turn an average law student into a pacesetter. I think to myself, yeah, and it sounds crazy that changing a major leaguer's batting style can transform him from a .200 hitter into a hall of fame batter; but that's how it works when you're playing in the majors. (dbw)
March 21, 2006
A Little Push Goes a Long Way
We had a lovely adventure last week as we were driving down to New York City from Boston. And by lovely, I mean hair-raising and awful. We were driving out of New Haven after having had a nice lunch at a diner, when our car seemed to be struggling to get up the hill after the tunnel (for those of you who travel on Route 15 in Connecticut, you know where I mean). Then the motor revved really high and we couldn’t seem to put the car in gear. Did I mention the three small children in the backseat? Anyway, we made it up the hill, coasted down the hill toward an exit ramp and made it pretty far until the ramp started to curve uphill slightly.
At this point my husband got out of the car and I moved over to the steering wheel and he pushed. The people in the green Honda Odyssey (and you know who you are!!!) who beeped at us and made rude gestures because we were in their way, made me wonder if the people of Connecticut and by extrapolation, the whole world (I cannot claim my thinking was rational at that moment) were all horribly unhelpful. (“Look mommy, that lady is pointing at us”, said my five-year-old). I felt that we were all alone in our misery.
But then, some nice stranger made me see that wasn’t the case: he got out of his scary looking black Dodge Ram pickup truck (“look Mommy, he has a big skeleton painted on his car.”) and helped my husband push the car until we got over the little hill and could coast easily into the conveniently located “park and ride” lot next to the highway. I parked beautifully; if I do say so myself.
After that, every encounter we had with other people: the tow-truck driver, the mechanics, the
car-rental folks, was positive and affirming. What does this have to do with Academic Support, you ask? Well, it made me think that ASP is the place
where students’ events can be turned around and that hopefully after a little
push from us, every subsequent encounter students have in law school will be
Law school can be an uphill battle and not every student can get their acts in gear at the same speed as others. Also, the people who students might think will be helpful sometimes prove to be more concerned with their own comings and goings (wow, is this analogy great or what?). And sometimes, all it takes is a little common kindness and help from a stranger to make the rest of the journey seem less lonely.
Bottom line: a little help makes a big difference. Our story ended well, too. We rented a car and continued on our way. After all, we were on our way to visit my 97-year-old grandmother and while we were halfway there already, why turn back? She was glad to see us. (ezs)
March 19, 2006
It's late in what has been a long, grueling year for first-year students; briefs are due soon; exams are around the corner; and all the intensity is beginning to wear students thin. Our students, who have given more to law school than they have ever given before to an academic endeavor and done so for less immediate reward, are tempted like exhausted swimmers to let up and let whatever happens happen.
This is a good time to send a note of encouragement or to wander the halls a little, keeping an eye out for opportunities to encourage individual students and remind them how far they've come in just a few months. It's a time of year that students need to know that they can do this work and that the hard work will pay off. (dbw)
February 26, 2006
Lawyers with Disabilites
The most recent (March 2006) issue of the ABA publication Student Lawyer includes (see page 34) a conference notice of interest. Quoting from the magazine ...
"The ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law ... in conjunction with ABA president Michael Greco and the EEOC, is sponsoring a National Conference on Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities. Participants will discuss ways to further the employment opportunities for and promote the hiring of recent law graduates and young lawyers with disabilities."
The conference is on May 22 and May 23. "The conference," the notice continues, "encourages law students to attend the conference. To support student participation, the commission will offer a reduced registration fee as well as scholarships to students demonstrating need."
Encouraging news: "With proper accommodations and open lines of communication, lawyers with disabilities have proven themselves to be as successful as their peers without disabilities."
In the academic support field, most of us work with students manifesting a variety of disabilities (visible and invisible); and many of us contend with comments by students, faculty and lawyers along these lines, "Why is she even going to law school? Who is going to hire a lawyer with (fill in the blank)?" Oh, that gets to me. Between your school's Career Services office and its Academic Support office ... somewhere ... we need to be able to provide accurate, up-to-date answers to these inquiries ... not only for those who ask the questions above, but, more importantly, for those who ask this question: "Will I ever get a job if they find out about my _________?"
For detailed conference information, visit the commission's web page. (djt)
Seizing the Phantom: A Reader Comments ...
Commenting recently on Dan Weddle's November 22 post (Thinking Like a Lawyer), a lawyer wrote to us this week ...
"This is an important little essay, I think. Especially where you say: Truly learning to think like a lawyer is a profoundly good thing. Without those who are willing to devote themselves to the intellectually and morally hard work of defining precisely the contours of justice, the nation is left to the murky reasoning of casual thinkers or, worse, to the calculated thinking of those who have no moral bearings.
I'm a lawyer taking his second bar exam due to a move to another state, and I still feel like the precise thinking required of me is a phantom I shall never seize. This is just idealistic enough for me to press on. Thanks!