Monday, October 2, 2023
I had a student ask for an appointment to come in and discuss their study strategies. In the email asking for the appointment, they wanted to know if I had time to meet and discuss their, “dismal (by choice) first-month performance.” Yes, I also read that more than a few times trying to decipher what it meant. I offered them a quick sliver of time that very day to come in and set up a longer appointment on a different day, but to hopefully get something jumpstarted in the interim.
They told me that in the first 4.5 weeks of law school, they had worked for about ten hours. Hmm, I asked, is that ten hours a day (troubling because that seems like too much) or a week (too little)? “Total.” I did not gasp out loud (and I am quite proud of that). I asked them if that included the legal writing assignment that had been due the past week, and they said it did, and in fact, they had spent almost two of those hours on the paper. Another deep breath for me…
I asked a series of follow-ups after that revelation:
- Are you doing the reading?: Sort-of-I am skimming the cases and then we talk about them in class.
- Are you taking good notes in class?: Not really-It just makes sense.
- Have you started outlining?: Outlining what?
- Are you quizzing yourself after class? No.
They asked me if they were doing it wrong and when I said that it seemed to be the wrong choice, they went on to tell me about their undergraduate career that included a prestigious scholarship given to a handful of exceptional students. They told me their undergraduate GPA and how they never really worked hard at academics. I believe it. They seemed quite intelligent and quick to catch on to things. I took another deep breath and told them that law school was going to come and bite them in the ass (yes, I am a crass girl from the Bronx) if they didn’t do the reading, take notes, do practice questions, and start outlining-like right now. And, I added that my undergraduate GPA from the very same institution was also pretty good.
I explained the Dunning-Kruger effect to them: “a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.” I told them that finding out what you don’t know when it counts towards, or even accounts for the entirety of, a grade is risky, particularly in law school. In classes where there is only one assessment, you will have absolutely no idea whether you are doing it right until it is too late.
Here’s the thing though, I am not 100% certain they needed the standard “how to do law school” menu of tasks. This may not be how they learn best, but their current “method” didn’t seem conducive to the 3.0 GPA the student wanted to have by the end of 1L year in order to move into our hybrid JD program and take their final two years online. In all honesty, I was really alarmed at the idea that after this year, they might be totally remote and have no 3-D peer or faculty reminders that they are not doing the same work-either qualitatively or quantitatively until they face the bar. They seemed like an unconventional learner who was very smart and not yet excited by what they were studying. But that is an excuse that flies in 7th grade, and not before our Academic Standing Committee.
I didn’t sugarcoat my concern with this student. Gentle cajoling wasn’t going to be an effective process here. I straightforwardly laid out the unnecessary risks I believed they were taking and then sent them a series of Outlook meeting invitations to check in on their progress. We’ll see if they come to anything.
In the meantime, this kind of student prompts me to remind my doctrinal faculty colleagues that the old school one high-stakes summative assessment at the end of a semester is going to be the downfall of otherwise smart students. This will weed out students who need to have their ass (gently) handed to them early on in order to light a fire in them to get the work done as well as those who cannot genuinely succeed. It is widening the net and letting otherwise good students fall through. We will ultimately lose students who will be world-changers this way. Is this coddling? In the first semester of law school, in particular, it is not. If our goal is bar passage, we need to make sure students can accurately self-assess by modeling what that looks like from day 1.
As for this student, while I am not absolutely sure they need to follow the regular path, I am certain that they will find the path they have taken thus far is unlikely to end in the place they hoped. I only hope I was persuasive in making that point.
 Normally, I would never, ever do that, but I got the very real sense that my perceived intelligence would be a factor in whether they deemed my admonitions credible.