Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting Smart

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 14, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Getting Stupid

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)

July 6, 2006 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Belonging

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 16, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 6, 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)   

May 6, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Balancing Act

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 thoseor maybe especially thosewith 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 26, 2006 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Orientation, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 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 24, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, 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 positive.  

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 21, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Finishing Strong

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)

March 19, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, 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)

February 26, 2006 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Disability Matters, Encouragement & Inspiration, Meetings, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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!

(djt)

February 26, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

It Works!

At this time of the year—just after the appearance of fall grades—Academic Supporters at law schools across the country meet with scores of disappointed students. 

Some are disappointed because they may be leaving law school—voluntarily or not—others because they simply did not earn grades reflective of their hard work, intelligence and aptitude.

In some ways, this is a difficult time for Academic Supporters.  In two other ways, though, this time of year is tremendous.  Here's why:

1.  Now, many students realize their need for expert coaching.  Students ask for help eagerly.  That's a plus.  Eager students are the best kind of students to work with, aren't they?

2.  Along with the stories of disappointment, we hear the stories of success.  Although the wunnelle stories are uplifting, they are to be expected . . . that is, with no law school track record, students who do very well are often surprised and elated when they receive their first "A" grades. 

But for me, the best stories of success are those coming from second and third-year students who have been challenged, who have struggled, and who have leapt over barriers, overcome their bugaboos, and tasted the nectar of the high grade for the first time.

Having received permission to post an edited version of one such story, I offer it to encourage those who are new to the Academic Support ranks.  Academic Support works. 

Keep up the good work, friends!

P.S. If you have a particularly heartwarming success story, have obtained written permission to post it, and can edit all identifiers, email it to me for possible posting on the blog.  (djt)

January 29, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sleeping Your Way to the Top

According to an article in the most recent (January 16, 2006) issue of TIME Magazine, 71 percent of American adults do not average eight hours of sleep.

The article, entitled "Sleeping Your Way to the Top," by Sora Song, cites a 2003 sleep study's results—"The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day] ... When you get beyond that, it can't function as efficiently, as accurately or as well."

Sleeping less than your body requires erodes productive capability, according to the researchers.

Although people think of sleep as a necessity to avoid physical fatigue, Song points out: "What most people don't realize is that the purpose of sleep may be more to rest the mind than to rest the body.  Indeed, most of the benefits of eight hours' sleep seem to accrue to the brain: sleep helps consolidate memory, improve judgment, promote learning and concentration, boost mood, speed reaction time and sharpen problem solving and accuracy."

The next time you work with your students, ask them how much they are sleeping.  Many students I encounter tell me they are "lucky" to get six hours of sleep each night.  Many "get by" on five or six.

My thought?  They are unlucky to get six hours of sleep each night.  Actually, luck has little to do with it.  Poor planning is the reason—or an unrealistic sense of priority.

Ask your students, "Would you want your lawyer to be suffering from poor memory, less than adequate judgment, less than optimal concentration, and dull problem solving capabilities when your trial begins?"

The article includes this eye-opening fact: results of sleeping too little "...may even mimic the symptoms of dementia."

Ask your students, "Do you want to mimic the symptoms of dementia in class?"

Do the math: " ... in giving up two hours of bedtime to do more work, you’re losing a quarter of your recommended nightly dose and gaining just 12 percent more time during the day.”  Trading a bit of "awake" time for a higher rate of productivity makes more sense doesn’t it?  (djt)

January 12, 2006 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Your Grades Are Not You

As exams come to an end, you probably have visits, phone calls, and emails from students who believe that they have done poorly.  Some have good reason for that belief; they showed up an hour late for the exam and answered only half the questions, for example.  But most just know they have not done as well as they had hoped ... they did not walk away from the exam room with that all-too-infrequent feeling of "Wow! I just aced that one!"

Frankly, those who have that "aced" feeling often have not aced anything.

The pessimistic feeling has little to do with not having learned the subject matter, or even with not having mastered the art of resolving novel, hypothetical, legal questions under extreme time pressure.  Rather, it has to do with a dread of receiving ... yup ... poor grades.

Refer them to Professor Franzese's article.  Say what?

Franzese_5_2004Professor Paula Franzese, of Seton Hall University Law School, "gets it" when it comes to teaching.  Not only is she a seven-time recipient of the Student Bar Association’s Professor of the Year Award, but she also has been named “Exemplary Teacher" by the American Association of Higher Education and was ranked the Top Law Professor in New Jersey by the New Jersey Law Journal.  If you have had the pleasure of attending one of her presentations (example: AALS conference), you know why.  She gets it when it comes to grading as well.  She advises:

Law school modes of evaluation leave much to be desired. In a context where there is so little feedback, how one happens to do on a particular day on a three or four-hour test tends to take on an undeserved importance and magnitude. Some even construe their grades as the final word on their abilities and opportunities as a future lawyer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Students need to read what she has written.

Professor Franzese has given me permission to link to a copy of her essay, "On Grades" (click on this link).

"Let your grades inform your life," she counsels students, "not define, diminish or even exalt it."

Think about sending your students to this link as their grades trickle in over the next few weeks.  (djt)

December 21, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

An Insightful Comment

Dan recently published his brief essay, "The Closest Thing to Junior High Since Junior High" (December 6th).  Professor Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs at Texas Tech School of Law, added her comment, which I thought ought to be "posted" here, so y'all don't miss it.

Amy, pictured below, wrote:

Thank you for a wonderful, insightful column  on the confusion, pain, and fear that are encompassing our students right now.  Sadly, I find that it is not just my 1L students who are struggling with these emotions and thoughts.  Some of my 2L and 3L students have never recovered a sane perspective on law school and are "casualties" of the system.

This time of year always reminds me that as an academic success professional my job title is really Jarmon "CHIEF ENCOURAGER" for many students.  I have had students dropping by for several weeks asking for "pep talks" and reassurance.  Some students are shy about the requests while others are very upfront about their immediate needs.  I gladly respond to those who ask.  And, I spend time walking the halls and student lounge smiling at one and all and trying to spread some cheer to those who do not cross my threshold.

I always feel blessed to have this position because it combines my education and law backgrounds.  But, I realize each December (and May) that most of all I need to be a blessing to others — some of them with worried faces, trembling smiles, or false bravado.   

Thanks for your comment, Amy.  (djt)

December 11, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Exams: Last-Minute Advice

HramyThis smiling man, Professor Herbert N. Ramy of Suffolk University Law School, addresses a letter to students just before fall exams each year.

This year, he has offered it to us (via the Blog) as a template for what we might want to send to our students this week.  With his permission, I have revised the letter (based on personal preferences and institutional differences) and will be sending it to our student body this afternoon.  Take a look — you may want to e-mail a thanks to Herb.  (djt)

December 7, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thinking Like a Lawyer

In keeping with the holiday, I'll say that I am thankful for something that makes our students' lives miserable in the first year.  I know that sounds sadistic, but stick with me for a minute, and I'll try to explain.

What I am thankful for is the maddeningly elusive and generally misunderstood art of "thinking like a lawyer."

First-year students become deeply frustrated by the phrase while we faculty throw it around with abandon.  "Thinking like a lawyer."  We'll teach them, we say, to think like lawyers; but we seldom define exactly what we mean as if, like obscenity, they'll know it when they see it. 

The problem, of course, is that they do not see it clearly at all in the first months of law school; and what they are attempting to see and eventually master is quite different from what many of them have ever seen or attempted in their lives to this point.  The difficulty is compounded by popular notions of lawyers as clever tricksters who bend and twist words to mean whatever the lawyers wish them to mean.  (See the Nov. 20 posting, "Looking Before One Leaps" for some insightful observations about the corrupting influence of such notions.)

So what is learning to "think like a lawyer" and why is it so hard to master?  Well, let me suggest a definition that may help answer those questions:  learning to think like a lawyer is learning to think with exacting precision about human relationships and human events.  It's a loaded definition.

It means defining as precisely as possible where duties begin and where they end.  It means determining the exact contours of rights and the precise limits of privileges.  It means carefully and methodically tracing causes and effects at levels of precision lay persons seldom consider, at least in terms of human conduct.

It also means doing this type of thinking difficult in its own right alongside the even more difficult and foreign art of text-based reasoning.  Most of our students have never been asked to interpret text with any sort of rigor or precision.  Most have sat through endless high school and undergraduate "discussions" of literature that were little more than pooled ignorance.  Most were never taught to analyze and interpret text with any demonstrable accuracy or precision.  Most were never required to prove, using the text itself, that what they believe it says is what the author actually intended to convey.  Most were taught that if to them, the central lesson of Macbeth is to avoid ambitious women, then that is what Macbeth means because, after all, that is what it meant to them.

Judges and lawyers won't put up with that nonsense.  So our students must abandon their trust in their own gut reactions and lazy musings and learn to think clearly and precisely about human relationships and human events, even when those relationships and events defy clarity and precision; and they have to do it using a language riddled with vagueness and ambiguity. 

Perhaps it is this demand for precision despite the unavoidable imprecision of human language and the profound complexity of even the simplest relationships that creates the impression of cleverness for cleverness' sake.  Lawyers are forced to press logic to its breaking points to determine where its soundness ends, and judges are routinely forced to choose between equally compelling arguments that rest on equally compelling moral imperatives placed in tension by an accident of the human condition.

From a comfortable lay world of imprecise thinking, our students are thrust into a world where every argument is vigorously examined for flaws and missteps and where every proposition must be supported carefully and completely.  They find a world where notions of justice are challenged, dissected, and pressed to reveal where they hold up and where they do not.

No wonder our students find law school so daunting.  No wonder they lose confidence in their intellectual abilities for a time and even in their sense of justice and injustice.

It falls to us to combat the discouragement and cynicism that so easily overtakes them.  The task falls to us because we know that despite what cynics say or bad results imply, most legal thinking is done, in the end, by most lawyers and most judges, to promote justice in human affairs.  Lawyers may cynically growl that justice is not what is likely to occur in court, but precious few believe that justice does not matter or that the causes for which they themselves plead are unjust. 

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.

So we have a duty to help our students understand what thinking like a lawyer is and what it should be.  Some, of course, will fail altogether to master it; and some will master its mechanics without seeing the moral substance in which it must be rooted.

Most, however, will learn to think like lawyers in the best sense of that phrase.  Because of them, our profession will always be something more than a collection of tricksters and illusionists.

That's something to be thankful for; and here's another:  we have the privilege of helping them get there.  Not a bad way to spend our lives, is it? (dbw)

November 22, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Comment: Listening

Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success at Texas Tech School of Law, posted a thoughtful comment about Mario Mainero's recent blog entry.  I'm posting it here so y'all will be sure to read it.  Thanks, Amy!

I thoroughly agree with Mario (at least I assume that mwm is Mario)about the importance of listening to our students to become more aware of the truth of their hearts and thus better equipping oIurselves to help.  In my first career, I spent 17 years working with undergraduates before I switched to law school and law practice – 10 of those higher ed years in academic support. After working with thousands of undergraduates, I found that few academic problems were solely academic.  Most of the academic problems were linked in some manner to personal, medical, family, or financial problems. 

With law students, I have found that the same is often the case.  Having been an ASP professional at two law schools as well as Acting Assistant Dean for Law Student Services at one of those, I have talked with many students about the disruptions, hardships, and tragedies that they have faced outside the classroom.  In fact, I think it is a miracle that some of my students do as well as they do (probation or just over the required 2.00) under their circumstances.

The law students with outside problems often tell me that they appreciate not only my academic advice but also my willingness to listen.  For some of them, ASP is a "safe harbor" where they do not have to put on a brave face.  They know that I ultimately care about them as people as well as law students.

Obviously, we need to refer appropriately to psychologists, doctors, and other professionals.  I keep those lists handy.  But, I find that my students are more willing to accept a referral to those others if I have listened to their worries and fears.  My willingness to listen fosters their willingness to trust my referral as being for their ultimate benefit.

(djt)

October 29, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

From Counselor at Law to Just Plain Counselor

            Reading the last two excellent pieces by Professor Stillman got me to thinking about how I got into Academic Support, and to what extent my over twenty years as a litigator prepared me for moments like those she has shared with us.

            I had been a member of the “Board of Advisors” to Whittier Law School and an adjunct teaching a couple of legal writing sections when I was asked to be part of the Dean search. During that search I met the man who eventually became Dean:  Neil Cogan. His first week on the job, he asked to have lunch to talk about ideas he had that coincided with my background in statistics. Out of that conversation, he apparently decided I was the appropriate person to be the first Director of the Law School’s new Academic Success Program. Feeling some need for a change in the quality of life aspect of my career, I naively accepted the job.

            Five months in, I had a moment like Professor Stillman’s. About 6:00 p.m. one day, an upper-level student came in crying. She had just learned that she failed several of her final exams. She told me that she took them when she was very distraught. Two days before her first exam, she caught her husband “in bed” with her best friend. I do not drink either coffee or alcohol, but one of my immediate thoughts was whether I should start. We spent quite some time that evening discussing the situation, what she thought she should do about her marriage, and how I would support her petition to be placed on academic probation so she would have the opportunity to repair her GPA. She then separated from her husband (against her family wishes, believe it or not), and over the next semester, we worked successfully to get her grades back where they should have been and to get her successfully graduated.

            

            That incident caused me to think about whether I was qualified to do this job. After all, I was certainly academically qualified, and I had taught legal writing in some form for years, but first and foremost, I was a trial lawyer, not a psychologist or Marriage and Family Counselor! In fact (and please don’t tell my students), I skipped a few of my psychology classes in college because they were on Monday nights in the fall. Eventually, though, I came to realize that students are like clients: they do come to you for advice, and sometimes the advice is non-academic, just like sometimes the advice to clients is non-legal. Professor Stillman is right. It takes learning to listen, not just to the words, but also to the unspoken thoughts, dreams, and fears that students, and clients, have. Sometimes, in listening for those unspoken things, we can finally hear the truth in our students’ hearts and be better equipped to help them solve their academic issues as well. (mwm)

October 26, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sacrifice vs. Compromise

I know we have been discussing sacrifice lately here on the ASP blog, but I felt while reading the posts that a woman's perspective would be different.  I have had female students ask me about how to plan a career and a family simultaneously and whether it is possible.  My answer is always the same:  I'll let you know when I've figured it out myself. 

I have never worked at a law firm, only for the government or in academics.  When we moved to Boston about seven years ago, I interviewed at a medium-sized firm and the woman interviewing me asked if I thought I could bill 1,800 hours a year.  After some quick math, I told her no.  I know she caught me looking at the pictures of her children on her desk and understood the questions I wanted to ask her.  How does she do it?  And more importantly, why?

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I have three small children (8 yrs. old, 5 yrs. old and almost 8 mos. old) and I work full time here in ASP (which for us is actually only four days a week).  My law school experience (ungraded since I went to Northeastern) did teach me that hard work was valuable and self-esteem producing.  I was totally into the "sacrifice" idea then and I firmly believed that I was going to have to be very responsible as a lawyer because my clients would be looking to me for important information and advice.  And I was this very responsible lawyer for a number of years:  working late to get my subpoenas out, prepping witnesses and carrying a staggering caseload as a NYC prosecutor.

But then I had a child, and another, and yet another.  And now I feel (despite appearances for anyone who knows what I really look like) stretched thin.  I have made sacrifices on both ends my career and my family.  I often feel that nothing gets 100% of my attention, that at best, I have only 95% to give and only rarely.  I pray it will rain on Saturdays so soccer is cancelled (I suppose I owe divine thanks for the last two weeks...). I wonder often if I am doing anything to best of my ability. 

Don't get me wrong, I feel entirely devoted to my students.  I want them all to succeed and get every last benefit of law school. I want them all to be confident and competent attorneys who will pass the bar the first time.  But I also remind them at orientation that they need to remember who they were when they walked in the door to the law school, because in three years you could easily forget who that was.  So I advise them to continue painting or hiking or baking or whatever it is that reminds them of who they are.  I have even prescribed a day off every now and then for perspective.  I remind them to call their mothers and walk their dogs.

Perhaps, (and this is a big one) women have never had the luxury of defining themselves almost completely by their profession once there is a family.   Do I dare to tell students that after my first child was born, being a lawyer went from my career to my job?  Perhaps that is the sacrifice I chose and they will choose differently.

Certainly practicing law is a very noble and responsible profession.  But what we should not sacrifice is the inherent humanity of a profession that helps with the entire cycle of life:  from birth through death.  Our clients are people (mainly) and our actions as attorneys will impact their lives.  I regularly advise my students to work hard and not make excuses that wouldn't hold up in court, but the truth is if we had perfected this profession, we wouldn't all be practicing.  (ezs)

October 17, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Keeping Dreams from Coming True

On August 24, I posted a referral to lawyer/author Julie Hilden's article featuring advice to first-year law students. That post included:

Julie Hilden, a Yale Law grad, having also earned an MA in creative writing from Cornell, lives in New York city.  After practicing law for several years, Ms. Hilden now writes (creatively) full time ... in 2003 she published 3 a novel which (according to one reviewer on Amazon.com) "...is both beautiful, and disturbing ... definitely not for the faint of heart ... extremely graphic [with] gut-wrenching scenes...." 

Never having thought of myself as "faint of heart," I bought "3."  As of this morning, I have not finished reading the book, and my gut is already wrenched.  Nevertheless, I had enough energy this morning to blog. 

Ms. Hilden's article (referenced above) described her wunnelle experience.  This week, I visited with many wunnelles at different law schools, and was treated to their description of the experience (contemporaneous rather than recollected).  This morning, when I read from pages 57 and 58 of Ms. Hilden's "3," I was struck with the similarity between those contemporaneous descriptions and the prenuptial dream of Ms. Hilden's featured character (a woman of about the same age as many of our wunnelles ... early twenties).

The night before we marry, I have a dream.  I am underwater, just beneath the surface of a running river that would carry me away were it not for the crooked black tree branch I hold.  The branch extends toward me through the water, like a hand reaching down.

The surge of the blue-green water is strong and unrelenting, and my hold on the branch is uncertain, slippery.  I should be moving along it hand over hand, like a child twisting in the air, legs trailing, across the span of a jungle gym.  I should be closing in on the shore, moving into the shallower water, so that I can break the water's surface and take a breath.

But I am not, I cannot move forward at all.  My hand cannot even fully get purchase on the branch's mossy skin.  So rather than getting closer to the riverbank, I only slide farther out along the branch's length, deeper into the water.

Underwater, I do not even hear the crack of the breaking branch.  All at once I lose my grip, and I only hear the water rushing.  I only feel it move my body wherever I am destined to go. The water engulfs me, and as I drown, I feel at peace.  I do not bolt awake, the prospect of my own death does not jolt me into the waking world.  The truth is that I am comfortable, drowning.

The preceding paragraphs weave very nicely into the fabric of the novel.  The similarity between the night-before-the-wedding dream and a standard reaction to law school is __________ (fill in the blank … “frightening” occurred to me).

I’m drowning,” is a frequent complaint among first-semester law students. “All I want to do is keep my head above water—I feel completely overwhelmed.” These aquatic metaphors ("to whelm" is to submerge) are apt. Often, law students find themselves awash in a flood of uncategorized information—facts and theories disconnected from, alien to, often at odds with their intuition, their preconceived ideas, their personal experiences.

As the flood continues, the vortex begins to drag them down.

Just as hopeless drowning swimmers—and Ms. Hilden's fictional dreamer—succumb to the raging surf and surrender control to this powerful force of nature, too many wunnelles capitulate to the perceived inevitability of their loss of control. This is the passive reaction. This is the reaction that keeps law students from achieving their “personal bests” during their first semester. They’ve heard it’s hard, they encounter the proof of the difficulty of law school during the first three weeks—they feel "overwhelmed."

What they don’t realize is this: they are (nearly) all great swimmers ... it's just the unfamiliarity with this environment that throws them off.

The "dream" concept is also apropos. "A series of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep" ... this is a "dream."  Substitute the phrase "the first three weeks of law school" for the word "sleep" and you will be reminded of conversations you have had with students these past few days.

At an Academic Support conference a few years ago, when I asked someone, "What is it, exactly, that we do?" I received this response: "We help make people's dreams come true."  True enough, when the "dream" is an aspiration.  There are some dreams—ideas and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind—that we want to help not come true.  (djt)

September 10, 2005 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)