Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What makes law school so different for many new law students?

We have all heard it announced during law school orientation programs that law school is not like any other educational experience.  We have all heard someone (or multiple people) tell the new students that it will be harder than anything they have done in prior education, that they will need to work harder than ever before, and much more.

There seem to be several reactions to these types of statements.  Some students over-react by becoming very anxious, doubting their ability to succeed, and working themselves to the point of exhaustion.  Some students under-react by assuming that the warnings only apply to everyone else in the room.  Some students take the warnings to heart, react appropriately by learning the differences, and seek ways to study effectively for law school.

I think warning statements during orientation programs are ineffective with many students because the warnings do not include information on why law school is so different and why they will need to work harder.  Without more information students are considering the statements in a vacuum.

Most new first-year students do not realize some of the items in the following list.  They might be more likely to heed warnings about their upcoming experience with this information available.

Active learning is required instead of passive learning.  Many incoming law students have come from educational environments that did not encourage them to be engaged learners.  They attended lectures delineating everything that would be on the exam, and they were merely expected to regurgitate it for an A grade.  Textbooks included all of the material for the course with little need for critical thinking or synthesis. Few writing assignments were long enough to require students to go beyond the obvious.

One grade is the norm rather than multiple grades in a course.  Most college courses provided for multiple test or assignment grades.  Grades addressed smaller chunks of material within the course rather than being comprehensive.  With grades addressing manageable chunks, it was possible to cram for a few days before an exam or start an assignment right before the due date and still get a high grade.  However, when one final exam grade covers 15 weeks of material, cramming no longer works.  A paper that is expected to meet a legal standard of excellence cannot be written right before it is due.  In addition, the anxiety level of the student increases because so much rides on the exam or paper.

"It depends" is the response rather than finding the right answer to a question.  Many undergraduates study disciplines that have a correct answer as the goal.  The easy cases in law never get to court.  Law students are often surprised by the "it depends" nature of the law.  They become frustrated with arguing both sides, looking for nuances in the law, and being uncertain of a final right outcome.  In the very different world of legal analysis, they become disoriented and discouraged without the security of the "right answer" to comfort them.

Professors expect them to learn the basics before class and continue to analyze material after class.  Many professors give guidance the first couple of weeks so that students learn how to read and brief cases for their particular courses.  After that initial period, however, students are expected to analyze the cases and understand the basics before class.  Professsors then begin to focus class time on more advanced discussion of the cases, the nuances in the law, and increasingly difficult hypotheticals.  It is not uncommon for them to walk out of class without the answers to the hypotheticals discussed.  Students may not be accustomed to having responsibility for learning material on their own.  Many of them have only had to learn what was directly taught to them during all-encompassing lectures.

Learning the law is only the beginning and not the end of the process.  Many first-year students misunderstand the place of black letter law in legal analysis.  They think that memorizing the law will by itself give them an A grade.  They do not understand that they must know the law, but then will need to be able to apply it to new facts on the exam.  They must be able to issue spot, state the law, apply it to the facts through arguing for both parties, appropriately use policy, and draw conclusions.  The application or analysis will give them the bulk of the points that they need. 

Law school requires many more hours of studying outside of class.  Many new law students only studied 10 - 20 hours per week outside of class during their undergraduate studies.  They do not understand that law school will take far more hours if they want to get their best grades.  50 to 55 hours per week outside of class is typically required for A and B grades at most law schools.  Many new students think reading and briefing are all they have to do regularly in addition to any legal writing assignments.  They do not understand the necessity for regular outlining and review for exams.  They think a few practice questions near the end will suffice.

If new law students can absorb these differences and truly understand them early in their studies, they will have greater incentive to take the warnings to heart.  By learning how to study efficiently and effectively from the start, they can excel in law school with less stress.  Unfortunately, many students will not take advantage of the services through their academic support offices and instead depend on past study habits or bad advice from upper-division students.  The differences between law school and undergraduate education can be overcome most easily if new 1L students seek advice from the academic support professionals either individually or through workshops, podcasts, and other methods of dissemination of information at their law schools.  (Amy Jarmon)   







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