Thursday, August 12, 2021
Congratulations as you begin to embark on your legal education as entering first year law students! It's an exciting time!
But, as others have pointed out, amidst the buzz, there can also be a lot of anxiety. Stress especially seems to mount at the most inopportune times, like when we've been assigned lots of stiff reading in preparation for our first law school classes.
So, here's a few suggestions about how to read for classes.
But first, I have a confession...
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, I'm not a very good reader. To be frank, when someone asks me to work with them through a reading passage (whether a case, a statute, a multiple-choice problem or an essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing. That's because as I hear the words the words become alive, the punctuation marks spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks give me a chance to catch my breath and digest what I've just vocalized. But that takes time.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
So here's my first tip: Rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learn about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. It takes lots of time so plan on it. To put it bluntly, it means "cross-examine" the cases, asking questions, evaluating the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about those arguments.
Second, don't let the "gold" bindings on the fancy case books and the big name judges that signed the cases intimidate you. In my opinion, many of the cases in the casebook are just wrong because, to be honest, there's no perfect opinion. There are always weaknesses. So be bold and give it your best shot and challenge the opinion.
Third, realize that reading is a skill; it's not something that comes natural to us, especially critical legal reading. But that's great news because, as a skill, it is something that we can learn to do and learn to do well. In other words, believe in yourself.
Fourth, don't just dive into the cases. Instead, model what expert readers do prior to reading by engaging in pre-reading strategies. Take a look at where the case is located in the syllabus and in the casebook table of contents. Based on that placement, try to predict the purpose behind being assigned to read that case. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, which might be as simple as the jurisdiction (state or location) in which the dispute took place. Then skim the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and how it looks organizationally. Finally, here's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peek at the end of the case to see how it comes out.
Fifth, read with your heart. Recognize that behind each case lies real individuals and organizations with heart-felt disputes that they couldn't resolve without going to court. Put yourself in the shoes of the parties. Let the facts as related by the court speak to you. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words in your own words. Then feel free to draw lots of pictures and diagrams to help you visualize what is happening. Realize that each case is subject to multiple interpretations so you have much more freedom than you might think at first to really dialogue with the text. Indeed, try to catch mistakes by the court. Talk back to the court and with the court as you read the opinions.
Finally, realize that reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Or, summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Or, evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Or, conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Then, to wrap up, synthesis a one sentence statement or phrase for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Before I let you go, let me say a word about speed.
You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast.
Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like much of an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you'll feel like it's taking a lot more time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is!
But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying. Indeed, much like learning to ride a bike, you'll surely fall lots and get bruises along the way. That's okay because learning is difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your future clients too). (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
ASP Foundational Scholarship Series: This series focuses on the seminal ASP/ Bar Exam scholarship that contributed to the development of academic and bar support best practices.
For the first-ever post in this series, I was stuck between two choices. So, I chose both:
1. Knaplund & Sanders, The Art and Science of Academic Support, 45 J. Legal Educ. 157 (1995).
This article was one of the earliest and most robust empirical analyses of law school academic support programs. It helped ASP faculty defend the then-controversial pedagogy of "contextualized academic support" and answer the question "Why should we spend money on an ASP?"
From the introduction:
• Our analysis of seven distinct academic support initiatives at UCLA shows that support can substantially and demonstrably improve both short-term and long-term academic performance, but the effects vary markedly across UCLA's programs.
• The variation in academic effectiveness across UCLA's programs follows distinct patterns that yield definite guidance on the pedagogy of academic support.
• We found some evidence that academic support programs can have valuable benefits apart from their impact on grades.
2. Russell McClain, Helping Our Students Reach Their Full Potential: The Insidious Consequences of Ignoring Stereotype Threat, 17 Rutgers Race & L. Rev. 1 (2016).
Coupled with Professor McClain's conference presentations on this subject and a related TEDx Talk, this article was the first to analyze the phenomenon of stereotype threat specifically as it pertains to law students. It serves as a crucial resource for ASP faculty, and all others, to understand their potential in ameliorating the effects of implicit bias in the law school classroom.
From the article abstract:
A psychological phenomenon may be a significant cause of academic underachievement by minorities in law school. This phenomenon, called stereotype threat, occurs as a result of the fear of confirming a negative group stereotype.... When subject to this threat — as a consequence of being confronted with environmental or explicit triggers — people do worse in academic settings than they otherwise are capable of doing. In this article, I explore the implications of the research on stereotype threat for law schools and make several recommendations to deal with the threat.
There are natural implications for law school admissions, of course. If a portion of our applicant pool is affected by stereotype threat, then we cannot trust the accuracy of the metrics we typically use in law school admissions, i.e., prior academic performance and LSAT scores of law school applicants. Indeed, those credentials actually may under-evaluate the academic potential of these applicants, who are often minority students. This should cause law schools to reevaluate their admissions policies.
After students are admitted, law school provides fertile ground within which stereotype threat can flourish. This, of course, means that the performance of minorities in law school — in class, on exams, and in other areas — is likely to be diminished, such that many minorities will not perform up to their academic capacity. And, obviously, we would expect this same dynamic to play out on the bar exam.
Law schools can address stereotype threat at each of these levels, and they should do so. This article lays out a framework for understanding and dealing with the threat.
(Louis N. Schulze, Jr., FIU Law).
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
July 2019 bar exam results are not due to be released in New York for a few more weeks, but already here in Buffalo we have glad tidings, for one of our students took the Florida bar exam and has learned that she has passed. What a thrill! One that will soon be experienced by many others across the land.
Is there anything else that prompts the same surreal combination of pride and relief? In an instant, a person’s very definition changes. They go from not possessing a certain authority to possessing it (at least after other formalities are met). Is it any wonder that the storied Jonathan Harker, wandering alone in a foreign land and distracted by the strangeness of it all, forgot for a moment his own momentous achievement?:
What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor!
Harker’s momentary pleasure at the memory of his bar passage is soon dampened, however, by the cold foreboding of the great estate he stands before – and no wonder, for only a few minutes later he meets the master of that castle, who greets him with the words, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! . . . I am Dracula. . .”
Whatever horrors Harker had to face next, at least he had made it past the doubt and anxiety that many people feel while waiting for their bar results to be revealed. Consider the unfortunate Mitch McDeere, the latest Harvard Law graduate to be hired by the high-end Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. One autumn afternoon, Mitch is called unexpectedly into an urgent meeting:
Lambert, Avery, and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table. All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. . . . The room was quiet, almost solemn. There were no smiles. . .
“Sit down, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said gravely. “We have something to discuss with you.” . . . He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. “We’ve just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it.”
Poor Mitch immediately guesses what this is all about:
The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam. . . . He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.
“Yes, sir,” he said humbly, in defeat.
Lambert moved in for the kill. “We aren’t supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor.”
The room exploded with laughter and cheers.
Surprise! Not what Mitch was expecting. Unfortunately, Mitch’s satisfaction is nearly as short-lived as was Harker’s, for less than two pages later, in John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere meets an FBI agent who explains that the Bendini firm is mostly a front for the criminal activities of the Chicago Mob, and that attorneys who try to leave the firm always end up dead.
Dracula and The Firm were both sensationally popular novels, which suggests that there is something highly resonant about the notion of passing the ultimate test of professional ability, only to be led directly into a world of evil and mortal danger. I suspect some people enjoy the irony – He’s supposed to be so smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the King of the Undead or the Capo di Tutti Capi – and other people appreciate the moral question – Does mere intellectual knowledge even matter when a person is faced with a threat to his life and soul?
But law graduates might see yet another layer to these tales: After all this hard work to pass the bar, over three crushing years in law school and ten blistering weeks of bar preparation, is my “success” just going to take the form of an indenture to forces that seek only to exhaust my vitality to feed their own appetites? True, most attorneys do not end up working for vampires or gangsters, but even a wholesome job for a decent employer can feel like purgatory to someone whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere. When our students are no longer our students, when they have taken and passed the bar and are out there gainfully employed, is that the end of their stories?
There might be a brief frisson in thinking so. Isn’t that why people read suspense stories? But if there are two last messages we can leave our students with, they are that passing the bar is both an ending and a beginning, and that the skills they’ve learned in meeting that particular challenge will be skills they can use in meeting future challenges as well. If they can pass the bar exam, they can overcome anything – a misfit job, a toxic employer, even a threat to their lives and souls.
And Jonathan Harker and Mitch McDeere are evidence of this, because they each survive their ordeals. In both Dracula and The Firm, the heroes triumph by relying on three core competences – the same three competencies we emphasize in preparing our own students to pass the bar and to perform well in practice: knowledge of the law, application of sound personal judgment, and reliance on a network of support. Harker escapes from Dracula's castle by finding an unconventional route to freedom and judging that the risks of flight are smaller than those of remaining in place. Once he makes it back to England, he uses his legal skills to locate Dracula's hidden lairs, documented in a tangle of deeds and conveyances, and then he teams up with a band of friends to track down and eliminate the fiend and his minions. McDeere has the good sense to realize that neither the firm nor the FBI has his safety or best interests at heart, and, turning to a small group of family members of those previously hurt by the mob's activities, devises his own plan to use the legal tools he has learned to escape from the gangsters while passing along the evidence needed to bring down the Bendini firm. Sure, this is all fiction and fantasy, but fiction is often popular because it provides another way of telling a truth.
To everyone who finds out in the next few weeks that they have passed the bar examination: Congratulations, and may the rest of your life be just as successful. Know that you have the ability to make it so.
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
My inbox is crammed with pictures of pangolins. Pangolins with claws turned under walking on the ground, pangolins scaling trees, pangolin babies clinging to their mothers' backs and tails, pangolins held in the palm of a human hand, even pangolin skeletons in natural history displays.
For those of you quite as ignorant of this fascinating mammal as I was last week, the pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are the only mammals covered with sharp, protective keratin scales. The family consists of eight remaining species, four in Africa and four in Asia, some burrowing and some tree-dwelling. When threatened, they typically spray a foul substance (think of skunks) and roll into a tight protective ball like an oversized pine cone. Because pangolins typically produce only one offspring per year, don't fare well in captivity, and are extensively poached for their distinctive scales, they are among the most endangered species in the world.
So why is my inbox crammed with pangolin pictures? Because in my Academic Skills class, I want an early indication of who might need early intervention and who is already engaging in the practices of successful law students. Among my first assignments is explicitly requiring students to carefully read the syllabus. Stealing an idea from my colleague Rebekah Cudé, I embed into my syllabus a sentence telling students to send me a specific kind of picture. (Last year's platypuses were equally adorable.) When students don't send pictures in, it usually means: (a) they are not careful readers; (b) they aren't linked into a social network of information-sharing; or (c) they resist engaging in activities they feel are beneath them. Because careful, critical reading is so instrumental to success in law school and the practice of law, students who miss important information immediately garner my attention. Likewise, social isolation often foreshadows academic difficulty. Since I expect there will be some "buzz" and explicit sharing about the picture assignment, not sending a picture can be an early indication that certain students aren't linked into peer networks. Finally, I've found a correspondence between weak analysis and those who read but don't comply with directions; not complying can presage a student who easily identifies issues and spits out rules but considers the step-by-step process of careful legal analysis to be an unnecessary bother on the way to a foregone conclusion.
I also use the first weeks of the semester to give private feedback solely on the importance of following directions. Complying with directions, of course, pays dividends whether one is answering the exact call of an exam question or following the local rules in court proceedings. Especially when students go well beyond what my directions call for, they can feel somewhat aggrieved when I point out, for example, that the directions asked for a one-sentence answer but their answer was four sentences, or that the directions asked for the number of elements and their answer named the elements instead. Nevertheless, by continually tying the importance of following directions to exams and practice, the message usually gets through.
The best thing about careful reading and following directions as predictors of success is that these are factors totally within a student's control. Undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores certainly have some predictive value, but from my experience, careful reading and following explicit directions are far more powerful indicators of future success as a law student.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Years ago, as part of an effort to address bar passage issues at my school, some well-meaning professors suggested having a remedial course for lower-performing law students. In broad-brush terms, the centerpiece of the proposal was to require students to begin each class, starting from the very first day of the semester, with a timed 30-minute essay question. After students finished the timed exam, the remainder of the class period would be devoted to the instructor reviewing the question and explaining what students should have written in their answers. Merely by dint of forcing students to write essay exam answers over and over, the theory went, they would do better on law school and bar exams. But the proposed class structure neatly met the clichéd definition of insanity, by requiring students to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result just by discussing what they should have done after the fact. Fortunately, the proposal never gained traction.
This summer and fall, I'm privileged to be involved with a CLEO program for incoming law students that takes the opposite approach. The Pre-Law Summer Institute, CLEO's familiar and long-standing residential program designed to prepare diverse participants for law school, now is preceded by a 30-hour online program, Developing Law School Literacies, devoted to providing instructional intervention from the start. Designed by Penn State education professor (emerita) Dorothy Evensen and funded by a grant from LSAC, the program leans on research about reading skills conducted by academic support educators such as Rebecca Flanagan and Jane Grisé and uses pedagogy based on sociocultural theory to provide intervention from the start. Rather than trying to do tasks on their own, students in this immersion program have frequent, intensive small-group meetings with academic support professors who act as instructional mediators. By explicitly focusing the students on using the tools given for effective case reading and briefing, and by verbalizing reasoning processes, the instructional mediators help students collaborate to competently complete a legal task from the very start. Each meeting focuses on a different aspect of case reading and briefing, such as the facts, the reasoning, and the rule.
I am especially excited that this program strongly emphasizes pre-reading, which in my experience is critical to active engagement with a text. I additionally hope that my CLIC group in the fall will provide a critical mass of 1Ls experienced and enthusiastic about wrestling with cases rather than searching for a rule and moving on. Helping students get things right from the start is a very ASP-ish approach -- empowering, effective, and humanizing.
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
I choose to spend much of my precious free time in the company of friends old and new. Just in the past few weeks, I've bantered with pilots in a cockpit jumpseat at 30,000 feet, sweltered with desperadoes holed up in a moldering hotel in the East Indies, paced the deck of a British frigate with a tone-deaf captain, suffered the pounding echoes of a sacred Indian cave with an elderly English lady, fumed at the stupidity of Muggles in Little Whinging, sailed with self-styled Amazons in the English Lake District, groomed fellow primates in East Africa, confronted cynical gangsters in LA, and wandered happily through the Hundred Acre Wood with my great friend Christopher Robin.
In law school and my first few years of law practice, I neglected these friends. I foolishly thought I didn't have time for pleasure reading, and that reading fun books was a distraction from the analytical reading demanded by the study and practice of law. How wrong I was! Indeed, working in academic support has made me realize that time spent reading for pleasure enhances the study and practice of law in at least four ways:
1. Better readers are better writers, and writing is at the heart of what lawyers and law students do. Good writers read widely. As William Faulkner famously said, "Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write."
2. Reading for pleasure helps you understand human nature. Much as struggling law students would sometimes like to treat law as a mechanical matter of applying rules to fixed facts, law is complicated precisely because it tries to make sense out of the messiness of human lives. The better you understand human nature, whether the hard-bitten cynicism of Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), the introspective self-doubt of Horatio Hornblower (Ship of the Line), or the adventurous independence of Nancy Blackett (Swallows and Amazons), the better you can understand the actions, arguments, and decisions of clients, lawyers, and judges.
3. Reading for pleasure helps make you a faster, more nimble reader. Since trying to understand each word, sentence, and paragraph of a complicated legal case can be difficult, law students have a tendency to bog down, reading more and more slowly even when the passage does not demand it. While slow methodical reading has its place, good readers vary their pace according to the demands of the text. Reading strictly for pleasure, often at a rapid clip, is one of the easiest ways to retrain your brain to modify reading speed according to the difficulty of the material. I'm convinced that even fifteen minutes of pleasure reading a day pays huge dividends in increasing overall reading speed.
4. Reading just for pleasure is fun. And as Professor Steven Foster reminded us in his Labor Day post, making time for fun helps you thrive in law school -- and, I'd add, in law practice. (Nancy Luebbert)
Sunday, July 29, 2018
Summer is my opportunity to go back to books I have quickly perused on arrival from the publisher and take a more in-depth look. I attended an excellent session at AASE that was presented by Jane Bloom Grise (my apologies, but I cannot figure out how to get TypePad to do an accent over the "e" in Grise). So, I decided to pick up Jane's book Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic Publishing, 2017) for another look.
One of the strengths of the book is that it explains not only the "what" of reading strategies, but also the "why" of reading strategies. Too often new law students will focus on what they think is wanted (a case brief) without understanding why lawyers read cases, why the sections of a case brief are there, , why cases need to be synthesized, etc. This book explains court structure, parts of a brief, the basics of civil and criminal procedure, and more to give the students greater context to the importance of their reading.
Another strength is that the book compares expert legal readers to novice legal readers, top students to struggling students, and proficient competency to developing competency. The comparisons help to illustrate for student readers where they fall on these continua.
I was pleased to see that the book looks at critical reading of statutes as well as of cases. (So often statutes are left out of skills volumes as though they are afterthoughts or not needed until upper-division courses. However, statutes have been embedded in first-year courses for years and deserve coverage in books aimed at new law students.)
The book has a number of features that make it user-friendly for law students:
- It breaks down reading into before, during and after stages rather than lumping critical reading into one overwhelming process.
- It breaks down reading strategies for each stage into smaller steps, so that the reader can build incremental understanding and application.
- It includes a number of textboxes and tables to summarize the strategies visually.
- It provides exercises throughout the chapters for the student to complete (with answers at the end of the book).
- It includes an appendix of cases often seen in 1L year for use throughout the book as examples and exercises.
Notice that the title includes success beyond law school. If a law student uses these strategies to become an expert legal reader now, future practice will only enrich the skill. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Are your students struggling with reading comprehension difficulties?
Well, it might be just related to something quite surprising...the ever-increasing emphasis in on-line reading over paper-based reading.
You see, according to educational researchers in Norway, even controlling for learning differences in student populations, on-line readers statistically underperform in comparison to paper-based readers (as ascertained by test results concerning reading comprehension). Anne Mangen, et al, "Reading Linear Texts on Paper Versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension," International Journal of Educational Research, 58:61-68 (2013), available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com
According the article, at least based on my own reading of the article, there are several possible reasons for the disparate tests results between on-line readers versus paper-based readers such as:
First, on-line reading often requires scrolling, which seems to negatively impact spatial orientation of the text because it disrupts our abilities to mentally represent and recall the material.
Second (and closely related), on-line reading lacks the visual certainty of knowing where to re-locate material that one is struggling with because on-line text is fluid (with different parts of the text never occurring preciously on the same page of the screen) in comparison to paper-based texts (in which we often visually recall a certain passage from its spatial position, for example, in the upper-left hand-side of the page in the text book). In other words, paper-based readers might perform better in comparison to on-line readers because paper-based readers can more easily reconstruct a mental image, leading to more efficient recall during assessment of the material previously read. Those same clues are often lacking in on-line text presentations.
Third, on-line reading seems to impair our overall metacognition abilities (our abilities to monitor and assess our own learning) because on-line reading tends to be perceived by us -- at the outset -- as a familiar way to glean information quickly (and almost effortlessly). In contrast, paper-based reading tends to be perceived by us -- from the get-go -- as requiring much more effort on our part in order to make sense of the text, which by implication suggests that paper-based reading pushes us to better monitor whether and to what extent we are learning through our reading as we move back and forth through the text. In other words, in on-line reading, we tend to overestimate our reading abilities.
If the article's conclusions are true, then that leads us to wonder whether, the next time we see one of our students struggling with reading cases, dissecting statutes, or analyzing multiple-choice or essay problems, perhaps we should first ask about their reading. Are they primarily reading using on-line text or paper-based text? The answer to the question might just lead to a memorable breakthrough in one's success in law school.
That leads me to one final thought.
I wrote this blog trying, as best I could, to read the Norwegian article online. So, please take what I've written as a grain of salt...because...I might have well have overestimated my own metacognition of the research findings.
In fact, writing this blog has been mighty hard work on my end because it's required near-endless multi-tasking as I switched screen shots between the article and the blog. In short, I very well might have demonstrated the merit of this research based on my own, perhaps mistaken, paraphrases of the research findings. I'll let you be the judge. Just make sure you print out the article before you read it! Oh, and if you're not sure if you can recall how to read old-fashioned paper text, here's a funny video clip that'll serve as reminder: https://www.youtube.com/medevialreadinghelpdesk (Scott Johns).
Monday, October 23, 2017
It’s hard to believe that we are already heading towards the end of October. It seems like the Fall semester just started.
As the end of October approaches, many students are trying to figure out what they plan to wear for their Halloween parties. They are also trying to figure out what they need to do for the rest of the semester as well.
By now, 1Ls have heard of this “outlining” word. But, they may not fully understand what it means. They have read and briefed most of their cases, but they may not have a good grasp of how these cases link up with one another in their doctrinal classes. They may have been so focused on writing down and remembering each miniscule detail from their cases that they have neglected to see how each case from their individual doctrinal classes ties in with every other case in those classes. They may not be ready to attack a large final exam question that assesses their ability to analyze the various legal issues that they have covered throughout the semester.
As law school academic support professionals, we should be ready to assist 1L students as they negotiate the latter part of their first semester. Let’s remember that most 1Ls may not, at this point, fully understand the big picture law for each of their doctrinal subjects. Let’s remember that many 1Ls may not have fully practiced issue spotting and exam writing. Let’s be ready with a non-judgmental and empathic listening ear so that we can best serve each individual student. (OJ Salinas)
October 23, 2017 in Advice, Current Affairs, Disability Matters, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Professionalism, Reading, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, September 18, 2017
I am having an Enrichment Group Leaders training meeting today at noon. So, I have enrichment groups on my mind (hence, the blog post!). Perhaps, many of you are also working with enrichment groups or are thinking about developing enrichment groups. I am sure many of us would love to chat and learn more about our various programs and how we can continue to best serve our students. We can continue the conversation via email or on Twitter (tweet me @ojsalinas, and use #lawschoolASP).
Like many law school academic success programs throughout the country, we provide an opportunity for our 1L students to get additional training and support from upper level students. One way that we provide this opportunity to our 1Ls is through participation in Enrichment Groups.
Every 1L student at Carolina Law is invited to participate in our Academic Excellence Program Enrichment Groups. These groups are run by upper level law students who have done well in school and have shown the ability to do well in mentoring and meeting with students. 1Ls are assigned to their groups based on their 1L professors, and the groups are “tied” to two of the 1L casebook classes—with one upper level student “Enrichment Group Leader” often taking the lead on one of the two casebook classes.
The groups typically meet once a week for about 50 minutes starting late September. The groups alternate discussing ASP topics related to one of their two casebook classes during the group meetings. These topics change as the 1Ls advance during the semester. So, the initial group meeting may simply focus on developing rapport within the group and identifying group member goals for choosing to participate in the group. The next groups may focus on taking notes and case reading for the particular casebook classes. Later group meetings may introduce outlining and the use of study aids to help review practice questions related to the casebook classes. And, finally, we try to end our semester with a practice exam for each of the two casebook classes.
We generally have strong positive feedback from our 1Ls on our Enrichment Groups. Students typically feel that the groups are great ways to provide additional support and guidance in their classes. They also like the idea that these study groups are voluntary and that the groups are already formed for them—the students don’t have to worry about not getting “chosen” or “asked” to join a particular study group.
As I mentioned, I am having a training session for our Enrichment Group Leaders this afternoon. One thing that we try to emphasize with our leaders and their group participants is that the leaders are not “tutors.” They are not there to teach the 1Ls the substantive law, and they certainly don’t replace their law school professors. While the leaders have done well in the casebook class that they are “leading” (and, many of them actually had the same professor for that particular casebook class during their 1L year), our Enrichment Group Leaders are there to help facilitate learning. They are there to provide further support for our students. They are there to “enrich” the students’ 1L academic experience. And we believe a more enriched 1L experience is a better 1L experience. (OJ Salinas)
September 18, 2017 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Meetings, Miscellany, Program Evaluation, Reading, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, September 4, 2017
We just completed our first week of school at Carolina Law. Like many law students throughout the country, our 1Ls experienced their first week of Socratic classes. They read and briefed their cases. They’ve been introduced to legal citations and the hierarchy of authority. They’ve taken advantage of the free lunches provided at the various student organization meetings.
After a week of law school, many 1Ls may wonder whether they will have enough time during the day to stay afloat. They may worry that they are spending way too much time reading their cases. And despite the large amount of time that they are devoting to reading their cases, they may mistakenly fear that they are the only ones in their classroom who are not able to fully follow the various hypotheticals that their professors ask in class. They may question whether they are fit for law school.
1Ls: If you are feeling this way, remember that law school is a marathon. There may be times during the year when you feel like you have to run a little faster than normal. But, the sprint for the finish line is really not until the end of the semester when you have to answer the final exam hypotheticals.
Consider a lot of what is happening during the semester as your training for that sprint. Yes. You might falter every now and then as you train. But, don’t get discouraged. Try to learn from the misstep, and fine-tune your next step so that you continue to progress. You are just starting to develop your critical thinking muscles. You are beginning to strengthen your ability to perform legal analysis. You are establishing a foundation of stamina that will help push you through the marathon—including the sprint to the end.
Like many athletes who start a new sport season, you are in a training camp right now. And this training camp is unlike any other training camp you have experienced before. Learning how to learn the law takes time. It takes practice. It takes repetition. Keep putting in the time, because the more you practice, the better you will get. But, make sure that you are active and engaged when you are reading and studying. You can’t passively learn the law; you have to be present and in the moment. And make sure to leave some time for you to do the kinds of things that make you “You.” Law school is a big part of who you are right now. But, it is not all of you.
You will find that it will take you less time to read and brief your cases in the next few weeks. You will find that your critical thinking skills will begin to improve. You will find that your ability to synthesize rules and apply those rules to different factual scenarios will become easier and, dare I say . . . fun!
Best of luck as you continue your training! And remember you have great ASP folks at your schools to help coach you and cheer you on! (OJ Salinas)
September 4, 2017 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Orientation, Reading, Sports, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, June 5, 2017
Louis Sirico has had a recent post on the Legal Skills Prof Blog about a former law student whose vision problem caused reading difficulties. The happy ending includes a correct diagnosis years later and a new type of corrective glasses. The post can be found here.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
An interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores the research and anecdotes regarding on-line reading and learning: Does Reading on Computer Screens Affect Student Learning?
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Reading and analyzing cases are mainstays of daily life as a lawyer. Competence in these areas is critical. Law school is the place to learn these skills well. Students who only read when they will be called on or depend on canned briefs are short-changing themselves as lawyers and their clients.
Here are some tips for getting more out of cases:
- Before you begin reading the entire case, build a framework of knowledge within which to read. Do not skim the entire case, but instead ascertain key information quickly. By knowing these items, you will avoid confusion as the court lays out its reasoning.
- What court are you in? Federal/state and what level.
- What are the categories of the parties? Buyer and seller or landlord and tenant.
- What is the basic dispute? Widgets never delivered.
- What legal authorities will you be dealing with? Cases or statutes or both.
- What is the holding? Drop to the bottom of the case and find the holding which gives you the answer to the issue - the whodunit for the case.
- What is the judgment? Affirmed, reversed, etc.
- Chunk the case into natural pieces and deal with one chunk thoroughly before moving on. Read actively by focusing on a chunk and asking yourself questions about it after you read. Then write margin notes that capture the most important points for that chunk. Some of the natural chunks in a case are:
- Fact paragraphs
- Procedural history paragraphs
- Paragraphs about the same precedent
- Paragraphs about the same statutory language
- Paragraphs about the same policy
- Paragraphs giving the holding
- Judgment paragraph or sentence
- A separate concurrence
- A separate dissent
- At the end of reading the entire case, review all of your margin notes and synthesize them into the points that are most important about the case. Include the most important points in your brief.
- Some margin notes will "fall out" because of the court's preference for later discussion in the opinion.
- Or the court may have introduced a change in policy that affects the importance of earlier discussion in the opinion.
- Always think beyond the individual case that you read.
- Why did I have to read this case?
- How does this case interrelate with the other cases that I read for today?
- What does this case tell me about the subtopic/topic I am studying?
- Remember that judicial opinions are written for lawyers and casebook opinions are often edited. Lawyers read opinions with a great deal of legal knowledge and experience that you have not yet gained. The editor of the casebook may have edited out something that would help you in understanding.
- Give a paragraph three good-faith reads. If you still cannot understand it, put a question mark in the margin and move on.
- Something later in the case may help you understand the confusing paragraph. If so, go back and re-read the paragraph again.
- If you still do not understand the paragraph at the end, make a note to chat with a classmate about it. Listen carefully to class discussion for clarification. Ask the professor about it if you still do not understand and think it is an important part of the case.
- Realize that not all cases are created equal. Some cases are very dense and contain multiple issues, rules, definitions of elements, statutory interpretation, policy and more. Other cases are very narrow and contain just one brief point for you to take away.
- Editors may focus on just one aspect that they want you to pull from the case and edit out other material extraneous to that focus.
- Cases often build on one another. A series of cases may give the common law rule, definitions of several elements, exceptions to the main rule, etc. The cases work together to explain an area of law.
- Cases may build on one another to show the historical evolution of the law. If you know how the law changes over time, you learn how to argue for modifications and use policy arguments to support change.
By learning to analyze cases on two levels, you become more adept in the skills you need as a lawyer. Read for depth of understanding of the individual case. Then think about how that case can be used more broadly for understanding the legal specialty and to solve new legal problems. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, October 6, 2014
Recent studies show that reading is good for us and that reading in print is, well, even better.
To quote a recent, ahem – online publication – “reading in print helps with comprehension.”
So, what do these studies mean for law students? Law students might consider the following:
- In your Legal Research and Writing class, print out the sources, e.g., the cases and statutes, that are relevant to your assignments and that you will use to write those memos.
- Print out your notes and outlines – if you have typed them. Put these materials in binders and read them from the printed page – not on the screen.
- Reconsider using textbooks in e-book format and favor print books.
- Build in time to read for relaxation – a print book, short story, or magazine – of course.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Multitasking is a way of life for those who’ve grown up in the digital era. You might be talking face-to-face with a friend but you are also texting or checking social media. Even those of us who grew up “b.c.” (before computers) now consider multitasking an essential skill. Why simply drive somewhere when you can drive and talk to someone on the phone? We are busy. We need to multitask. We are good at it. Well, we might not be as good as we think. Research shows that when people do several things at once, they do all of them worse than those who focus on one thing at a time. Multitaskers take longer to complete tasks, make more mistakes, and remember less. In addition, research into multitasking while learning shows that learners have gaps in knowledge, more shallow understanding of the material, and more difficulty transferring the learning to new contexts.
For many, multitasking has become such the norm that you don’t even think about it, you just do it. That’s the problem—you don’t think. However, take a minute to consider why you multitask. Is there an actual need for it? No. You do it because technology has made it possible, because you want to, because meetings/classes are boring, because you don’t want to wait. This is not to say that you shouldn’t watch tv while getting dressed in the morning. But do think twice before multitasking while preparing for and during class. You don’t need to check social media while reading cases. You don’t have to check fantasy football stats during class discussion. Although switching between these tasks may only add a time cost of less than a second, this adds up as you do it over and over again. Class requires focus and multitasking distracts your brain from fully engaging with the material.
The next time you go to class, put the phone on silent and put it away, turn off the internet or shut your lap top. Then focus on the professor and what is going on in the class. The first few minutes will be tough because your brain isn’t used to focusing on one task at a time. However, it won’t take long before your brain realizes it only has to do one thing. You will concentrate more deeply and learn so much more than your classmates who are busy tweeting how bored they are, checking fantasy football stats, and not picking up the exam tip the professor just gave. (KSK)
This idea for this post came from Sara Sampson, OSU Moritz College of Law’s Assistant Dean for Information Services. She made a short presentation on this topic at orientation and was so kind to share her notes and research. Thank you!
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Students often ask how to determine which concepts in a case should end up as part of the case brief’s reasoning section. Because judges do not simply ramble in their opinions, every sentence is an important part of the reasoning that drives the opinion. Therefore, what should students capture in their case briefs?
The answer lies in one of the key purposes of briefing cases: identifying the legal principles and the logical steps that will be necessary for resolving similar issues on an exam. In other words, students should learn to brief cases the way lawyers brief them – to draw out the analytical templates courts use when addressing particular issues. In doing so, students will not only begin preparing themselves for their exams, they will accomplish the most important purpose of briefing cases: training themselves to think like lawyers and judges.
They should focus the reasoning portion of their briefs on the future. They should ask themselves which concepts will be useful to them when they are answering an exam question; those are the ones they want to capture and later put into an outline that will guide their analyses on the exams.
Below is a list of the types of concepts students should watch for, not only in the cases but also in class discussions. In fact, if they print off this list and keep it next to them when they are in class and when they are reading and briefing for class, they may find it easier to separate the important concepts from the background and case-specific concepts that will not likely drive a future analysis.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BE GETTING FROM READINGS AND CLASS DISCUSSIONS?
Key themes running through the course
Accurately stated rules
Precise understanding of the logic underlying the rules, tests, definitions, and their
corollaries and exceptions
Key policy aims underlying each rule, etc.
Essential steps in the logic of applying each rule, etc.
Critical similarities and differences among rules, among tests, etc.
Critical attributes of facts that satisfy or do not satisfy the rules, definitions, etc.
Archetypal fact patterns that implicate each rule
i.e., what dynamics are always present when a particular rule is implicated?
E.g., transferred intent in battery: one person always propels something toward another and hits a third person instead. The means could be throwing, driving, mailing, pushing, or any of a thousand other means. The dynamics always boil down to the same thing.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Global processors are always looking for the big picture, the overview, or the roadmap in learning - they want to know the essentials and the end result. Intuitive processors are curioius about concepts, abstractions, theories, and policies and seek out relationships among ideas - they are synthesis peole. When these two breadth-processing styles combine as strong preferences, the learners can sometimes assume they know a course when they only know the gist of a course.
These processors are more tempted to take shortcuts in learning: skim a case, read the canned brief, produce a cursory outline, and write conclusory memos. They often come out of exams with comments like "I guess I didn't know Torts as well as I thought." They are shocked when reviewing an exam to see that they never analyzed element three even though they knew the analysis. The analysis stayed in their heads instead of making it to the paper for the professor to grade.
Global-intuitive students tend to make mistakes on exams that stem from their breadth of learning without sufficient depth of learning, thinking, and organizing. For example, on fact-pattern essay exams, they leave out the steps of their analysis because they think the professor will know how they got from point A to point D without having to lay it out. It is true that the professor knows how to get there, but the professor needs to know that the student knows how to get there (rather than a lucky guess) to give points on the exam. On multiple-choice exams, they tend to pick by gut rather than carefully consider every answer option. Consequently, they look at the options that match their conclusion (guilty, admissible, liable) and miss the best answer that is not guilty unless, inadmissible unless, or liable only if. Alternatively, they may not know which of two better answers is best because they do not know the nuances of the law on which the question turns.
There are several ways that global-intuitive students can help themselves to develop more in-depth understanding of the law and gain more points on exams:
- Avoid shortcuts that tempt one to only know the gist of a course: canned briefs, scripts, outlines of other students.
- Spend time memorizing the precise wording of the rules, definitions of elements, and other law so that one is not fuzzy on elements, factors, variations. or other items.
- For essay exams: Write out fact-pattern essay answers instead of just thinking about them; get feedback from professors, teaching assistants, or classmates on the depth of analysis.
- For multiple-choice exams: Complete lots of practice questions and read the answer explanations in the book to learn the nuances of the law rather than just the gist of the law.
- Take the time to read, analyze, and organize an essay answer. The rule of thumb is to use 1/3 of the time for a question to do these steps and then 2/3 of the time to write the answer.
- Use a chart to organize the essay answer rather than hold information in one's head. Rows can indicate the parties to the dispute. Columns can indicate the elements or factors that need to be discussed. One can enter facts, cases to be mentioned, and policy arguments in the appropriate cells as a careful read of the fact pattern is completed.
- When writing the essay answer, change the audience one writes to - instead of writing to the professor, write the answer as though explaining the law to a non-lawyer (your cousin, grandmother, little brother). Connecting the dots is easier when writing to a lay audience.
- When writing the essay answer, ask "why?" at the end of each sentence. If an explanation for the statement is not there, keep writing and add the "because" to the sentence.
- Carefully weigh each answer choice on multiple-choice tests; look for the best answer rather than the superficially right answer.
- Slow down in exams and use all of the time given. Global-intuitives tend to finish early which often indicates that they missed smaller issues, did not fully analyze the arguments, or did not read the questions carefully enough.
Monday, April 1, 2013
Sequential processors focus on the individual units before them (cases, subtopics, topics) rather than look at the bigger picture (how these units combine into a whole). Sensing processors focus on details, facts, and practicalities rather than look at ideas or synthesis (the inter-relationships of concepts, subtopics, etc.). When these two depth-processing styles are combined in a student as strong preferences, the students can become too focused on pieces and detail and miss the broader view, inter-relationships, and policy arguments.
Several strong sequential-sensing learners have mentioned to me in the last few weeks that they feel that the only time they are focused on what really matters is when they are reading and briefing for class. When they are outlining, reviewing their outlines, or doing practice questions (all of these steps are in their weekly schedules), they fear that they are not expending their energies on what really counts.
After several of these comments came close together, I decided to step back and analyze why these issues were surfacing after I thought we had discussed what one is trying to accomplish in law school courses. I realized that for these individuals we had not yet fully formulated what one does in law school versus what one will do in one's specialty in practice.
These students saw their job in law school as learning all the law in a course so that they were ready to practice that legal area later. They had missed the fact that they are learning topics for a course (but not all of the law for that specialty) to gain critical thinking and writing skills and general knowledge to solve new legal problems (for exams). Once they are in practice, they will focus on learning all they can about their own practice area(s). However, law school does not expect that level of in-depth study; it expects familarity with a variety of areas of law and application of the concepts to new legal scenarios.
Sequential-sensing students feel more secure in preparing for class because they mistakenly think that memorizing everything about individual cases is the most important task. Because synthesis and big-picture thinking are more uncomfortable for them (especially if policy is involved), they feel less convinced that outlines, review, and practice questions are full-fledged studying.
Once these students realize that class preparation is important but not the be-all and end-all, the light-bulb comes on for them. They are still less comfortable with the synthesis and big-picture thinking that lead to application, but they can see those broader study tasks as legitimate. By releasing themselves mentally from having to know every minute detail in each case and each sub-topic and each legal area, they begin to make the transition to the additional levels of learning that will allow them to succeed on exams. They push themselves to synthsize the material and fit it into the bigger picture. They realize that practice questions assist them in this process and help them to apply the law on exams. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Reading cases takes up major blocks of time in a student's schedule. Students want to become more efficient and effective in their reading, but often do not know how because they are missing some important bits of information about the task. Here are some things that I try to point out:
- Initially as 1Ls, students will take forever to read cases - even relatively short ones - because they do not have legal context, vocabulary, and awareness of what is important. By the end of the first month of law school, however, they should see their reading times begin to come down. By second semester, they should be faster still.
- There are two reasons for reading cases. One reason is to gain an in-depth understanding of the case itself. The second is to understand how the case relates to the topic and to other cases within the topic. Both aspects need to be completed if the reading time is going to be worthwhile.
- Cases are often edited for a specific use in a casebook. At times what is edited out may cause confusion for the student reader because they do not readily understand the remaining material because of a lack of context and legal experience. Consequently, three good reads should be the limit. Then put a question mark in the margin next to the confusing section and continue reading.
- Cases are written for legal professionals and not for law students. Attorneys have experience and legal context that make cases easier to understand. Some things will not make sense to the student reader until class discussion.
- Not all cases are equal in density or importance. One case may contain multiple rules plus definitions of elements plus policy arguments. Another case may contain an exception to a rule. Yet another case may contain a definition of an element. Although length often relates to complexity, even short cases can contain a great deal of law.
- Older cases may still be good law. Some older cases are assigned - even if the law is now outdated - to show how the law evolves over time. A law student has to learn how courts reason over time, how policy may change the law over time, and how the law today may be different in a few years.
Paying attention to class discussion and the professor's observations about cases helps the student learn what that professor considers important about cases. By being patient with themselves and not expecting competence immediately, new law students can improve their case understanding and decrease reading time over several weeks. (Amy Jarmon)