Tuesday, October 2, 2018
One thing that distinguishes law school culture from that of many other professional schools is the high percentage of people in student services who already possess the degree most of their students are trying to obtain. I have never done an exhaustive analysis (but woo hoo! Research opportunity!), but in my personal experience the majority of people working in law schools in the areas of Academic Support or Career Services are law school graduates, and so are a fair number of people working in areas like Admissions and Libraries. A quick dive into the Internet suggests that medical schools and business schools do not hire their own graduates for student services at nearly the same frequency. In fact, when I checked out the staff of five med school Academic Support units and five law school Academic Support units, no one in the med school units possessed an M.D., but each member of the law school units possessed a J.D.
There are no doubt many forces pushing towards this odd result for law schools. One that is practically taken for granted is the idea that someone who already possesses a J.D. is far better positioned than anyone else to really understand what new J.D. students are actually going through. Part of this assumption is perfectly practical: people who already have their law degree have presumably already learned all the elements unique to the practice of law. We can “think like a lawyer”; we can wield IRAC without effort; we understand federalism and common law and stare decisis and all the idiosyncrasies that our students have to contend with while navigating the rigors of study, time management, and exams. This is not to say that non-lawyers couldn’t provide wonderful support to law students. There is just a general belief that lawyers have a head start on understanding the context into which everything fits.
At the same time, law school alumni are apt to think that they can understand what law students are going through because the alumni were students once, too. We remember the dread of our first cold call in class; we remember plodding through civil procedure and constitutional law; we remember trying to juggle classes and law review and OCI all at the same time. Like military veterans of different eras, maybe we didn’t fight on the same battlefield, but our students don’t have to tell us what it’s like, man. We know.
Except . . . we don’t always know. We know a lot of things, to be sure; for me, not a day goes by that I don’t relate some student’s challenge to one of my experiences in law school. Education is always a boon. But the longer I do this work, the more I find that I have to work to find out what my students’ present experience is really like. This is in part because law school is always changing and evolving. Each class’s relationship to electronic research, for example, is just a little bit different from that of the previous class. Economics change, student populations change, hot button issues change. But these big changes, I think we do a fairly good job of staying on top of. In fact, sometimes it seems Academic Support is ahead of the curve, and can help bring other members of the law school community – for example, those whose specialties do not change much from year to year – up to speed on them.
What I really find myself having to pay more attention to each semester is my students’ day-to-day realities. Some of the mistakes I made when I first started providing academic support came about because I was taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and only with experience did I realize that it was really more like “one-size-fits-me”. I was teaching to my experience in law school.
Now, I am no longer satisfied knowing what classes my 1L students are taking each semester – I need to ask their individual professors for their syllabi, so I can know what topics they are hearing about each week, so I don’t assume that their Torts professor started off, like mine, with intentional torts, and therefore so I don’t pose a hypothetical that half my class can’t answer. I try to participate in student club events, like fundraisers or dinners, so I can hear about mundane practical issues – things like parking and child care and the timing of holidays – that I never thought about in school, but some of my students have to. I talk to other faculty and staff to find out the schedule of moot court and mediation competitions, visits from employers, and off-campus learning opportunities – stuff I was not particularly interested in myself when I was in law school – so I can better understand why a particular student might be coming to talk to me about a certain writing or time management issue. I seek opportunities to listen to students who come from different locations, cultures, and economic circumstances, so I can be aware of what going to law school now is like for them.
Being a lawyer means having been a law student, and having been a law student can be a tremendous advantage when your job is to help other law students. But having been a law student does not mean you have been all law students.