April 24, 2013
Do You Wanna Dance?
Remember the awkwardness of middle-school and high school dances if you weren't attending as half of a couple? Males stood on one side while the females hung out on the opposite side of the gym. To walk across the divide to ask for a dance was intimidating. And mortifying if you got turned down flat under the watchful eyes of everyone else.
Some students had the herd instinct and stuck with a group of other unattached attendees. At best they would get out on the dance floor en masse. At worst they would chat with friends while being among the non-selected.
I was thinking today about how so many things in law school echo back to those days of social uncertainty. (For some, college was no better; however, most felt a bit more daring and socially adept by then.)
For example, you are herded into an auditorium during Orientation with hundreds of other new 1Ls and expected to get acquainted or at least fit in somehow. There may have been a major welcome luncheon on the first day. If seats were not assigned by section, then the undergraduate friends who are now attending law school together clumped into little groups at the tables, secure in having "dance partners." Everyone else felt as though a flashing, neon sign with an arrow exclaimed "unpaired." If seating was by sections, then at least the unfamiliar 1Ls at the table knew they had something vague in common and could swap rumors about their professors and courses.
Socratic Method is a bit like a dance invitation - except you really shouldn't take the option of turning down the professor (pass is not any more exceptable than no thanks). And at times students feel they are trying to follow their professor dance partner without any idea of the dance, let alone the actual steps. Some professors are strong leaders - question by question as they show students the steps and lead them through the analysis. Others seem to whip you around the dance floor until you are dizzy. A few others even step on your toes so to speak as they point your errors out to the class. Only a few students are brave enough to venture out on the dance floor by volunteering.
Then there is the legal research and writing dance. One is supposed to learn the steps to an alien type of analysis and writing by doing it. For those with two left feet in legal analysis and legal writing style, learning by doing seems totally unhelpful. Research paths are supposed to be dance lessons for research, but some students are improvising too much to end up with the correct moves. Arguing both sides of the issue seems a lot like not being able to decide who should lead. And then second semester appellate briefs feel a lot like doing choreography before one knows all of the dance steps and appropriate rhythms.
Sections help with the herd instinct because you are all in it together. Then with 2L and 3L years, everyone scatters to different courses, certificate programs, dual degrees, and student organizations. Many law students find themselves in new courses with new professors and law students from other sectioins or upper-division students that they don't know except as vague faces in the halls. They have to decide whether to stay alone in the experience or turn to other students and ask "Do you wanna dance?" (Amy Jarmon)
April 10, 2013
Do Not Jettison Your Common Sense
With the stress at the end of the semester, I am seeing more students make poor decisions because they have misplaced their common sense. Here are some things that students all know but tend to overlook when overwhelmed:
- Attend classes and prepare for them. Skipping class to gain more study time may mean that you miss important information about the exam or the wrap-up of major topics for the course. Not reading and briefing in order to save time only mean that you have the gist of the course without real understanding.
- Avoid spending lots of time organizing to study rather than actually studying. If a clean desk, organized bookshelves, and a code book with a thousand colored tabs do not increase your actual learning, you have been inefficient (used time unwisely) and ineffective (gotten minimal or no results).
- If you are sick, go to the doctor and follow the doctor's advice. Multiple negative repercussions follow from coming to school sick and refusing to get medical attention: you infect others with your illness; your illness becomes more debilitating than it should; you ultimately lose more class and study time than you would have with prompt treatment.
- Get enough sleep; do not get less sleep during the remaining weeks of the semester. Without sleep, your body and brain do not work well. You absorb less material, retain less material, zone out in class or while studying, and are generally less alert.
- Eat regular and nutritious meals; do not skip meals to save time. Your body and brain need fuel to do the studying you have to do. Dr. Pepper and Snickers bars are not a balanced diet. Neither are pizza and soda.
- If you have an emergency during the exam period, tell the academic dean or registrar. You may be eligible for delayed exams because of the circumstances (medical illness, family illness, death in the family). Most law schools have procedures/policies dealing with emergencies and will work with students who have exceptional circumstances.
Take time to use your common sense to help you make wise study and personal decisions during these last few weeks of the semester. Do not put yourself at a disadvantage by blindly taking action fueled by panic - think about the consequences of your choices. (Amy Jarmon)
April 07, 2013
So Many Tasks, So Little Time
The end of the semester is approaching at break-neck speed right now for most students. A common lament is that there is not enough time to get everything done before exams. Students are frantically working on papers and assignments while trying to find time for extra final exam studying.
Here are some ways to carve out time when you feel that you have none:
- Look for time that you waste during each day and corral that time for exam studying or writing papers: Facebook or YouTube or Twitter time; e-mail reading and writing; cell phone time; chatting with friends in the student lounge. Most people fritter away hours on these tasks.
- Become more efficient at your daily life tasks: prepare dinners in a slow cooker on the weekend to heat up single servings during the week; wear easy maintenance clothes to save ironing/dry cleaning tasks; pack your lunch/dinner to take to school instead of commuting time to eat at home; clean the house thoroughly once and then merely spot clean and pick up. You can garner ample study time if you cut down on these types of daily tasks.
- Curb excessive exercise time, but do not give up exercise time entirely. Your normal gym workout of two hours five times a week is most likely a luxuary at this point in the semester. Cut it back to two times a week or make it one hour three times a week. The guideline for exercise is 150 minutes per week. You need to focus on strengthing your brain cells rather than your abs right now.
- Consider getting up earlier each day, but do not get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. If you tend to sleep in on weekends and days when you do not have early classes, you are losing productive study time. Go to bed at the same time Sunday through Thursday nights and get up at the same time Monday through Friday mornings; do not vary the schedule more than 2 hours on the weekends. You will be more alert and better rested if you have a routine.
- Decide whether you could study an hour or two longer on a Friday or Saturday night if you currently end at 5 or 6 p.m. You want some down time, but may be able to go a bit longer than previously in order to gain more study time.
- Set up a schedule so that you delineate for each day when you will read/brief or outline for each of your courses. Then repeat the tasks at the same days/times each week. You will waste less time asking yourself what to do next.
- Break tasks down into small pieces. Small pockets of time (under an hour) can then be used effectively to complete tasks. You may be able to study a subtopic for a course in 20 minutes but would take 3 hours for the whole topic. Any forward movement is progress!
- Use windfall time when you gain unexpected time: a class is cancelled, your friend is late picking you up, a meeting ends early.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by everything you have to do, take control of your time. Conquer each course one task at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
April 02, 2013
Why Global-Intuitive Students May Mistake Superficial Analysis for the Real Thing
Global processors are always looking for the big picture, the overview, or the roadmap in learning - they want to know the essentials and the end result. Intuitive processors are curioius about concepts, abstractions, theories, and policies and seek out relationships among ideas - they are synthesis peole. When these two breadth-processing styles combine as strong preferences, the learners can sometimes assume they know a course when they only know the gist of a course.
These processors are more tempted to take shortcuts in learning: skim a case, read the canned brief, produce a cursory outline, and write conclusory memos. They often come out of exams with comments like "I guess I didn't know Torts as well as I thought." They are shocked when reviewing an exam to see that they never analyzed element three even though they knew the analysis. The analysis stayed in their heads instead of making it to the paper for the professor to grade.
Global-intuitive students tend to make mistakes on exams that stem from their breadth of learning without sufficient depth of learning, thinking, and organizing. For example, on fact-pattern essay exams, they leave out the steps of their analysis because they think the professor will know how they got from point A to point D without having to lay it out. It is true that the professor knows how to get there, but the professor needs to know that the student knows how to get there (rather than a lucky guess) to give points on the exam. On multiple-choice exams, they tend to pick by gut rather than carefully consider every answer option. Consequently, they look at the options that match their conclusion (guilty, admissible, liable) and miss the best answer that is not guilty unless, inadmissible unless, or liable only if. Alternatively, they may not know which of two better answers is best because they do not know the nuances of the law on which the question turns.
There are several ways that global-intuitive students can help themselves to develop more in-depth understanding of the law and gain more points on exams:
- Avoid shortcuts that tempt one to only know the gist of a course: canned briefs, scripts, outlines of other students.
- Spend time memorizing the precise wording of the rules, definitions of elements, and other law so that one is not fuzzy on elements, factors, variations. or other items.
- For essay exams: Write out fact-pattern essay answers instead of just thinking about them; get feedback from professors, teaching assistants, or classmates on the depth of analysis.
- For multiple-choice exams: Complete lots of practice questions and read the answer explanations in the book to learn the nuances of the law rather than just the gist of the law.
- Take the time to read, analyze, and organize an essay answer. The rule of thumb is to use 1/3 of the time for a question to do these steps and then 2/3 of the time to write the answer.
- Use a chart to organize the essay answer rather than hold information in one's head. Rows can indicate the parties to the dispute. Columns can indicate the elements or factors that need to be discussed. One can enter facts, cases to be mentioned, and policy arguments in the appropriate cells as a careful read of the fact pattern is completed.
- When writing the essay answer, change the audience one writes to - instead of writing to the professor, write the answer as though explaining the law to a non-lawyer (your cousin, grandmother, little brother). Connecting the dots is easier when writing to a lay audience.
- When writing the essay answer, ask "why?" at the end of each sentence. If an explanation for the statement is not there, keep writing and add the "because" to the sentence.
- Carefully weigh each answer choice on multiple-choice tests; look for the best answer rather than the superficially right answer.
- Slow down in exams and use all of the time given. Global-intuitives tend to finish early which often indicates that they missed smaller issues, did not fully analyze the arguments, or did not read the questions carefully enough.
April 01, 2013
Why Sequential-Sensing Students May Mistake Class Preparation for the Ultimate Goal
Sequential processors focus on the individual units before them (cases, subtopics, topics) rather than look at the bigger picture (how these units combine into a whole). Sensing processors focus on details, facts, and practicalities rather than look at ideas or synthesis (the inter-relationships of concepts, subtopics, etc.). When these two depth-processing styles are combined in a student as strong preferences, the students can become too focused on pieces and detail and miss the broader view, inter-relationships, and policy arguments.
Several strong sequential-sensing learners have mentioned to me in the last few weeks that they feel that the only time they are focused on what really matters is when they are reading and briefing for class. When they are outlining, reviewing their outlines, or doing practice questions (all of these steps are in their weekly schedules), they fear that they are not expending their energies on what really counts.
After several of these comments came close together, I decided to step back and analyze why these issues were surfacing after I thought we had discussed what one is trying to accomplish in law school courses. I realized that for these individuals we had not yet fully formulated what one does in law school versus what one will do in one's specialty in practice.
These students saw their job in law school as learning all the law in a course so that they were ready to practice that legal area later. They had missed the fact that they are learning topics for a course (but not all of the law for that specialty) to gain critical thinking and writing skills and general knowledge to solve new legal problems (for exams). Once they are in practice, they will focus on learning all they can about their own practice area(s). However, law school does not expect that level of in-depth study; it expects familarity with a variety of areas of law and application of the concepts to new legal scenarios.
Sequential-sensing students feel more secure in preparing for class because they mistakenly think that memorizing everything about individual cases is the most important task. Because synthesis and big-picture thinking are more uncomfortable for them (especially if policy is involved), they feel less convinced that outlines, review, and practice questions are full-fledged studying.
Once these students realize that class preparation is important but not the be-all and end-all, the light-bulb comes on for them. They are still less comfortable with the synthesis and big-picture thinking that lead to application, but they can see those broader study tasks as legitimate. By releasing themselves mentally from having to know every minute detail in each case and each sub-topic and each legal area, they begin to make the transition to the additional levels of learning that will allow them to succeed on exams. They push themselves to synthsize the material and fit it into the bigger picture. They realize that practice questions assist them in this process and help them to apply the law on exams. (Amy Jarmon)
March 20, 2013
The Downward Slope
For most law schools, the semester is on the downward slope to exams - the midpoint for classes has passed. Students who have been putting things off are waking up to the fact that time is not on their side any longer.
Many law students whose Spring Breaks are over used the recent time away from class to catch up: outlines were started or completed, paper research was started or completed, and paper drafts were begun. Law students with Spring Break this week are planning the same machinations.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of the time left in the semester:
- Add to course outlines weekly so that new material is pulled together while it is still fresh.
- Write down all of your questions for each course and get them answered now: by classmates, by professors, or through study aids.
- List all of the topics and subtopics that must be learned for each exam course to get a realistic view of the amount of material.
- Estimate the amount of time needed to learn each topic already covered in class to the level needed to walk into the exam.
- Schedule learning that same older material for no more than two-thirds of the remaining class period; reserve the other weeks for learning the new material that has not yet been covered. For example, if there are six weeks left, try to learn the first eight or nine weeks of material in four weeks and reserve the remaining two weeks to learn brand new material. During the exam period, focus on the last one to two weeks of new material and review everything else.
- Do as many practice questions as possible for each exam course. However, it is ineffective to do practice questions on a topic before you have intensely studied it. Wait a few days after intensely studying a topic before you do practice questions - you want to see if you retained the information well enough to get the answers correct.
- Do not skip classes because professors will begin to give information about the final exams and pull material together.
- Also do not skip classes because the last few weeks are often heavily tested when the course builds over the semester.
- Expect every step for researching and writing a paper to take longer than you think it will. Plan your work accordingly.
- Leave ample time to edit your paper in stages for specific aspects rather than edit for everything at once. Stages might be for logic, grammar, punctuation, style, accurate quotations, citations, tables/exhibits, or other appropriate categories.
The last part of the semester will be more productive if there is a plan for using the time. Do not waste time just thinking about study tasks; start studying in earnest. (Amy Jarmon)
March 13, 2013
Borrowed Brains Have No Value
The title of this post is actually a Yiddish proverb. It applies to law school in multiple ways:
- Reading canned briefs or headnotes instead of the actual cases will not teach you how to analyze cases as an attorney. You need to know how to spot the issues, pull out the legally significant facts, understand the court's reasoning, and distill the legal essentials from the opinions. Then you need to synthsize everything you have read.
- Using scripts instead of taking class notes will not help you think about the law. Scripts are merely verbatim transcripts without true understanding. A court reporter can make a transcript; an attorney needs to process the law to know how to use it correctly.
- Relying on other people's outlines instead of making your own outline focuses on memorization rather than understanding. Attorneys need to be able to struggle with the law and know how it works; they need to use the law rather than parrot the law.
- Reading the model answer in a practice question book instead of writing out your own answer will short-circuit learning. You cannot learn the nuances of thinking by reading another's work. You cannot learn how to organize a tight analysis without doing it yourself.
Studying the law well takes effort. Thinking about the law is very different than memorizing the law. Understanding how to apply the law to legal problems goes beyond borrowed brains. Clients want to hire lawyers who excel at using their own brains. (Amy Jarmon)
November 24, 2012
The Last Week of Classes Is Like Leftovers
I did not cook for Thanksgiving this year. My best friend and I decided to go out to dinner instead. I realized in the days after Thanksgiving that I basically was content not to have leftovers crowded in my refrigerator. Except maybe the from-scratch cranberry sauce. And the stuffing. But the turkey, green beans, succotash, gravy, potato au gratin, sweet potato casserole, crescent rolls, pumpkin pie, pecan pie - well you get the picture - were not missed.
I realized for many of my students, the last week of classes (at our law school immediately after the holiday break) is a lot like leftovers. More reading, briefing, and new class material up to the last minute are now no longer appealing. One is already sated with those items and ready for something else. The professors who wrap up or review material are like the favorite leftovers that one is happy to have servings of for the next 5 days after the holiday.
Like all of us who ate too much and sat overstuffed on the couch after the holiday meal, our students are lethargic when it comes to more class sessions. They are focused on exams and want the leftover classes to be over. Wrap-up and reviews make sense because they go along with the exam purposefulness that students have. (Amy Jarmon)
November 20, 2012
The Paper Chase
I have watched this classic law school film multiple times over the years and vividly remember seeing it in the cinema when it first came out (long before I ever ventured across a law school threshold as a 1L student). Recently I decided to watch it once more because it had been several years since my last viewing.
The film has always seemed to me to be the perfect commentary on how not to have a study group. I was reminded of those points once again. Here are some of the things we learn from the movie:
- A study group needs to have members with the same goals and purposes to avoid logistical and group dynamic problems.
- A study group needs to have some ground rules so that each member knows the responsibilities and etiquette of the group.
- A study group will falter if each person is assigned one course to specialize in because only that one person learns the course well and the others suffer if the expert drops out of the group.
- A study group will have conflict if its members become overly competitive, are argumentative, refuse to negotiate on tasks, or hold others hostage by refusing to share information.
- A study group does not belong to the person who invites others to join; it belongs to everyone and should be cooperative.
- A study group will be disrupted by members who become overwhelmed and are unable to pull their weight in the group.
- If one does not study outlines all semester long and distribute learning the material, it may require holing up for days with no sleep at the end in order to cram.
- Learning styles within a group vary; one person will consider an 800-page outline a treasure while the others will view it as a curse.
- Always have a back up copy of your outline in case your computer crashes (or your outline is accidentally tossed out a window).
My wish for all law students would be to have supportive, cooperative, hard-working study groups without drama and negativity. (Amy Jarmon)
November 15, 2012
Law is not creative writing
When reviewing 1L's first drafts of practice exams, there is one problem that always comes up: writing in law is not creative writing. 1L's get confused by this statement, especially when their professors tell them that creativity is an important part of lawyering. However, the creativity that law professors are referring to, and the creativity that law students try to demonstrate on exams, are two different things. This is a particular challenge for students who majored in English in undergrad, and for law students who previously worked in creative fields, such as PR or marketing. Students need to understand that the purpose of writing for a legal audience is different from the purpose of writing in those fields. Lawyers need to be understood. A creatively written contract, that uses terms of art in new or novel ways, is likely to be misunderstood by the parties, and wind up in court. This is NOT what a lawyer wants when they write a contract. Therefore, lawyers use terms of art carefully; in fact, lawyers use words carefully. The goal of writing for a legal audience is not to show them how many 25 cent SAT words you know; the goal is to be understood.
Here are some other basic rules of writing for a legal audience that 1L's frequently misunderstand:
1) Using the same words throughout an exam is smart. Don't try to change your vocabulary so you don't overuse a word. That rule is true for creative writing, but it undermines the coherence of your essay when writing in law.
2) Keep your sentences short. Long sentences frequently contain too many ideas that need to be discussed separately.
3) Use linking words, like because. Although your sentences should be short, you need to be sure that you make explicit connections between law and fact. You are not a fiction writer; you do not want to make the reader make inferences. Spell it out for them.
4) A paragraph should focus on one idea. If you have a new idea, start a new paragraph. If you reread your work, and find that you have multiple ideas in one paragraph, chances are you are not discussing any one idea completely.
October 24, 2012
The 3L Blahs
Have you noticed your 3L students struggling a bit? They stop to chat and tell me that they are lacking motivation, have the blahs, cannot focus, or other descriptions of their malaise when it comes to law school.
For some, it is that they are focusing on their job hunt and have taken their focus off courses. For some, it is a focus on December graduation and chomping at the bit to be done. For some it is a focus on taking the bar in February before their final spring semester is over and thinking about bar review now. For many it is just being sick and tired of law school with this semester and another one left to go.
For many of our 3L students, the third year seems like more of the same. The study tasks are just like the first two years. Unless they have elective courses that really grab their attention and introduce them to or re-immerse them in an area of law that they have a passion for, the courses seem uninspiring.
Some exceptions to the 3L boredom problem are our externship and clinic students. They seem to be energized by the change of pace they have during the semester. Other exceptions are those students who are in Trial Advocacy or other practice-oriented classroom experiences. Students who have traditional classes with even some component that breaks the mold (one drafting assignment, one client interaction, etc.) also seem more engaged in those classes.
What can 3L students with the blahs do to increase their motivation and focus if they do not have any of these types of classroom experiences? Here are some thoughts:
- Employ more active study techniques. Ask questions while reading. Read aloud instead of silently. Discuss cases and concepts with others. Switch up the facts and consider how the court would have responded to that new fact situation. Answer all of the questions at the ends of cases even if not required.
- Imagine that the client in the case had walked into one's own office with the legal problem. What questions would be asked of the client? What additional arguments could have been made by each side that were not made? What would be the strengths and weaknesses of those arguments? Are there any policy considerations? What ethical problems could have surfaced in the situation?
- Consider after each class how the information could be used in practice. Create hypothetical scenarios to delve into how the basics learned in the course would relate to a variety of legal situations.
- Discuss those hypotheticals with classmates. If you are uncertain how the concepts would work in the scenario, talk with the professor about the scenario.
- Volunteer for pro bono opportunities to see the law in action instead of feeling on the sidelines.
- Find part-time legal work in the community - even if it is an unpaid internship - to increase one's interaction with lawyers and involvement in the practice of law.
- Remind oneself of one's original goals for coming to law school and how courses will help one in passing the bar and practicing after graduation.
Even when 3L students feel that they just want to be done with their degrees, they still have the ultimate goal of becoming the best possible attorneys. Each bit of knowledge, each fact-scenario analysis, each probing question can lead to that goal - even when one is tempted to consider all of it just same old-same old.
Hang in there and take one day at a time. Learn as much as you can because for most future attorneys this will be the last time that they have the luxury to focus on learning. (Amy Jarmon)
October 20, 2012
The Three Little Questions for Exam Studying
Students who are just now realizing how close exams are and how much they have to do are looking for ways to be more efficient and effective. The trick is to continue the daily work for classes but still find time for exam review. A good time management schedule can help a student see where everything can be completed. (See my Thursday, September 6th post "When will I have time for . . . " for advice on time management.)
When looking specifically at exam study tasks, a student should ask the following questions:
- What is the payoff for exams of this exam study task?
- Is this exam study task the most efficient use of time?
- Is this exam study task the most effective way of doing the task?
Question One: This question is focusing on whether the exam study task is really going to help one do well on exams. If not, then the task should be dropped (or modified) for a task that will have more payoff.
- Example 1: Re-reading cases to study for exams rarely has much payoff because the exam will not ask you questions about the specific cases and instead will want you to use what you learned from the cases to solve new legal problems.
- Example 2: Reading sections in a study aid that do not correspond to topics covered by your professor in the course will have little payoff on your exam. If your professor did not cover defamation, reading about it in a study aid "just because it is there" in the book is a waste of time.
In example 1, you would get more payoff by spending time on learning your outline and doing practice questions. In example 2, you would get more payoff by reading only those sections of the study aid that are covered by your professor's course and about which you are confused.
Question Two: This question focuses on whether the task that you have determined has payoff is a wise use of your time. If you do a task with payoff inefficiently, you can still be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You have not bothered reviewing and learning a particular topic for the exam yet. You decide to complete a set of 15 multiple-choice questions on the topic. You get 8 of them wrong and guessed at 3 of the ones you got right.
- Example 2: After outlining, you have lots of questions about the first three topics that your professor has covered in the course. You decide to worry about them later and continue on through the course with more questions surfacing each day.
In example 1, practice questions have payoff, but you wasted time because the questions would have more accurately gauged your depth of understanding and preparedness for the exam if you had done them after review. In example 2, listing the questions you have on material has payoff, but you wasted time by not getting all questions for the first three topics answered while you had the context before moving on with new material.
Question Three: This question focuses on whether the task that you determined has payoff is getting you the maximum results. If you do a task that has payoff ineffectively, you can also be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You are reviewing your outline which is a high-payoff task. However, you choose to review your outline in the student lounge while talking to friends and watching the news on the television.
- Example 2: You join a study group which meets every week and has an agenda of topics and practice questions that will be covered. You attend regularly but never go over the material or practice questions before the meetings.
In example 1, your outline review was ineffective because you were not focused fully on that exam study task. You may say you spent two hours reviewing, but your results will be far less than the time you pretend to have spent. In example 2, your exan study was ineffective because you got minimal results compared to what would have been possible if you had prepared before the meeting.
Spending time on exam studying must have payoff, be efficient, and be effective to deserve being called exam study. Otherwise, you only fool yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
October 18, 2012
Accentuate the Positive
We are on the downward slope of our semester now. The midpoint in classes for our law school passed last week. The level of stress among students has increased as has the level of negativity. It takes a stout constitution to stay focused on the postive instead of getting mired down in the negative.
Here are some suggestions to help students accentuate the postive:
- Remember why you came to law school and keep those reasons in mind. Law school was the pathway for meeting a goal. If that goal is still valid, then law school is still valid.
- Realize that you can only control yourself and your time. You cannot control other law students who are super-competitive, moaning and groaning, irritable, or stressed.
- Realize that you are not going to like every other law student any more than if you chose 700 (or however many law students are at your school) random people and put them together. Some people will be unlikeable, gossipy, childish, lazy, mean or have some other negative trait. That is life. Do not paint the other nice people with a broad brush that condemns everyone.
- Remove yourself from negative situations. Avoid people who stress you out, focus on doom and gloom, and complain constantly. Refuse to become engaged in conversation with someone who wants to boost his own ego at your expense by attempting to make you feel less capable.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Seek out law students who are supportive of fellow students, who have a balanced approach to law school, and who are focused on doing well while still being nice people. Talk on the phone each day with supportive family and friends.
- Avoid "should of" statements. You cannot change the choices you made earlier in the semester about outlines, study habits, and more. You can change how you move forward with your studying. Focus on positive changes rather than past bad decisions.
- Break down assignments into smaller tasks so that the work becomes less overwhelming. You can cross off small tasks more quickly and feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Make a list of the questions that you have about the material for each course. Get the questions answered now rather than later. You will feel better if you are not as worried about things you do not understand. Get help from a classmate or your professor.
- Avoid exaggerating your concerns about a course or task. "I am clueless about Federal Income Tax" is much more negative than "I do not understand depreciation." "I'll never get my outlines done" is much more damaging to your confidence than "I will get two outlines done this weekend and two by the following weekend."
- Make sure you have some down time from studying and take care of yourself. Take a dinner break. Exercise at least three times a week. Get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Take a couple of nights off on the weekend.
A full-time law student should be able to get all study tasks (reading, briefing, outlining, finishing assignments/papers, reviewing for exams) done in 50-55 hours per week. That still leaves time to have a life outside of law school. If you use your time wisely, you will feel more positive about law school because you will see that you are getting everything done and having guilt-free time for yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
September 26, 2012
How Do I Memorize All These Rules?
Law students have a large number of items to memorize so that they can state the law precisely, know the exact definitions, use the correct steps of analysis, ask the right questions to analyze a topic, or connect the right policy arguments to a topic. At times the volume of information to remember can be daunting.
Here are some things that can be helpful when students are considering how they want to do memory drills:
Memory drills usually work best in shorter bursts of 30 minutes or less.
The number of memory drill time blocks per week will depend on the number of rules or other items that must be memorized. A course with lots of rules will need more drill blocks than one with fewer rules.
Because the brain can only memorize a few chunks of information at a time, memory work should be distributed throughout the semester rather than crammed in at the end of the semester.
Memory techniques should be matched to what works for an individual student - how did one successfully memorize material in the past, for example.
A combination of memory techniques may be needed by one student while another student has one memory technique that always works.
Possible ways to memorize material include:
- Flashcards: some students learn more by handwriting their own than using software
- Writing a rule out multiple times
- Reciting a rule aloud multiple times
- Drawing a spider web, mind map, or other visual of the rule
- Acronyms: taking the first letter of each word (for example the elements) and remembering them with a silly sentence (duty, breach, causation, harm becomes DBCH and then becomes Debbie's boa constrictor hid).
- Rhymes or sayings: assault and battery are like ham and eggs.
- Storytelling: coming up with a story that weaves together the words (for example, the soldier was on DUTY when a tank BREACHed the wall of the fort, etc.)
- Peg method: combining a numbered list with rhyming words (one bun, two shoe, three tree, four door, etc.) and then a visual image combining the item (bun, shoe, etc.) with the word that needs to be remembered (example: one bun duty is a sticky bun with a soldier saluting it; two shoe breach is a man's business shoe with a tank tearing apart the toe as it drives out, etc.)
Every student has to put in the time memorizing the material. However, remember that memorization alone will not garner a high grade. It is the beginning of learning. One has to understand what is being memorized and be able to apply the material to new legal scenarios on the exam with a thorough analysis. (Amy Jarmon)
September 20, 2012
Critiquing One's Case Briefs
Law students spend a great deal of time on their case briefs while preparing for class. They then listen carefully in class and take copious notes. But sometimes in the hurry to get on to the next reading and briefing assignment, they forget to take time after class and compare their briefs to the professor's class discussion. By critiquing afterwards, the briefs can become tools to see how one can do a better job of analysis for the next case.
One professor may go into great detail on all aspects of a case while another professor will just hit the highlights of the same case. Each professor is different, so a student's brief may include more or less detail depending on how the professor teaches and what questions typically come up in class. Students' briefs will also differ in length and format because of their learning styles.
Despite these factors, students still should to use their case briefs as a learning tool for how to become more adept at analyzing and briefing cases. Student want to learn how to select all of the correct essentials for a brief rather than including too much that is extraneous or too little that ignores important points. Critiquing ones briefs increases one's ability to find the balance needed.
Take the facts section, for example. One wants to be able to differentiate between the legally significant facts and the storytelling facts in the case. The court usually includes both types of facts because the reader needs to know the facts that relate to the court's holding as well as enough facts to understand the scenario of the case.
If a brief includes all of the facts given, then it is not making the distinction about what is important. If a brief includes too few facts, then it may miss the legal significance of some facts.
By analyzing why one missed some facts that the professor emphasized as important to the outcome, one gains greater understanding on how to spot legally significant facts among the overall facts. By asking oneself why the professor left out some facts that the student thought were important, one begins to see why some facts are merely storytelling facts and not necessary to the legal analysis.
Next think about the issue in the brief. Student issue statements are often too narrow or too broad rather than in line with the professor's version. Issue statements that are too narrow restrict the court's question to fewer legal scenarios than are meant to be included. Issue statements that are too broad apply the question to more situations than are meant to be encompassed. Because the holding is the answer to the issue, an incorrect issue statement will then be mirrored in an incorrect statement of the holding of the case.
By evaluating why one's statement is too broad or too narrow, the student learns how to understand the court's specific purview and the reach of the law. One learns how to analyze the impact the case will actually have.
Because casebooks edit cases for a specific teaching purpose, students may not realize initially that cases are often far more complex than what is being assigned for the reading. They may not be aware that there are multiple issues in a case.
Also consider the reasoning section in the brief. Students sometimes miss the logic of the case because they skip steps in their briefs rather than delineate the entire reasoning process of the court. They mistakenly focus on just getting to the holding rather than learning how courts reason so they know how one would argue a client's position.
By evaluating whether one left out steps in the reasoning or misunderstood the importance of various aspects of the discussion, the student learns to work through the analysis logically and to weigh the importance of arguments. One's ability to reason persuasively increases as one gains knowledge in how courts make their decisions.
A student may find that critiquing her briefs indicates where the problem is but then the student is unsure how to fix it. For example, the issue statements may be frequently wrong, but the student may not see why and what to do differently. I would suggest that the student visit with the professor during office hours and show the professor a selection of briefs with issue problems. The professor is likely to see the pattern of error and be able to make suggestions to correct it. (Amy Jarmon)
September 16, 2012
Part II: The power of accountability for students
Some of my students struggle with getting their work done in a timely manner. They succumb to electronic distractions: cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail. They take 2 - 3 hour naps. They allow a 2-hour reading assignment to bleed over into 3 hours. They wander around the law school chatting with friends.
Setting up accountability mechanisms works well for many of these students. They lack self-discipline, but can meet expectations when someone else is going to monitor what they do. Some examples of accountability strategies are:
- Students with major papers to write can set up a series of deadlines when they will confer with their professors or turn in certain work (if the professor is willing): topic discussion; outline of initial research; initial bibliography; first drafts of each paper section.
- Probation students meet weekly with me and know that I will ask about their reading and briefing, outlining, writing progress, and reviewing for exams each time I see them. Having to be accountable keeps most of them on track.
- Married students post their study schedules on the refrigerator at home so that their spouses know when they should be studying rather than watching television. They give their spouses permission to monitor their time and hold them accountable if they are not adhering to the schedule.
- A law student will ask a classmate to help them stick to a study schedule. The student gives the classmate permission to call them to account if they are wandering around chatting, taking too many breaks, or avoiding an assignment.
- A law student agrees to meet another law student at the library for several hours of individual study so that the appointment is incentive to show up and study instead of doing other things.
- A law student joins a study group that has a weekly agenda of review topics and practice questions that each member agrees to complete individually before the study group meets.
- A student calls a significant other or parent every evening and gives that person permission to ask what they accomplished that day in studying.
- A student uses one of the on-line time management programs to monitor use of time so that it is readily apparent how much time was used for studying versus breaks and other tasks.
Most students do not want to disappoint others even though they regularly disappoint themselves on study tasks. If accountability provides the initial way for a student to break bad habits regarding starting or completing study tasks, then the law student should take advantage of the willingness of others to help them stay on track. In time, studying will hopefully become a matter of self-discipline. All of them will need self-discipline in practice! (Amy Jarmon)
September 08, 2012
Some basic tips for reading cases
Reading cases takes up major blocks of time in a student's schedule. Students want to become more efficient and effective in their reading, but often do not know how because they are missing some important bits of information about the task. Here are some things that I try to point out:
- Initially as 1Ls, students will take forever to read cases - even relatively short ones - because they do not have legal context, vocabulary, and awareness of what is important. By the end of the first month of law school, however, they should see their reading times begin to come down. By second semester, they should be faster still.
- There are two reasons for reading cases. One reason is to gain an in-depth understanding of the case itself. The second is to understand how the case relates to the topic and to other cases within the topic. Both aspects need to be completed if the reading time is going to be worthwhile.
- Cases are often edited for a specific use in a casebook. At times what is edited out may cause confusion for the student reader because they do not readily understand the remaining material because of a lack of context and legal experience. Consequently, three good reads should be the limit. Then put a question mark in the margin next to the confusing section and continue reading.
- Cases are written for legal professionals and not for law students. Attorneys have experience and legal context that make cases easier to understand. Some things will not make sense to the student reader until class discussion.
- Not all cases are equal in density or importance. One case may contain multiple rules plus definitions of elements plus policy arguments. Another case may contain an exception to a rule. Yet another case may contain a definition of an element. Although length often relates to complexity, even short cases can contain a great deal of law.
- Older cases may still be good law. Some older cases are assigned - even if the law is now outdated - to show how the law evolves over time. A law student has to learn how courts reason over time, how policy may change the law over time, and how the law today may be different in a few years.
Paying attention to class discussion and the professor's observations about cases helps the student learn what that professor considers important about cases. By being patient with themselves and not expecting competence immediately, new law students can improve their case understanding and decrease reading time over several weeks. (Amy Jarmon)
September 06, 2012
When will I have time for . . .
A number of the 1L questions that I posted earlier are at least in part related to time management. Initially reading and briefing take so much time that 1Ls cannot comprehend how they will get done everything that they hear about: outline, review for exams, do practice questions, complete legal research and writing assignments, and more.
The answer is to have a routine that is repeated every week - do the same thing on the same day at the same time as much as possible. By having a standard schedule with study blocks for each task for each course, a law student can make sure that everything is getting done. A standard routine takes the guess work out of "What should I do next?"
Most new law students have never had to manage their time. They were able to get excellent grades with little effort. We know from national surveys that most of them did not study more than 20 hours per week in college and many of them studied far less. They could decide most days as they went along what they felt like doing. They could write papers at the last minute and get good grades. They rarely (if ever) studied on the weekends. And they got good grades while working and participating in leadership positions in numerous organizations.
Here are the basic steps for students who want to set up a study routine for the first time:
- Plan to spend 50-55 hours per week beyond class time for full-time studies and 35-40 hours per week for part-time studies.
- Initially set up a weekly schedule template with one-hour blocks from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. The final schedule may not use all of these time slots, but the extra slots help when first building a schedule. Eliminate any hours in the template that are not used. in your final schedule.
- Label all task blocks in the schedule with the what the time is alloted for in the block (examples: read torts; read contracts; writing assignments; meal; sleep).
- Build a time management schedule in layers so that you can make conscious decisions as you put in each layer.
- Layer One: put in your classes and any weekly review sessions that your law school provides for 1L students.
- Layer Two: include 1/2 hour review either before your class or before bed the night before the class so you have seen the material twice; back-to-back classes would mean 1/2 hour for each class.
- Layer Three: decide when you will get up (at minimum so you can get to school for your first 1/2 hour review and class); get up at the same time Monday through Friday even if your class times change.
- Layer Four: decide when you will go to bed Sunday through Thursday nights to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep (less and you are chronically sleep-deprived according to the medical research).
- Layer Five: include true commitments that are the same every week (dinner with Auntie Em on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m.; religious service at 5:00 p.m. Saturdays; study group 2-4 p.m. on Fridays); do not include things that you want to do but have time flexibility for (exercise that is not an actual class time).
- Layer Six: estimate for each class how long it takes you to prepare for class for one day (reading, briefing, problem sets, etc.) for the longest or hardest assignments; if necessary, keep a log for a week so you can make more realistic estimates regarding the time blocks; schedule in your class preparation time - if possible, prepare for Monday and Tuesday classes over the weekend.
- Layer Seven: schedule 6-8 hours per week for any paper/project course; you decide which number and the increments (for example, 7 hours: 2 + 2 + 3).
- Layer Eight: add weekly time to outline for each doctrinal class; 1 - 1 1/2 hours depending on the difficulty of the course.
- Layer Nine: add exercise time, meals, down time, chores, and other miscellaneous tasks as they seem to fit logically in the schedule.
- Layer Ten: after you live with the schedule for 7-10 days, make any adjustments; allow more or less time for estimated blocks; move any task blocks to other days/times that work better.
- Layer Eleven: add time to review for exams (weekly read through of your entire outline; intense study of specific outline topics as though you had to walk into the exam; practice question time; memory drills).
Task blocks in the schedule can be moved up and down during the day if a task is completed earlier than expected. Task blocks can also be flipped between days if necessary. The task blocks are place markers to make sure that all study tasks are completed within the week. As long as all task blocks are completed, the student is on target and can have guilt-free down time. (Amy Jarmon)
August 22, 2012
Common Sense for New Law Students
New law students are now gracing our halls. Their faces hold a mixture of excitement and uneasiness. They want someone to tell them the ONE RIGHT WAY to read cases, brief, outline, and complete all of the other study tasks. They get inundated with lots of advice regarding how to get the best grades in law school from a myriad of sources.
By mid-September (if not sooner), I see them totally lose sight of some basics that make a huge difference in their ability to do well in law school. They seem to let their common sense fly out the window.
Here are 10 common sense tips that will allow a student to be successful:
- Get a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep per night. You cannot learn and retain anything if your brain cells are not alert.
- Eat three nutritious meals a day - not caffeine, sugar, and junk food. You cannot learn and retain anything if your brain cells do not have nourishment.
- Exercise for at least 30-45 minutes three times a week. You can alleviate stress and sleep better with exercise.
- If you are sick, go to the doctor. You may not feel that you have time for a doctor's appointment, but you especially do not have time for an illness to drag on for weeks because you did not get the medication/treatment that you needed.
- Do not believe everything you hear on the grapevine. Law schools are fertile ground for rumors and gossip. If something you hear sounds outlandish or wrong, it probably is. If the item is important, check it out with a reliable source.
- Be patient with yourself. Law requires new ways of thinking, writing, and studying. You will need time to learn how to do those things well. Do not expect to get everything right initially. Even today's Olympic swimmers started in the shallow end.
- Compete with yourself rather than with everyone else. You cannot know how you will do in relation to your entire section, but you can know whether you are putting in your best efforts each day.
- Get assistance when you need it. Use the resources at your law school to help you succeed: professors, academic support personnel, tutors or teaching fellows, writing specialists, and the many others who will be willing to assist you.
- Stop wasting time. Limit the electronic distractions in your life: e-mail, twitter, facebook, texting, cell phone calls. Focus on studying and use these tasks as rewards after you get your work done.
- Treat others as you would want them to treat you. You do not have to be cut-throat competitive or a jerk to succeed in law school. Your classmates will be your future professional colleagues. You want them to refer clients to you, give you a thumbs up for a job at their firms, and remember you positively. Build a good reputation as an attorney starting now.
No matter how brilliant you may be, you still need to use common sense. I have seen too many law students falter because they ignored the basics. (Amy Jarmon)
July 27, 2012
Ten Tips for Rising 2L and 3L Students
Some of the returning students always ask my advice on what they can do to get ready for their academics and improve their grades for the coming year. Here are my suggestions - some of the items can be done this summer; others can be completed in the first few weeks:
- Sit down and evaluate your study habits from the previous year. Look at each aspect of law school: reading and briefing, note-taking in class, outlining, reviewing for exams, memorizing the law, taking fact-pattern-essay exams, taking multiple-choice exams, completing papers or projects. What were your strengths in studying and why? What were your weaknesses in studying and why?
- Decide which study habits to continue and which study habits to change. Meet with the academic success staff at your school if you need help with this evaluation of your studying or with brainstorming new strategies.
- If you have specific skill weaknesses, read a book about that skill to improve your understanding. Here are a few examples: Reading Like a Lawyer by Ruth Ann McKinney; The Five Types of Legal Argumentby Wilson Huhn; The Eight Secrets of Top Exam Performance in Law Schoolby Charles H. Whitebread. You can find a number of excellent books through Carolina Academic Press and other publishers.
- Start regimens now that are healthy and sensible. Get on a routine sleep schedule of 7-8 hours per night. Exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes to an hour. Eat healthy meals. Do not let these routines disappear during the semester.
- If at all possible, relax for at least one week prior to the beginning of classes. You want to begin the semester with fully recharged batteries.
- Time yourself in each course for the entire first week to see how long it takes you to prepare for class (read, brief, complete problem sets). Then pick the longest block of time for each course and use that to set up your class preparation schedule.
- Schedule also regular time for other tasks each week: outlines, review of outlines, practice questions, research, writing, study group, and more.
- Read your course syllabi very carefully. Many professors include information that can help you get the best grades in the course: learning objectives, study aid recommendations, websites and other resources, study tips, and more.
- During the first month of school, review all exams from last semester for which you received a C+ or lower grade. By getting feedback from your professors on what you did well and what needs improvement, you can make the appropriate changes as you do practice questions for your next set of exams.
- If you were disappointed in your performance in a paper class last semester, ask the professor for tips on how you could improve your research and writing. Then use the feedback to improve on your papers this year.
Second and third years are somewhat easier because students have learned the basic skills needed for success in law school. However, both years bring new responsibilities with part-time work and student organizations. Time management and organization are going to be two key areas to work on to attain your best grades. (Amy Jarmon)