Monday, January 18, 2021
It is that time of year again. Many first-year law students are anxiously awaiting grades from their first semester of law school. To all of you, I say: I hope your first semester grades are everything you want them to be.
Regardless, try to maintain perspective. Each grade is but a snapshot of your performance during a “moment” in time and, sometimes, it can feel as if there is no rhyme or reason to how each of those snapshots develop. Students who studied more may not perform as well as expected. Students who studied less may perform better than expected. The exam you thought was your best performance may end up being your worst grade. Similarly, the exam you thought was your worst performance may end up being your best grade.
Whatever your grades are, your feelings about them are valid. It is okay to feel excited about and celebrate your good grades, but do not rest on your laurels (keep doing the work). It is okay to feel frustrated or disappointed about less-than-ideal grades, but do not get stuck in that frustration or disappointment. Process your feelings and then pivot.
Your grades are not the final word on your abilities or the opportunities you will have. They are also in no way indicative of your value as a person or how great of a lawyer you will become. What matters more than a less-than-ideal grade is what you do in response, and that response can make for a great narrative of grit and resilience that you share with, among others, future employers.
If your grades are not everything you want them to be, get to work changing your reality for the spring term. Connect with your ASP faculty and/or staff to discuss your strengths and identify areas for growth, then develop a plan to expand upon the former and work on the latter. Cultivate a growth mindset. Your abilities and skills are not fixed—you can develop and refine them with practice and by leveraging your feedback. One semester of grades does not define you or dictate your story. YOU are the author of your story. Keep writing.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Eduardo Briceño and Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Sept. 12, 2017), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2017/09/12/growth-mindset-law-school-success/.
Heidi K. Brown, Law School Grades Are Not Your Story—You Are Your Story, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Jan. 9, 2020), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2020/01/09/law-school-grades-are-not-your-story-you-are-your-story/.
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of the TV series Maude that was broadcast on November 1, 1976 – the day before Election Day. Maude, the assertive main character, was trying to convince everyone to write in Henry Fonda for President. When her featherbrained neighbor Vivian asked Maude why she was in such a rush to get the idea out, Maude looked at her severely and explained that the election was happening tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?!” exclaimed Vivian. “And it seems like only yesterday it was Halloween!”
Well, today, with the results of the October bar exam barely in hand for many examinees, we have leapt right back into preparation for the February exam. Perhaps the final casualty of the Endless Summer is the strict reduction of time to process the relationship between all that happened before the exam and the results that came out of it. Individuals who just found out in late December or early January that they did not pass have had to decide very quickly whether to register for the February exam. A California repeat examinee could still register next week, with as few as 32 days left before the exam is administered. And while many states and law schools have seen an increase in bar pass rates compared to July of 2019, we have entered the February bar study period without some of the data we might ordinarily use to assess the reasons for any changes in passage rates. At least here in New York, some of the granular data about subject-matter performance on the MBE portion has not been provided, and information about statewide trends have only been reported in the most general terms. This makes it harder to determine the effects of the delay, of the changes in format and delivery, and of strategies adopted or resources provided in response.
Tomorrow is February?! It seems like only yesterday it was October!
Thus, even though the February bar exam represents a great stride towards “normalcy” in many jurisdictions – in that it will be delivered on a traditional set date, with typical full UBE content – this will still be an unusual administration, affected by ripples of the pandemic. Some repeat examinees will be facing a compressed study period, although I have observed that a least a portion of them, perhaps spurred to greater-than-normal pessimism under the circumstances, began preparing prophylactically even before scores were announced. In any case, those of us who work with repeating graduates may be asked to provide additional support.
More frustrating to me is having to determine what aspects of the support provided to our examinees over the five months between graduation and the October bar would be most advantageously replicated over the next two months. The extended prep period was, I felt, grueling for all involved, but it provided time and motivation for examinees and teachers alike to try new strategies. Based on our results, some of these strategies appear to have beneficial. But which ones? And are they replicable between now and the end of February, or were they successful because, and not in spite of, the long stretch of time before the October administration? Without all the information I wish I had, this feels in some ways similar to what many of us had to do this summer: reacting to a novel situation without certainty, and ending up (very likely) relying in part on intuition and extraordinary effort.
Hopefully, knock on wood, fingers crossed, things won't feel this way come summer 2021. For now, the one thing I am fairly certain played an important part in my examinees' performance that is likely replicable now was the increased sense of camaraderie and support that they reported as a result of the very high-touch summer and fall. With so many changes so frequently, and with unbelievable levels of anxiety among bar studiers (who on the whole are not typically known for tranquil, detached attitudes), I initiated what would turn out to be bi-weekly (or more frequent) Zoom meetings to pass along news, share strategies, and provide opportunities for feedback. Already feeling isolated by the pandemic, the students reported that these meetings helped them feel connected to each other and to the school, and it appears they took more advantage of the resources we made available (including lots of one-on-one meetings with me). This was kind of a form of intrusive counseling. It seems to have worked, at least under those recent conditions, which in some ways are still ongoing. So, while I am still hoping to develop more clarity about how other specifics contributed to examinees' performance, this is one lesson I took from yesterday that I can apply today to help my examinees prepare for tomorrow.
Thursday, December 17, 2020
Wow. At long last, final exams are over...sort of.
For most of us, we have a very difficult time with uncertainty in general, which is particularly exasperating as we wait - sometimes for weeks - for our grades to arrive (and the more so in light of the current ongoing pandemic).
So, despite the festive times that are supposed to fill this month, we often find ourselves unable to relax, to enjoy others (and ourselves), and to simply wind down and rest.
Nevertheless, there's a simple way - in just a flash of a moment - to help break free from the many stresses and strains of the past few weeks of final exams. Why not try out, today, the "smile loop?" It sounds, sort of, fun, doesn't it? So, here's the scoop (and the science too):
You see, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein:
"Smiling produces neural messaging in your brain that makes you happier. Some studies have shown that when we smile our facial muscles contract, which slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. And, when we smile at someone, that person tends to smile back. So, we've created a feel-good loop." http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-fall-back-in-love
For those of you that are not scientists (that's me!), the short scoop is that smiling brightens not just our days but the days of those around us. And, it seems to me that smiling at another person helps put us on the right track to thinking about others rather than worrying about the past few weeks of final exams (with its lingering wait for grades). Indeed, despite face masks due to the pandemic, I've noticed that I can tell whether someone is smiling. Even masks can't stop us from appreciating smiles!
A few years back I had the chance to put smiling to the test in very difficult circumstances as a volunteer attorney. There's a little Greek island just a few short miles off the Turkish coast. Because of its locale so close to Turkey, thousands of people had been fleeing on small inflatable boats across the Aegean Sea to escape persecution and in some cases war in their native countries - from Syria to Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan to South Sudan - with the hope of receiving refuge in the European Union. I talked with a man, his wife and his adorable small children that risked it all traveling by land from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey only to be finally living for months in a small UNHCR tent in a refugee camp on the island of Chios.
Despite the lack of resources and the uncertainty of still waiting - for months on end - to receive as of yet an asylum hearing, he smiled. And, then his children smiled. Why, his whole family smiled. In the December cold of the wind swept coast of this little island refugee camp, we all smiled...together. He and his family may not have had much to give but they gave something immeasurably priceless...they shared smiles with me.
Let me say, this was not a unique experience. As I walked through the refugee camp with a number of refugee-seekers, even though we often didn't speak the same language, we were able to communicate in ways richer than words. Over and over, refugees would just come up to me with big generous smiles and warm handshakes of greetings. Memorably, a small Syrian boy grabbed my hand one day by the lunch tent as a group of young people were dancing, asking me to join in the footsteps and singing.
You see, smiles are not just a trick to make your life better or happier. Rather, smiles are the sweetness of life itself in helping us to make the world a little better for others.
So, as you wait for final exam grades to come in, be of good courage and share smiles with those around you. Who knows? That brief smile might get you up and dancing!
Monday, December 7, 2020
Law students seeking to avoid unnecessary stress and maximize learning opportunities should consider adopting a modified Vegas rule during the exam period. In the law school exam context, this rule is simple: Take the wisdom, Leave the substance (Take the “W” and Leave the “S”).
Each law school exam provides an opportunity to become a better exam taker. Students experience firsthand the challenges of effectively managing their time, ordering issues, outlining responses, and applying rules to a new set of facts. Do not ignore the wisdom to be gained from each exam experience. Instead, identify the lessons to be learned, and commit to practicing and refining your skills and/or exam-taking strategy as needed before the next exam.
Once you have completed an exam, do not discuss the substance of it with anyone during the exam period. If someone tries to engage you in such a discussion, politely decline. Walk away, leave the chat, step away from the video call. Do not talk substance, do not collect anxiety. Nothing good comes from rehashing the substance of your exam with your peers (and it may run afoul of your law school’s honor code). Almost invariably, someone will have “spotted” an issue that you “missed.” As you sit and listen, second-guessing your answer, anxiety levels rise and confidence levels fall. In reality, that issue you “missed” may not have really been an issue at all. The damage that discussion can do to your confidence and focus, however, is very real. Keep your eyes forward and on the prize.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Now that Thanksgiving is past, most law students have started or are about to start preparing for final exams. With an entire semester of material to master, many try to prioritize what to spend their time on. Some concepts and rules, introduced early in the course, may feel tediously familiar through repetition, and students may feel they can afford not to spend time on them now, especially if they tested successfully on those points on the midterm. Experimental evidence suggests, however, that time could still be well spent, even on familiar material, if it is spent the right way.
Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger III, psychologists at Washington University, ran a series of tests of memory recall of lists of words, examining the effects of two distinct tasks that contribute to learning: studying and testing.1 Their first set of tests, similar to other experiments that had been done over the previous 40 years, sought to determine what combination of studying (in this case, visually reviewing lists of words to be memorized) and testing (writing down recalled words under time pressure) would produce the best learning. Some subjects were told to study a list of words, then were tested on their recall, then given another opportunity to study, and finally given one last test. These were identified as STST subjects. Other subjects were given disproportionate opportunities to study, or to test: either three study periods and one test (SSST) or one study period followed by three tests (STTT). The scientists then compared recall performance for different groups of subjects after the final test. Hopefully not surprising to either law students or Academic Success professionals, the subjects in the STST group had the best recall in the end. As other psychologists have observed, a mix of studying and testing produces the best learning.
What was new and interesting was the second phase of their testing, in which they variations on the STST pattern on new groups of subjects, and tested recall not just at the end of the four-step pattern, but also on an extra test given one week later. In addition to testing some volunteers using the original STST method (study, test, study, test), and to tweaking the order (but not the ratio) by giving some volunteers two study sessions followed by two test sessions (SSTT), the scientists tested a third set of volunteers by starting with the same size set of words in the first two steps (study, test), but then removing from the word list all the words successfully recalled at that point, and then asking the volunteers to study and then test using only the words not recalled in the first test. Using the reduced list of words was identified with a subscript "N", so this set of examinees was called "STSNTN". [This method is familiar to many who study (or recommend studying) with flash cards by removing from the deck each card you recall correctly, so that every new pass through the deck, you are only studying and testing yourself on the information you failed to recall the last time.] Finally, a fourth set of volunteers similarly started with a complete list of words, which they studied and were tested upon, and then spent a second study period studying only the reduced list (that is, again, they did not have to study any words they had already learned). However, on their second test, all of the words from the initial list were tested, even those that were not studied a second time. Thus, this was the "STSNT" group.
What Karpicke and Roediger discovered this time was that the STSNTN group clearly had the best recall after the second test -- in fact, among the fifteen subjects tested in this group, there was only a single instance of a word not being recalled. In other words, this group had the "fastest initial learning" of all, apparently because they focused both their studying and their testing on material that they had not previously learned. They learned the material more quickly than either group that studied and tested on all the words twice (STST and SSTT) or the group that studied only material that it had not previously learned, but tested on all the words twice (STSNT). And this has an intuitive appeal to those of us who have used flash cards -- if you focus on your gaps, you can overcome them more quickly, right?
However, the scientists also tested all the subjects one week later, asking them to recall all the words from their initial lists. And on this later test of long-term memory, the STSNTN group performed the worst. One might simply attribute this to those subjects having spent less total time and mental energy on the learning task, since they had a reduced word list for the second half of their learning. If that were the case, though, you would expect that the best long-term results would have been seen in the STST group, which studied and tested on full word lists twice. In fact, the long-term performance of the STSNT group was as good as, and in some cases better than, the performance of the STST group. This suggests that it does not matter so much whether you spend time studying material you already know, as long as make sure to continue to test yourself on that material along with the material you are continuing to learn.
So over the next few weeks, as our students work somewhere between diligently and frantically to prepare themselves for their final exams, it seems that the most efficient and effective use of their time will be to focus their study time (reviewing, rote memorization, consulting supplementary material, asking TAs and professors questions) on the things they are unsure of, but to continue to test themselves on everything in the syllabus.
1Jeffrey D. Karpicke & Henry L. Roediger III, Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention, Journal of Memory and Language 57 (2007) 151-162.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
To the Law Students, especially first years:
It's ok to take a break. I promise. I wanted to give you some great advice for exams, and since Victoria has written about so many tips for prepping for and writing the exams, my advice is to relax.
I know, I know, you have so much to do. But your brain really DOES retain information better if you give yourself breaks. I'm not suggesting that you don't do any work between now and Monday, but I am suggesting that you pace yourself, and do a few fun things for yourself as well. Netflix does have some great holiday movies coming out!
If you are a first year, it's also important to put things in perspective. Yes, grades are important, we can't get around that issue. But so is your mental and physical health. It's tempting to put so much pressure on yourself, and you need to realize that as long as you are doing your best, that's all we can ask of you.
Also, don't be afraid to ask for help. From your professors. From your Academic Support people. From a Dean of Students. We all want to see you succeed, and we will do what we can to make that happen. If you don't know how to ask for help, that's ok too. It's a good idea to start with someone like your Academic Support person, or your Dean of Students. Literally go in and say "I'm having a hard time, and I don't know how to ask for help." We will help you! Promise!
And speaking of help, if you are entitled to non standard testing accommodations, and especially if you have used them in other situations, please reach out and ask for them! For some schools, it might be late in the process, but it can't hurt to at least see what's possible.
Finally, practice! Don't go into your exams having never practiced one. The more practice exams you do, the better you will feel, and it WILL be reflected in your grades.
To my Academic Support Colleagues:
We need to take this advice as well! We are so good at advising our students on how to take care of their mental health, how important it is to take time for breaks, and to do things for themselves. But we don't always take our own advice. Hypocrites, the lot of us. The AASE programming board put on a fantastic workshop about how we should be helping ourselves, and each other, so take this as an important reminder. Especially, if you are like me, your list of things that must get done this weekend is a mile long. I'm going to try to take my own advice and do the best I can, while also spending some time with my husband, and maybe watching a Christmas movie or two! I hope all of you do the same.
Finally, I've been doing a month of gratitude. Each day, on facebook, I note one thing I'm grateful for. I started doing this a few years ago, as it is a really good way to boost serotonin and put things in perspective. This year I felt it was especially important, since this year has not been one of the best. So, I want all of you to know that I'm incredibly grateful for this community, and I'm thankful for each of you. Your wisdom and expertise, your friendship and support.
Happy Thanksgiving To All!
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
A quick etymology lesson to take us all into the holiday:
The words "thank" and "think" are both ultimately derived from the same Latin root word, "tongere", which means "to know". It appears that when our ancient forebears wanted to express appreciation for another person's action or contribution, they did not originally convey gratitude overtly. Instead, they conveyed understanding -- "I know what you did." "I am thinking about what you have given me." -- and that expression of awareness was meaningful. A mindful comprehension of a deed or a relationship or even an object implied that you recognized its worth. Over time, "think" and "thank" developed separate spellings, pronunciations, and nuances. "Think" focuses on the mental processes that enable us to better "know" something. "Thank" focuses on the recognition of something's value to you.
The link is the ancestral human insight that when you know something well, you naturally develop an appreciation for it. So when you take time this Thanksgiving to acknowledge your family and your friends, your comforts and luxuries, the good fortune you've enjoyed and the bad fortune you've avoided, spare a few moments to consider your legal education. It might seem odd to suggest you should be grateful for knowing the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or how to write a legal brief or the different classifications of collateral in secured transactions, but if you stop to think about the value of these tools to you -- tools that most people cannot grasp, let alone wield -- don't you feel richer? And grateful, not just to the people who helped you acquire these tools (including, I hope, yourself), but also for the existence and quality and usefulness of them?
Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” He knew that gratitude is not just a soppy sense of obligation for having received a boon. It is a deep and honest perception of meaning and value -- the starting point from which wonder, possibility, humility, generosity, and creativity can spring. This week, once you've recovered a bit from the sometimes exhausting, sometimes tedious, sometimes terrifying grind that this semester has been, give yourself the gift of earnestly contemplating all that you have learned and all the good that will come of it.
Monday, November 23, 2020
Continuing last week’s post, students looking to develop and/or refine their exam-taking plan of attack may want to consider the following:
- Reading and dissecting the fact pattern. Once you have selected a question, begin by reading the prompt closely. If you know what the “ask” is upfront, you can read with more intention. You also avoid the surprise of reading the fact pattern, reaching the prompt, and having to re-read the fact pattern again because the prompt asks something you did not expect. Next, read the fact pattern carefully. As you read, question everything! There are not a lot of “extra” facts in a law school fact pattern so ask yourself what your professor wanted you to take away from each sentence. Are the facts triggering an issue? Are they relevant to your analysis of an issue? Are they relevant to a counterargument? Does the framing of the facts create an ambiguity ripe for analysis? Remember, if an issue is triggered by the facts, you are expected to analyze it in your response. Pay special attention to names, dates, dollar amounts, and quoted/excerpted language. If your professor took the time to give someone a name, that name should probably appear somewhere in your answer. If your professor gives you a specific date or dollar amount, such details might have legal significance (e.g., statutes of limitation, timing for contract formation, statutory period for adverse possession, time to serve a responsive pleading, amount in controversy requirement, applicability of the statute of frauds for goods transactions). Finally, if your professor takes the time to tell you exactly what something or someone said, there is likely a reason why.
- Tracking issues. The facts will trigger multiple issues in each exam question so your attack plan should include a method of keeping track of the issues that you spot (e.g., by numbering, creating an issue list in the margins). As a rule of thumb, you should plan to spend roughly 15 minutes per hour that is suggested on your pre-write phase: reading, issue spotting, and “outlining” your answer (i.e. ordering the issues and creating an exam structure). Do not skimp on this time. Professors can tell when students do not outline their answers because such responses are often poorly organized. The exam-taking experience is also much more frenetic for the student.
- Tracking facts. Consider how you might create visual cues to identify the specific facts that are relevant to each issue you spot. You could use a color-coding method, numbering method, symbol method, etc. to identify the facts from the fact pattern that are relevant to your analysis of each issue. Do not overcomplicate this process—choose a method that is efficient and functional. Incorporating a method for tracking facts can be an especially helpful practice when you encounter a long fact pattern because it can reduce the amount of time you spend re-reading the fact pattern in search of facts relevant to your analysis.
- Ordering issues. The order in which issues appear in a fact pattern probably will not be the same order that makes the most sense, structurally, for your analyses to appear in your answer. Consequently, your plan of attack should include a step for ordering the issues you spot. Keep in mind any directives your professor gives you in the prompt about ordering (e.g., beginning with the strongest claim, analyze all claims Tanya can bring against Sasha). If you have a broad prompt that contains no directives about how to order issues (e.g., analyze all potential claims), then the relationships among or chronology of concepts can help with ordering.
- Creating an answer skeleton. Once you have ordered the issues you spotted, create headings in your exam answer. Consider whether each issue you spotted will need its own heading and whether particular issues should be grouped together under one heading. Keep your headings short and sweet—they need not be in complete sentences.
- Fleshing out your answer skeleton. Before you begin adding the meat to the bones of your answer skeleton, consider the order in which you fill in your answer skeleton. Though it may make sense, structurally, for issues to be arranged in a particular order, you should analyze issues from biggest/most obvious to smallest/least obvious. The more obvious an issue is, the higher the likelihood that your professor expects most—if not all—students to spot and analyze the issue in their answers. The more time and space in the fact pattern your professor devotes to articulating facts relevant to the analysis of a specific issue, the more there is to unpack and analyze (and thus, the bigger the issue).
While there is no magic blueprint for creating an effective plan of attack, these points will help students develop an effective exam strategy. The more a student practices and works to refine their attack plan, the more poised and prepared that student will be when exam day arrives. Students may not have control over what facts they will encounter on the exam or how their professors will test them on a given issue, but they do have control over their overall preparedness for the exam and development of a system for taking the exam. So, to students I say: focus on that which is within your control.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Congratulations for making it to the end of the semester. Many law schools adjusted the schedule to finish prior to Thanksgiving, so they finish this week. Others planned a normal semester and will finish over the next couple weeks. As you finish, I encourage you to take pride in your accomplishment and rest. Everyone at the law school needs it.
To the students, you all are amazing. Second and third-year students completed another semester in unusual circumstances. The fear of catching coronavirus combined with the social strife would make anything difficult, and you all did it during law school. I am biased, but I believe law school is one of the most difficult mental journeys possible. Great perseverance.
First-year students embraced a challenge even they couldn't have predicted. Combine the uncertainty, demands, and normal first year challenges with the climate, and many wouldn't make it. You did it. Great job.
For the faculty. You all made the best of a difficult situation. Whether teaching over zoom, in smaller classes, twice the sections to keep sections small, or regular classes with the fear of section wide spreading, you made it work. Veteran professors turned years of routine into a new experience in a matter of months. It was a huge undertaking and accomplishment.
Deans and Associate Deans, I can't even imagine. Constant policy changes by Universities combined with daily changes in community spread within cities made planning anything impossible. I would have pulled the last remaining hair out in September. Great job.
Last, but closest to my heart, ASPers. You rock. You also made massive changes to classes, while also figuring out how to conduct all your normal individual meetings without risking your health.. You planned voluntary workshops and bar prep to reach everyone even though some of you were locked out of buildings or couldn't use classrooms. Amazing work.
All of you made it through a difficult semester. Many of you did it from your living room while homeschooling your kids, or at least making sure they didn't burn down the house, write on too many walls, etc. Do not discount the effort this semester required. Everyone, yes everyone, needs a pat on the back and then, rest. When the semester is over for you, take days (plural) off. Enjoy something safe you haven't been able to indulge in during the semester. Rejoice because you made it. The break will get you ready for next semester. You deserve it.
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
As we near the end of this first full semester under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, my colleagues and I are developing a clearer and broader picture of the sometimes unanticipated consequences of a shift towards distance learning. The biggest surprise for me has been the magnitude of the cumulative loss of the daily presence of my fellow teachers and administrators.
Halfway through spring semester last year, the State of New York ordered all SUNY schools, including the University at Buffalo School of Law, to move entirely to remote teaching. This was a shock and a strain for students and teachers alike, but we quickly figured out how to make it work reasonably well and get through the end of the school year. If it was a little rough and wearying, it seemed that everyone understood that we were all doing the best we could under exigent circumstances. For me and my graduating students, the stress did not let up over the summer, as the twice-delayed and newly remote NY bar exam was a source of unpredictability and anxiety all the way through to October. But at least, it seemed, my colleagues and I would be able to take what we had learned from all of this and apply it to plan and execute a robust, well-constructed hybrid program for the fall -- one that would allow a limited number of smaller in-person classes while taking advantage of the best practices we had developed for teaching other classes online. We provided rich pre-orientation and orientation programs for our incoming 1L students. Our school's experiential program directors worked tirelessly to adapt to the new conditions so that upper class students could continue to receive the benefits of clinical practice. And those of us in student support made extra effort to reach out and make ourselves available to students scattered throughout the virtual ether. It seemed to me -- and, I think, rightly -- that we, like many law schools, had recognized, prioritized, and attended to our students' novel needs.
What I did not realize until recently that I had overlooked was the value of simply being in the building every day with other professors and administrators. It seemed at first just a slightly lonely little inconvenience, having to work from home most days, and seeing maybe one or two people in the hallways on the days I did go in. After all, we still had regular online meetings of various staff groups and committees, and emails and phone calls were still happening, so it was not as though we did not see each other or even basically know what each of us was up to. And being busier than usual with student queries and online meetings, one might have thought it was a blessing not to have to commute in every day and to spend precious time walking from one end of the building to the other, bumping into people and engaging in chit-chat along the way.
But in these last couple of weeks, I have come to realize what has been reduced because of the lack of interaction with my colleagues: sharing, synergy, and sensibility. I think we (or, who knows, maybe it's just me) greatly underestimated how much gets communicated when you see people two or three times a week, spontaneously ask for opinions or bat ideas around, notice which students they are meeting with, or ask a quick question that would probably take twenty minutes to write adequately in an email. And suddenly we're only a few weeks from finals, and I discover that a student who has been working with me on one specific issue is actually contending with a related issue in a different class. In a Zoom meeting, one doctrinal professor brings up a pervasive issue among her 1L students, and several others realize they've been dealing with the same problem. I'm accidentally left off a group email discussion thread and don't find out for three days -- something that could never have happened if we were all in the building, as I would have wandered into the offices of at least one of the group members every day.
We took so much care to make sure we stayed connected to our students (although they, too, undoubtedly suffer from the dearth of day-to-day contact, with us and with their classmates, in the hallways and before and after class), but, perhaps a bit too stoicly, assumed we'd do fine with more tenuous connections to our colleagues. But now I see. We've missed opportunities to share ideas about the law school and information about our students. It's been harder to improvise together, to pool our strengths to come up with good solutions. And without the little bits of intelligence we pick up from out colleagues -- the pointillist accretion of points of light that add up to the big picture -- it has become harder to be sensitive to concerns that might affect one student or might affect an entire class.
Here I had been thinking that reaching out too much to my absent colleagues would be only a selfish pestering, a feel-good reprieve from isolation. But no! It would really be for the good of my students, and for the whole school. Starting this week, I have begun setting up regular one-on-one chats with folks, agendaless, just to catch up. Everyone I have proposed this to has welcomed the idea. And when I make my weekly visit to campus, I'm going to get out of my office and walk every floor of the law school, just to see the few people whose schedules overlap with mine. Who knows what good, if any, will come out of any particular encounter? All I know now is that nothing good comes from losing them altogether.
Monday, November 16, 2020
When preparing for law school exams, law students frequently develop a framework for analyzing particular issues they may encounter on an exam. They also often plan how to use their outline, casebook, and rulebook during open-book exams. Indeed, many of us have seen (perhaps even created): elaborate flowcharts for a choice of law or battle of the forms analysis; lists of steps/questions to guide a personal jurisdiction, equal protection, or parol evidence rule analysis; and mind maps for navigating negligence claims. We have seen casebooks and rulebooks bursting with colorful tabbies, and outlines complete with tabs, indices, and tables of contents.
An oft-overlooked aspect of exam preparation, however, is a broader strategy for how to take the exam. Where is the checklist of steps students will take to navigate the exam? What will they do when the exam clock begins ticking? Students who develop, practice, and refine a plan of attack build exam-taking muscle memory that pays dividends on exam day. Quieted is the sense of panic and amplified is the sense of know-how.
As with so many things, there is no singular “right” way to develop a successful plan of attack and a student’s plan may not look the same for each class. However, students looking to develop and/or refine their exam-taking plan of attack may want to consider the following:
- Types of Assessments. Consider whether your exam will consist of multiple-choice questions, essay questions, short answer questions, etc. If you have a mix of multiple-choice questions and essays, consider working through the multiple-choice section first. There is typically more unpacking to do in a law school essay than you can possibly complete in the time allotted. If you begin with the essays (rather than the multiple-choice), you run the risk of exceeding your allotted time for essays and, as a result, not having adequate time to carefully work through the multiple-choice questions. If you do not know what types of assessments will be included on each of your exams, ASK. ASK NOW. If your final exam has a multiple-choice component, also ask about the number of questions and suggested time allocation in order to get a sense of the pacing. Work toward achieving that pace via practice and be sure that your plan of attack accounts for the multiple-choice component of your exam.
- Choosing where to begin. It is likely that you will encounter more than one fact pattern on your final exam, so your plan of attack should include a strategy for choosing where to begin. You should not plan to automatically proceed in the order the questions are presented. In other words, you do not have to do Question 1 first simply because it’s labeled “Question 1.” Instead, get a sense of the exam by skimming each fact pattern, noting the time suggested for each question. In choosing where to begin, adopt a methodology that best suits you. For students who prefer to ease into the exam and build confidence as they go, an uphill approach might be a good fit. Those students would begin by answering the question they perceive to be “easier” and work their way up to the harder questions. For students who prefer to get the “hard” stuff out of the way first, when they are most alert and there is a low likelihood of exam fatigue, then a downhill approach might be a better fit. Those students would begin by answering the question they perceive to be “harder” (or, perhaps, more rigorous because it has the longest suggested time) and work their way down to the easier questions.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Thursday, October 29, 2020
According to a quote in a recent article, psychology professor Anthony Scioli says that we "...can think of hope as a PPE - a Personal Protective Emotion." E. Bernstein, Finding Hope When Everything Feels Hopeless, WJS, p. A12 (Oct. 28, 2020). I'm no psychologist but I think there's more to hope than just the personal. I think hope might be a necessary bridge for building better law school communities, empowering better learning, and creating better relationships. But there's more to hope than meets the eye.
Unlike optimism, "...which is the belief that the future will work out no matter what you do," hope is something that we have to work on and wrestle with. Id. According to columnist Elizabeth Bernstein, hope "...has two crucial components. Agency, or the motivation, to achieve the desired goal. And a strategy, or pathway, to do that." Id. In other words, hope is optimism enacted to help secure what isn't yet certain about our future. Again, hope requires (1) agency and (2) planning. Let's look a bit closer at the "hope components."
As Elizabeth Bernstein summarizes, agency has to do with motivation, which has the root word motion in it. It involves not just the will but the ability to move forward towards one's goals, to act on one's plans, to accomplish something each and every day that leads to growth, not just for us but for others too. That suggests our law school communities should be closely scrutinizing whether we are extending agency to our students, equipping them and empowering them to learn and to grow. In short, agency requires more than just external or internal motivation. It requires us to work to make sure that our students have the resources, the counsel, and the instruction to act on their own behalves in achieving their learning goals.
According to Elizabeth Bernstein, planning has to do with developing a strategy to achieve future goals. Id. Notice, then, that planning is strategic. It's meant to lead us forward, like a map that leads us step-by-step to a destination by previewing the route for our travels. That suggests that law school communities might be focused too much on the substance of the law while neglecting to guide our students in how to learn the law, how to work with the law, and how to experience the law, to the detriment of a sizable pool of our law school communities. Indeed, I often wonder about the lack of sizable assessments and training in learning across the law school curriculum and throughout the entirety of the law school experience. It's as though we are asking students to perform a play (on final exams) without ever giving them the opportunity to learn their lines, to experience stage fright, and to develop expertise as learners.
I close with this thought from Ms. Bernstein's article: "Every word we speak or write matters." (quoting Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust). Id.
Those words touched me because they reminded me that what we say as educational leaders to others (and to ourselves in self-talk) either leads to growth and life in our students or to struggles and hopelessness. I like to think of the academic support community as more than a community of optimism but a community that brings hope, realistic hope, helping the dreams of our students become the realities of their futures. I don't think that's being too hopeful at all! (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
This is a scary time of year – a time of growing cold and darkness. The terror of the unknown, of loss and calamity. The young ones, they don masks – smiles or stoic glares – to hide their fear. They binge on the distracting delight of sweets. But the elders know. It is the time of the season. Days are shorter. Workloads are increasing. Midterm grades are coming in. Soon it will be winter, and with winter come final exams. Minds once lit and warmed by the excitement of a new school year are feeling fatigued and worn, craving respite, giving in to torpor. And the sleep of reason breeds monsters:
Witches: Dazzled by the apparent power of the esoteric words wielded by the great jurists of the past, these students become convinced that the path to glory is paved with sorcerous phrases. They fill notebook after notebook, or thumb drive after thumb drive, with quotations of passages from lectures and cases and textbooks, daring not to cut a single word, sparing not the time for reflection or comprehension, merely hoping that they when they need it most, they will choose the right magic portion to make their professors fall in love with their essays.
Ghosts: These poor souls are caught between worlds and have not found a way to move on. In a former life, they were happy and successful. Maybe this one was a college student, coasting through noteless classes on innate brilliance and heady all-nighters. Maybe that one had prospered at work, a wizard with people and systems but never paying too much attention to the written word. Perhaps another one came from a truly different world – another country, another culture, another field of study – where things just work differently. We must all pass through the veil of law school admission and climb the stairway to replevin, but a few of us are held back, tethered to our pasts.
Werewolves: The most unexpected of all monsters, these accursed brutes look and act like happy-go-lucky, indifferent law students . . . most of the time. But every month or so, as the glare of an impending exam or deadline grows increasingly full, they undergo an uncontrollable metamorphosis! Their mild-mannered calm deserts them, and they howl like beasts as they despair over the seemingly impossible task before them. Raving overnight in the darkness, they may teeter on incomprehensibility until the magic hour finally passes, and, exhausted, they tumble into bed – awakening the next day with no apparent memory of the horror they are thus doomed to repeat.
Zombies: Once ordinary scholars, these creatures have been blighted (some say through contact with other zombies) and are now driven by a single impulse: BRAAAAAAINS! MUST HAVE BRAAAAAINS! Their every conscious (term used loosely) moment is devoted to consuming books, lectures, outlines, practice tests, flash cards, supplements, mnemonics, YouTube videos, omega-3 fatty acids, and biographies of Supreme Court Justices. And they will pick at their professors’ brains if they can. They have little time for other sustenance and none for camaraderie.
Vampires: The wampyr is a tragic being, at once part of the human world and cleaved from it. Rarely seen in daylight, it hides in the dark corners of the classroom, feeding off the thoughts and words of others, but fading, like a mist, when its own opinions are sought. The vampire does not project an image, so it can be seen neither in mirror nor in Zoom class. What keeps it from the fellowship of humanity? Is it anxiety? Indifference? Misunderstanding? Perhaps this spirit feels that it is the one who is misunderstood.
Yes, this is the moment to meet the mysterious menagerie! And you might fear, as Ichabod Crane discovered, that a teacher is no match for a spectral fiend. But remember, every monster is merely a suffering human. We do what we can to restore them. We teach the witches that the power they seek is not in the words, but in what they can learn to make with them. We show the ghosts how to take the best parts of their old lives with them as they rise to face their new ones. We help the werewolves release themselves from their curse by breaking the waxing and waning cycle of rising anxiety and falling productivity, through the mystical art of tempus administratione. We demonstrate to the zombies the benefits of a more balanced diet, one enhanced with practical experience, meaningful relationships, proper recreation, and appropriate amounts of fiber. We reach out to the vampire, drawing it into the light, the better to see what is keeping it at bay and to see to what degree they bring an affliction to school, and to what degree the school imposes an affliction on them.
Happy Hallowe’en to all!
“There is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures--provided we will but take a joke as we find it.” – Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Monday, October 5, 2020
Trauma is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening[,] and that has long-lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With the pandemic, resulting recession, and ongoing social unrest stemming from racial injustice, if the year 2020 doesn’t fit this definition, I’m not sure what does. I am navigating a lot right now. We are all navigating a lot right now. There is so much uncertainty in the world and many of us have been socially isolated for more than six years months. Though trauma is centered in an individual’s experience, I think it’s safe to say that current circumstances represent trauma for many folks.
Many of my students seem to be faking it until they can make it taking the current situation in stride (at least on the outside). However, I have found myself wondering how well they are really doing with focus, learning, and managing any stress, fear, and anxiety they may be feeling. I also keep thinking about what else I can do to help them. In seeking resources responsive to this moment in history, I stumbled upon several articles about trauma-informed teaching and learning.
Trauma-informed teaching prioritizes helping students feel safe, seen, empowered, and connected. This approach recognizes that, because of the current convergence of crises, students may have more difficulty: completing tasks; finding the motivation to complete reading assignments, “show up” to class, and participate in class discussions; completing writing assignments; effectively managing their time; and, more generally, staying engaged with their legal education. If you’re looking for ways to provide additional support for students during these difficult times, consider the following trauma-informed teaching practices:
- Work to create safety for your students. Think about what makes you feel safe when you feel most vulnerable or are facing uncertainty, and consider sharing your vulnerability. Be honest with students about how you have been affected by current circumstances and tell them how you are doing. By naming your emotions in this way, you are modeling for students that it is healthy to share and process emotions in a community setting. Accordingly, ask your students how they are doing and solicit their thoughts on how you can create a feeling of safety for them in your course. Suggest that they journal as an outlet to express their feelings and create/offer a space for students to share if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Foster relationships and facilitate peer support. Relationships are a key to resilience. Encourage students to check on one another, if they are comfortable doing so, and promote storytelling. The act of sharing their stories with their peers can help students better cope because it creates a feeling of shared experience and fosters a sense of community.
- Create a sense of trustworthiness and transparency. Be clear, transparent, and reliable in interacting with students. Creating and maintaining trust can help lessen stress and anxiety. Adopt and adhere to routines to create some level of predictability for students.
- Empower voice and choice. Validate and normalize student concerns by talking to students about fear, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Empower students who may feel a diminished sense of control to advocate for themselves. Ask their opinions, survey them about how you can help them learn during these difficult times, and brainstorm ways for students to play a role in creating or structuring assignments.
- Understand that students are not a monolith. View student challenges through the lens of intersectionality. We are all trying to navigate the trauma of 2020. However, not all of our students are experiencing this trauma in the same way or to the same degree. Many BIPOC students, for example, may be experiencing trauma much more severely because of intergenerational trauma, ongoing oppression, and structural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Interrupt microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions are a daily source of traumatic stress for students with marginalized identities. Commit to learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions in your classroom. Navigating multiple crises and online learning as a law student is traumatic enough.
- Emphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. Share your passion for teaching, learning, etc. with students and invite them to reconnect with their sense of purpose.
- Re-emphasize concepts and scaffold. Trauma can affect law students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which means they may have a more difficult time planning, remembering, and focusing. Consider providing more reminders about dates and deadlines, what was covered in prior classes, and how it connects to what students are learning next. Build these additional guideposts into your syllabus, learning management system, class meetings, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for us to also prioritize care for ourselves. Doing this work, in addition to everything else we’re trying to navigate in 2020, is not for the weary. In addition to adapting and adopting trauma-informed practices to better support students, we must also carve out time to unplug, unwind, and de-stress. We and our students will be better for it.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Mays Imad, Seven Recommendations for Helping Students Thrive in Times of Trauma, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.
Natalie B. Milman, Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should), Educ. Week, Apr. 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-informed-teaching-remotely.html.
Beth McMurtie, What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?, Chron. Higher Educ., June 4, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2020-06-04.
Kara Newhouse, Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, KQED, Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning.
 BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Around this time of year, I usually end up telling my 1L students something about my experience in law school. I inadvertently chose what, in retrospect, seemed like the best way to become an attorney: After working as a paralegal for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world of law), getting married and living in Japan for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world in general), I thought that Georgetown's evening program looked really appealing, because it would allow me to work and earn money during the day and not drag my wife with me into the penurious life of a student. I wasn't wrong about that, but that did not turn out to be the greatest benefit to the evening program, or even in the top three.
What hadn't occurred to me before I arrived in D.C. was what the rest of the evening program class would be like. Georgetown can support a substantial evening program because Washington is full of people who have done well in government, the military, business, or the arts and now want to take the next step in their career. If the informal reckoning of our evening cohort of 125 students was correct, there was only one of us who came directly from college. The day program, four times larger, had a more traditional proportion of recent undergraduates. Going to school with classmates who had essentially all achieved some measure of success already meant that our program felt different in three momentous ways:
1) Less stress and competition. Not that we were stress-free; this was, after all, law school. Most of my evening classmates had full-time jobs, like I did, and some were in demanding positions that took up more than 40 hours per week. Our law school commitments were lessened in the part-time evening program (so it took us all 4 years to graduate), but still, it could be a pretty heavy load. Nevertheless, there was almost no undercurrent of shared anxiety, and the kind of ruthless competition that I had expected in law school never materialized. (In my 2L year, when I became a Fellow in the legal writing program and worked directly with the school librarians, they told me how much they enjoyed working with the evening students because they never pilfered reserve books or sabotaged assigned reading the way that the day students did.) One of my classmates had a theory about this. He suggested that it was easier for us evening students not to stake our whole sense of self-worth on some grade on an exam, because most of us had proven ourselves in other arenas. This made sense to me; it meant it was easier for us to see grades as measures of our personal progress, rather than as a way of sorting us by value.
2) More organization and efficiency. I know that I was roughly one hundred times a better student, practically, in law school than when I was in college. Part of it was simply forced by necessity: If you work from 9 to 5, then attend classes from 5:45 to 9 or 10 each weeknight, you really don't have a lot of room in your schedule for futzing around. But some of it was the shared culture of the evening program, in which not only did we all face the same issue, but also nearly all of us had developed methods of calendaring and prioritizing in the workplace. Some of us had spouses or even children that had to be fit into our schedules. Knowing that it all could be done, because we had had to do much of it before in our jobs, made it more manageable in law school. Furthermore, we all understood how valuable each other's time was, so the time we spent together in study groups, on joint projects, or in student organizations was also spent efficiently (but also quite pleasantly -- see "less competition", above).
3) More collegiality. By which I do not mean "friendliness"; the day students that I met then, like the students I work with now, were at least as amiable and as good company as my evening companions. But time away from school, in many cases working with more seasoned co-workers on a first-name basis or even with equal status, had bestowed upon most evening students the realization that everyone in the law school -- classmates, professors, administrators, employees -- could be seen as colleagues: people with whom you are striving towards a common goal. Thus, evening students were often less reluctant, and more comfortable, than day students in seeking help or offering suggestions.
The reason I bring up my experience with my 1L class is to point out to them that you don't need to be an evening student to enjoy these beneficial distinctions. They might have come more naturally to those in my program -- certainly to the program as a whole -- because of our previous life experiences, but that doesn't mean that these benefits are only available to those of a certain age or background. What matters are attitude, awareness, and mindset. A student who is in touch with her previous accomplishments, and can ground her sense of self-worth on them, will find it easier to see grades as personal touchstones rather than signifiers of inherent worth. A student who accepts both that his available time is limited (which is merely a matter of thoughtful perception) and that he has the capacity to get done what needs to be done in that limited time (which is perhaps a bit more of a leap of faith) will find the ways he needs to be efficient. And by recognizing that they are attending a professional school whose common goals include each student's successful education, students can position themselves to take full advantage of all the human resources around them. Experience is a good teacher, but sometimes learning from other people's experience is even better.
Monday, September 21, 2020
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is the mythical land where the vast majority of your productivity resides. Tomorrow is when you fully unlock and harness all of your motivation and efficiency. Tomorrow you will get everything done. In truth, tomorrow will come but the enhanced productivity, efficiency, and motivation you anticipate may not.
Putting off tasks until tomorrow is a common form of procrastination and procrastination hinders one’s ability to allocate work and manage time effectively. One of the most challenging aspects of law school (and one of the most important skills for law students) is time management. At any given time, law students may be juggling class preparation, writing assignments, extracurricular activities, networking events, interviews, personal commitments, etc. Effective time management is essential to keeping each of those balls in the air.
Here are a few strategies to avoid procrastination and make the hypothetical productivity, motivation, and efficiency of tomorrow a reality today:
- Commit to timeliness. Commit to being on time to class, work, events, etc. Commit to timely completion of assignments. Set deadlines and keep them.
- Start today. Starting is often the hardest part. If you find yourself waiting or searching for the “perfect” time to start, remember that there is no perfect time. Since procrastination involves delaying doing something, the most direct way to stop procrastinating is to start. By starting today, you will put the most difficult part of the task behind you.
- Find your motivation. If you’re searching for motivation to complete a task, try reminding yourself why the task is important and how it connects to your goals.
- Break large projects into smaller pieces. This practice enables you to better allocate your workload and makes those larger projects seem less intimidating. Think of these as mini-goals and create deadlines for completing each smaller task. The feeling you get from accomplishing these smaller tasks can motivate you to keep going.
- Convert items on your to-do list that are likely to induce procrastination into blocks of time on your calendar. Blocking time for these tasks on your calendar transforms them from the indefinite to the definite and represents a commitment to yourself that you will “show up” to work on those tasks. It also serves as a visual cue and a reminder of your priorities as you navigate your daily schedule.
- Make the tasks you need to complete more fun. For instance, if you need to clean and only have 20 minutes, set a timer for 20 minutes and see how much you can get done before the timer sounds. You may not get it all done, but the process becomes more fun and you will probably come away with ideas about how to be more efficient the next time you clean.
- Reward yourself for creating and meeting your deadlines. Reward yourself when you resist the urge to procrastinate, complete one of your mini-goals, complete a task on your calendar, etc. Rewards help reinforce the behavior you want to repeat.
- Find an accountability partner. Choose someone you like and trust (and who likes and trusts you) to fill this role. Share your goals with that person, discuss the specifics of your partnership, and plan accountability check-ins.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Thursday, September 17, 2020
I spent most of my law school on the back steps of the loading dock, wedged behind a dumpster, in fear.
That seemed to be the only place were I wouldn't bump into people -- fellow law students, faculty, or administrators.
You see, I was afraid of all of them because, in my mind, they were perfect. Perfect students, perfect learners, perfect teachers. And, there was no way that I was any match for them. So, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was isolating myself...out of fear of being found out by others to be a fraud.
Looking back, I wish I had reached out to my academic dean, or the academic support department, or student affairs, really anyone at all. But, I was sure that I didn't belong in law school. So instead, I spent most of my time between classes, on the loading dock steps.
Had I read Prof. Victoria McCoy Dunkley's blog about perfectionism, realizing that there is no such thing as perfect, I would have been in much better shape, because I would have realized that "the law is messy" and that "there is often no right or perfect answer." https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2020/09/perfect-hurts.html
But instead, I spent most of my on-campus hours by the loading dock trying to re-read each case, trying to master each assigned reading with perfect answers in preparation for being called upon in class, not realizing that I had done more than enough, that I was as ready as anyone for class, and that it's okay to make mistakes and to not know it all.
So, for those of you in your first year of law school studies, it's okay to be afraid, to worry, to not be sure of yourself, to wonder if you have what it takes, etc. But, let me speak from my heart. You don't have to go it alone like I tried to do. Instead, reach out to someone at your law school and talk it out. Share what you are concerned about. If the truth be told, there are no perfect people in law school (or anywhere else for that matter).
And that's exactly as it should be because life is not a solo sport. It's a team project. It's meant to be lived with others, with all of our blemishes and mistakes and fears, in which we lean on each other and learn from each other.
So, as you practice learning the law ask someone to join you. If you're afraid (as I was) of being called on in class, ask a friend to sit with you and ask you questions about today's reading assignments. Along the way, realize that your practice answers don't need to be perfect (because there are no perfect answers). Rather, the practice in just practicing makes it possible for you to overcome your concerns, your fears, and your worries. (Scott Johns).
P.S. I just noticed all of my typos in this imperfect blog!
Monday, September 14, 2020
Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfect as unacceptable.” Perfectionism and its status as something to which we should aspire is introduced early and often. We think that if we look perfect, act perfect, and are perfect then we can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.
In reality, perfectionism is an anchor that drags us down and keeps us from reaching our true potential. The quest for perfection is an exercise in futility. Perfection is a matter of opinion. Aspiring to be perfect means we are prioritizing the perceptions of others over our perception of self. Rather than aiming to be the best version of ourselves (OUR best), we are instead focused on making someone else believe we are THE best.
Many law students, as perpetual high achievers, have perfectionist tendencies that existed long before law school. However, the hyper-competitiveness of the law school environment and law students’ propensities to compare themselves to their peers make law students particularly susceptible to intensified perfectionist tendencies. These tendencies can have significant negative consequences that affect academic performance:
- Lower productivity: The quest for perfection makes every task seem more daunting and time intensive. The average law student spends in excess of 50 hours per week completing law-school related tasks. Students who have difficulty transitioning from one task to the next until a task is “perfect” will likely remain stalled. For instance, the desire to complete the “perfect” course outline may occupy so much of a student’s time that the student is left with little, if any, time left to complete a critical mass of practice exam questions.
- Procrastination: Much like Forrest Gump and Jenny, perfectionism and procrastination go together like peas and carrots. Exceptionally high standards can be difficult (perhaps even impossible) to meet which leaves students feeling so overwhelmed that they defer completing tasks.
- Reduced confidence: Perfectionism is a confidence killer. We are imperfect beings who make mistakes. Law students are imperfect human beings who are developing their skills. Mistakes will happen—as will growth. For perfectionist law students, making a mistake or receiving feedback that they need to further develop a skill can crush their self-esteem and confidence. It may keep them from trying new things or speaking up in class for fear that they won’t be perfect. Students may also base their self-worth on their academic achievements and see instances of perceived failure not as opportunities for growth but, instead, as evidence that they are a failure.
- Lethargy & Anxiety: The quest for perfection is exhausting! The vicious cycle of setting impossibly high standards, trying to meet them, feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating, not meeting those standards, and then trying to manage anxiety while dusting oneself off to try all over again is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining.
Fortunately, there are several helpful strategies for managing perfectionist tendencies. Here are some suggestions:
- Be kind to yourself. Rather than being your greatest critic, try being your greatest coach or ally. Record those negative thoughts and then reframe them in a kinder, more compassionate way. Replace negative thoughts and damaging self-talk with words of encouragement.
- Cultivate your authenticity. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. We are all made of strength and struggle. You, imperfections and all, are enough. In fact, those imperfections are what make you uniquely and authentically you.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Your strengths and skills are not set in stone. You are a work in progress. Use feedback to improve your skills and identify the lessons to be learned from perceived setbacks. Focus on being YOUR best.
- Note triggers for and manifestations of your perfectionist tendencies and plan for how to manage those situations.
- Break larger projects into more discrete tasks to better manage your workload and stress.
- Set reasonable time limits for completing tasks and do your best to stick to those limits. Once that time is up, move on to the next task.
- Remember that the law is messy. Facts do not always align neatly with case law. Case law is not always clear. There often is no one “right” or “perfect” answer.
Managing perfectionist tendencies requires intentionality and practice. And, as we all know, practice makes progress.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 49–76 (2010).
Jordana Alter Confino, Reining in Perfectionism, ABA Law Practice Today, Jan. 14, 2019, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/reining-in-perfectionism/.
Keriann Stout, How Perfectionism Hurts Law Students, Above The Law, Feb. 26, 2018, https://abovethelaw.com/2018/02/how-perfectionism-hurts-law-students/.
Thursday, September 10, 2020
First Year Law Students:
It's not too early (or too late) to start creating your own personal handy-dandy study tools.
But, you ask, how?
Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just 6 easy steps!
But first, let's lay the groundwork.
Why should you create a study tool especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand your attention in law school?
There are at least two reasons.
First, the process of creating your own study tool creates a sort of "mental harness" for your thoughts. It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past few weeks or so. And, that's important because your final exams are going to ask you to ponder through and problem-solve hypothetical legal problems based on the readings, conversations, and your own post-class thoughts that you can bring to bear on the subject.
Second, the process of creating your own study tool develops your abilities to synthesize, analogize, and solve problems….skills that YOU will be demonstrating on your final exams (and in your future practice of law too). In essence, your study tools are an organized collection of pre-written, organized answers in preparation for tackling the hypothetical problems that your professor might ask on your final exam.
So, let's set out the 6 steps:
1. Grab Your Personal Study Tool Kit Support Team!
That means surrounding yourself with your casebook, your class syllabus, and your class notes. They are your "team members" to work with you to help you create your own personal study tool. Here's a tip: Pay particular attention to the topics in the table of contents and your syllabus. The casebook authors and your professors are giving you an organizational tool that you can use to build your own study tool. And, in a pinch, which I have often found myself in, I make a copy of the table of contents, blow it up a bit, and then annotate it with the steps below. Voila!
2. Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!
That's right. It might look like a skeleton. Not pretty at all. That's okay. Remember, it's in the process of creating your study tool that leads to learning. So, relax and enjoy the mess. My outlines were always, well, miserable, at least from the point of view of others. But, because I created them, they were just perfect for my own personal use. Here's a tip: Use the table of contents and class syllabus to insert the big picture topics and sub-topics into your study tool.
3. Insert the Rules!
Be bold. Be daring. Be adventuresome. If you see something that looks like a rule, whether from a statute or from a common law principle, for example, such as "all contracts require an offer, acceptance, and consideration," just put it into your study tool. Bravo!
4. Break-up the Rules into Elements (i.e., Sections).
Most rules have multiple-parts. So, for example, using the rule stated above for the three requirements to create a contract, there are three (3) requirements! (1) Offer; (2) Acceptance; and, (3) Consideration. Over the course of the term, you will have read plenty of cases about each of those three requirements, so give the requirements "breathing room" by giving each requirement its own "holding" place in your study tool or outlines.
5. Insert Case Blurbs, Hypos, and Public Policy Reasons!
Within each section for a legal element or requirement, make a brief insertion of the cases, then next the hypothetical problems that were posed in your classes, and finally, any public policy reasons that might support (or defeat) the purpose of the legal element or requirement. Here's a tip: A "case blurb" is just that…a quick blurb containing a brief phrase about the material facts (to help you recall the case) and a short sentence or two that summarizes that holding (decision) of the court and it's rationale or motive in reaching that decision. Try to use the word "because" in your case blurb…because….that forces you to get to the heart of the principle behind that particular case that you are inserting into your study tool.
6. Take Your Study Tool for a Test Flight!
Yes, you might crash. In fact, if you are like me, you will crash! But, just grab hold of some old hypothetical problems or final exam questions and - this is important - see if you can outline and write out a sample answer using your study tool. Then, just refine your study tool based on what your learned by using your study tool to test fly another old practice exam question or two. Not sure where to find practice problems? Well, first check with your professor and library for copies of old final exams. Second, check out this site containing old bar exam questions organized by subject matter:
Finally, let me make set the record straight. You don't have to make an outline as your study tool. Rather, your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a set of flashcards. And there's more great news. There are no perfect study tools, so feel free to experiment. Indeed, what's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork. So feel free to let your artistic creative side flow as you make your study tools.
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Back in the day (2019 and earlier), the first few weeks of law school was a time of intense bonding among classmates. Shared feelings of excitement, tinged with fear of embarrassment and workload-motivated shock, served to turn strangers into friends in a matter of days. These friendships would last throughout law school and beyond, and to good effect: Students would always have at least a couple friends in each course from whom they could borrow notes if they missed class due to illness. Friends, and, okay, sometimes mere acquaintances, would form study groups to share and test ideas. Soon, 2L and 3L students would introduce themselves, visiting classes or tabling in the hallways for various organizations, broadening the new students' networks of connections to include those with similar interests or backgrounds. After law school, these connected students would be connected lawyers, and would do what lawyers do in the real world: provide referrals, share expertise, give moral support. Part of learning to be a lawyer is learning to be part of a legal community.
This year, to varying degrees across the country, the first few weeks of law school have a different texture. In my school, as in many others, only a portion of classes are being conducted live, in a classroom, and those usually the smaller classes. Larger classes are being conducted online, where commiseration over an awkward cold-call response is much more difficult, and where, with no one sitting next to you, idle introductory chit-chat is almost as hard. Representatives from student organizations will probably still visit Zoom classes to introduce themselves and their groups, but with mostly empty hallways, opportunities for getting to know new students in conversation will be less frequent.
In short: it is going to be harder, and in some ways less natural, to make the kinds and numbers of connections that twelve months ago we all would have taken for granted. If you have lecture classes that are entirely online, or even asynchronous, it would be all to easy to think of those classes as a kind of enhanced television program, something that grabs your attention but does not feature you in the cast. Resist this temptation! Instead, make developing your social network one of your goals this semester:
- Join and participate in GroupMe and Facebook groups when invited, or form them yourself.
- Speak up in class, whether orally or in the chat box, and when possible, respond directly to classmates whose views interest you.
- Ask your professors or student life directors to help connect people interested in forming study groups.
- Seek out and contact the leaders of student organizations that interest you.
- Visit your professor's office hours -- real or virtual -- and chat with the other students who attend.
- When you find other classmates who share something in common with you -- an alma mater, a hometown, a hobby, etc. -- use that as a reason to approach them and perhaps get to know them better.
Although all this will take some additional effort, at a time in which you may already feel you are working harder than you have ever done before, that effort is an excellent investment. Later in the semester, as you start preparing for final exams, you will find the community you have made will make your work easier. Your law school experience will be enriched by the support, perspective, and opportunities provided by your network. And that network, and the skills you will develop in forming relationships within the legal community even under trying circumstances, will benefit you throughout your career.