Monday, January 18, 2021
It is that time of year again. Many first-year law students are anxiously awaiting grades from their first semester of law school. To all of you, I say: I hope your first semester grades are everything you want them to be.
Regardless, try to maintain perspective. Each grade is but a snapshot of your performance during a “moment” in time and, sometimes, it can feel as if there is no rhyme or reason to how each of those snapshots develop. Students who studied more may not perform as well as expected. Students who studied less may perform better than expected. The exam you thought was your best performance may end up being your worst grade. Similarly, the exam you thought was your worst performance may end up being your best grade.
Whatever your grades are, your feelings about them are valid. It is okay to feel excited about and celebrate your good grades, but do not rest on your laurels (keep doing the work). It is okay to feel frustrated or disappointed about less-than-ideal grades, but do not get stuck in that frustration or disappointment. Process your feelings and then pivot.
Your grades are not the final word on your abilities or the opportunities you will have. They are also in no way indicative of your value as a person or how great of a lawyer you will become. What matters more than a less-than-ideal grade is what you do in response, and that response can make for a great narrative of grit and resilience that you share with, among others, future employers.
If your grades are not everything you want them to be, get to work changing your reality for the spring term. Connect with your ASP faculty and/or staff to discuss your strengths and identify areas for growth, then develop a plan to expand upon the former and work on the latter. Cultivate a growth mindset. Your abilities and skills are not fixed—you can develop and refine them with practice and by leveraging your feedback. One semester of grades does not define you or dictate your story. YOU are the author of your story. Keep writing.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Eduardo Briceño and Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Sept. 12, 2017), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2017/09/12/growth-mindset-law-school-success/.
Heidi K. Brown, Law School Grades Are Not Your Story—You Are Your Story, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Jan. 9, 2020), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2020/01/09/law-school-grades-are-not-your-story-you-are-your-story/.
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of the TV series Maude that was broadcast on November 1, 1976 – the day before Election Day. Maude, the assertive main character, was trying to convince everyone to write in Henry Fonda for President. When her featherbrained neighbor Vivian asked Maude why she was in such a rush to get the idea out, Maude looked at her severely and explained that the election was happening tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?!” exclaimed Vivian. “And it seems like only yesterday it was Halloween!”
Well, today, with the results of the October bar exam barely in hand for many examinees, we have leapt right back into preparation for the February exam. Perhaps the final casualty of the Endless Summer is the strict reduction of time to process the relationship between all that happened before the exam and the results that came out of it. Individuals who just found out in late December or early January that they did not pass have had to decide very quickly whether to register for the February exam. A California repeat examinee could still register next week, with as few as 32 days left before the exam is administered. And while many states and law schools have seen an increase in bar pass rates compared to July of 2019, we have entered the February bar study period without some of the data we might ordinarily use to assess the reasons for any changes in passage rates. At least here in New York, some of the granular data about subject-matter performance on the MBE portion has not been provided, and information about statewide trends have only been reported in the most general terms. This makes it harder to determine the effects of the delay, of the changes in format and delivery, and of strategies adopted or resources provided in response.
Tomorrow is February?! It seems like only yesterday it was October!
Thus, even though the February bar exam represents a great stride towards “normalcy” in many jurisdictions – in that it will be delivered on a traditional set date, with typical full UBE content – this will still be an unusual administration, affected by ripples of the pandemic. Some repeat examinees will be facing a compressed study period, although I have observed that a least a portion of them, perhaps spurred to greater-than-normal pessimism under the circumstances, began preparing prophylactically even before scores were announced. In any case, those of us who work with repeating graduates may be asked to provide additional support.
More frustrating to me is having to determine what aspects of the support provided to our examinees over the five months between graduation and the October bar would be most advantageously replicated over the next two months. The extended prep period was, I felt, grueling for all involved, but it provided time and motivation for examinees and teachers alike to try new strategies. Based on our results, some of these strategies appear to have beneficial. But which ones? And are they replicable between now and the end of February, or were they successful because, and not in spite of, the long stretch of time before the October administration? Without all the information I wish I had, this feels in some ways similar to what many of us had to do this summer: reacting to a novel situation without certainty, and ending up (very likely) relying in part on intuition and extraordinary effort.
Hopefully, knock on wood, fingers crossed, things won't feel this way come summer 2021. For now, the one thing I am fairly certain played an important part in my examinees' performance that is likely replicable now was the increased sense of camaraderie and support that they reported as a result of the very high-touch summer and fall. With so many changes so frequently, and with unbelievable levels of anxiety among bar studiers (who on the whole are not typically known for tranquil, detached attitudes), I initiated what would turn out to be bi-weekly (or more frequent) Zoom meetings to pass along news, share strategies, and provide opportunities for feedback. Already feeling isolated by the pandemic, the students reported that these meetings helped them feel connected to each other and to the school, and it appears they took more advantage of the resources we made available (including lots of one-on-one meetings with me). This was kind of a form of intrusive counseling. It seems to have worked, at least under those recent conditions, which in some ways are still ongoing. So, while I am still hoping to develop more clarity about how other specifics contributed to examinees' performance, this is one lesson I took from yesterday that I can apply today to help my examinees prepare for tomorrow.
Monday, December 7, 2020
Law students seeking to avoid unnecessary stress and maximize learning opportunities should consider adopting a modified Vegas rule during the exam period. In the law school exam context, this rule is simple: Take the wisdom, Leave the substance (Take the “W” and Leave the “S”).
Each law school exam provides an opportunity to become a better exam taker. Students experience firsthand the challenges of effectively managing their time, ordering issues, outlining responses, and applying rules to a new set of facts. Do not ignore the wisdom to be gained from each exam experience. Instead, identify the lessons to be learned, and commit to practicing and refining your skills and/or exam-taking strategy as needed before the next exam.
Once you have completed an exam, do not discuss the substance of it with anyone during the exam period. If someone tries to engage you in such a discussion, politely decline. Walk away, leave the chat, step away from the video call. Do not talk substance, do not collect anxiety. Nothing good comes from rehashing the substance of your exam with your peers (and it may run afoul of your law school’s honor code). Almost invariably, someone will have “spotted” an issue that you “missed.” As you sit and listen, second-guessing your answer, anxiety levels rise and confidence levels fall. In reality, that issue you “missed” may not have really been an issue at all. The damage that discussion can do to your confidence and focus, however, is very real. Keep your eyes forward and on the prize.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Congratulations for making it to the end of the semester. Many law schools adjusted the schedule to finish prior to Thanksgiving, so they finish this week. Others planned a normal semester and will finish over the next couple weeks. As you finish, I encourage you to take pride in your accomplishment and rest. Everyone at the law school needs it.
To the students, you all are amazing. Second and third-year students completed another semester in unusual circumstances. The fear of catching coronavirus combined with the social strife would make anything difficult, and you all did it during law school. I am biased, but I believe law school is one of the most difficult mental journeys possible. Great perseverance.
First-year students embraced a challenge even they couldn't have predicted. Combine the uncertainty, demands, and normal first year challenges with the climate, and many wouldn't make it. You did it. Great job.
For the faculty. You all made the best of a difficult situation. Whether teaching over zoom, in smaller classes, twice the sections to keep sections small, or regular classes with the fear of section wide spreading, you made it work. Veteran professors turned years of routine into a new experience in a matter of months. It was a huge undertaking and accomplishment.
Deans and Associate Deans, I can't even imagine. Constant policy changes by Universities combined with daily changes in community spread within cities made planning anything impossible. I would have pulled the last remaining hair out in September. Great job.
Last, but closest to my heart, ASPers. You rock. You also made massive changes to classes, while also figuring out how to conduct all your normal individual meetings without risking your health.. You planned voluntary workshops and bar prep to reach everyone even though some of you were locked out of buildings or couldn't use classrooms. Amazing work.
All of you made it through a difficult semester. Many of you did it from your living room while homeschooling your kids, or at least making sure they didn't burn down the house, write on too many walls, etc. Do not discount the effort this semester required. Everyone, yes everyone, needs a pat on the back and then, rest. When the semester is over for you, take days (plural) off. Enjoy something safe you haven't been able to indulge in during the semester. Rejoice because you made it. The break will get you ready for next semester. You deserve it.
Saturday, November 21, 2020
Many of us try to help students with imposter syndrome. A colleague from CALI (Hat tip to Deb Quentel) passed along an article about imposter syndrome in the classroom. Check it out here.
Thursday, November 12, 2020
In general, I don't believe in show and tell lectures. In particularly, I'm not convinced that a few powerpoint presentations about the benefits of mindfulness or positive growth mindsets can make much of a difference in academic performance. But, I do believe in the power of show, tell, and do experiences in changing lives for the better. And, there's research out of California funded in part by AccessLex to support my supposition.
As previously detailed, a brief intervention focused on belonging can make a big impact on undergraduate academic performance, especially for underrepresented minorities. Be-Long-Ing! It's Critical to Success (Oct. 3, 2019). Now, researchers in partnership with the State Bar of California and funding from AccessLex have expanded that work to the field of bar licensure. https://mindsetsinlegaleducation.com/bar-exam/
The brief 45-minute online program was made available to all bar takers for both the July 2018 and July 2019 California bar exams. Id. Interested bar applicants were able to freely sign-up for the program, which was timed to coincide right before bar preparation studies began. "The program include[d] an introductory film, stories from prior test takers, and a writing activity in which participants share[d] insights and strategies that m[ight] be useful to them and to future test takers." Id. In their research, the authors controlled for traditional bar performance predicators (LSAT and LGPA) along with psychological factors, demographic factors, and situational factors to evaluate whether the brief 45-minute intervention yielded statistically beneficial improvements in bar exam outcomes. Id.
According to a summary of the findings, "[t]hose who completed the full program and thereby received the full treatment saw their likelihood of passing the bar exam rise by 6.8-9.6%. Among all people who passed the bar after completing the program and thereby receiving the full treatment, one in six would have failed the bar if they had not participated in the program (emphasis in original)." Id. Significantly, as stated more completely in an article by the researchers, "[t}he program particularly helped applicants who were first-gen college students and underrepresented minorities, according to our analyses." Quintanilla. V., et al., Evaluating Productive Mindset Interventions that Promote Excellence on California’s Bar Exam (Jun. 25, 2020).
In finding evidence in support of the program, the authors posited a possible social-psychological explanation for the promising results:
"The California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program was designed to improve passage rates by changing how applicants think about the stress that they encounter and the mistakes that they make when studying for the exam. Our initial analyses of the effect of the program on psychological processes suggest that the program worked as intended, by reducing psychological friction. Participants appear to have succeeded in the face of stress, anxiety, and mistakes by adopting more adaptive mindsets. They moved from a stress-is-debilitating mindset to a stress-is- enhancing mindset. They learned to reappraise the anxiety they experienced. And they shifted toward meeting mistakes with a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset." Id.
As I understand the research, the researchers provided bar takers with research about tactics to turn stressors from negatives into positives and engaged bar takers in implementing those strategies. In my opinion, a primary reason why the intervention was so promising rests with the last step of the intervention, in which bar takers took positive action to help future bar takers, by having bar takers write letters to future takers sharing their experiences in learning to transform frictions into pluses.
In short, the intervention empowered people to make a difference, not just for themselves, but also for future aspiring attorneys. That's a wonderful win-win opportunity. And, there's more great news. The researchers are looking for additional participants to expand the program to other jurisdictions. For details, please see the links in this blog. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, November 4, 2020
In our world of Academic Support and Bar Prep, we often say that someone is “Asp-ish” when we want to compliment one of our own. Someone is ASP-ish if they are collaborative, supportive, and embrace things like growth mindset. Someone who is ASP-ish shares ideas, hesitates to take sole credit, is rarely ego driven, and thinks of themselves as a part of a team, not a solo player.
There is a relatively new show put out by AppleTv, “Ted Lasso”, about an American Football Coach from Kansas (Jason Sudeikis) who is hired to coach an English Premier League Football Team, AFC Richmond. He has never been to England and never played English Football, so that’s where the shenanigans begin.
While watching this with my very British husband, it occurred to me even though Ted is a football coach (and a football coach!) if he made a career change and started teaching Academic Support at a law school, we would definitely embrace him, and say he was very ASP-ish. Not only that, I think we can learn some lessons from him! In fact, I’m not the only one, you can find multiple articles from various fields about things we can learn from Ted about management and leadership.
Also, I tried to keep this spoiler free, but couldn’t do it. So, read at your own risk! Spoilers below! (And if you haven't seen it, go watch now, as it's a great way to relieve stress, and you probably need that)
Ted leads with collaboration and team work, something that we can all agree is at the heart of ASP. In fact, one of the first things he does is push his desk up against the desk of his assistant coach, the aptly named Coach Beard. This is presumably done so they can talk more and collaborate more effectively. He also listens to those that have more expertise than he does. In the beginning, he even lacks the correct vocabulary, but happily lets Coach Beard correct him and teach him.
Moreover, he doesn’t let hierarchy get in the way of good ideas. He meets Nathan, a “lowly” kit boy, who it seems is in charge of things like laundry and pitch maintenance. Despite Nathan’s lack of any credentials, Ted is quick to not only show him respect, but ask for and value his opinion.
In fact, Ted’s major coaching philosophy seems to be to lift up and support those around him. One of my favorite lines is the team owner asking Ted “do you believe in ghosts, Ted?” and Ted responding “Hmm mm, I do, but more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves” This sort of sums up Ted’s entire personality. Not only does he ask for Nathan’s name, which is something Nathan seems shocked by when he says “no one has ever asked before”, but Ted is insistent that he is part of the team. When Nathan has an idea for a play, Ted encourages him and uses it. He also has no problem sharing credit, explaining to the local reporter, “Trent Crimm, The Independent” that the play was courtesy of Nathan. The reporter is a bit incredulous that a premier league coach would listen to a “kit boy”, but Ted is unphased. He knows that someone doesn’t need to have credentials to have good ideas, and he also knows that those with higher credentials need to give credit to and support those without. In fact, when facing a team that Richmond hadn’t beaten in 60 years he lets Nathan take over the pregame speech, and by this point, the entire team is embracing Nathan’s ideas. Finally, in the very last episode, Ted makes sure Nathan is promoted to Coach! This is something our entire community does well – lift each other up and share credit!
It’s also clear that Ted is all about Growth Mindset, Resilience and Grit. When we first meet Ted, he is on a plane, on his way to London, and a kid comes up to him, excited to meet him. The kid can’t believe what Ted is about to do, and says “You're mental mate, they’re going to murder you.” in reference to coaching a team for a sport he has never played. Ted’s only response is “Yea, I’ve heard that before, but here I am, still dancing.” I love this mindset, and can only hope to learn how to keep dancing from Ted. There is also a great thruway line in the first episode, when Ted is learning the terminology of English Football “I’m going to get it though, because training makes perfect.” Finally, at one point, after a frustrating day, he says “I’m not sure what y’all’s smallest unit of measurement is, but that’s how much headway I made”. The response of the owner is just “and yet you remain undeterred”, which is often how we must all approach academic support. We often feel like we make no headway, yet must keep no dancing.
The overreaching arc of Ted is that growing as individuals, and as a team, is more important than the score. “For me success is not about the wins or losses, it’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves, on or off the field.”
First, he recognizes that players need to be supported to be their best. He recognizes that one player, who is new to England from Nigeria, isn’t playing his best because he’s a bit homesick and adjusting. His solution is not to tell him to suck it up or be an adult, but rather to throw him a birthday celebration and create a care package that includes food from Nigeria. Also, instead of immediately talking to players about training, or game strategy, he asks them to put suggestions in a box, and assures them it can be things like water pressure or snacks.. And in fact, he immediately fixes the subpar water pressure, which seems to be a problem the team has dealt with for some time. He recognizes that these things might be small, but the players need to feel listened to and heard. He also genuinely wants to know everyone’s story. Similarly, I think we often lead the charge in listening to our students needs, even If they are minor.
When he does have to correct players, he doesn’t yell or mock, he is kind. He leads with warmth and understanding, and positive reinforcement. In fact, in one episode, his captain, an aging super star, had a particularly bad game where mistakes were made. The captain, Roy, says “Can you just tell me I F***ed up and go?” and Ted says he’s not going to do that, and he doesn’t want to hear the self pity. He also encourages him to go easy on himself.
He also uses his team leaders to encourage other players, much the way we might use peer tutors, or recent alumnae to encourage bar takers. He notices that a couple younger players are constantly picking on Nathan. Instead of yelling at the players himself, which is recognizes could make the situation worse, he makes his Captain, Roy, do it. However, he leads Roy to this conclusion, which makes the lesson stick for both Roy, and the players giving Nathan a hard time. I think we often look for ways to encourage our students to come up with answers themselves, for this exact reason.
Finally, Ted Lasso bakes. Anyone who has been around me in person knows that I can’t relate to bribing co-workers and students with baked goods.
However, it’s not all warm and fuzzy. Ted, despite being mostly a ray of positivity, is still human, just like us. He has real problems, and in one scene is depicted going through a very realistic panic attack. Moreover, there is one episode, near the end, where Ted doubles down on how he doesn’t measure success by wins and losses. In a rare show of anger, Coach Beard, screams that of COURSE wins and losses matter. He reminds Ted that these are professional athletes, not children, and wins and losses matter for their career and livelihood.
Similarly, I think we all find this balance between growth and grades a bit difficult. We want to reassure our students that grades don’t matter, because it’s the learning that’s important. But we know better. Grades matter for job prospects, and passing the bar is important for job prospects. Especially when dealing with first generation and underrepresented students who may have few or no connections, and need to rely on their performance, of COURSE it matters. Maybe it shouldn't, but that's the current reality.
But, we can still teach and lead with kindness and compassion, and learn from Ted about how to be more ASP-ish. And if you are looking for a stress free tv binge, Ted Lasso has comedy, heart, romance, and some really well wounded and kick-butt female characters!
Monday, November 2, 2020
Elections have consequences. As we sit on the eve of an election, Teaching the 2020 Election: What Will You Do on Wednesday?, provides helpful suggestions about how to engage and support students after November 3. In addition to articulating several guiding principles, the article also links to resources for educators looking to situate themselves, and better prepare to facilitate and navigate difficult conversations after Election Day.
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
This is a scary time of year – a time of growing cold and darkness. The terror of the unknown, of loss and calamity. The young ones, they don masks – smiles or stoic glares – to hide their fear. They binge on the distracting delight of sweets. But the elders know. It is the time of the season. Days are shorter. Workloads are increasing. Midterm grades are coming in. Soon it will be winter, and with winter come final exams. Minds once lit and warmed by the excitement of a new school year are feeling fatigued and worn, craving respite, giving in to torpor. And the sleep of reason breeds monsters:
Witches: Dazzled by the apparent power of the esoteric words wielded by the great jurists of the past, these students become convinced that the path to glory is paved with sorcerous phrases. They fill notebook after notebook, or thumb drive after thumb drive, with quotations of passages from lectures and cases and textbooks, daring not to cut a single word, sparing not the time for reflection or comprehension, merely hoping that they when they need it most, they will choose the right magic portion to make their professors fall in love with their essays.
Ghosts: These poor souls are caught between worlds and have not found a way to move on. In a former life, they were happy and successful. Maybe this one was a college student, coasting through noteless classes on innate brilliance and heady all-nighters. Maybe that one had prospered at work, a wizard with people and systems but never paying too much attention to the written word. Perhaps another one came from a truly different world – another country, another culture, another field of study – where things just work differently. We must all pass through the veil of law school admission and climb the stairway to replevin, but a few of us are held back, tethered to our pasts.
Werewolves: The most unexpected of all monsters, these accursed brutes look and act like happy-go-lucky, indifferent law students . . . most of the time. But every month or so, as the glare of an impending exam or deadline grows increasingly full, they undergo an uncontrollable metamorphosis! Their mild-mannered calm deserts them, and they howl like beasts as they despair over the seemingly impossible task before them. Raving overnight in the darkness, they may teeter on incomprehensibility until the magic hour finally passes, and, exhausted, they tumble into bed – awakening the next day with no apparent memory of the horror they are thus doomed to repeat.
Zombies: Once ordinary scholars, these creatures have been blighted (some say through contact with other zombies) and are now driven by a single impulse: BRAAAAAAINS! MUST HAVE BRAAAAAINS! Their every conscious (term used loosely) moment is devoted to consuming books, lectures, outlines, practice tests, flash cards, supplements, mnemonics, YouTube videos, omega-3 fatty acids, and biographies of Supreme Court Justices. And they will pick at their professors’ brains if they can. They have little time for other sustenance and none for camaraderie.
Vampires: The wampyr is a tragic being, at once part of the human world and cleaved from it. Rarely seen in daylight, it hides in the dark corners of the classroom, feeding off the thoughts and words of others, but fading, like a mist, when its own opinions are sought. The vampire does not project an image, so it can be seen neither in mirror nor in Zoom class. What keeps it from the fellowship of humanity? Is it anxiety? Indifference? Misunderstanding? Perhaps this spirit feels that it is the one who is misunderstood.
Yes, this is the moment to meet the mysterious menagerie! And you might fear, as Ichabod Crane discovered, that a teacher is no match for a spectral fiend. But remember, every monster is merely a suffering human. We do what we can to restore them. We teach the witches that the power they seek is not in the words, but in what they can learn to make with them. We show the ghosts how to take the best parts of their old lives with them as they rise to face their new ones. We help the werewolves release themselves from their curse by breaking the waxing and waning cycle of rising anxiety and falling productivity, through the mystical art of tempus administratione. We demonstrate to the zombies the benefits of a more balanced diet, one enhanced with practical experience, meaningful relationships, proper recreation, and appropriate amounts of fiber. We reach out to the vampire, drawing it into the light, the better to see what is keeping it at bay and to see to what degree they bring an affliction to school, and to what degree the school imposes an affliction on them.
Happy Hallowe’en to all!
“There is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures--provided we will but take a joke as we find it.” – Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Friday, October 9, 2020
Mental Health is an important topic for everyone, especially law students. The statistics about the severity of mental health issues in the legal profession are astounding. You can check those out at daveneefoundation.org. A great resource offered by Nina Farber at Boston College is Wakeful Wednesdays. I encourage everyone to attend her sessions.
Here's the information on Wakeful Wednesdays:
Please join the Academic and Student Divisions of the Mindfulness in Law Society for Wakeful Wednesdays:
- Who: Law students from any law school in the United States are welcome. No need to join MILS, although why not? Membership is free to law students!
- What: A 15 minute meditation, led by Academic Division Co-chair, Nina Farber, followed by 15 minutes to share wellness tips and ask questions.
- When: Every Wednesday from 5:00 - 5:30 p.m. (eastern time), beginning Wednesday, October 21, 2020
- Where: On Zoom, please use the link on the MILS Website to join.
Monday, October 5, 2020
Trauma is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening[,] and that has long-lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With the pandemic, resulting recession, and ongoing social unrest stemming from racial injustice, if the year 2020 doesn’t fit this definition, I’m not sure what does. I am navigating a lot right now. We are all navigating a lot right now. There is so much uncertainty in the world and many of us have been socially isolated for more than six years months. Though trauma is centered in an individual’s experience, I think it’s safe to say that current circumstances represent trauma for many folks.
Many of my students seem to be faking it until they can make it taking the current situation in stride (at least on the outside). However, I have found myself wondering how well they are really doing with focus, learning, and managing any stress, fear, and anxiety they may be feeling. I also keep thinking about what else I can do to help them. In seeking resources responsive to this moment in history, I stumbled upon several articles about trauma-informed teaching and learning.
Trauma-informed teaching prioritizes helping students feel safe, seen, empowered, and connected. This approach recognizes that, because of the current convergence of crises, students may have more difficulty: completing tasks; finding the motivation to complete reading assignments, “show up” to class, and participate in class discussions; completing writing assignments; effectively managing their time; and, more generally, staying engaged with their legal education. If you’re looking for ways to provide additional support for students during these difficult times, consider the following trauma-informed teaching practices:
- Work to create safety for your students. Think about what makes you feel safe when you feel most vulnerable or are facing uncertainty, and consider sharing your vulnerability. Be honest with students about how you have been affected by current circumstances and tell them how you are doing. By naming your emotions in this way, you are modeling for students that it is healthy to share and process emotions in a community setting. Accordingly, ask your students how they are doing and solicit their thoughts on how you can create a feeling of safety for them in your course. Suggest that they journal as an outlet to express their feelings and create/offer a space for students to share if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Foster relationships and facilitate peer support. Relationships are a key to resilience. Encourage students to check on one another, if they are comfortable doing so, and promote storytelling. The act of sharing their stories with their peers can help students better cope because it creates a feeling of shared experience and fosters a sense of community.
- Create a sense of trustworthiness and transparency. Be clear, transparent, and reliable in interacting with students. Creating and maintaining trust can help lessen stress and anxiety. Adopt and adhere to routines to create some level of predictability for students.
- Empower voice and choice. Validate and normalize student concerns by talking to students about fear, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Empower students who may feel a diminished sense of control to advocate for themselves. Ask their opinions, survey them about how you can help them learn during these difficult times, and brainstorm ways for students to play a role in creating or structuring assignments.
- Understand that students are not a monolith. View student challenges through the lens of intersectionality. We are all trying to navigate the trauma of 2020. However, not all of our students are experiencing this trauma in the same way or to the same degree. Many BIPOC students, for example, may be experiencing trauma much more severely because of intergenerational trauma, ongoing oppression, and structural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Interrupt microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions are a daily source of traumatic stress for students with marginalized identities. Commit to learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions in your classroom. Navigating multiple crises and online learning as a law student is traumatic enough.
- Emphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. Share your passion for teaching, learning, etc. with students and invite them to reconnect with their sense of purpose.
- Re-emphasize concepts and scaffold. Trauma can affect law students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which means they may have a more difficult time planning, remembering, and focusing. Consider providing more reminders about dates and deadlines, what was covered in prior classes, and how it connects to what students are learning next. Build these additional guideposts into your syllabus, learning management system, class meetings, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for us to also prioritize care for ourselves. Doing this work, in addition to everything else we’re trying to navigate in 2020, is not for the weary. In addition to adapting and adopting trauma-informed practices to better support students, we must also carve out time to unplug, unwind, and de-stress. We and our students will be better for it.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Mays Imad, Seven Recommendations for Helping Students Thrive in Times of Trauma, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.
Natalie B. Milman, Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should), Educ. Week, Apr. 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-informed-teaching-remotely.html.
Beth McMurtie, What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?, Chron. Higher Educ., June 4, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2020-06-04.
Kara Newhouse, Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, KQED, Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning.
 BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Around this time of year, I usually end up telling my 1L students something about my experience in law school. I inadvertently chose what, in retrospect, seemed like the best way to become an attorney: After working as a paralegal for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world of law), getting married and living in Japan for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world in general), I thought that Georgetown's evening program looked really appealing, because it would allow me to work and earn money during the day and not drag my wife with me into the penurious life of a student. I wasn't wrong about that, but that did not turn out to be the greatest benefit to the evening program, or even in the top three.
What hadn't occurred to me before I arrived in D.C. was what the rest of the evening program class would be like. Georgetown can support a substantial evening program because Washington is full of people who have done well in government, the military, business, or the arts and now want to take the next step in their career. If the informal reckoning of our evening cohort of 125 students was correct, there was only one of us who came directly from college. The day program, four times larger, had a more traditional proportion of recent undergraduates. Going to school with classmates who had essentially all achieved some measure of success already meant that our program felt different in three momentous ways:
1) Less stress and competition. Not that we were stress-free; this was, after all, law school. Most of my evening classmates had full-time jobs, like I did, and some were in demanding positions that took up more than 40 hours per week. Our law school commitments were lessened in the part-time evening program (so it took us all 4 years to graduate), but still, it could be a pretty heavy load. Nevertheless, there was almost no undercurrent of shared anxiety, and the kind of ruthless competition that I had expected in law school never materialized. (In my 2L year, when I became a Fellow in the legal writing program and worked directly with the school librarians, they told me how much they enjoyed working with the evening students because they never pilfered reserve books or sabotaged assigned reading the way that the day students did.) One of my classmates had a theory about this. He suggested that it was easier for us evening students not to stake our whole sense of self-worth on some grade on an exam, because most of us had proven ourselves in other arenas. This made sense to me; it meant it was easier for us to see grades as measures of our personal progress, rather than as a way of sorting us by value.
2) More organization and efficiency. I know that I was roughly one hundred times a better student, practically, in law school than when I was in college. Part of it was simply forced by necessity: If you work from 9 to 5, then attend classes from 5:45 to 9 or 10 each weeknight, you really don't have a lot of room in your schedule for futzing around. But some of it was the shared culture of the evening program, in which not only did we all face the same issue, but also nearly all of us had developed methods of calendaring and prioritizing in the workplace. Some of us had spouses or even children that had to be fit into our schedules. Knowing that it all could be done, because we had had to do much of it before in our jobs, made it more manageable in law school. Furthermore, we all understood how valuable each other's time was, so the time we spent together in study groups, on joint projects, or in student organizations was also spent efficiently (but also quite pleasantly -- see "less competition", above).
3) More collegiality. By which I do not mean "friendliness"; the day students that I met then, like the students I work with now, were at least as amiable and as good company as my evening companions. But time away from school, in many cases working with more seasoned co-workers on a first-name basis or even with equal status, had bestowed upon most evening students the realization that everyone in the law school -- classmates, professors, administrators, employees -- could be seen as colleagues: people with whom you are striving towards a common goal. Thus, evening students were often less reluctant, and more comfortable, than day students in seeking help or offering suggestions.
The reason I bring up my experience with my 1L class is to point out to them that you don't need to be an evening student to enjoy these beneficial distinctions. They might have come more naturally to those in my program -- certainly to the program as a whole -- because of our previous life experiences, but that doesn't mean that these benefits are only available to those of a certain age or background. What matters are attitude, awareness, and mindset. A student who is in touch with her previous accomplishments, and can ground her sense of self-worth on them, will find it easier to see grades as personal touchstones rather than signifiers of inherent worth. A student who accepts both that his available time is limited (which is merely a matter of thoughtful perception) and that he has the capacity to get done what needs to be done in that limited time (which is perhaps a bit more of a leap of faith) will find the ways he needs to be efficient. And by recognizing that they are attending a professional school whose common goals include each student's successful education, students can position themselves to take full advantage of all the human resources around them. Experience is a good teacher, but sometimes learning from other people's experience is even better.
Monday, September 21, 2020
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is the mythical land where the vast majority of your productivity resides. Tomorrow is when you fully unlock and harness all of your motivation and efficiency. Tomorrow you will get everything done. In truth, tomorrow will come but the enhanced productivity, efficiency, and motivation you anticipate may not.
Putting off tasks until tomorrow is a common form of procrastination and procrastination hinders one’s ability to allocate work and manage time effectively. One of the most challenging aspects of law school (and one of the most important skills for law students) is time management. At any given time, law students may be juggling class preparation, writing assignments, extracurricular activities, networking events, interviews, personal commitments, etc. Effective time management is essential to keeping each of those balls in the air.
Here are a few strategies to avoid procrastination and make the hypothetical productivity, motivation, and efficiency of tomorrow a reality today:
- Commit to timeliness. Commit to being on time to class, work, events, etc. Commit to timely completion of assignments. Set deadlines and keep them.
- Start today. Starting is often the hardest part. If you find yourself waiting or searching for the “perfect” time to start, remember that there is no perfect time. Since procrastination involves delaying doing something, the most direct way to stop procrastinating is to start. By starting today, you will put the most difficult part of the task behind you.
- Find your motivation. If you’re searching for motivation to complete a task, try reminding yourself why the task is important and how it connects to your goals.
- Break large projects into smaller pieces. This practice enables you to better allocate your workload and makes those larger projects seem less intimidating. Think of these as mini-goals and create deadlines for completing each smaller task. The feeling you get from accomplishing these smaller tasks can motivate you to keep going.
- Convert items on your to-do list that are likely to induce procrastination into blocks of time on your calendar. Blocking time for these tasks on your calendar transforms them from the indefinite to the definite and represents a commitment to yourself that you will “show up” to work on those tasks. It also serves as a visual cue and a reminder of your priorities as you navigate your daily schedule.
- Make the tasks you need to complete more fun. For instance, if you need to clean and only have 20 minutes, set a timer for 20 minutes and see how much you can get done before the timer sounds. You may not get it all done, but the process becomes more fun and you will probably come away with ideas about how to be more efficient the next time you clean.
- Reward yourself for creating and meeting your deadlines. Reward yourself when you resist the urge to procrastinate, complete one of your mini-goals, complete a task on your calendar, etc. Rewards help reinforce the behavior you want to repeat.
- Find an accountability partner. Choose someone you like and trust (and who likes and trusts you) to fill this role. Share your goals with that person, discuss the specifics of your partnership, and plan accountability check-ins.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Monday, September 14, 2020
Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfect as unacceptable.” Perfectionism and its status as something to which we should aspire is introduced early and often. We think that if we look perfect, act perfect, and are perfect then we can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.
In reality, perfectionism is an anchor that drags us down and keeps us from reaching our true potential. The quest for perfection is an exercise in futility. Perfection is a matter of opinion. Aspiring to be perfect means we are prioritizing the perceptions of others over our perception of self. Rather than aiming to be the best version of ourselves (OUR best), we are instead focused on making someone else believe we are THE best.
Many law students, as perpetual high achievers, have perfectionist tendencies that existed long before law school. However, the hyper-competitiveness of the law school environment and law students’ propensities to compare themselves to their peers make law students particularly susceptible to intensified perfectionist tendencies. These tendencies can have significant negative consequences that affect academic performance:
- Lower productivity: The quest for perfection makes every task seem more daunting and time intensive. The average law student spends in excess of 50 hours per week completing law-school related tasks. Students who have difficulty transitioning from one task to the next until a task is “perfect” will likely remain stalled. For instance, the desire to complete the “perfect” course outline may occupy so much of a student’s time that the student is left with little, if any, time left to complete a critical mass of practice exam questions.
- Procrastination: Much like Forrest Gump and Jenny, perfectionism and procrastination go together like peas and carrots. Exceptionally high standards can be difficult (perhaps even impossible) to meet which leaves students feeling so overwhelmed that they defer completing tasks.
- Reduced confidence: Perfectionism is a confidence killer. We are imperfect beings who make mistakes. Law students are imperfect human beings who are developing their skills. Mistakes will happen—as will growth. For perfectionist law students, making a mistake or receiving feedback that they need to further develop a skill can crush their self-esteem and confidence. It may keep them from trying new things or speaking up in class for fear that they won’t be perfect. Students may also base their self-worth on their academic achievements and see instances of perceived failure not as opportunities for growth but, instead, as evidence that they are a failure.
- Lethargy & Anxiety: The quest for perfection is exhausting! The vicious cycle of setting impossibly high standards, trying to meet them, feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating, not meeting those standards, and then trying to manage anxiety while dusting oneself off to try all over again is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining.
Fortunately, there are several helpful strategies for managing perfectionist tendencies. Here are some suggestions:
- Be kind to yourself. Rather than being your greatest critic, try being your greatest coach or ally. Record those negative thoughts and then reframe them in a kinder, more compassionate way. Replace negative thoughts and damaging self-talk with words of encouragement.
- Cultivate your authenticity. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. We are all made of strength and struggle. You, imperfections and all, are enough. In fact, those imperfections are what make you uniquely and authentically you.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Your strengths and skills are not set in stone. You are a work in progress. Use feedback to improve your skills and identify the lessons to be learned from perceived setbacks. Focus on being YOUR best.
- Note triggers for and manifestations of your perfectionist tendencies and plan for how to manage those situations.
- Break larger projects into more discrete tasks to better manage your workload and stress.
- Set reasonable time limits for completing tasks and do your best to stick to those limits. Once that time is up, move on to the next task.
- Remember that the law is messy. Facts do not always align neatly with case law. Case law is not always clear. There often is no one “right” or “perfect” answer.
Managing perfectionist tendencies requires intentionality and practice. And, as we all know, practice makes progress.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 49–76 (2010).
Jordana Alter Confino, Reining in Perfectionism, ABA Law Practice Today, Jan. 14, 2019, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/reining-in-perfectionism/.
Keriann Stout, How Perfectionism Hurts Law Students, Above The Law, Feb. 26, 2018, https://abovethelaw.com/2018/02/how-perfectionism-hurts-law-students/.
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
A sharp sense of time has always been a key attribute of successful modern law students and lawyers. Awareness of deadlines, efficient time management, careful accounting of time spent -- all of these contribute to law school performance, and are usually part of a practicing lawyer's quotidian world of minimum billable hours and filing periods.
How unsettling, then, that many of our incoming, current, and recent students find themselves adrift in the time stream. New 1L students in many jurisdictions, starting their legal educations under conditions that have limited orientation activities and warped customary fall semester schedules, are not falling as easily into the clockwork demands of law school as other students have every year before them. Second- and third-year students have already been through six months of time-shifted classes and unwinding employment and internship opportunities, and are beginning a new school year very different from what they had experienced before. And around the country, many recent graduates (such as mine) have grown simultaneously complacent and anxious as their planned bar examinations have been postponed multiple times. Many students and graduates appear to take this all in stride, but it seems a significant number are manifestly affected -- falling behind on long-term projects, working with a diminishing sense of urgency or an inflated sense of panic, or having difficulty juggling responsibilities.
It feels as if the unexpected loss of schedules and signposts that so many took for granted has left some people unmoored, warping their senses of time in the same way that isolation and darkness affects cave explorers. In 1993, for example, sociologist Maurizio Montalbini spent a full year alone in an underground cavern, but because the solitude and lack of natural light had stretched his sense of time, he believed that only a little more than 200 days had passed.
Human beings need cues to help keep our sense of time on track. In a new situation, or one that has changed drastically, we may not perceive sufficient cues to keep us oriented, and we may not even be aware that we are slipping. We can help our students and recent graduates maintain their crucial awareness of the time they have -- and of the time they need to achieve their goals -- by providing supplemental cues. Introducing students to their professors' expectations over the course of the (in some cases altered) new semester, and touching base with reminders of upcoming opportunities and deadlines, may help anchor them when classes are asynchronous and gatherings are infrequent. Weekly emails, frequent online group meetings, and providing and reviewing supplementary materials can help bar examinees feel less disconnected and more engaged in this interminable bar study period. And frequent communication with our colleagues in other departments and schools -- learning their plans for the semester, sharing ideas and insights, and organizing joint efforts -- can help us retain our own sharp senses of time -- especially important if we are going to serve as the touchstones to others.
Monday, August 31, 2020
By now, many first-year law students have experienced the thrill (and, perhaps, terror) of being called on to speak during class. Some professors cold call, while others announce which row or group will be on call next. In either case, remaining calm and alert during class is essential. For those students who are subject to cold calling, randomly being called on in class can cause anxiety. Rather than anticipating the classroom discussion, students worry about hearing their name and not knowing “the answer” to the question(s) posed by their professor.
Here are a few strategies to reduce the anxiety associated with being called on in class:
- Review: Brief your assigned cases and spend 15-20 minutes before class reviewing each case brief to refresh your recollection of the cases assigned that day. The more prepared you are for class, the more confident (and less anxious) you will be if/when you are called on by your professor.
- Practice: If you are in a study group, practice being “on call” with each other. This practice benefits the student who will be called on in class as well as the other group members who must know enough about the topic to ask questions and follow up questions. If you do not yet have a study group, practice with yourself. Try answering questions about key details of each case and think about the questions your professor may ask in class, particularly about the court’s reasoning and the holding. You may find it helpful to wear different advocacy hats during this process. Think about the case from the perspective of an advocate for the plaintiff, an advocate for the defendant, and as the decisionmaker.
- Be Present: Before it is your turn to be “on,” or before you decide to volunteer in class, listen closely to what your professor is asking. Pay attention to your classmates’ comments and the follow-up questions your professor asks in response to those comments. Try to answer your professor’s questions silently in your mind and compare your answer to the answer given by your classmate.
- Enunciate: Even if you do not feel prepared to speak, if you are called on, speak clearly and loudly enough for the class to hear what you are saying.
- Breathe: If you freeze when you are called on, take a deep breath in and out through your nose. What may seem like an eternity to you will actually only be a few seconds. Take those few seconds to gather your thoughts and gain control of your voice and your nerves.
The ability to think on your feet is a professional competency that you will develop over time, in part by the experience of being called on in class. Even if cold calling makes you feel very anxious or scared, take advantage of the opportunity presented by being called on in class. No one, including your professor, expects you to be perfect. You will make mistakes. You will also get better (and more comfortable) with practice.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Thursday, June 4, 2020
I've taken the title to this little blog from a phrase in the recent post of Prof. Marsha Griggs, calling us, all of us, to action and resolve to fight, work, and promote justice. Griggs, M., "Despicable Us," Law School Academic Support Blog (June 2, 2020). As Prof. Griggs reminds, it's our oath, and in that oath, we say that we are committed to safeguard justice for all. But what if there's little to safeguard? What then?
The horrific brutal torture and killing of another innocent person just last week makes one wonder. There have been so many others, not just in the U.S., but around the world. What is it that leads so many to blindly look away, to not care or empathize, to sit on laurels when, frankly, the laurels are all dried up?
I'm tired of calls to come together and talk. And, in light of the ongoing protests, it seems like I am not alone. But as Prof. Griggs points out, most are silent.
So often I'm that one - the silent one. I'm not sure what I can do or say but I know that I hold a position of great responsibility, which obligates me to spring to action to make the world as right as it can possibly be. That takes real work, not trite talk. I'm worried that so few really want to do that work, that so few are really eager to change, that so few are so wedded to the present that there's little promise or hope for a brighter future. I'm worried that I'm one of those, waiting for others to right an upside down world.
I didn't know what else to do. So I wrote letters. First to the mayor of Minneapolis. Then to the police chief. Next to the mayor of Denver and the police chief of Denver. Finally to my U.S. senators and local U.S. representative.
Everyday counts because every person counts. As I tried to explain to my students this summer, there are ways to move forward towards the pursuit of justice, right now.
First, take a look at how many municipal ordinances and state laws provide for incarceration. I think that many of those punishments are out-of-all proportion with the social harms for which criminal laws are supposed to countenance. And, the lack of proportionality is, I think, a violation of constitutional due process because it burdens people for no reason at all.
Second, take a look at the details of what happened in Minneapolis. A telephone call about a possible counterfeit $20 bill. Two police show up to investigate. One draws a gun and orders Mr. Floyd out of the car. $20 dollars. What happened to the investigation? It was like the police wanted to make an arrest. The alleged crime being investigated, I think, was a specific intent crime, requiring proof of both the act of using counterfeit currency to purchase goods or services along with the mental state of intent to use counterfeit currency. Under the due process requirement of the Constitution, that would seem to require a real investigation rather than drawing a weapon. It sure seems like a violation just to walk up to a car and threaten someone's life with lethal force without at least asking any questions. That's why I wrote to the city leaders and politicians admonishing them to reform criminal laws to require the issuance of citations rather than proceeding with arrests, which are by their nature acts of force and the escalation of force. Better to proceed with deescalation, issue a citation after a thorough investigation, and then bring the issue in front of an independent magistrate.
Third, I've read a lot of police reports. They talk a lot about probable cause but in general have little facts to show for it. And, because the Constitution requires both probable cause to issue a citation or to make an arrest, with reasonable trustworthy facts as support, its time to ensure that police reports, etc., list identifiable, particularized, concrete allegations of fact to support both the culpable criminal act of the crime alleged along with the culpable mental state. In my opinion, that's a requirement of not just the Fourth Amendment but also the Due Process Clause to provide meaningful notice of the specific grounds for criminal charges. What if police reports fail to identify such facts? It's defective and the citation, arrest, and/or indictment should be quashed, immediately. And, the police authorities who harmed a person by failing to provide constitutional notice ought to be liable under civil rights laws for acting under the color of law without constitutional authority in explicit derogation of due process protections. And prosecutors that pursue such defective charges ought to be held accountable by regulatory agencies, the public, and the legal system.
Fourth, according to news media, at least one of the police officers arrested and charged for the death of Mr. Floyd had previous disciplinary records, which, as far as I can tell, resulted in little action and were not available to the public at large. When political leaders, as our representatives, appoint police officers, as our agents, and when the political leaders then arm those police officers with lethal force, the HR records of those officers should be available to us all. Nothing should be secret; after all, the police are supposed to work for us. But, I hesitate to add, police unions are mighty powerful. Often times, it seems, more powerful than political leaders. But if a union protects someone who is engaged in unlawful acts, then we should hold unions accountable too.
Perhaps my suggestions to politically powerful leaders won't make any difference. So far I've not received any responses. But I'm not giving up. All of us only have one life to live. It's up to us to choose to live it fully, wisely, and for others. I fall short, so often, and all the time. But with each day, we get a new opportunity. The past need not hold us back, if only we have the courage to act. After all, that's the constitutional duty that we've pledged ourselves to embrace on the behalf of others. To act justly on the behalf of others. (Scott Johns).
P.S. As a starting point, please take a look at Attorney General Ellison's statement and the criminal charges filed against the 4 Minneapolis police officers:
I quote in part the words of Attorney General Ellison from the news release: "
"To the Floyd family, to our beloved community, and everyone that is watching, I say: George Floyd mattered. He was loved. His life was important. His life had value. We will seek justice for him and for you and we will find it. The very fact that we have filed these charges means that we believe in them. But what I do not believe is that one successful prosecution can rectify the hurt and loss that so many people feel. The solution to that pain will be in the slow and difficult work of constructing justice and fairness in our society.
That work is the work of all of us. We don’t need to wait for the resolution of the investigation and prosecution of the George Floyd case. We need citizens, neighbors, leaders in government and faith communities, civil- and human- rights activists to begin rewriting the rules for a just society. We need new policy and legislation and ways of thinking at municipal, state, and federal levels. The world of arts and entertainment can use their cultural influence to help inspire the change we need. There is a role for all who dream of a justice we haven’t had yet.
In the final analysis, a protest can shake the tree and make the fruit fall down. But after that fruit is in reach, collecting it and making the jam must follow. The demonstration is dramatic and necessary. But building just institutions is slower and more of a grind, and just as important. We need your energy there too. We need it now."
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
In a normal year, my students would all have begun their bar preparation yesterday, coasting on their post-graduation-ceremony momentum right into a seat in front of the first of many lecturers. But in New York, and more than a third of all U.S. jurisdictions (in which -- again, in a normal year -- more than half of all July examinees would be sitting for the exam), the date of the bar examination has been postponed for six weeks or more, leaving bar students in those jurisdictions with the gift they hate most of all: uncertainty.
What is to be done with all this extra time? Bar preparation companies cannot agree: some are simply administering their typical ten-week program, just starting it six weeks later than usual, while others have reworked their program schedule, starting it earlier and drawing it out over a longer period, but with shorter study days. Employers, many contending with their own virus-induced crises, have added variables to the new graduates' calculations, some allowing their new employees to start early and then take time off, others expecting hirees to adhere to their original early-August start dates, and still others unnervingly withdrawing their employment offers indefinitely. Even we bar support specialists can only make well-educated guesses about how to make use of six extra weeks. We have no data, no direct experience of how a delay like this will affect individual students or the testing cohort as a whole. How much more study can a student put in without burning out? Should the extra time be spread across all aspects of bar study, or should certain skills or subjects receive more attention? Will MBE scores increase overall for those who take the test in September? Decrease? Will the bell curve spread out? Will this hurt or help examinees?
Sensibly, 43 more days of prep time should be seen as a boon. In a normal year for bar study, isn't time the most precious resource of all? In my discussions with students, I have suggested they think of this extra time the way they might think of an unexpected financial windfall. You don't have to spend it all in one place. You might devote a large chunk of it to bar study -- that is, after all, the primary focus of the summer -- but how you specifically budget it depends on your own circumstances. An examinee facing financial pressures might choose to work for a few weeks, then begin studying a few weeks early. Someone eager to get started studying might begin this week, but set aside a week or two, at strategically placed spots on the calendar, to put study aside, connect with family and friends, or do whatever else helps them refill their gas tank. It's important not to let the time slip by unnoticed -- it would be bad to turn off the TV one night near the end of June and realize you had not done any bar study -- and that's why it's important to budget the time and actually create a schedule. And that, for some, is what seems to turn this temporal windfall into a vexation. In order to budget, you have to make choices.
No one wants their bar prep period to feel like playing endless rounds of "The Lady or the Tiger?" At every step: choose the right path, and you will be rewarded with contented knowledge and testing skills; choose the wrong path, and you will be mauled by a ravenous UBE with MPT fangs and MBE claws. In a normal year, examinees only have to be certain that the regimented bar study course they have chosen, which has worked for thousands of examinees before them, will continue to reliably work for them. This summer, though, because so much is unregimented, some examinees are anxious about being uncertain about so much more. Am I studying enough? Am I studying too much? Am I studying too early? Am I studying the right things, in the right way, for the right amount of time?
Two propositions can help people in such a tizzy of uncertainty. First, assure them that they are not feeling this uncertainty because of some character flaw that prevents them from making definitive choices. They are not losing their heads while all about them are keeping theirs. This is an inherently uncertain situation -- we can't even be assured the exam will actually be administered in September! -- and so there is no single "correct" choice. The best they can do is what they've been training to do for the past three years: exercise good judgment based on competent authority and relevant facts. As long as they are not just guessing, as long as they are talking to us and their mentors and their instructors and applying what they learn to what they already know about themselves and the task before them, they can at least make a good choice.
Second, help them subdue the perception that they are overwhelmed by uncertainty by reminding them of what is certain. The content and structure of the bar examination remains the same (well, except in Indiana), as do generally those of the reputable bar courses designed to prepare examinees for the test. They still have their law degrees, and the skill, intelligence, and diligence that helped them earn those degrees. They have a community of classmates, instructors, and mentors who they can rely on to share perspective and feedback on the decisions they do make. They have a certain task, they have certain abilities, and they have certain resources. In the face of uncertainty, those are best certainties to have.
Thursday, May 7, 2020
I once had a teacher tell me to never read good books. Never ever. And why not?
Because if I spent my time reading good books (or doing good things), then I wouldn't have time left to read the really great books (or do the really great things of life).
That's a lesson that has never left my side.
In bar prep, I'm convinced that too many are trying to do too much, and, in the process of doing good tasks, they aren't doing the great things that are really important for success on the bar exam. Let me be frank. You don't have time in bar prep to do good things. But, you have plenty of time to do the really great things, the things that produce fruitful learning.
With that in mind, here's a few tips:
- Do less reading and more pondering the law, how it works or doesn't, and what it means to you as a person.
- Do less note-taking and more puzzling through problems to learn the law.
- Do less testing and more practicing, feeling free to work problems over slowly, reading them out loud if you'd like, as you develop confidence and competence in your own voice as an expert problem-solver.
That's just a few suggestions.
But, rather than hear it from me, a teacher, I thought I'd share the wisdom of a recent successful bar-taker in that person's own words. After all, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words (but the wise words from the heart & mind of a recent bar taker -- who wants to share with YOU what she/he learned through re-taking the bar exam -- is worth a priceless fortune).
Advice for First-Time Bar Takers:
- Practice way more than you think! If you are wondering whether you should watch a lecture or do a practice question, do the practice question.
- Let go of memorizing everything. It is impossible. Learn what your weak areas are and spend more time with those subjects.
- You will feel like you know nothing until approximately the last week of bar prep. Somehow, magically, it does come together. I promise.
- Do all the bar prep practice tests.
- Think really hard about who you want to study with. This is not the time to do something different from how you handled law school.
- Come up with a plan and stick to it. The bar prep calendar is really helpful for this. Decide how many practice questions you want to do everyday and do it. But if you are starting to burn out, be OK with taking breaks. It's a marathon!
Advice for Fresh Start Re-Takers:
- First, I am so sorry that you have been dealt this card. There is no question that it hurts. Take care of yourself and do things that make you happy.
- As you begin planning your next round of bar prep, make sure to work with the law school to identify the weak aspects of your exam answers. This will help define ways you can “work smarter” instead of “work harder.”
- Also work with the law school to identify new ways to study. It might be changing up your study tool or how you review your answers. For me, studying ALONE the second round vastly improved my scores. I think studying alone boosted my confidence because it required me to look up answers to my own mistakes. I also stopped comparing myself to friends.
- Ditch the bar prep lectures. Use that time to practice WAY MORE MBE and MEE practice questions. I probably tripled the amount of practice questions I did during my second round of bar prep.
- Log your progress. I was way more intentional about compiling lists of rules I kept missing on MBE questions. This helped me to keep track of weak areas so I could spend more time learning the law in specific subjects.
- Spend timing thinking about any testing anxiety you might have. Adding mindfulness meditations to my study plan helped a ton!
That brings me back to the start of this little essay. How do you know what are the really great books to read (or the great things to do)? That's were wisdom comes in. Reach out to a person you trust, on your faculty or staff or from a colleague or mentor who knows you as a person from head to toe. The advice that I've shared in this blog is from such a person, who, although he/she doesn't know you, knows you, because she/he has cared enough to share with you the lessons learned through the process. So, you have a friend who is rooting for you (and that includes me too!).
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
One thing that most of us probably don't full appreciate until we miss it is degree to which we rely on predictability. When things are going well, it is often largely because so many things are doing just what we expect them to do, without us having to think about it. When every paycheck is direct deposited, when every mocha latte tastes just like you like it, when your spouse kisses you every morning and your favorite TV show is on every evening, it's all part of one grand comfortable life. It is not simply or even primarily the easy and convenience that makes it comfortable. It's the reassurance that comes with knowing that, and understanding how, cause leads to effect. Things happen because we make them happen, or if not, at least we expected them to happen, and all that generates confidence and a sense of efficacy.
Suddenly we enter an alternative universe in which supermarkets run out of the most basic, boring staples, like flour; in which basic medical precautions like hand washing might be useless because you were unknowingly infected two weeks ago; in which jobs and income just disappear for even the most conscientious employees; in which graduating with a degree, even with honors, from a decent law school may not even be enough to permit you to take a bar examination, let alone begin earning a living. All of these are aggravating, and some have potentially dire consequences. But taken as a whole, their greatest effect on us may be that they are contradicting our assumptions about how the world reliably runs.
Trust is like a vitamin. When we haven't got a minimum daily requirement -- when there are too many things in our lives that we can't rely on -- it's like a psychic scurvy. Instead of bruising easily and losing our teeth, we panic easily and lose our self-confidence. The cortisol levels in our bloodstreams shoot up, because in an unpredictable world we always have to be prepared to fight or flee. We can't concentrate, we are easily rattled, we might even suffer illness because of it. It's hard. We need to be able to rely on some things to perform well.
This is one of the reasons that humans invented lawyers in the first place. We needed more people we could trust to rely on. We needed people who could develop frameworks of predictable rules so that we would not feel that conflicts were resolved arbitrarily. Lawyers are a testament to the human craving for reliability.
And in order to make lawyers that clients can rely on, we need to teach students to rely on themselves, on their own capabilities and judgment. And this does not happen overnight. First we teach them that they can rely on others -- on their professors to teach them how the law works and on mentors to show them the ropes -- then that they can rely on systems, like legislatures and administrative bodies, and then ultimately on themselves. You know these rules and how to apply them. You understand how to navigate bureaucracy, at least enough to find your way through any new one you encounter. You know how to come up with solutions, how to suggest them to other interested parties, how to negotiate a compromise. You're a cause that has effect, because you are a lawyer.
Even with everything going well in law school, though -- and it may not be, at least not for every student, given the range of burdens that they are shouldering -- when the rest of the world is telling you that you can't eat in your favorite restaurant, that the only available toilet paper is the Want Ads section of your local paper, and it may be more than a year before you can begin working, it can be really easy to spend all your time on edge, trembling at the unclear implications of every announcement from the school or your state bar examiners. And when it is easy to be that anxious, it is usually hard to study, focus, work efficiently, and present yourself to the world as a new lawyer.
So, lately, I've been thinking of how Academic Support professionals are kind of like psychic vitamin supplements. In a world in which everybody feels that so many things are less reliable now, we are telling our students, "Look, you can trust us. We'll explain the right answer; we'll send you feedback on your writing; we will find and share information you might not be able to access yourselves. But we will also teach you that you can trust yourselves. You're learning the rules you need to learn. You're developing the writing and analytical and persuasive skills you need as tools to cause the effects you want. You're going to develop the judgment that makes a good counselor, and some day other people will come to rely on you."
All of that messaging is what we do on a good day. Lately, I feel like I have had to up my game to extra strength multivitamin levels. Making myself available for conferences more frequently; responding to emails super-promptly, before students can feel ignored; finding additional resources for students in increasingly dire straits because of the current crisis. Maybe this is really the core of what Academic Support does best at times like these: by actions that show our students that they can rely on us, we help them see they can rely on their professors, on the law, on the system, so that they can better learn to rely on themselves.