Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dancing with the stars - law school version

I love ballroom dancing.  When I lived in England, I went to social ballroom dances at least three times a month in addition to weekly lessons.  Now that I am home in the States, I watch every movie about ballroom dancing multiple times and adore Dancing with the Stars.  As I watched the competition and results shows this week, it occurred to me that law school is like ballroom dancing in many respects.

In ballroom dancing, you have to learn the basic steps before you can put a dance together.  In law school, our students need to learn the basic steps such as reading cases, briefing cases, reading statutes, outlining, and using IRAC.  And, they read individual cases which are the steps before understanding the inter-relationship of concepts. 

In ballroom dancing, each dance has its own steps: the mamba is very different from the cha-cha, from the waltz, and from the quick-step.  And, the Viennese waltz is even different from the basic waltz.  Likewise in law school, the steps may differ somewhat among professors and among courses. Professors have different styles of teaching and testing. Courses may be more case-based or code-based.  Courses may be more policy-based or more methodology-based.  Cases vary in density and editor's purpose for inclusion. 

In ballroom dancing, once you have the steps learned, you must learn the unique rhythm for each dance.  If you can only do the steps and do not match the rhythm, your movements will be mechanical and amateurish.  You must learn fluidity and "become one" with the music.  Likewise, our students must learn the rhythms of their courses.  Memorization of the material (like memorization of the dance steps) is not enough.  If the students do not "become one" with the material so that their learning is intuitive and seamless, their learning will be very compartmentalized and miss the overview.

In ballroom dancing, you must practice continuously to improve.  The good ballroom dancers make dance a priority and spend hours perfecting their dancing.  Likewise, law students who practice applying the law to new fact scenarios throughout the semester at every opportunity improve their understanding of nuances in the law, their application of the law to different facts, and their organization of answers.  Practice is essential to their perfection of the steps and the rhythm.

In ballroom dancing, dancers may falter, slip, stumble, or fall during a dance.  They must dance on as though the incident did not occur and complete that dance.  They must evaluate why the incident occurred and strategize how to correct the problem.  Then, they must persist in their practice to become more expert so that such incidents become less likely in future dance events.  Likewise, law students must not become defeated by a difficult section on an exam, a bad mid-term grade, a bad course grade, or a bad semester.  They must evaluate the difficulties, choose strategies for change, and persist in their studying to become more expert as students.

In ballroom dancing, the execution of a dance at a higher level of expertise is exhilarating.  All of the practice becomes worthwhile when complicated spins and step sequences suddenly mesh into a seamless whole.  Graceful execution of the dance is a special triumph.  Likewise, a law student's improvement in grades through the honing of skills  and better performance on a paper or exam is exhilarating.  As law students become more graceful in their lawyering skills, they feel a similar sense of triumph.

As ASP professionals we need to become like dance instructors (along with our faculty) and encourage our students as they master the steps and rhythms and spins and fast foot work.  We need to train them patiently in the basic steps, help them find the rhythm for their courses, push them to repeat the tasks until they become experts, encourage them to get back up when they fall, exhort them towards graceful execution, and applaud when they master a difficult analysis or subject.

Ballroom dancing can be a life-time passion and pursuit (yes, there are tea dances for the elderly).  Let's hope that lawyering will be a life-time passion and pursuit for our students (yes, there are senior lawyer divisions for most state bars).  (Amy Jarmon)

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