Tuesday, September 18, 2018
There is nothing like undertaking a new exploit to help you establish an affinity with the 1L law students with whom you are working. Enlisting as a contributing editor to the Law School Academic Support Blog, for example, has for me provoked the mix of hopeful excitement and mystified apprehension that used to be just a fuzzy memory from my own first year of law school. Will I impress people favorably? Will I put my foot in my mouth? Suddenly I feel a fresh sense of empathy with the incoming class.
And this makes sense! How else would anybody feel upon realizing that they have voluntarily taken on a future of writing dozens or hundreds of essays in which they are expected to take a stance and justify it with a combination of facts, logic, judgment, history, inference, speculation, and the occasional appeal to emotion, and then presenting these essays to readers who are knowledgeable attorneys with high standards? Whether you are a law student or a law blog author, this can be an intimidating position.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. I am excited to have joined the Law School Academic Success Blog team, notwithstanding any qualms about performing on a new stage. But I have been reminded of my first few weeks in law school, and even a brief flash of empathy with our new law students has some value. It can build rapport. It can also help us find ways to exploit our own experiences for our students’ benefit.
In this case, as I considered writing for this blog, I realized that the greatest source of uncertainty, and thus anxiety, was not knowing the expectations of my readers. What topics do you want to read about? What kind of tone do you prefer? There is not much I can do to answer those questions, other than to write and wait for reaction. But it does not have to be that way for our students.
An issue I see commonly in 1L writing, particularly in the first semester, is a misapprehension of the expectations of the person grading the writing. Some students rely mistakenly on crafting the kind of intricate prose for which they received high grades in the past. Others, in lieu of legal analysis, reflexively regurgitate the rules, case names, and historical details they have memorized. Sometimes students overemphasize something they have learned in law school -- IRAC format, for example -- and apply it indiscriminately, without prioritizing the most relevant issues. These errors are not always the result of not grasping their professors’ expectations, but sometimes they are, and when they are, it can be frustrating for a student not to realize their lapse until after they receive a disappointing grade that might have been avoided.
For this reason, when I am working with 1L students, I try to convey a blend of messages about what they should be striving for. While I aim to be clear with students about the importance of developing skills such as clear analysis and precision, I also insert explicit messages about how law professors, in general, often have expectations of student performance that differ from those of students’ previous teachers. Yes, professors expect their students to know the rules discussed in class, but they also expect students to use those rules as tools, and to exercise judgment in choosing which tools to use, and how to use them. They expect students to make choices about what they discuss, and at how much depth. Moreover, different professors may have different expectations with respect to these choices, and students can learn to glean these individual preferences by paying attention to what each professor emphasizes in class and by talking with the professors and their teaching assistants.
Of course, many law students figure out the importance of their audience’s expectations naturally. But there is a subset of students who seem most comfortable approaching academic performance as an objective, quantitative measure of how much they know. Helping them to see early on that, in most cases, their academic performance in law school will be judged by qualitative standards that are shaped to some degree by their teachers’ subjective expectations can hasten those students’ movement out of their comfort zone and into a realm in which they make prudent decisions about what issues to address, which facts and rules to use, and which outcomes are most likely. Encouraging students to consider their readers’ expectations can help them to see that their job as law students, both in class and beyond, is not merely to memorize and recite, but to learn how to engage in discourse as part of a larger legal community. (Bill MacDonald)