Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Have You Ever Thought About . . . ? Suggestions for Faculty Advising

A wide range of advising formats satisfy ABA Standard 309 requirements that a law school provide academic advising that "communicates effectively the school’s academic standards and graduation requirements, and [] provides guidance on course selection." In some schools every faculty member has assigned advisees and guides them through all their choices for three years, minutely checking that they have met degree requirements and are prepared for the bar exam and their chosen area of practice. Other schools have a more laissez-faire system: after a few informational meetings students are given the tools they need to meet degree requirements and set loose on their own to seek guidance. Student Services or Academic Support offices sometimes handle the degree requirements portion of advising, drawing in clinical, writing, and doctrinal faculty primarily in a mentoring role. As a person who has coordinated a relatively formal 1L advising program for the past few years, I've heard considerable angst about advising. "I don't know what to do!" is a common refrain from senior and junior faculty alike. These suggestions are applicable to faculty performing the wide range of advising functions.

Understand your advising function. Ask the person who gave you the advising assignment and insist on clarity. Some advisors assigned at Orientation are meant primarily to be a human face and contact for new, bewildered 1Ls. Advisors assigned midway through 1L year may serve mostly as mentors for advisees who have expressed an interest in a particular area of law. Do you advise students only during 1L year, or throughout their three or four years of law school? Are you expected to lift registration holds? To advise students holistically about careers, bar passage, courses, and degree requirements? To focus on your areas of experience and subject-matter expertise? Are there unspoken expectations such as inviting advisees to your home for dinner? Once you know the expectations, you can work more effectively with your advisees.

Do your homework. Your advisees are expected to be familiar with a wide variety of materials such as graduation worksheets, catalogs, course selection guides, and student handbooks. You should be, too, even if your advising role is limited to mentorship. At least once a year, review the print and web materials relevant to your school's requirements and curriculum. For instance, while you need not know the details of all the certificate programs your school offers, you should have some knowledge of what programs exist and where to find more information. Likewise, familiarize yourself with key people within your school and their areas of expertise. The expert on the bar admissions process, for example, might be the registrar at one school and the academic support director at another. It goes without saying, but don't overlook the expertise of staff as well as faculty and administration.

Start by connecting to your advisee as a person, not by plunging into course offerings, doctrinal law, or career goals. Ask about what's important to them. Many students think they must immediately express an interest in a particular area of law, and they may be embarrassed if they haven't settled on one. Reassure them that they don't have to make those choices immediately. Some students already have a good idea of the practice they want after law school (prosecutor? family firm? general counsel?); when they do, advising is admittedly easier. But if not, ask questions to unearth what is most meaningful for them. For example, some students might want to focus their law school experience on ways they can help immigrant communities. Others may be looking for any position with enough flexibility that they can always attend their kid's soccer games. Others may be place-bound, whether from desire or necessity.

Encourage students to focus on intrinsic motivations. As Lawrence Krieger writes in The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,

[A] primary focus on external rewards and results, including affluence, fame, and power, is unfulfilling. These values are seductive -- they create a nice picture of life but they are actually correlated with relative unhappiness. Instead, people who have a more "intrinsic," personal/interpersonal focus -- on personal growth, close relationships, helping others, or improving their community -- turn out to be significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives.

Suggesting possibilities and alternatives, while tying these possibilities to their values and goals, is the single most important service you can provide as an advisor.  A good phrase is "Have you ever thought about . . . ?"

For example, the student who is place-bound in a small-town area might lean towards a typical small firm practice specializing in a few areas like family law and estate planning. But with the great strides in technology, a boutique practice might be in order, or acting as a contract attorney, or half a dozen other alternatives. Students whose impetus is to help immigrant communities may initially think only of practicing immigration law; you can broaden their horizons by suggesting that small business practice, bankruptcy, criminal law, or elder law could be equally valuable practices in helping these communities. Once students understand the multiplicity of options, they are more receptive to suggestions about the variety of courses, externships, clinics, and other experiences that can help them flourish.

When you discuss academic and practice alternatives (such as certificate programs, externships, clinics, moot court, and law journals), do so in the context of possibilities and alternatives. Be enthusiastic and informative, certainly, about your own courses and field -- if not you, who? -- but your primary advising purpose is not to be a shill for your own interests, but a mentor helping the student start the practice of law on a solid foundation.

Emphasize the long view. Extraordinary opportunities often carry short-term costs: a life-changing externship might require separating from loved ones for some weeks; an apposite course by a demanding professor could carry the risk of a dip in GPA. Here's where the credibility you have built with advisees can really pay off. Acknowledge their concerns, but point out what will have the greatest payoff over the long term.

Never undermine students' choices. Students value your opinions, so it hits them hard if your explicit and implicit messages that "real lawyers" follow a particular path (judicial clerkships, BigLaw, litigation, etc.) suggest that their own choices are second-best or even illegitimate. No field of law and no career path is beneath even the most talented student. While top students have a wealth of opportunities, they should not be browbeat into thinking certain fields are beneath them.

Connect. You have a valuable web of connections inside and outside the law school. Help your advisees tap into this network by referring them to others with knowledge and experience. As a practical matter, don't count on memory -- before advisees leave your office, make sure either you or they have written down not only the names of your referrals but also why you are referring them.

Respect the validity of other advising viewpoints. Students will discuss their future plans with many lawyers, both in and out of the law school. Because we as lawyers have different backgrounds, experiences, values, and areas of expertise, we as advisors will have different viewpoints, and inevitably some of these will clash. Students will notice the areas of disagreement, so it's vital for us to acknowledge the validity of other viewpoints even as we advocate our own. This is a great way to model the professionalism and civility we espouse.  

(Nancy Luebbert)

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