Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Several years back, our school's Career Development Office brought in Kimm Walton (of Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams fame) as a guest speaker. I vividly remember the reaction after her talk. As students filed out, they were buzzing excitedly. "It's nice to know I can get a job even though I'm nowhere near the top of the class." "I'm going to try talking with people I meet like she suggests." "I think I'll join a section of the bar after all: it seems a good way to connect with lawyers." "I'm not going to worry about on-campus interviews: it seems like I can find a firm that's more in line with what I want to do." Walton's presentation could be boiled down to a simple message: law students could create their own employment opportunities by figuring out their own interests, looking for positions to fulfill their interests, and talking to people. That was it -- know yourself, do your homework, and connect (dare I say "network"?). It will come as no surprise that our career development office constantly conveyed the same message through presentations, written materials, career counseling meetings, and informal interactions. But it took bringing in an outside expert to make that message convincing and compelling.
While informally chatting in the hallway with some 3Ls last week, I inadvertently became an outside expert for our school's bar prep course. One student fretted, "I wish I had known the doctrinal law subjects we would cover in advance so I could have reviewed them during winter break. I did really poorly on the first few tests because I didn't understand Sales well enough." "How well do you understand it now?" I asked. "I've got it nailed. After I got those questions wrong, I went back and worked my way through the outlines and did more problems, and now I'm on top of it." When I explained the concept of using testing as a mechanism that increases engagement and learning, the student "got it" and felt more positive about the course. I knew the instructors explained this repeatedly to the bar prep class but somehow their explanations washed over the student without making an impression. My position as an "outsider" made it easier for the student to understand s/he was learning through the process of writing and reviewing exam answers.
More often than I care to think, students will happily report that they have changed their approach to law school based on something they learned by visiting a web site or talking with a lawyer. When we're lucky, what they have discovered is a differently-worded repeat of messages we work hard to convey throughout law school -- typically practices such as starting to outline early in the semester, reviewing notes after class, talking with their professors after class, getting regular exercise, or setting aside personal time each week for rejuvenation. When we're unlucky, the outside expert will transform their law school experience for the worse by suggesting they stop briefing, stop reading cases, or study "efficiently" by limiting their review of each subject to a three-day clump before the final exam (yes, I've heard a very vocal, passionate speaker espouse this approach to 1Ls).
It's a constant challenge to figure out how to manage the "outside expert" phenomenon to our students' advantage, especially since the outside experts with the greatest influence seem to be those the students find on their own. Ideally, we'd all have budgets that would allow us to bring in dynamic outside speakers to inspire and enthuse our students with positive messages. Certainly it's important to ally with doctrinal and legal writing instructors, law librarians, and upper-division students so our messages will complement and not contradict each other. At my law school, I'm considering a few modest steps: conveying pithy academic messages (perhaps credited to an outsider?) to our law school's digital signage board to take advantage of a more visual medium; and using a discussion board or other sharing mechanism in our Skills Lab for 1Ls to share what they've learned from the web so that their discoveries can benefit from open discussion. Perhaps the most important lesson for me personally is to set aside my ego. While I may be bemused by a student who credits the web for the discovery that it's helpful to practice writing answers to hypotheticals throughout the semester, what ultimately matters is what the student learns and practices, not who the student perceives as the expert.