Friday, July 20, 2012
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Sian Beilock, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Chicago and author of Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To. The lecture focused on the science of why individuals choke under pressure and how to best avoid performance anxiety. While the lecture did not focus on the stress applicants feel taking the bar exam, it was wholly applicable.
When pressure and anxiety to perform is high (like the bar exam), the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our working memory, focuses on the anxiety instead of recollecting essential information for successful performance. When a student is filled with too much anxiety, regardless of their aptitude, the anxiety interferes with their thought process and almost turns off their working memory to anything other than the stress of the event. This is why we often see highly intelligent and capable students perform below expectations in testing situations.
There are several ways to help students avoid this prefrontal cortex reaction. One, which is often employed by commercial bar reviews, is taking practice tests under timed conditions. These simulations help the brain overcome stress and will likely prevent students from “choking” during their actual test because they have established coping mechanisms to deal with their stress. Therefore, during the real test, they can practically operate on autopilot without stress interfering with their working memory.
Additionally, positive self-talk is an important aspect of testing success. Professor Beilock suggests that writing about your stress for ten minutes before an exam will free working memory. This cognitive function can instead be applied to performing well on the exam.
The simple act of acknowledging fear and stress prior to taking the bar exam could make the difference between passing and failing. I have told each of my students, especially those struggling with intense testing anxiety, to try the writing exercise each morning of the bar exam. I am hopeful that it will calm their fears and help them reach their highest potential next week.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Many law students are now in exams. It is sometimes hard to keep one's perspective in the midst of hard exams. Here are some pointers you can give students to help them stay focused and not be thrown by an exam that seemed too difficult:
- Help students realize that the grade in a course is just one grade on one set of questions on one day.
- A student has 90 credit hours (more or less at different law schools) in the degree, and one course is just a small part of that degree.
- It is not uncommon to know more information than a set of questions on an exam could ask in a limited time period.
- Lots of attorneys today are practicing in areas that were not their strong courses in law school – students can have another chance.
- Remind students that other students also thought a particular exam was hard.
- Students need to realize that they are like their fellow classmates in regard to an exam.
- A student needs to resist the temptation of feeling that s/he was the only one who found the exam difficult.
- Encourage students to forget about the exams they just had.
- The exam is over and done with, and the student cannot change anything about it.
- Have the student re-focus on the next exam because s/he can make decisions that will impact studying for that exam.
- Students can just do their best on each exam under their own particular circumstances. That is all they can ask of themselves.
- Remind them to avoid talking with others about an exam when it is over.
- They will only get more stressed about the exam.
- They will keep thinking about that exam instead of moving on to the next one.
- They should smile at the person who wants to talk and diplomatically say that they don’t talk about exams. Then they should walk away.
A student who is upset by an exam needs to take several hours off and do something unrelated to law school. If the student's exam schedule allows it, the student will probably benefit from taking the rest of the day off and getting a good night's sleep. A fresh start in the morning will be more beneficial than studies that are unproductive because of a lack of focus. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I have had a number of appointments lately with students who wanted to talk about the pros and cons of staying in law school. Some of them were disappointed with their grades. Some had outside family, medical, or financial issues that were weighing on their minds.
If you are asking yourself whether or not law school is right for you, here are some things to consider:
- Why did you originally want to attend law school? Are those reasons still as important to you? Reminding yourself of why you originally enrolled can help to refocus your thinking about law school.
- Were your reasons tied to internal or external motivations? You may well have a mix of motivations. However, when the going gets tough and doubts arise, internal motivations are often more deeply supportive of your chosen path. (Internal motivation examples: I want to help immigrant families with legal problems. I loved working as a paralegal before law school. External motivation examples: My parents told me I should be a lawyer. I got turned down for medical school.).
- Have you changed your mind about what you want to do with a law degree? Some students have doubts because they decide they don't like the original type of law they thought they wanted to practice. That is okay - law includes a multitude of different legal specialties. Some students decide they don't want to work in BigLaw. That is okay - there are many different practice experiences: different sized firms, government work, non-profit agencies, public service. Some students decide that they do not want to practice at all. That is okay - there are a number of alternative careers for law graduates. Explore practice areas and career options with your career services office. Talk to professors and other lawyers about their careers and areas of expertise. If you decide that another graduate degree or work experience matches your career goals better than a law degree, that is the decision you need to make
- Do you enjoy cases, legal concepts, and legal analysis? If you enjoy the daily study of law, that may be a positive indicator to remain. However, if you hate what you are doing, you may be happier in another field of study. Note that enjoying the law is not the same statement as enjoying law school.
- Do you enjoy being in law school most days? Law school is not an easy environment for many reasons. If you are miserable every day, then that is not healthy for you. However, if most of the time you deal positively with the workload and environment and keep your perspective, then you may decide that the issues you have with law school can be handled. Most law schools have academic support professionals who can help you learn ways to study smarter rather than harder and to manage your time well. They can also refer you to other professionals who can help you evaluate any remaining issues.
- Are there family or medical or other priorities that mean you need to leave law school right now? All law students have responsibilities and circumstances that are outside the law school. If those priorities need your focus right now to the exclusion of law school, then you need to do what is necessary to meet those obligations. Consider the best way to meet any personal responsibilities within the options your law school provides.
- What are the options that you have at your law school? You may be able to take a leave of absence, go to part-time status, or have other options at your school. If you decide to leave at this point, make sure you follow proper procedures. If you have financial aid, make sure you understand the ramifications of your choice. If you can keep your options open (for example, a leave of absence), do so.
- Who are the people who can help you with your decision? Talk to faculty, deans, your academic advisor, parents, mentors. Do not try to make the decision by yourself. Find objective people who can help you see the pros and cons. Get as much information as possible from your law school's administration before making a decision. Consider what you will do next if you decide to leave law school - better to have a game plan if at all possible.
Law school may be the very best match for your goals and circumstances. However, law school may be a good match later, but the timing is off now. Finally, if law school is not a good match for you, there is no shame in choosing a different path and walking away from this choice. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
One of the more depressing statistics I have come across is the rate of depression among lawyers and law students. I am further depressed when I see the random studies linking depression with heightened analytical ability. The theory (and it is only a theory) is that there is a connection between high-achieving lawyers and depression, because a good lawyer will see the flaw, the catch, or the error in any argument, and thereby save his or her client dollars. Someone who is depressed is more likely to see the downside, and therefore, be a better lawyer or law student. This theory ignores the enormous social and emotional toll of depression. It impacts not just the person suffering, but the people who care about the person suffering from depression.
I don't like this theory. I think it gives another excuse for maintaining the status quo. Depression should not be a way of life, for any reason. There is an excellent piece in the NYT's this week on sadness and depression, and the drive to find evolutionary justifications for depression. I found the arguments for an evolutionary explanation for depression similar to the rationalizations explaining why lawyers tend to be more depressed than people in other careers. And like the author, I am disheartened when the drive for explanations leads to a justification for an unhealthy way of life.
Larry Krieger has done amazing work on law students and depression; most of us in ASP are quite familiar with his work. In ASP, we need to recognize the difference between sadness and depression. Sadness is a temporary state all of us experience; depression should not be a common experience. Due to the populations so many of us work with in ASP, we should be trained to see the differences between ordinary sadness over an unfortunate event, and depression, which as Dr. Friedman explains in the NYT article, "a failure to adapt to stress or loss, because it impairs a person’s ability to solve the very dilemmas that triggered it." Depression, unlike sadness, causes memory problems and issues with learning, which cause additional academic problems, and causes depression to snowball. (RCF)
More information on lawyers and law students and depression:
WSJ: Why are so many lawyers depressed? http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/12/13/why-are-so-many-lawyers-so-depressed/
Lawyers With Depression: http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/depressionstatistics.asp
Psychology Today: The Depressed Lawyer: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-matters/201105/the-depressed-lawyer?page=2
New York Times: Depression Defies the Rush to Find an Evolutionary Upside: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/health/depression-defies-rush-to-find-evolutionary-upside.html
Friday, January 13, 2012
Hat tip to the Legal Writing Prof Blog for the following link to a recent article on research about law students and hope.
Go to The National Law Journal to read the article summarizing research published in the Journal of Research in Personality and previously reported in the Duquesne Law Review. Allison Martin, a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, is one of the researchers. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, November 28, 2011
You can feel the negative stress level when you walk into the doors of a law school during this time of year. Negative stress is a problem for some law students all year long, but it tends to be prevalent for many more as the exam period approaches. It helps to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly about stress to deal with it.
There is such a thing as positive stress. This type of stress helps us respond in an emergency, helps us perform well under pressure, encourages us to reach our potential, and gets us moving and being productive in our lives. This positive stress is sometimes called eustress. When demands on us result in our brains responding neutrally to a situation, it is termed by some researchers as neutral stress or neustress.
When we talk about stress in law school, most people think of the negative stress which is also termed distress in the literature. The symptoms of distress are warning signs to us that something is wrong and we need to deal with the situation.
Some of the common distress symptoms are:
- Poor concentration
- Short temper
- Trembling hands
- Churning stomach
- Tight neck and shoulder muscles
- Sore lower back
- Confused thinking
- Accelerated speech
- Sleep disruption
Distress can lead to decreased productivity when studying, physical illness, fatigue, loss of interest, and decreased satisfaction. If high levels of distress are experienced for prolonged periods, physical and psychological disorders can result including, migraine headaches, ulcers, colitis, high blood pressure, panic attacks, psoriasis, and more. In addition, a law student's distress can affect their relationships with others.
What are some positive ways you can manage your stress:
- Avoid being a perfectionist. Work towards an excellent result rather than a perfect result. Rarely does a law student get every possible point on an exam question. Rarely does a law student write the perfect paper.
- Break down large projects into smaller tasks so that you are not overwhelmed. Break every topic into subtopics so that you can make progress in smaller time blocks and focus on manageable pieces. Break down a paper into small research, writing, and editing tasks. For example, editing can be divided into looking for spelling errors, punctuation errors, grammar errors, logic of the material, flow and style of the writing, citation, or other categories.
- Avoid people and situations that add to your stress. Steer clear of certain classmates who cause you more stress because of their attitudes, hyperactivity, panic, or competitiveness; end conversations diplomatically and go on your way. Find locations to study that do not add to your stress. If the law school is too stress-laden, go to other academic buildings, a coffeehouse, the university library, or the business center of your apartment complex.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep makes an enormous difference in our being able to manage stressful situations. It gives our body the defenses to fight disease. Getting sick during exams will only cause you to have more stress.
- Practice stress release. Get a massage. Do relaxation exercises. Learn biofeedback. Practice yoga. Go for a run or swim.
- Lower your alcohol, sugar, and caffeine intake. All of these ingredients can cause your stress to increase even though you may initially think they are relaxing you or giving you energy.
- Seek help if the stress is interfering with your life. See a doctor or counselor if the stress has become more than what you can manage on your own.
Take action to keep negative stress from getting the best of you. It is far better to do something about it than wish you had later. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, November 19, 2011
It is time to call in the reinforcements. For most law schools, exams are approximately 2 or 3 weeks away. That means that law students need to focus on studying and ask for help from family and friends on life's more mundane issues.
You may want to consider the following:
- Relay to friends and family that you are going into hibernation mode and will not be available until semester break to paint the living room, clean out the attic, plan your sister's June wedding, or shop 'til you drop. Tell them you love them, and promise a celebration after exams.
- Warn friends and family that you will be returning phone calls and replying to e-mail less regularly and to be patient if you do not get back to them right away for non-emergencies. (If you are really gutsy, ask them not to send you funny e-mails, chain poems, and You Tube video clips so that you can spend less time sorting e-mails.)
- Alert those who are fashionistas in your life that you are swapping high style for comfort, low-maintenance duds until the end of exams - less laundry, less ironing, less dry cleaning - unless they want to provide you with "wardrobe mistress" assistance.
- If you live with someone who is not a law student, see if you can negotiate that your (roommate, spouse, partner) take on extra chores until exams are over in return for your doing more chores throughout the semester break.
- If you live with a law student, negotiate swapping off days for chores so that each of you can have some uninterrupted study time without dishes, vacuuming, dusting, and more. Alternatively, do a "whirling dervish" cleaning together now and then settle for the bare minimum of picking up clutter and washing dishes.
- If you own a dog, ask your parents if you can bring their "grand-dog" with you at Thanksgiving for an "autumn camp" experience until your exams are over. You love Fluffy or Fido, but now is not the time to be rushing home constantly for walks, feedings, and play-time.
- If Auntie Em loves to cook and lives nearby (or you will see her at Thanksgiving), ask if she would be willing to let you pay her for the ingredients and her time in order to make you several large casseroles for your freezer - law students need nourishment during studying.
- Consider paying the neighbor's teenager to rake leaves, shovel snow, or do other outside work that can be time-consuming.
- Ask friends who are already running errands in that part of town if they would mind picking up a few groceries, a prescription, or other items for you if you give them the money and a list.
- If you have children, ask friends and family to babysit, set up play dates, have sleep overs, and generally provide some face time with your children so you can get some blocks of uninterrupted study time. Offer to reciprocate over the semester break.
If there are other areas of your life that you need help with during your study crunch, speak up. In fact, beg, plead, cajole, and get on your knees if you have to do so. You can and will make it up to them over the semester break. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Students are really tired at this point in the semester. If they have stayed on top of things, they will be able to have more down time during the Thanksgiving holidays. That should help to recharge their batteries. If they are behind, they should still get some rest during the break; but they will need to study as well.
Here are some things to consider to keep yourself motivated during the remainder of the semester and through exams:
- If your law school reading and exam periods begin after only one week of classes post-Thanksgiving, consider doing all of your reading for the last week over the Thanksgiving break. Then review before class for 30 - 45 minutes to refresh your memory. Not having to read the last week of classes will give you lots of exam review time - a motivator in itself.
- Set realistic goals for each week for exam study. What subtopics or topics can you intensely review for each exam course? How many practice questions can you complete? If you set unrealistic goals, you will de-motivate yourself; you will become discouraged when it becomes obvious that you will not meet the goals.
- For each exam course, make a list of topics and subtopics that you must learn before the final exam. By focusing on subtopics, it will make the list very long. However, it is easier to find time to study one or two subtopics than to find time for an entire topic. You will feel less overwhelmed because you can make progress in small increments. Also, you will be able to cross off subtopics more quickly than entire topics. Thus, you will see your progress more easily and stay motivated.
- Read each of your outlines through from cover to cover each week for each exam course. This reading is not to learn everything - that is what you will do in intense review of the topics or subtopics. Instead this additional outline reading is to keep all of the information fresh no matter how long it has been since you intensely reviewed a topic or will be before you will get to intense review for some topics. You will feel better about your exam review as you catch yourself saying "I know this mataerial" or "I remember all of this information" about prior topics that you studied. You will motivate yourself for future topics waiting for intense review by realizing "I'll be able to learn this" or "I remember some of this already even though I haven't studied it carefully."
- Take your breaks strategically. Sprinkle short 5-minute breaks into longer 3- or 4-hour study blocks. Get up and walk arouond or stretch on those breaks rather than sitting still. After a large block of study time, take a longer break to exercise or eat a meal. Use the breaks as rewards for sticking to your task until you have completed what you planned to finish.
- Surround yourself with encouragers. Avoid classmates who are all doom and gloom. Have phone conversations with family and friends who will cheer you on and support you. Find classmates who are willing to work together to keep all of you in the support group motivated and on track.
- Plan several fun things that you want to do over the semester break: taking a day trip with friends, going to the cinema several times, attending a concert, playing basketball with a younger sibling, shopping for new clothes. By having things to look forward to, you can tell yourself "I just need to keep up the hard work for a few more weeks and then I get to do (fill in the blank) as a reward."
Think about individual strategies that work for you to stay motivated but might not apply to a classmate. Examples of motivators for getting your work done might be: time with your spouse, time with your child, time with your pet, spiritual devotion time, time for a longer run on the weekend. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 10, 2011
As the stress and anxiety of preparing for exams increase, some law students seem to go into overdrive on their procrastinating. Rather than motivating them to knuckle down and study, their stress and anxiety are causing them to turn their habit of procrastinating into mega-procrastination.
Here are the favorite ways of procrastinating that I am seeing among my law students right now:
- Shopping on-line for hours with or without actually purchasing something.
- Talking on the cell phone endlessly about trivial matters.
- Spending hours reading and replying to e-mails - especially the ones with cartoons, You Tube videos, chain e-mails, stories, and jokes.
- Spending hours on Facebook and Twitter.
- Playing endless games of Spider Solitaire to beat their old record.
- Playing endless hours of Internet games so they can play with their on-line gaming friends.
- Watching whatever there is on TV that is mindless and unexceptional.
- Watching multiple re-runs of sitcom episodes they have already seen multiple times.
- Watching endless news coverage (so they can feel righteous about being well-informed).
- Watching whatever sensational trial is currently in the headlines (so they can pretend to be doing something law-related and productive).
- Sitting in the student lounge talking with friends and drinking coffee.
- Sitting in a "study group" talking endlessly about the latest law school gossip.
- Running lots of errands (so they can claim to be doing a lot when they fritter away time).
- Taking three-hour naps each day.
- Sleeping in until noon or 1:00 p.m. each weekend day.
How do you stop procrastinating?
- Remove yourself from the environment where you procrastinate and find another location to study.
- Turn off or leave elsewhere your laptop, cell phone, or other electronic distractions.
- Unplug the TV and put it in the closet until exams are over.
- Do not study on your bed or the recliner/couch where you are tempted to nap.
- Get 7 hours of sleep minimum at night with a regular bedtime and wake-up time so that you do not need naps or late sleep-ins.
- Batch your errands and run them once during the week.
- Use the student lounge for lunch and the occasional break rather than live there.
- Avoid study groups that are merely social events with a pseudo-academic name.
- Allow yourself to answer e-mails, watch TV, make phone calls only at scheduled times once or twice a day - and then only as rewards for having completed your studying.
- Break tasks into very small pieces so that you can convince yourself to get started. Beginning is always the hardest part.
- Make a list of small tasks and subtopics for each course so that you can cross-off tasks as you complete them and see your progress.
- Set up breaks as rewards for getting work done.
As you see progress on your small tasks, you will begin to feel better about yourself. As you cross more and more tasks off your list, you will have less stress and anxiety. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing! Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.
For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer. Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.
For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year. Plan to relax! Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.
Example for Contracts class:
A. Outline completed by November 14.
B. All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C. 50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D. 50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E. 20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F. 15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.
The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components. How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.
Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions. You can start gathering questions today. Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.
Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!
Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams." The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan! (djt)
Saturday, October 22, 2011
I am going to elaborate on Amy's post from a couple of weeks ago about taking time to care for yourself. Bad, unfair stuff happens to everyone. Not everyone knows how to handle it when it happens to them. Most people take some time, dust themselves off, heal, and move one. When working with law students, some additional context may help explain why our current students may take things a bit harder than previous classes.
The three classes that are presently in law school are different; widespread anecdotal report them as younger, which is the natural consequence of students choosing to enroll in law school after undergrad to avoid a depressed economy. Younger students may have less life experience, and less practice handling the ups and downs of life. Additionally, these students are getting bombarded with press telling them that they are fools and their decision to enroll in law school is a mistake. Add in some disappointments, such as a break-up, a family issue, or a fight with a friend, and it's harder for these students to put their troubles in perspective and see that this, too, shall pass. When all the news is bad and you don't have the life experience to see that everything is temporary, disappointment can morph into depression.
Taking some points from Martin Seligman and positive psychology, there are some strategies for working with students who need some advice handling life's disappointments:
1) Whatever state you are in now is not permanent. It may feel like the pain of a break-up, a bad grade, a fight with a friend will be permanent, but the pain will pass. Just like the excitement of a special day or thrill of a good grade passes, disappointment fades. The more you (the student)focus on the disappointment, the more permanent it will feel.
2) Remember your successes. Failure can seem pervasive when several disappointments hit at once. But no one got to law school as a pervasive failure in life. Everyone has successes. When you increase the level of challenge in your life, you increase the risk of failure and disappointment. Recalling the times you were successful can help you bounce back.
3) Remember that you choose how you frame events in your life. Events, by themselves, are neither good nor bad. Even severe traumas, like the death of a loved one, can be viewed from different perspectives. One perspective focuses on being grateful for the time you had with them, another perspective focuses on how much time you wish you still had with them. Similarly, students suffering through break-ups (so common in the first semester of law school) often spend disproportionate amounts of time focusing on their sadness because that person was "the one" and their whole life was built around them. While it is valid to be sad, focusing on how things will always be negative since the significant other is gone keeps the student in a bad cycle.
4) Remind them that the press doesn't focus on the happy, because that makes for boring news. This is the time of the year 2L's are getting offers for summer employment. Mix in the constant barrage of terrible news about law school, and it's easy for students without a big-firm summer placement to feel like a failure. Students depressed about their prospects need to remember that smaller firms and non-profits hire after the new year, sometimes late into the spring. Just because you, the student, struck out in OCI doesn't mean you will never get a job. The news media fails to note that even during the "boom" years of 2002-2007, not all student got big-firm jobs.
5) As trite as it sounds, failure is the key to success. If you are always winning, how will you handle it when you fail when the stakes are high? Learning from mistakes is critical to future success. Failed relationships teach us how to behave when we meet the right person. Fights with friends teach us how to handle disagreements appropriately. Failed interviews teach us how not to answer OCI questions posed by interviewers.
I realize that ASPer's already have these skills, and they sound obvious. Many of our students have not lived enough to have gained perspective on life's disappointments, which leads them to perseverate on negative events. This can have an immediate impact on grades, because dwelling on disappointments increases cognitive load and decreases the ability to focus on homework, reading, and studying. Focusing on disappointments also negative impacts on motivation. (RCF)
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Stephanie West Allen's Idelawg blog had a post this past week with a link to an article in the Los Angeles Lawyer written by Timothy A. Tosta on the subject in the title line of this posting: Job, calling, or career article . It is a thoughtful article on how as lawyers we make a choice to have our practice of law amount to just being a job or career or amount to much more as our calling.
As ASP'ers, we can assist our students in not only learning how to study more effectively but also in thinking about where they want to be in their lives in the future. How will the practice of law define their lives? Their beginning to think about that bigger question now will help them remember to continue to refine the answer later. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, October 1, 2011
ASP'ers are a caring group. They are often the ones students turn to in their darkest moments. It is not unusual for us to be privy to students' struggles and hardships outside the classroom.
Students tell us about illnesses in their families, scary medical diagnoses, deaths of friends, personal embarrassments, relationship problems, disappointments, and more. They need someone who will encourage them, support them, listen, and make referrals where appropriate. At the end of a day with 8 or 9 appointments, at least 2 of those typically are more than just a discussion about academic issues.
But what about when we have had a personal tragedy, illness, family issue, or other unexpected speed bump in our own lives? How do we keep caring when it hurts inside? We need to remember that we need solace as well. We need to put on our "brave face" and do our jobs, but need to take care of ourselves.
So here are some tips to help you focus on your students even when you are feeling depleted, tired, emotionally wrought, and distracted by your life outside the walls of the law school:
- Take some personal time off if possible. Even a long weekend can make a difference in your ability to focus. Give yourself lots of rest, permission to do nothing, and access to emotional or medical support. Talk to trusted family or friends to get support.
- Prioritize your work. What must get done? What can be put off for a few days or weeks? What can be forgotten about for this semester and added to the "do next semester" list?Do not try to soldier on when you do not have the strength temporarily to be "Super-ASP'er."
- Just say "no" or "not right now" to new projects if you do not have the stamina or concentration to do them well. Realize that this is probably not the time to chair a new committee, agree to design a new web site, or implement a new program.
- Balance your day. Give yourself at least one block of project time so that you can focus without interruptions. Decide how many one-on-one appointments you can do without being emotionally drained. Schedule appointments so that purely academic assistance is mixed with students whom you know need emotional support so that you do not become exhausted with the need to be "giving" when you really need to protect yourself emotionally.
- Stay patient with your students. Some law students become overwrought about things that those of us with more life experience know are not crises. They see add/drop period and course decisions as earth-shattering. They feel outraged when a professor leaves them to struggle with processing a sub-topic instead of spoon-feeding them. They are devastated by their first low grade in 16 or more years of education.
- Tell some trusted colleagues what is going on. Your boss may need to know so that you can re-negotiate project deadlines, agree to some days off, or explain some changes you have made in priorities. A few colleagues who can task share or just be supportive will be a plus.
- Follow our own advice to students. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Go to the doctor. Get help from a religious leader, professional counselor, or others if needed.
- Realize some students may notice something is wrong. Some of us are able to look stunningly pulled together even on stressful days and through personal crises. However, most of us look at least somewhat haggard, tired, and stressed - just like we feel. We can still smile, appear superficially cheerful, and pretend to be energetic. However, a few students who work with us a lot are likely to realize that something is wrong. If asked, beg off with "a bad night's sleep," "busy and a little distracted," or "a touch of a bug."
ASP'ers are folks with big hearts for their students. Life hurts sometimes. Be there for your students, but take care of yourself when you need to do so. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, August 26, 2011
There is no doubt that you have been caught up in the flurry of activity that accompanies the beginning of the academic year. Heavy meddlesome casebooks; jam packed orientation; a throng of new faces; and the cacophony of perplexing terminology bombarding you in each lecture- Welcome to Law School! Although the first days and weeks (or even your entire first year) of law school may seem overwhelming, there are ways to ease your transition and maintain a positive outlook.
Here is one way to get started on the right track with your law school journey. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen (yes, this requires a little work). Do this when you have about 30+ minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time to devote to it. Now, open your mind and focus on yourself…
First, take a few minutes to reflect on your personal strengths. These could be anything from having a friendly smile to being a great basketball player. Create a list of as many positive attributes about yourself that you can think of. Do not shy away from being excessive or even exaggeratedly vain. This list is for your eyes only- so go for it!
Next, write down your fears related to law school. Is it hard for you to meet new people? Are you nervous about the infamous Socratic Method? Are you scared that you do not have what it takes to succeed? Do you think the workload will be too challenging? Again, write it all down. This too is for your eyes only- so try not to limit your list.
Finally, take the remaining time to think of how you can put your strengths to work on your most dreaded fears. This may take some work. Connecting your exquisite knitting ability with your debilitating fear of being called on in class may not seem feasible. However, with a little creativity anything is possible. Such as: if you could knit while being called on in class or while in a study group (possibly with other stitchers), you may find that your anxiety has decreased.
Use your strengths to overcome your fears. If you are a great communicator one-on-one but fear speaking in large groups, try sitting in the front row and pretend you are conversing with only the professor. This may help you in more ways than you can imagine. Grab a seat in the front row and you will likely be more actively engaged and less intimidated or distracted by other classmates.
Acknowledging your strengths and your fears will help you determine your best personal strategy for success in law school. Putting your strengths at the forefront and focusing on them (instead of being destroyed by your fears), will lead to more productivity, less stress, and better mental and physical health (and likely a higher GPA).
Therefore, above all, remain optimistic even on your darkest day. If you need a reminder of how great you are, ask your significant other, best friend, or a close relative. They will help you see through the self doubting haze that many law students acquire their first year. Of course if you need to hear it from an unbiased, trustworthy source, I suggest that you read your list.
Friday, July 29, 2011
The last few weeks have been a perfect example of the stressors in the study and practice of law.
Our summer program students have received their grades for their first law school exam. For many, they had never been near or below a median score before in their academic lives. Currently, they are struggling with their first legal writing assignment and the uncertainties of how to write something that is in a totally new genre. They are feeling overwhelmed by the task and the approaching deadline for the first draft.
The bar exam has just finished the final day of three. For a number of bar studiers, the last month was discouraging and stressful. Rather than feeling ready, studiers confided that they had hit a wall and were struggling to get back on track. As is typical, the bar exam has held surprises - topics or nuances not expected on the exam. Bar review courses work on probabilities; no one but the Board of Law Examiners ever knows for sure what to expect. Bar takers have looked more exhausted, worried, discouraged, and stressed as each day has passed.
First-time law clerks have discussed their adjustments to their summer jobs. The reality of the seriousness of the practice of law and the responsibility that goes with every assignment has begun to hit home. Real people with real problems depend on the law clerk's work product. It is no longer the world of Blackacre, exploding packages, and hairy hands. The pace of work and lack of instruction can be frightening if a legal employer provides little initial structure. As thrilling as real legal work may be, it is also stressful.
Stress managment is a critical skill for law students and lawyers. The legal world is prone to overwhelming amounts of work, constant deadlines, and very important decisions. It is no secret that lawyers often succumb to alcohol or drug abuse to handle the stress. Relationship problems are also well-known because of the demands.
Our law students need to learn stress management early in their careers. They need to learn how to keep balance in their lives and prevent stress as well as how to cope with stress when it occurs.
- Managing time carefully rather than letting it escape can prevent stress.
- Learning to recognize and minimize procrastination can lower stress.
- Following healthy sleep, exercise, and nutrition routines can help reduce stress.
- Keeping in touch with friends and family can create a support network to counteract stress.
- Talking to someone about the stressful situation can alleviate the "aloneness" and provide possible solutions.
There are many useful resources for coping with stress. Some examples are:
- Larry Krieger's booklet: The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress
- Law School Academic Success Project: Wellness pages for law students
- Numerous law schools have information on stress management on their academic support web pages.
- Numerous university counseling or health center web pages discuss stress management techniques.
- Type "stress management techniques" into your favorite browser for a multitude of websites with information.
The most important thing to remember is that stress can lead to other health problems if not handled in a positive way. Prevention is better than cure. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, June 3, 2011
Most law students have received their spring semester grades at this point. The cheers and groans are probably echoing somewhere near you. Grades can be a euphoric high, a dismal depression, or somewhere in between. Here are some ideas how to view your grades wherever you fall in the class:
For those who are at the top of the class (however you want to define that measure):
- Congratulations! Your hard work has paid off, and you can celebrate.
- Evaluate your study habits. Even though you are happy with your grades, you still want to take some time to consider your semester's studying to improve your study skills. What were your strengths and weaknesses? Do you need to become more effective in your reading, note-taking, outlining, writing/researching, or exam-taking skills? Do you do better in certain types of course or exam requirements?
- Consider your options. Do your grades give you confidence to sign-up for more challenging courses for next year? Do your grades suggest that you want to re-think your career goals? Do your grades mean that you can now become involved in student organizations or community service where you were hesitant to do so before? Do you now have the confidence to try out for a competition team, apply to be a research assistant, or participate in the write-on competition after all?
- Evaluate your summer plans. Does your evaluation of your study skills suggest that you need to spend time this summer on specific skills? Are there areas of the law that have picqued your interest that you want to read about during the next weeks? Do you have the confidence now to apply for summer law jobs that you doubted you could get before?
- Enjoy your academic postion, but do not let it go to your head. Some law students make the mistake of letting an inflated ego become an obstacle. They may slack off because they think they are invincible and will actually see their grades drop at the end of the next semester as a result. Or they may become a bit arrogant and think they are better than fellow students, staff, faculty, and deans. Arrogance does not win friends or influence people.
For those of you in the great middle of the class:
- Work through any frustration or anger about your grades. Occasionally I will talk with law students whose dissatisfaction with their grades leads them to vent emotionally rather than taking positive actions to improve. If you find yourself saying any of the following things, you probably need to step back and regain some objectivity: "I was in the hard section and would have done fine in another section." "If I had Professor A instead of my professor, I could have had a better grade." "Course C is a dumb course any way, so it wasn't my fault." "It is not fair that there is a curve." "The prof should have given me the B because I was only 3 points away."
- Do not make the mistake of considering yourself to be mediocre or just average. You are holding your own. Remember that you entered your law school class with the best and the brightest of college and university graduates. You are still who you were when you entered; the competition changed. You are not necessarily destined to remain in the great middle. You can break out of the great middle with appropriate changes.
- You can improve your grades by becoming a smarter studier. Take some time to think through what worked well and what did not. Be honest with yourself. Did you put in your best efforts or slack off at some point? Did you take shortcuts rather than become more efficient and effective? Did you use all of the resources available to you at your law school - professors' office hours, supplemental study groups, academic support professionals, writing specialists, advisors?
- Make a plan for improving your study skills. Instead of just changing up things at random or latching on to every piece of advice you hear from upper-division students, make an appointment with the academic support professional at your law school. That person is able to help you objectively evaluate you strengths and weaknesses and look at sound strategies for improvement.
- Review exams with your professors for any courses in which you received a C+ or lower grade. You should try to do this as soon as possible on your return for the next semester. You want to determine what you are doing well and need to continue. You want to get specific feedback on what you need to improve on for higher grades. Take copious notes during your discussions with the professors and share them with the academic support professional at your school to get advice on strategies and techniques for improvement.
For those of you in the bottom portion of the class (however you want to define that measure):
- Deal with your disappointment with your grades and move forward. Do not let discouragement prevent you from improving your grades in the future. All law students can learn more effective ways to study. You definitely want to work with the academic support professional at your law school to evaluate what went wrong and what you are doing right. Avoid being your own expert. You obviously need someone else's expertise in study strategies to sort out what can be done.
- Review each of your exams with your professors. If this will not be possible until the fall semester, make yourself notes about each exam that you took. Did you run out of time? Did you have trouble with one section but not others? Were you confused by a particular topic that was tested? Did you panic or freeze up during the exam? As soon as possible in the new semester, make an appointment to go over the exam to discover your strengths and weaknesses. The more specific the feedback, the more information you will have to guide your improvement.
- Look hard at your time management and tendency to procrastinate. It is not unusual for law students to have problems with these two areas. Many law students received good grades in undergraduate courses with little work and last-minute cramming. There was less material to learn. The material was rarely as dense as law cases. Multiple tests or other assessments made it easier to fall into cram mode. Again, your academic support professional can help you develop better skills in these problem areas.
- Evaluate your goals, motivation, and commitments. How do you want to use your law degree upon graduation? Do you want to be in law school right now? Do you like the study of law? Are there other variables (family, financial, medical) that suggest you need a leave of absence to get things sorted out? Is law school a priority in your life right now?
- If you are being placed on probation, find out exactly what that means. What is the standard that you must meet? What time period do you have to meet that standard? Are you required to take a certain number of credit hours during your probation semester (some schools have a higher requirement for probation students)? What happens if you have to repeat a required course while on probation? What resources are available to you (academic support professional, advisor, tutoring, counselor)?
For those of you who are facing academic dismissal:
- Be honest with yourself. After you get over the initial shock, you need to evaluate how you ended up in this place academically. Is law school where you really want to be? Is being a lawyer a priority for you? Did you put in the effort that was needed on your academics? Were there circumstances outside school that caused you problems?
- Find out your law school's procedures and policies. Every law school is different. You need to determine your law school's way of doing things. You should be able to find this type of information in your law school's student handbook (look on-line if you were not handed a hard copy during your 1L orientation). If you cannot find the information, contact the Associate Dean for Academics, Registrar, or other appropriate person at your law school for help.
- Find out what options you have (if any). Some law schools allow dismissed students to petition for readmission (continue on with your class) or re-entry (repeat your 1L year) on the basis of extraordinary or exceptional circumstances. Some law schools make you sit out at least two years before you can reapply. Some law schools have entirely different options.
- Get some advice from an authority on the school's policies and procedures if you need to consider options. You preferably want to talk with administrators who work most closely with students on these issues. If possible, schedule an appointment. Consider a telephone discussion if you cannot make it back to campus. Write down your questions ahead of time so that you do not forget to ask everything.
- Have a Plan B. There are always other options than law school if a petition is not successful or you cannot petition under your law school's policies. You can apply to a graduate program in another field. (Yes, people who leave law school for academic reasons do get accepted in other graduate programs.) You can get a law-related job until you can re-apply. (Think paralegal or legal assistant, for example.) You can get a non-law-related job until you decide what to do more long-term. You can get a roommate to help with expenses on your apartment.
- Remember that leaving law school does not mean that you are a failure. The study of law is not a good match for everyone. There is a niche out there that will use your talents and abilities. You will be successful in life - law is not the only career path. You are the same bright, talented, exceptional person you were before law school. All that has changed is that law school did not work out. That is actually okay even though it may not feel that way right now. You will be fine.
Whichever category matches your grades, don't get stuck in the place where you are. Evaluate. Strategize. Move forward. And, believe in yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, April 7, 2011
A common theme in my discussion with students this week is that there are not enough hours in the day. Many of them are starting to get stressed over the amount of work to fit into the amount of time left in the semester.
Part of the problem is that they are trying to juggled end-of-the-semester assignments and papers with ongoing daily tasks and review for final exams. It can seem overwhelming if one does not use good time management skills.
Here are some tips:
- Realize that you control your time. With intentional behavior, a student can take control of the remainder of the semester rather than feeling as though it is a roller coaster ride. Make time for what really matters.
- Work for progress in every course. If one focuses on one course to the detriment of the other courses, it creates a cycle of catch-up and stress. A brief might be due in legal writing, but that should not mean dropping everything else for one or two weeks. Space out work on a major assignment over the days available and continue with daily work in all other courses.
- Use small pockets of time for small tasks. Even 15 minutes can be used effectively! Small amounts of time are useful for memory drills with flashcards or through rule recitation out loud. 20 minutes can be used to review class notes and begin to condense the material for an outline. 30 minutes can be used for a few multiple-choice practice questions or to review a sub-topic for a course.
- Capture wasted time and consolidate it. Students often waste up to an hour at a time chatting with friends, playing computer games, watching You Tube, answering unimportant e-mails, and more. Look for time that can be used more productively. If several wasted blocks of time during a day can be re-captured and consolidated into a longer block, a great deal can be accomplished! For example, reading for class can often be shifted in the day to capture several separate, wasted 30-minute slots and consolidate them into another block of perhaps 1 1/2 hours.
- Use windfall time well. It is not unusual in a day to benefit from unexpected blocks of time that could be used. A ride is late. A professor lets the class out early. A study group meets for less time than expected. An appointment with a professor is shorter than scheduled. Rather than consider the time as free time, use it for a study task.
- Realize the power of salvaged blocks of time. If a student captures 1/2 hour of study time a day, that is 3 1/2 extra hours per week. An hour per day adds up to 7 hours per week. Time suddenly is there that seemed to be unavailable.
- Break down exam review into sub-topics. You may not be able to find time to review the entire topic of adverse possession intensely, but you can likely find time to review its first element intensely. By avoiding the "all or nothing mentality" in exam review, progress is made in smaller increments. It still gets the job done!
- Evaluate your priorities and use of time three times a day. Every morning look at your tasks for the day and evaluate the most effective and efficient ways to accomplish everything. Schedule when you will get things done during the day. Do the same thing at lunch time and make any necessary changes. Repeat the exercise at dinner time.
- Cut out the non-essentials in life. Save shopping for shoes for that August wedding (unless perhaps you are the bride) until after exams. Stock up on non-perishable food staples now rather than shop for them every week. Run errands in a group now and get it over with to allow concentrating on studies for the rest of the semester.
- Exercise in appropriate amounts. If you are an exercise fanatic spending more than 7 hours a week on workouts, it is time to re-prioritize. You may have the best abs among law students at your school, but you need to workout your brain cells at this point in the semester.
- Boost your brain power in the time you have. Sleep at least 7 hours a night. Eat nutritional meals. Your brain cells will be able to do the academic heavy lifting in less time if you do these simple things.
So, take a deep breath. Take control of your time. And good luck with the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, February 4, 2011
Stephanie West Allen's Idealawg has noted the new International Journal for Wellbeing in a recent posting. The posting includes an article table of contents and a link to the journal. Check out the link to Idealawg and to find out more about this new free, on-line resource. You can register at the journal's website to receive new issues or to submit content for review. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Our law school upper-division students have apparently been telling the 1L's to spend the semester break reading study aid supplements for their spring courses. Now I have a great deal of respect for go-getters who want to receive good grades. But, I am not so sure that this advice to the 1L's is very good.
Here is why I am concerned about their reading up on their doctrinal 1L courses:
- The syllabi for 1L courses have not been posted yet. Consequently, they will be reading in the dark without knowing what topics and subtopics will be included in the course. Study aids typically include material for a national audience with all topics that might be taught by some professor. Rarely does a professor have time to cover all of that material.
- Each professor has his or her own slant on course material. Some professors have specific analysis frameworks that they want students to learn. Some professors are more policy oriented to the material. Some professors cover both state-specific codes as well as model codes. Without more information on the professor (by attending class and tutoring sessions), 1L students will read out of context and absorb the study aid's point of view which may not be the professor's slant.
- 1L students still have additional analysis skills and foundational areas of law to learn. They will be encountering concepts, terms, and new ways of thinking in their spring courses that are foreign to them. They may be working extensively with statutes for the first time. Trying to learn these new areas without class discussion and case readings may leave them more confused than grounded in a new subject area.
- Most 1L students are exhausted. They have been through a grueling first semester with constantly demanding concepts, formats of testing, legal jargon, and new study techniques. Many have not only lost sleep, but also eaten junk food and not exercised. For some, they have been stressed from day one of fall semester. Now they should relax, catch up on sleep, eat right, get on an exercise regime, and spend time with family and friends. For most, learning more law will not be a therapeutic endeavor.
It would be more helpful for them to read one or two books on academic success, legal reasoning, or exam-taking strategies if they are determined to do something law related. Books of these types will help them evaluate their study techniques and fill in gaps in their foundation of how to think about the law. Here are some books that they may want to consider:
- Charles R. Calleros, Law School Exams: Preparing and Writing to Win.
- John Delaney, How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams.
- John Delaney, Learning Legal Reasoning.
- Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul. Getting to Maybe.
- Wilson Huhn, The Five Types of Legal Argument.
- Michael Hunter Schwartz, Expert Learning for Law Students (with workbook).
- Andrew J. McClurg, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School.
- Ruth Ann McKinney, Reading Like a Lawyer.
- Herbert N. Ramy, Succeeding in Law School.
- Dennis J. Tonsing, 1000 Days to the Bar: But the Practice of Law Begins Now!.
I think it is very important for law students (whether 1L or upper-division) to return in January well-rested, happy, healthy, and energized. Spring semester will be just as long as fall - though hopefully a bit less overwhelming for the 1L's. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, November 22, 2010
All law students feel the pressure of upcoming exams. Final paper or project deadlines are piled on top of that pressure. Clinic students are trying to get in their final required office hours. Students with court or mediation observations are getting the total time they need. In general, there just do not seem to be enough hours in the day.
And then just when a student thinks she can handle no more, life happens. A computer crashes with all outlines and paper drafts on it. A spiral notebook of class notes disappears when left behind at a coffeehouse. A student gets pneumonia. A best friend dies in a car accident. Parents announce they are getting a divorce. A boyfriend decides now would be the perfect time to end a relationship. The car's transmission gives up the ghost. A younger sibling gets arrested for drugs. Dad files for bankruptcy and can no longer pay the student's rent.
You get the picture. The list is as varied as the students and their lifestyles. The permutations are almost endless. And in some cases, there will be several things happen at the same time or within close proximity of one another.
In each case, the disruption often throws the student into complete disarray. It may be hours, days, or weeks before the student is back to functioning at full capacity. Unfortunately, too many students try to handle these crises by themselves without getting help from resources that are available to them.
Why do they go it alone? There may be several reasons:
- Pride. Most students have always handled things without having to ask for help. They often assume they can just resolve this situation as well. They may not want to let anyone know that they cannot handle the current situation by themselves because they see it as a sign of weakness.
- Embarrassment. The life incident may be highly personal or show the student's bad judgment. Students may be too mortified to explain to a dean or faculty member what has happened to them. They fear that asking for help under their specific circumstances will "put them in a bad light."
- Cultural background. Students may come from backgrounds that require that family business stays within the family. To share about a divorce, sibling's arrest, a parent's bankruptcy, or other personal matters would be seen as a betrayal of the family's trust.
- Lack of knowledge. Students may truly be unaware that there are resources available to them. They may assume that they have no academic options or that low-cost or no-cost resources are unavailable to them.
Here are some suggestions for handling a crisis. Although the procedures, policies, and services will vary from law school to law school, most law schools have resources to help students deal with life's unexpected disruptions.
- Assess what is needed as quickly as possible. Is it going home to be with family? Is it $500 for car repairs? Is it IT help to see if anything can be retrieved from a hard-drive? Is it help from a classmate or tutor/teaching assistant? Is it someone to talk with about the situation?
- Let the law school know what is going on. Talk to the Associate Dean for Academics, the Associate Dean for Student Affairs, the Director of Academic Support, or whomever is the designated staff member. These individuals can explain the options available and make referrals as appropriate. With more knowledge, a student can regain control and choose the best path for resolution of the crisis.
- Follow procedures carefully and meet any deadlines. Every law school has its own procedures for academic options that are available. Deadlines will vary within each school's procedures and policies. Your law school may have some or all of the following available to students with documented problems: rescheduling of exams; extending paper deadlines; withdrawing from a course; dropping to an underload; taking an Incomplete grade and finishing work after the semester is over; taking an In Progress grade and repeating the course the next time the course is offered; taking a leave of absence for the next semester.
- Ask about resources on the main campus of an affiliated university. Law students have often paid fees that include no-cost or low-cost medical care and counseling at the main university wellness center. Universities may also have stress management, financial counseling, biofeedback labs, student legal services, ombudsman services, or other resources that can be helpful.
- Ask about resources in the local community. Independent law schools will often have referral systems to local health providers or counselors or legal services. In some cases, the law schools will have negotiated discounted fees or payment plans. Even where there is an affiliated university, resources in the community will often be well-known by the decanal staff.
- Ask about short-term emergency loan programs at the law school. Although the dollar amounts are usually not large, the payment terms are usually reasonable. Alternatively, depending on timing, financial aid may be re-packaged to provide additional funds for documented medical expenses, purchase of a new laptop, or other emergency needs.
- Get in touch with the spiritual side of life. Studies show that those who pray and believe a higher power is involved in their burdens feel less overwhelmed. Whatever the spiritual orientation, it can be helpful to talk to a spiritual mentor about the problem.
- Realize that law school friends need to focus on exams. The crisis does not have to become everyone else's crisis. It is often more appropriate to turn to non-law-school friends, family, or professionals for support at the end of the semester. Law school friends care, but should not be expected to replace doctors, counselors, or other professional advisers.
Life often intervenes at inconvenient times in law school. Now is not the ideal time to divert attention from studying. However, in reality, it happens. Stay calm. Get help. Do the best that can be done under the circumstances. (Amy Jarmon)