Friday, March 29, 2024

Chronic Absenteeism in Law Schools?

Today, the NY Times published an article about chronic absenteeism in public schools post pandemic entitled, “Why School Absences Have ‘Exploded’ Almost Everywhere.” You can read the article here. Apparently, 26 percent of public-school students were considered “chronically absent” in 2023. I have been dealing with attendance issues in law schools during and after the pandemic, and this fact still surprised me. I imagine chronic absenteeism is even worse at the undergraduate level, where many large courses don’t take attendance at all.

Here at the University of Idaho, we recently adopted a new, stricter attendance policy in hopes of curbing absences and emphasizing the importance of in-class learning. What interests me is the tension I am observing between students missing classes and their strong preference for in-person learning. It seems we can all agree that learning together in the classroom is important, and that in-person classes are generally preferable to any remote option. And yet, attendance is still an issue in this post-pandemic world. What gives?

The article mentioned above explores factors leading to chronic school absences. Things like valuing flexibility, the availability of online makeup work, and people actually staying home when sick are likely at play. A rise in mental health issues (specifically anxiety and depression related issues) might also be creating greater barriers to attendance than in prior years.

I believe many law schools are trying to reinstate normal law school learning – that is the normal rigor of pre-pandemic legal education. But what is normal? I am presently recovering from the flu. I’m no longer contagious and back at work, but I’m still not totally healthy two weeks after falling ill. Where is line between accepting viruses are different these days – that sick-days might mean something different than they did in 2019, and encouraging and enforcing good attendance?

As we prepare law students for careers built on deadlines, timestamps, and getting to court on time, how do we find the sweet spot of teaching professionalism while offering empathy? How do we navigate attendance policies with a new generation of law students who may be normalized to a culture of chronic absenteeism in both high school and college? I think it will start with more time teaching quality academic behaviors and learning how to unteach absenteeism.

(Ashley Cetnar)

March 29, 2024 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

ASP Spotlight: Laurie Zimet

There are individuals who lay the foundation for new fields or areas of expertise, but unfortunately, the innovators don't always get credit the many years later when new fields are mainstream.  Laurie Zimet was/is one of those innovators for ASP, and UC Law San Francisco recently did a great job briefly recounting the impact she had over the past 40 years of service to law students.  If you ever saw one of her presentations, you would agree with Dean Morris Ratner's statement that "Her energy and enthusiasm for teaching and her care for students are defining features of her impactful professional life."  You can read the spotlight here

I learned from Laurie through many presentations over the years.  I hope schools continue to spotlight innovators in our field the same way we do other areas.  Great job Laurie!

(Steven Foster)

March 28, 2024 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 22, 2024

AASE Registration

AASE's Programming Committee is asking that everyone who plans to attend this year's AASE Annual Conference register soon because the AASE Yeti Travel Mugs are going quickly!  Yes, each attendee receives an AASE branded YETI mug to commemorate our 11th AASE Conference but it's first come, first served based upon REGISTRATION. 
General Conference Program is attached as well as information about the pre-conference Scholarship Workshop. 
Outlook-A yellow a

March 22, 2024 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Academic and Bar Support Scholarship Spotlight

Recent scholarship by or for those interested in law school academic and bar support.

1.  Franklin, Kris (New York Law School), How and When Do We Get to Maybe? Review Essay, Getting to Maybe 2d edition (March 12, 2024). Available at SSRN:

From the abstract:

Getting to Maybe is an invaluable text. The first edition enabled a sea change in the ways law professors and academic success educators could talk with students about law school examinations. This long-awaited second edition continues to be an outstanding resource. But the work does have some limitations users should be thoughtful about.

[Posted by Louis Schulze, FIU Law]

March 19, 2024 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 11, 2024

Getting to No

Can we stop for a minute and discuss how much fun, “I’m Just Ken” was last night on the Oscars? It was pink, sparkly, and joyful. And, like my scholarship (as noted in a prior blog post), delightful, but insufficient for the win.[1]

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted (and maybe, therefore, a bit cranky). I am teaching four classes this semester, have a regular load of one-on-one students, am enmeshed in both writing and presenting topics, and have other committee, university, and non-university tasks waiting. Not to mention writing for this blog.[2] This spring “break” will be full of obligations, but also some much needed downtime.

As much as I love the book, “Getting to Maybe[3],” being successful in law school is a matter of doing smart, efficient things to get others to say “yes” to you: yes to an A, yes to a clerkship, yes to a job.

I need a book that teaches me how to say no.[4]

One of the downsides of the job security status most academic support folks find themselves in is the unspoken but real subtext of not being able to say no to requests from supervisors and colleagues. This, coupled with my desire to do some of the things ordinarily not available to academic support folks (like chairing committees and participating in leadership institutes) makes us (me, at least) very busy.  It is like begging to sit at the grown-up table, but your feet can’t reach the floor in the big chairs. You are grateful to be there, so you cope and insist you do not want the chicken nuggets the kids are having.

But let’s be clear: since we are sitting at the grown-up table, we are often then asked to do things that tenured, doctrinal faculty would not be asked --or would never agree-- to do. I need a way (besides retirement) to get myself off (or pushed closer to the bottom of) the “usual suspects” list of folks who can be relied on to do various jobs.  

Yet, I have a hard time thinking of myself as someone who wouldn’t be reliable or diligent. I would argue that academic support folks are constantly proving their worth by showcasing these attributes. We are also kind and generous people (I see you!) who wouldn’t want to let someone down even if it is above and beyond our bandwidth and paygrade. I think the pandemic has also made some formerly solid boundaries much more permeable.

Therefore, I propose we start finding a “no buddy.” This can be someone we see at work, a colleague we know through our ASP community, friends, partner/spouse, or really anyone. We can text that person, “I said no!!!” and they will respond, “I am proud of you!!!”[5]

I’ll start: last Friday, a student asked me my next availability for a meeting since they were unprepared for our late Friday afternoon before spring break meeting, and I said, “after the break.” Essentially, saying I wouldn’t meet with them during the break. Y’all: I said no!!!![6]

(Liz Stillman)


[1] Which is not to say Billie Eilish and her lovely brother did not deserve the win-they truly did.

[2] Which actually gives me great joy! Really!

[3] It really can be a game changer for students!

[4] I am not advocating for a book that teaches others how to say “no” to me. I don’t think there is a need for that text. See, Tenure, not happening.

[5] Yes, the exclamation points are required.

[6] And I am proud of myself. And I still feel a little guilty….

March 11, 2024 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“The Plaintiff Must Always Win” Syndrome

In previous posts, I have discussed reasons why students underperform in law school. Sometimes underperformance arises out of outside issues, misunderstanding how law school learning works, insufficient time dedicated to law school, or a mix of these and other factors. This post introduces the “Plaintiff Must Always Win” Syndrome.

When I review underperforming students’ Fall 1L exams with them in early January, I often see essays that conclude that each of the plaintiffs’ claims is successful. Sometimes altogether ignoring facts in favor of the defendant or employing tortured logic, these essays artificially go out of their way to get the plaintiff in front of the jury.

Of course, this ends up costing students points because ignoring facts suggesting self-defense undermines the quality of the analysis of a battery claim. The professor’s grading rubric (or gestalt-ish grading feeling) no doubt allocates points towards the self-defense argument, and the failure to spot that issue puts students behind others who analyzed the issue.

Why do students do this?

As a few students have explained, they mistakenly believe that a professor would not put a claim in an exam if it was not successful. If they did, they reason, how could one possibly analyze the absence of something? This would be like asking for visual proof of a black hole.

Those of us who work with underperforming students can help them fix this problem fairly easily; by simply telling students to analyze reasonable “loser” issues as well as winners. Just explaining that professors are looking for analysis and not merely answers seems to clarify the broad scope of what should end up in an essay response.

But that all begs the question about how far they should go. What is the line between loser issues for which points are available and non-issues? This is tricky, but I suggest two broad guidelines.

First, I encourage students to ask whether the proposed issue is one that a competent lawyer might genuinely raise in litigation. Is it even marginally legitimate? Is it at least plausible, such that an opposing lawyer should be prepared to rebut it if raised?

Second, I stress the concept of the straw man logical fallacy. Logical fallacies are arguments that seem on their face to refute an idea but which are patently invalid. They occur when the opponent of a proposition refutes not the actual proposition but a watered-down, exaggerated, or wholly manufactured version of the proposition that the proponent actually made.

I use this idea to show students which arguments they should not make.  Let's say that a Criminal Law exam tests actus reus with a fact pattern where defendant lifeguard sits and watches a person drown in the pool they are guarding.  If the student analyzes actus reus by omission, whether a failure to act can be criminal, they would score points by noting that there is no general duty to render aid.  The student would score further points by noting the exception to the rule, that those with contractual duties, including lifeguards, can be criminally liable when they fail to act.  However, the student would not score points by analyzing whether the defendant's actions met the requirements of a voluntary affirmative act or were instead involuntary.  Because the fact pattern does not implicate that issue, an argument by defendant on that point would constitute a straw man logical fallacy.

These are simple examples, but they help students understand that their future clients want answers only on their cases and not fictional ones conjured up to answer questions that do not exist.

March 5, 2024 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 3, 2024

ASP Faculty Scholarships from AccessLex/AASE

AccessLex and AASE are pleased to announce that we will be awarding five ASP Faculty Scholarship Grants again this year. These grants of up to $5000 are money in your pocket to help you write a law review article. The grants are designed to support fledgling scholars and help our discipline develop a robust body of literature.

The application is reasonably short, and will ask you the following questions (along with some basic administrative stuff):

  • Title of your proposed article
  • Abstract or summary of the article: What will your article explain, and what will your unique argument/assertion/thesis be? Recommended length: 250-500 words
  • How will your proposed project engage with the existing scholarship in this area? Recommended length: 100-250 words
  • How will receipt of this grant advance your professional development or status? Recommended length: 100-250 words
  • Have you published law review articles or other publications before? If so, please provide the citation(s)
  • Do you receive support for research and writing at your institution in the form of research assistants, funding, reduced course load, or other forms of support? If yes, please explain

Applications are due April 22. 

March 3, 2024 in Publishing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 2, 2024

AASE Registration Open

Outlook-A yellow a

March 2, 2024 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 26, 2024

Lost and Found

Today, I will have two former members of the United States House of Representatives come and speak to my undergraduate class as part of an amazing program called Congress to Campus. I am always incredibly excited to have these gentlemen (and so far, they have only sent me white men) come and speak to the class. More importantly, I am fervently hoping my students have questions for them[1]. I have provided their biographies; we have discussed checks and balances and separation of powers, and they should know what Congress does (and cannot do) well enough to be curious about what differs between the textbook and the reality in terms of the Federal Legislature. I think I have done my job (we’ll see, of course) of piquing their curiosity.

But that leads me to a broader question in teaching: how do we nurture curiosity in all of our students? I am not sure the first year of law school, in general, does that. Where is the adventure in the Commerce Clause? The cliff-hanger in Adverse Possession?[2] What happens when students lose their sense of wonder about law? And notice, I say when and not if, because I think the vast majority of students do (at least temporarily) lose their sense of wonder about six weeks in to the first semester, and again just about now in the second.

Part of the issue is that 1L students do not get choices. They cannot choose their classes, professors, or schedules. I don’t think that changing this entirely would be a great plan since (among other things) 1L subjects are bar tested and finding doctrinal faculty to teach 1L classes is hard enough without a popularity contest built in.[3]

I once read in a parenting book that offering your toddler choices-where you, as the adult, control all the options-prevents meltdowns. For example, offering a blue cup or a red cup (you have both ready) is easier than giving a blue cup and then trying to explain that all cups are the same in the end. You still control the options, but they get to make a choice. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying our students are toddlers, but they may similarly feel that they have very little control over their education in the first year (and beyond depending on your law school’s policies and requirements).

We are currently planning to offer an optional 1 credit Pass/Fail elective to students in their 1L spring after we freed a credit when we semesterized[4] all of our 1L classes. We have discussed this at length and even had our faculty vote (in favor) of making it happen. I am thinking the classes we offer need be something interesting enough to combat the idea of just enjoying the semester without that extra credit. It needs to feed and restore curiosity. Granted, at the moment the only times available for such classes are late on Thursday evening or early Friday morning, so not primetime, therefore I am not certain our first foray will be representative of what we could do with this credit. But we shall see. One member of committee suggested we try Accounting for Lawyers. Since I wonder if that will attract any students, my curiosity is already piqued.

(Liz Stillman)


[1] God knows I have questions about the governance of the country recently, but this isn’t about me.

[2] Although an elemental test in 1L Property is always nice to see….

[3] And the logistics would be difficult. We have an incoming 1L class at or near 400 students, so that would be chaos for us.

[4] It turns out this is not a word-but indulge me here.

February 26, 2024 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Director of Academic Achievement at California Western School of Law

California Western School of Law seeks candidates for the Director of Academic Achievement. This long-term contract faculty position is responsible for leading the academic support and bar support programs at California Western. The Director must provide leadership for the department and effectively manage multiple tasks, programs, and responsibilities. Strong interpersonal skills and demonstrated ability to work with a highly diverse student, staff, and faculty population are essential to success. A commitment to data-driven academic programming and a sincere desire to enhance student performance in law school and the bar exam are essential for this position.

Qualifications: (1) a J.D. degree from an ABA-accredited law school; (2) at least five years of law teaching experience, preferably in an academic support or bar preparation program; (3) excellent written, oral, and interpersonal communication skills; (4) good organization, judgment, and flexibility; (5) experience with educational technology and statistical analysis; (6) experience in course planning, teaching, formative and summative assessment; (7) experience in staff supervision; and (8) a demonstrated ability and interest in working collaboratively with a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff. 

Application Requirements: Candidates must apply for this position through the California Western Career Website. They must submit: (1) a cover letter describing their qualifications and salary requirements; (2) resume; and (3) a statement indicating how they will engage with the Law School’s mission of supporting a diverse student population. 

Salary Range: $122,000-$144,000. Factors in determining the appropriate compensation include experience, skills, knowledge, education, licensure and certifications, and other institutional needs.  Applications are due by March 15, 2024 but will be accepted on a rolling basis. Interested applicants are encouraged to apply early. The anticipated start date is June 1, 2024. The law school offers competitive benefits for eligible employees.  

About California Western: Established in 1924, California Western is an ABA-accredited and AALS member, non-profit law school located in downtown San Diego, California. We have the distinction of being San Diego’s oldest law school. California Western is the recipient of numerous community service awards, including the State Bar of California President’s Pro Bono Service Award and the federal government’s President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. We are home to numerous outstanding programs, including the Community Law Project and New Media Rights Program. The Faculty is dedicated to teaching, research, and community service. Detailed information is available at

California Western is committed to training ethical, competent, and compassionate lawyers who represent our diverse society. California Western is an Equal Opportunity Employer dedicated to affirmative action and excellence through diversity. The Law School provides reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants with disabilities upon request.

February 25, 2024 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Visiting Assistant Professor and Assistant Director of Academic Enrichment at Washburn

Washburn is hiring a Visiting Assistant Professor & Assistant Director of Academic Enrichment and Bar Readiness Programming.  The full posting can be found here.

For questions about the position, please contact Professor Michelle Ewert, Chair, Faculty Recruitment Committee, at [email protected] or Professor Chelsea Baldwin, Interim Director of Academic Enrichment and Bar Pass Programs, at [email protected].

If you're interested, please get your applications in before March 1, 2024. We're hoping to bring someone on in time to help with summer bar support, but in this market, that is of course negotiable.

February 24, 2024 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

Academic Support Positions at North Carolina Central University

North Carolina Central University School of Law is currently hiring for a Director of Bar Preparation as well as an Academic Success Specialist.  The job description and application portal is online at,1,UqdjR8rQ4BkQI3EXhmlzVSvNYIH_3UzHUuXpahb09Pv7Th1U1ijhQXrt_D3LkCoSPeSK1X_4fNlWlYTaMvcKfIkNBO8Rcbixja4VAGpRiqtJh6JM&typo=1

North Carolina Central has a diverse and amazing student population. The individuals hired for these positions will have an opportunity to significantly contribute to enhancing the AS and bar prep programs already in place. NCCU School of Law is a great place to work and is centrally located to restaurants and parks, with new budget-friendly housing developments popping up daily.

February 24, 2024 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 19, 2024

No Winners

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week, in summarizing our discussion of Plessy and Brown v. Board of Education, one of my undergraduate students used a word that, while not the most offensive when referring to race, was nonetheless unwelcome in my classroom community. And when she said the word, I stopped her cold and informed her that it wasn’t a word that is appropriate in reference to race. She asked which one of the words she said was offensive and I told her that I would not repeat it but would happily explain the issue after class. I encouraged her to move on with her summary, she did, and I thanked her. End of story, I thought.

Not end of story. About twenty minutes later, she threw on her jacket, her headphones, and backpack and quite dramatically left the class. Now, this is a student who has left each class this semester at least 15 minutes before it ends to get to a work shift that she assured me in January was a holdover from the Winter break and was only going to be, “this once,” but this was much earlier than her usual (far more subtle) exits.

After class was over, I e-mailed her because I was pretty certain my callout was the reason for her hasty departure. I explained why the word was offensive and apologized if she felt I was both blunt and vague. I told her that as the person in front of the class, I could see something she couldn’t--and that was the reaction of her fellow classmates. I would have stopped her in any event and do not (in any way) regret stopping her, but I understand that undergraduates are young and still learning. I thought the discussion we had had as a class about Plessy and Brown had been very clear (and I had discussed these cases using critical race theory as a backdrop). Then I thought perhaps she might have been a freshman who could not have known better. It turns out that she is actually a junior majoring in something in the Political Science department, so no, that wasn’t it either.

I very quickly got a reply from the student. It wasn’t pleasant, professional, or respectful. There was no remorse, no lesson learned, or any understanding (or desire to form one) of why the word was offensive. And she told me that as a “white woman,” I had no place telling her anything. I do not know her race, nor would it matter since no one can use that word in reference to race in my class. And while there were dozens of other inconsistent and misinformed points in the unpunctuated masterpiece she sent me, that was the worst.

Because I was the right person to tell her.

Because I carry the burden of civility in my class.

Because it is not the job of BIPOC students to correct her.

Because when something is wrong, it is wrong regardless of who informs you of it.  

Because not saying something publicly would have been worse.

Because sometimes being uncomfortable and sitting in that space is learning.

I invited her to come see me about all of this I have received no response. And I don’t expect one anytime soon.

I don’t feel great about how this ended (if it has), and I hope it will go better next time. Most of all, I hope there is no next time.

(Liz Stillman)

February 19, 2024 in Diversity Issues, Meetings, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Director of Academic Success at Illinois


Director of Academic Success & Bar Support

University of Illinois College of Law

Champaign, Illinois

The University of Illinois College of Law is one of the oldest and most prestigious law schools in the United States and is part of a major public research university. The College of Law is committed to academic excellence for all students and is seeking a dedicated academic success professional to direct the College of Law’s Academic Success and Bar Support Program. The position is based in Champaign, Illinois.

In this critical, high-visibility role, you would direct the College of Law's Academic Success and Bar Support Program.

Key responsibilities include:

  • • Providing one-on-one support to students to promote each student’s academic success in law school and successful performance on the bar exam.
  • • Partnering with faculty and staff to help students develop study, legal analysis, and exam-writing skills that enhance their academic performance.
  • • Developing and implementing academic support programs.
  • • Identifying and addressing barriers to students’ academic success.
  • • Preparing and delivering bar preparation programs building on the existing “Countdown to the Bar” program at the College of Law.
  • • Reaching out to recent graduates to encourage completion of bar preparation courses and help address barriers to bar preparation.
  • • Nurturing relationships with bar examiners in Illinois and other jurisdictions.
  • • Developing and maintaining expertise in the various bar exams College of Law graduates take, including the current Universal Bar Exam and NextGen Bar Exam.

This position requires residency in the Champaign-Urbana areas and may necessitate occasional travel.

Candidates must have a Juris Doctor Degree from an ABA-accredited law school, a Bar membership in a US jurisdiction (which may be inactive), and two years of relevant experience. Preferred qualifications are prior employment in a law school, particularly in connection with academic and bar success; advising, counseling, or teaching experience; experience in law practice; and experience working with students with disabilities.

This is a full-time, 12-month position. The expected start date is between May 16 and August 16, 2024. The salary range for this position is $85,000 to $110,000 per year. The University offers a generous and flexible benefits program. Relocation assistance will be provided.

Applications must be received by 6:00 pm (CST) on March 17, 2024. Apply for this position at Only applications submitted through the University’s job portal will be considered. If you have questions about this position, please email Patrick Rietz ([email protected]). For assistance with the application process, please contact 217-333-2137.

The University of Illinois System is an equal opportunity employer, including but not limited to disability and/or veteran status, and complies with all applicable state and federal employment mandates. Please visit Required Employment Notices and Posters to view our non-discrimination statement and find additional information about required background checks, sexual harassment/misconduct disclosures, and employment eligibility review through E-Verify.

Applicants with disabilities are encouraged to apply and may request a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (2008) to complete the application and/or interview process. Requests may be submitted through the reasonable accommodations portal, or by contacting the Accessibility & Accommodations Division of the Office for Access and Equity at 217-333-0885, or by emailing [email protected].

February 18, 2024 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 16, 2024

To Take a Bar Exam (or Not)

A lot has changed since I started working with law students in 2015. A lot has changed in the world, in my own life, and for the students I serve. It seems every year more students arrive at law school fresh from undergraduate commencement ceremonies. Fewer students have worked in a legal setting, or any professional setting, before embarking on the study of law. This isn’t a bad thing, just a difference I notice with each passing year.

Every August at orientation, the 1Ls are told that they are embarking on a professional journey – that law school is a professional school. We do our best to let them know the expectations are different here than in their undergraduate programs. The workload is heavier. They should be developing professional identities – preparing to one day take an oath of attorney and pledge to ethically represent clients. These are important points that for many describe the path ahead.

Still, less than two weeks out from the bar exam, as the stress mounts on our graduates, I reflect on another change I’ve witnessed over the years. There are more law students who are unsure about whether they want to practice law at all. There are also more law students who are sure they don’t want to practice law. JD advantage career opportunities continue to increase, and students pursue legal education for different reasons than they did a decade ago. Yet the vast majority of graduates continue to take the bar exam.

I’m reminded of the term, emerging adulthood coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD back in 2000. He used this term to describe the period of development between the ages of 18 and 29 where adolescents begin having adult experiences that shape their transition into adulthood. It’s a time of self-exploration and identity development, and this individual growth and personal identity formation is happening alongside many law students’ professional development. I would argue that a growing portion of law students leave law school having made major strides in personal identity formation, while remaining ambivalent about their professional identity.

When I talk with graduates taking the bar exam because of family pressure, because it’s what everyone else is doing, or with no real reason in mind, I know it will be a struggle. Not because they can’t do it, but because they are doing it for the wrong reasons. No amount of external pressure will keep you internally motivated to study forty to fifty hours a week for ten weeks.

Every year, I ask my 3L students to write down why they want to take the bar exam. I ask them to save the piece of paper and look at it when bar prep gets hard. Maybe I should also stop and let them know it’s OK if they don’t want to practice law. There are many successful JDs out there who are happily doing something else with their legal education. I could normalize other paths. I could stop reinforcing the notion that the bar exam is a necessary hurdle for all, and instead be clear that it is only necessary for those who seek to practice.

(Ashley Cetnar)

February 16, 2024 in Bar Exam Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Actual Cause, Proximate Cause, and Academic Underperformance.

Every first-year law student knows (or should know) the terms “actual cause” and “proximate cause.”  In a tort claim for negligence, a plaintiff must prove actual cause, that the plaintiff's injury would not have occurred but for the defendant's negligence.  A plaintiff must also show proximate cause, that the injury was the foreseeable consequence of the defendant's negligence.  But when underperforming1 students try to figure out why they received unwelcome grades, they often forget the nooks and crannies of causation, leading them to bad decisions.  

What do I mean?

When the Registrar enrolls students in my second-semester class for those in the bottom 20% of their section, I send them a questionnaire that prompts them to think deeply about why they underperformed.  I then construct the first individual meeting with each student around those responses so that we can build an improved learning plan.  Students' answers often make a major mistake:  they assume that a bad breakup, bad roommate situation, or serious illness was the only factor involved.  In doing so, they rationalize that the results are extrinsic to themselves, unrelated to effort or not-yet-developed skills, and conclude that change is unnecessary.  After all, now that the outside problems are gone (hopefully), the grades will magically improve, right?

These students are ignoring the tort concepts of concurrent causes, sufficient combined causes, and apportionment.  Concurrent causes are those where an injury results from two separate acts.  The classic example is when the construction worker leaves a maintenance hole cover open, a driver collides with the pedestrian plaintiff, and the plaintiff suffers injuries both from the collision and falling through the maintenance hole.  Sufficient combined causes are those where two separate acts combine to cause an injury.  The classic example here is two farmers separately lighting fires that combine to burn down another farmer's barn and either of the fires could have produced the same result.  Lastly, apportionment examines the relative blameworthiness of multiple actors to assign damages based on each actor's contribution to the injury.

The student focusing solely on outside factors instead of examining other possible causes ignores the role of the driver and seeks to blame only the construction worker.  The student also ignores Farmer #2, seeking redress only from Farmer #1 whose impact might have been equal to or less than that of Farmer #2.  By ascribing causation only to one factor rather than to concurrent or sufficient combined causes, the student then attempts to apportion damages only to the external circumstances and not to the internal ones, such as using a suboptimal learning plan, inefficiency during the semester, neglecting to develop analytical skills, or expending insufficient effort. 

It is incumbent on academic support faculty to encourage students to explore these issues.  Maybe the "minuses" on those C's were due to the outside factor but the original drop from A to C occurred because the student merely read for class and nothing more.  True, maybe the student is correct that the outside situation was indeed the sole cause of the underperformance.  But I counsel that student that we should rather be safe than sorry and assume that changes are necessary.  These changes might include a stronger learning plan, better exam prep methods, and/ or more hours devoted to law school.  

This message acknowledges the psychology at play.  Arriving at the conclusion that internal causes contributed to the underperformance is uncomfortable.  Attributing the blame to external causes rationalizes the result as something DONE to the student rather than something they DID.  This is all normal.  But posing the solution as "let's make changes just to be safe rather than sorry," accounts for this psychology but also fosters the necessary consideration of concurrent causes, sufficient combined causes, and apportionment.

Louis Schulze (FIU Law)


1 I use this term instead of less helpful ones, such as "your bad grades," "your weak GPA," or "flunking out."  I choose words carefully, having developed an almost Orwellian set of phrases that communicate a lack of judgment.  The commonly used but dispiriting terms imply some form of wrongness or personal deficiency that may be unwarranted.    By contrast, "underperforming" recognizes that the performance is not ideal but suggests that the student is capable of doing better.  This gives them hope that they can improve instead of suggesting that their grades reflect a permanent condition attributable to something wrong with them.  Other terms I avoid, for various reasons, include:  "remedial class," "tutoring," and "failed the bar."   

February 6, 2024 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Naked and Afraid

I’m being dramatic of course: I am fully clothed and just a bit rattled. I am writing this entry on Thursday, Feb. 1st for publication next Monday, Feb. 5th. Today is the day that the faculty votes on whether I will be offered an additional five year contract, or I will be out of a job on July 1st. To be crystal clear, I am not really expecting to be shown the curb today. I feel valued at my school, and I think they would feel a loss if they let me go. I believe this. Intellectually, I know this isn’t going to be an issue, but emotionally, I must say that it doesn’t feel great to have such an important decision seem so completely out of my control.

Part of this feeling of vulnerability may stem from my first gen background. My parents worked in the garment industry and my maternal grandparents worked as a milliner and a produce buyer. I am the first woman in my immediate family who knows how to drive, went to a four year college, and then on to law school. For me, having control of how I am perceived and discussed is therefore really important. I would never say I am self-made--my family was wildly supportive-- but I also do not want to be unmade by others.

I think one of hardest parts of this process is seeing the Committee memo that essentially lays me out bare circulated not once, but twice to everyone (including me). I am glad there will be no paper copies circulated both for the trees and the possibility of it moving beyond our faculty (which I know is also very possible, if not even easier, via email, but somehow paper seems like more of a security risk, which only goes to prove my addled state). Everyone gets to know about my course evaluations, syllabi, PowerPoint slides, and scholarship. And the folks who get to vote to keep me or not include:

  1. People who have known me since July 2023;
  2. People who have been here for a year or two but haven’t met me at all;
  3. People who are actually leaving at the end of the semester;
  4. People who have been unprofessionally rude to me in Committee meetings;
  5. People who have said no to a tenure track possibility for ASP; but then there are also:
  6. Amazing colleagues I have known for over 20 years;
  7. Amazing colleagues in my ASP department;
  8. Amazing colleagues I consider friends (these past three are not mutually exclusive categories);
  9. Fabulous colleagues who support changes in ASP status; and
  10. Wonderful administrators I am not sure can vote but have always been quite supportive.

In short, a lot of my jury may not consider themselves my peers. And they will get together in a big room (and I am not going to be there as per tradition) and talk about me and then they get to decide if I can continue doing this job even if some of them are uncertain what it is. The fact that I need to do this every five years (although when I started it was shorter intervals) is frustrating. If my position doesn't merit tenure-which I understand is a long investment in me by my school--then why so much repeated scrutiny for something that clearly isn't considered all that important? I know this lesser status is a construct, but a process that is a reminder of this status over and over can't be the best practice. I have been through this more than seven times already.

So, when quotes from my course evaluations are circulated far and wide, I feel particularly exposed (although they were all positive quotes). When someone comments (again, positively) on the quality of my slides, I feel invaded. And when I am told that my scholarship is nice but not tenure worthy, I am livid, because tenure is not even on the table.

The only thing on the table is me.

(Liz Stillman)

**UPDATE**:  My contract was in fact renewed by the faculty on Thursday and nice things were said about me during that meeting. I am, although still slightly salty about the process, very pleased with the result.

February 4, 2024 in Miscellany, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Assistant Director of Academic Success at UNLV

UNLV Boyd School of Law has an opening in the department for an Assistant Director of the Academic Success Program, which also includes the role of Assistant Professor-in-Residence. This is a faculty position. A blend of teaching, collaboratively running our academic success programs and guiding students through their legal education journey. Plus, it’s a spot that promises growth, with a clear path to 5-year presumptive renewal contracts.

In terms of compensation, it matches the value we place on this role and the person who will fill it. The position's pay and benefits are more than competitive.  We’re after someone who’s not just looking for a new job but a place to invest their talents long-term and be part of our community. Nevada has a lot to be excited about, particularly the likely changes coming here to the Bar. Being the only law school in the state has distinct advantages, and being a small jurisdiction allows for a significant impact by our graduates.

February 4, 2024 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 3, 2024


Please join us in St. Louis, MO for the Joint One-Day Workshop of the Southwestern Consortium of Academic Support Professionals and the Midwestern Consortium of Academic Support Professionals, hosted by the Saint Louis University School of Law on Friday, March 8th, from 9:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. CST, with a welcome dinner the evening of Thursday, March 7th.

The theme of this year's Workshop is Practical and Innovative Techniques to Approach Teaching and Advising for the Next Gen Bar Exam and the Next Generation of Lawyers. We have an exciting program and selection of speakers for you (see attached) and are excited to spend the day sharing ideas with our colleagues from the Southwest and Midwest regions - and beyond!

The conference will be hosted in person at the Saint Louis University School of Law. However, while we are excited to return to an in-person workshop this year, we also will do our best to record the workshop for those unable to travel to St. Louis.

Thanks to our generous sponsors, AccessLex, BarBri, and Themis, there is no registration fee, but we ask that you please register using this link so that we can adequately prepare:

Due to unexpected flooding at our original hotel, we are unable to provide a room block for workshop participants. However, there are a number of hotels nearby, including the following options:

Tru by Hilton St. Louis Downtown (~$123 per night, .2 miles walk)
The Last Hotel 4-Star Boutique Hotel (~230 per night, .4 miles walk)
21c Museum Hotel St Louis (~$230 per night, .4 miles walk)
We hope we get to "meet you in St. Louis" in March!
2024 SWCASP/MWCASP One-Day Workshop Planning Committee
Toni Miceli, Saint Louis University School of Law
Petina Benigno, Saint Louis University School of Law
Steven Foster, Oklahoma City University School of Law
Megan Kreminski, University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

February 3, 2024 in Bar Exam Preparation, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 29, 2024

Track Work

The “spring” semester is underway here at my school. I say “spring” because anyone who has ever been in Boston in January knows that green leaves, blue skies, and dry sidewalks are a long way off. Recently, I took an involuntary month-long vacation from my normal commute. The train that I have taken to work for many years was shut down for almost all of January for track work. Not running at all. Not going inbound or outbound. Not moving under or over ground-just not at all. So, I had to change my usual routine and take a bus to a different train line and then walk a different route to the law school. As I joked with a Bar Prep buddy, my commute went from an MEE to an MPT in terms of timing. But after four weeks of this new daily odyssey, I suppose I got used to it[1].

Today, I was finally able to take my normal route into work. I thought it would be glorious, but after a month of doing it differently, it was strange and even a little awkward[2]. Even going back to something that is very familiar is still a transition. I might even miss some of the small joys I found in the “new normal.”[3] I thought that this must be how our students feel after taking a month long break from law school and then starting up-except in reverse. I am sure a month away from school with no reading or papers or exams was lovely.

Now that we have started up again, I have been meeting with 1Ls over these past weeks. I am mainly seeing students who did not do as well on exams as they (or we) had hoped. We have spent time trying to determine the reason why things went awry during exams and try to start better habits in the place of the methods that were not effective. Yet, the abrupt jolt back into law school after a month off is not something we have discussed or given much thought.  Even if this is familiar, it is still a transition. And, to make things worse, I am asking students to try different routes to success just when they thought they knew the way after surviving the fall. It is a lot to ask all at once (with the additional stress of non-stellar grades looming).

I think articulating that I am making a big ask at a stressful time might go a long way to developing an honest relationship with students moving forward. I do them no favors by just saying, “it’ll be fine.” I can assure students that there is great relief in plotting a course and making a plan to move forward. I cannot make the train run before the track work is done, but I can help them navigate this detour.

Hopefully, they will extend the same understanding to me when I am cranky that my train is out of service again in late February to early March.

(Liz Stillman)


[1] Well, most of it. I did see a fistfight on the bus that was a bit rattling and intense. Physical violence in a small moving space is not something I’d like to grow accustomed to….

[2] Although back to MEE commute times which was glorious indeed.

[3] It was faster train, there were more coffee options on the walk from the station to the law school, and I could walk through Primark on the way in or out if I needed anything….

January 29, 2024 in Exams - Studying, Orientation, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)