Saturday, December 8, 2018
Hat tip to Susan Wawrose at the University of Dayton School of Law for alerting us to the third installment in the ABA's podcast series on law student well-being. The podcast (entitled Episode 3 on the web page) includes three parts (why a law student would benefit, ways to get started with mindfulness, how to overcome roadblocks) and a bonus 3-minute mindfulness exercise. The link to the ABA web page that has all three installments in the series is: ABA Law Student Well-Being Podcasts. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Want to power up your learning to improve your final exam performance? Well, counterintuitively, that means that you just might need to take a break - a brief respite for your brain - by working out your heart instead.
You see, research shows that vigorous exercise, even if just for 10 minutes right prior to an exam, improves academic performance. And, there's more great news. The research also shows that exercise boosts your mood and optimism, and that, in turn, leads to more resiliency in learning, which, in turn again, improves academic performance. In short, exercise is in the center of a great big circle of connections between your body, your heart, and your mind.
So, rather than just focusing all of your energies in preparation for exams on your mental work, let your body and heart take up some of that cognitive load as you sweat it up a bit. Feel free to hit the trail, or the bike, or just run up and down the stairs at your law school every hour or so. Indeed, as the research shows, even just a 10 minute exercise brain break right before your next exam can increase your exam performance. Not convinced? We'll, here's a handy article by Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., and Donna Wilson, Ph.D., entitled "Smart Moves: Powering up the Brain with Physical Activity." http://www.kappancommoncore.org
So, why not follow the evidence to help boost your learning by taking frequent exercise brain breaks - breaks that tap into the power of your whole self - your mind, body, and heart - to best optimize your learning. And, rest assured as you take your brain breaks while exercising, the science is behind you. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Law students about to head into their final exams -- especially those in their first year, facing this challenge for the first time -- are often weary, anxious, and despondent. Simultaneously burdened with too much to learn and too little time, they may feel like the universe is conspiring against them. And some of them, in a sense, may be right.
The tilt of the Earth's axis and its movement around the Sun are responsible for our seasons, and, by chance or design, fall semester exams take place just as we are sliding into the winter solstice -- the day on which we in the Northern Hemisphere have the shortest day and receive the least amount of sunlight. Two years ago, when I was teaching in Southern California, we received just under 10 hours of daylight on the solstice (December 21). Now that I'm teaching in Buffalo, New York, we're already down to only 9 1/2 hours of daylight, and we'll get down to only 9 hours of light and 15 hours of darkness before the sun starts coming back. It is little wonder that folks in the higher latitudes experience more instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recognized mood disorder in which sufferers experience mood distortions -- most commonly, depression -- at particular times of the year. Most commonly, these symptoms peak in the wintertime, and while the causes are not well understood, it seems very likely that the diminished amount of sunlight is a key trigger. This may explain why SAD affects 8-10% of the population in states like New Hampshire and Alaska, but only 2% of the population in Florida. Overall, about 6% of U.S. adults suffer from full-blown SAD, and another 14% suffer a milder, "subsyndromal" version. This means that, on the average, one out of every five people -- including your students -- are clinically affected by the oncoming gloom.
When SAD manifests, as it usually does, as a type of depression, its symptoms (and those of its milder variant) are those of depression, including low energy and motivation, feelings of helplessness, withdrawal from social interaction, oversleeping, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Any one of these symptoms would be a serious obstacle to success on final exams. To have to bear a whole cluster of these decisions, on top of the intensity, stress, and anxiety normally experienced in law school, can be potentially debilitating.
Thus, it is important for Academic Success educators to observe their students with particular care as the autumn gloom descends. Students who had seemed poised and optimistic in September might start to appear morose, scattered, or resigned as finals approach. Of course, finals themselves can have a depressive effect, and after a semester of hard work, even the most buoyant student might be observed to sink a bit. That is normal. But if a student seems to be so down that it is pervasively affecting the quality of their work, consider offering the following suggestions:
- Light: One reason that the diminished rays of the sun are felt to be a key trigger is the strong evidence that light therapy -- regular additional exposure to direct sunlight or to specially-made artificial lamps -- has a beneficial effect. Spending additional time outdoors can provide the necessary sunlight supplement -- if winter clouds do not interfere. If the weather doesn't cooperate, light therapy lamps can be purchased online or in department and specialty stores for less than $50. Either way, 30 to 60 minutes of extra light every day -- something that might be easily done while studying -- often helps SAD victims recover (particularly when combined with other treatments, as listed below).
- Exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise also appears to be helpful, particularly in combination with light therapy. A walk outdoors or a 20-minute run on a treadmill under the glow of a light therapy lamp provides better relief than just light alone. Exercise provides other benefits to students approaching the finals ordeal. Regular workouts can alleviate stress and improve concentration, so a student with SAD who exercises and uses a light therapy lamp every day may actually end up in a better position than they were before they were affected by SAD.
- Professional treatment: Students contending with a particularly nasty manifestation of SAD -- one that does not improve with light therapy and exercise, and that causes feelings of worthlessness or thoughts of self-harm, or prevents a student from attending class or from undertaking basic preparation for exams -- should be referred or encouraged to seek professional help. Counselors can provide talk therapy, and physicians can prescribe drugs that, in conjunction with exercise and/or light therapy, may provide additional help in overcoming SAD.
The good news is that, since SAD is seasonal, almost everyone suffering from it in November will probably get over it by February, as the days start to lengthen after Christmas passes. But to help them get to that place, we sometimes have to help students recognize that they are suffering from a treatable condition, and we have to help them find the solution that works for them.
Friday, November 16, 2018
During the demands of final papers, exam review, and practice questions, it is very easy to become so focused on intellectual "in your head" matters that all other aspects become blurs. Classmates who are typically collegial can become overly competitive. Intellectual discussions can degenerate into power struggles to show who is superior and always right. Unintended insults, judgmental put-downs, and clipped responses reflect the stress of the semester as students speak without thinking.
Students handle the end-of-semester stress in differing ways. They can either give in to negativity or persevere with positivity. By taking intentional steps, it is possible to stay personally positive and contribute to a positive environment for others. Our thoughts and actions can build our resilience, grit, calm, and focus.
- Count your blessings. As a law student, you have the privilege of gaining professional skills that will make a significant difference in the lives of your clients in the future. You will be their hope in crises and injustice. You will be someone's hero many times over your career.
- Make a list of encouraging quotes, scriptures, or sayings to read first thing in the morning and last thing at night. These positive affirmations will frame your mindset at both ends of the day.
- Model collegiality for your classmates: offer your class notes to a student who has been ill; share information about a good study aid; explain a legal concept to a confused classmate; compliment a classmate on a good in-class answer.
- Spread random acts of kindness throughout your day: hold the door for a classmate loaded down with books; buy a soda for the student behind you at the vending machine; smile and say good morning to a tired classmate; offer a slice of your pizza to someone with no lunch.
- Say "please" and "thank you" often throughout the day. And look the person in the eye when you do so. Politeness can get lost in the rush, but it is gold to those who are recognized in the process.
- At the end of the day, make a list of three things you did for others - however small they may be. Your humanity towards others will warm your heart and contribute to your outlook.
- Take care of yourself. Positive coping results from regular sleep every night, healthy food, and exercise. You are part of an academic marathon and not a sprint right now. Pace yourself.
- Take control of what you can control, and let the other things go. None of us is perfect. We can only do our best each day under that day's circumstances. The next day is a new start, and we can embrace that new start for it's possibilities.
- If you start to give in to the stress, get some help. Talk to family. Check in with a professor, dean, or ASP professional to get your perspective back and make a study plan.
Best wishes for the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, November 12, 2018
Last Friday, I experienced the pure joy of coaching an 8 year old flag football game at 9:30pm with the wind chill in the 20s. The temperature was the same for both teams, but everyone in attendance could see the difference between how the teams handled the conditions. One team bounced around with everyone running to the ball, celebrating, and having a good time. The other team shivered, jogged, and repeatedly shook their hands to try to stay warm. Most of those kids couldn’t feel their hands by the 2nd quarter, and as you would guess, they lost the game.
I witnessed a similar event a few years ago during the College Softball World Series. In the final series, Oklahoma played Alabama. Oklahoma dominated teams most of the year. They had the best hitter and pitcher in the country. During the second game of the best of 3 series, the heavens opened and rain drenched everything. Oklahoma made a few bad plays, and then, the umpire delayed the game until the rain subsided. During the rain delay, Alabama bounced around their dugout. They danced and sang through the whole delay. Oklahoma mulled around with their heads down from the couple bad plays. After the rain delay, Alabama trounced the Sooners. They subsequently won game 3 the next day for the National Championship beating an Oklahoma team that the following year with similar players was arguably one of the best in history.
The ability to respond to undesirable conditions is critical from elementary school to elite athletes. The same is true for law school final exams. The conditions will be similar for most students. Everyone is taking the same exam. Everyone has the same amount of time between the last day of class and final exams. Some people may have slightly different obligations during finals, but most students are on a similar playing field for finals. The ability to embrace the situation can make a difference in performance on finals.
I tell students every semester that final exams are as much a test of mental strength and discipline as they are a test of legal knowledge and analysis. The key is to embrace the grind of finals. Complaining about the exam, the amount of time, or unknown expectations is the equivalent of shivering on the field. Letting those thoughts creep in gives the final exam the edge before the test begins. Complaining students are the ones sleeping on coaches around the law school or finding every excuse necessary to not study. Making the final harder than it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy causing lower performance.
Overcoming negativity makes an impact of scores. Michael Hunter Schwartz developed a program for pre-law students many years ago where he described how high self-efficacy leads to persistence. Worry and other negative emotions don’t promote self-efficacy and tend to harm persistence. Persistence, or the grind, is what leads to improvement and readiness for exams. Final exams are hard. There is an unknown element. However, that is true for everyone taking the exam.
Embrace the grind by planning. As I have posted before, writing down a detailed monthly, weekly, and daily plan can make finals more manageable. The unknown causes some people stress because of the lack of control. Take that control back with a plan of attack. Plan for the whole study period from now through the last final. At the beginning of each day, plan the hours of the day. Take adequate breaks to mentally refresh and eat. Finish at a reasonable time each night. Grab momentum with the areas you can control, which should alleviate some stress. Remember, the vast majority of exams will come from material discussed in class. Exam period is a review of what everyone already experienced throughout the semester.
Start each day with positive affirmations to stop the negative emotion spiral before it starts. Be confident with statements about the ability to succeed, completing the necessary tasks, and overcoming obstacles. Focus affirmations on the study process or overcoming obstacles. Statements about the ability to study hard material or previous hard tasks can motivate anyone to push through the tasks for that day. Exams are a culmination of studies throughout a long period of time. Don’t focus affirmations on final exam results, which is unattainable on a given day. Focus on attainable goals for that day, for example “I am always able to recite sections of my outline after a few hours of study. I will be able to do that by lunch.” Affirmations on attainable goals builds over time for an impact on final exams.
Hard conditions can affect anyone, and law school exam conditions are difficult. However, planning and positivity can put everyone in the best possible position for success. The goal is to be able to walk into the exam with your head up and not shivering. Embrace the opportunity to demonstrate your ability on each exam.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
I'm worried about final exams. To be frank, I don't like the word "final." I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18." I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.
But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.
Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning. In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning. They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).
Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.
Our feedback can be too.
As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it. And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace." https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/. In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.
But, there's great news!
Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.
But first, here are the problems with feedback. Feedback focuses on the past. It focuses on the negative without necessarily providing ways forward to improve. It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck. Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:
• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain. That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will. We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.
• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.
• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future). In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments. Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.
In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future. It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking. Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.
So, what is "feedforward?"
Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.
Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.
And, one last thought...
As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity. In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams. That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams. Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams. So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
A note arrived in my office last week. It said, "Thank you for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. I do belong here." I doubt the most experienced academic support professional could have received such a message without getting a little misty-eyed. For me, this note helped turn a sad time into a day of joy.
Later that same day, I talked with a law student who has earned a Ph.D. in the university of hard knocks. If ever a person had reason to be embittered by the hand life dealt her, it would be this woman, but instead she radiates joy. She's a true friend to her classmates, the custodians, the dean, and everyone in between. She mentioned keeping a gratitude journal, so I asked about it. She told me the last thing she does every evening is write in a gratitude journal. She keeps each entry short -- just a sentence or two. She said the gratitude journal profoundly affects the way she looks at life. "I won't lie," she said. "Some days it's been hard to write something in there. But even on the worst days there's always something to be grateful for. It makes my life better to think about this every day."
Gratitude transforms lives -- not only the life of the person receiving the thanks, but even more the life of the person who is grateful. Consciously choosing joy can change your outlook on school, work, and life.
Most of us entered law school (whether two months or forty years ago) because we wanted to use the power of the law to help others. But law school and law practice have a way of dragging us down. Stress piles on -- from lower-than-expected evaluations, heavy workloads, pointed critiques, looming deadlines, and the sheer mental effort of constantly being logical and analytical. We end up swathing ourselves in a suffocating miasma of negativity. Our optimistic mission of serving others devolves into a pessimistic, painful grind of grubbing for grades instead of reaching for understanding, of grasping for prestigious positions rather than seeking opportunities to be of service.
Like the penetrating sunshine, consciously practicing gratitude can help dispel the miasma by recharacterizing our experiences. An extra-long homework assignment turns from a chore into an opportunity for effective reading; a heavy work assignment turns from a burden into a chance to practice efficiency. Professors' comments in class turn from cutting criticisms into helpful critiques which will help us become better lawyers; interactions with challenging peers turn from obnoxious situations into practice in people management skills.
In a famous TED talk, Amy Cuddy discusses how adopting a powerful body language can actually help you feel and act empowered. Likewise, consciously spending time being grateful will turn you into a happier, more positive person. In her practical book, A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student, Paula Franzese writes, "Say thank you countless times a day. . . . Your day will move in the direction of your focal point. Focus on the good in your midst and the good to come."
Here's a concrete suggestion for 1Ls worried about fall semester finals -- look forward to your finals with gladness instead of trepidation. After all, you don't have to take exams. You get to take exams. You have the opportunity to strut your stuff by showing your professor -- and yourself -- how much you have learned in a few months and how far you have progressed on the road of thinking, writing, and acting like a lawyer. And that is definitely something worth celebrating. Write it down in your gratitude journal and rejoice in another great day. (Nancy Luebbert)
Sunday, October 28, 2018
For the past two weeks I have met many new first-year students. Feedback on midterms, practice questions, or legal practice assignments has begun. So students who previously had thought they did not need assistance - or at least were delaying assistance - have taken the plunge. Some have realized they need better time management routines for more study time. Some have realized they definitely need to start or catch up on outlines. Some have asked about IRAC or multiple-choice assistance. Some have realized that they need to curb procrastination. Some are just anxious and wondering if they should be more or less anxious than they currently are.
Other students, both 1L and upper-division, are returning for 10,000-mile checkups. We are tweaking their previous time management routines for more study time now that they are more efficient and effective at class preparation and outlines. We are exploring the different tasks that all make up exam review. We are discussing how to condense their outlines into attack outlines or how to add visual organizers for some learners. Memory strategies have been a popular topic with these students who have made progress on black letter law, but have a few stumbling blocks. 2Ls and 3Ls are thinking ahead to exam schedules and evaluating courses in that light.
And with both the new and returning students, there are good measures of dispelling rumors about grading for 1Ls (the grapevine is especially bizarre right now), praising progress and wise decisions, and motivating the procrastinators. In some cases I am dispensing tissues, in some cases packets or handouts, and in some I just let them vent before we look for solutions.
The students who are pretty much on target leave with renewed confidence and strategies. The students who are catching up but not in critical shape leave having regrouped. The students who are getting close to a danger zone leave with a reality check and a plan - and usually follow-up appointments.
For now, ASP is a bit like a local medical clinic: some need vitamins or a bandaid; some need an ace bandage or cold remedy; a few need crutches or a walking boot. Right now no epidemics or massive injuries have crossed the threshold.
But I have been doing ASP enough years to know that the triage cases will show up right at the end - just before and after Thanksgiving Break. And like any good ER doctor, I will try everything I can to save the patients. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, October 25, 2018
My dog loves rabbit trails. Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.
That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.
But first, a bit of background...
I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers. The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished. But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand. In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions. Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.
Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.
The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law. As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use. On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes.
Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute. Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government. The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use. The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending. Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.
Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports. The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:
"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."
In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use. And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause. So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem. As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government. That's a 10th Amendment issue. In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do. It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.
Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana. Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails." Here, we might write as follows:
"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."
Do you see the issue? It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement. Once again, this is a federalism issue. There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money. Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment. One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants. In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding. It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.
Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern. I can understand why. Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures. But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump." It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.
Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement. As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:
"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."
Take a look back at my issue statements. Do I start with the legal issue? Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action? Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern? You bet. In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems. I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario. In short, I ramble.
So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays. Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement. After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems. So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays. It's worth the time. Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruellest month -- October is, at least for first-year law students. The first heady glow and excitement of arriving at law school has faded. Many students experience the shock of no longer being straight-A students as legal writing and midterm grades roll in. The workload steadily increases, as do professors' expectations. For 1Ls who feel like they are barely treading water to keep up with class preparation, it seems downright oppressive to hear they should be adding practice problems, outlining, and other long-term study methods to their weekly schedule, not to mention attending professional events and polishing their resumes to apply for summer internships and externships. Added into this evil brew can be depression, anxiety, substance abuse, loneliness, or any number of other reactions to stress.
What's a 1L to do? The first thing, as Dean Jarmon observed last week, is put aside perfectionism and instead focus on realistic goals. Establish routines, whether you do so by sheer will power, calendaring, habit stacking as discussed by Professor Foster, using resolutions charts, or some other method.
But what if, after all your diligent work, you still feel lost, or confused, or overwhelmed, or panicked? What do you do?
Ask for help.
Many law students are reluctant to ask for help because they think it shows weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Asking for help is a professional skill which good lawyers practice constantly. An associate asks a partner for advice on how to handle a particular client. A lawyer consults the clerk of the court in advance to ensure filings are done correctly. An experienced lawyer calls bar counsel for advice when a thorny ethical issue emerges. A lawyer who recognizes that anxiety disorder is affecting her/his performance gets in touch with the state's Lawyer Assistance Program. All of these are everyday examples of lawyers asking for help. Appropriately asking for help sends the message, "I care enough about this to spend time learning to do it the best way I can, and I value your expertise."
If you are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, ask for help as soon as you realize you have a problem. While you can go straight to your institution's counseling center or your state's Lawyer Assistance Program, it is also appropriate to talk with any trusted person at your law school. Not only do they know you personally, but many faculty and staff have taken Mental Health First Aid training and are equipped to assist you. Likewise, talk with someone immediately if illness, injury, or major family issues have affected or may affect your ability to do the work of a law student. You will get not only a sympathetic ear but also practical suggestions.
Be just as professional in asking for help as you are in other aspects of law school life. Figure out what you need and frame your request narrowly. Professors don't react well to a student coming into office hours saying, "I don't get torts," but they will gladly work with you if you narrow your problem to "I've gone over the casebook and the CALI lessons, but I'm still confused about the causation rules involving multiple actors." In particular, your academic support professor is an invaluable resource to help you balance the academic demands of law school with the equally compelling demands of being a whole human being.
Most faculty and staff are not only willing but happy to help you if you are respectful of them and the demands on their time. But one circumstance bears special mention -- what we call "forum shopping" at my law school. Forum shopping occurs when a student asks one faculty or staff member for help but doesn't like the advice s/he receives. Without telling anyone that s/he asked another person first, the student then asks the identical question to a second person, and sometimes a third and a fourth. Forum shopping shows an extreme lack of respect for faculty and staff. Not only does the first person feel disrespected, but subsequent helpers can waste hours of time starting from ground zero when they don't know what guidance you've already received. Don't be afraid to seek multiple perspectives -- just let everyone know who you've asked and what advice you received.
Finally, don't forget to thank people for the help they've given you. This, too, is a mark of professionalism. (Nancy Luebbert)
Saturday, October 20, 2018
A perfectionism epidemic has broken out at most law schools across the country. It is the time in the semester when many students spin their wheels in studying because perfectionism has them in its grip. First-year students suffer acutely; but upper-division students are not immune.
The symptoms may vary, but the underlying perfectionism is there. Here are some of the symptoms I see regularly:
- Spending an exorbitant amount of time preparing for class because "I don't understand every bit of every case yet."
- Copying large chunks of case language into a case brief because "I may not state it as well as the judicial opinion."
- Getting less than 6 (in some cases way less) hours of sleep each night because "I haven't finished everything to the standard I want."
- Feeling paralyzed about starting course outlines because "I have never outlined before and may get it wrong."
- Filling tome-like outlines with total trivia because "I may leave out something important."
- Avoiding practice questions because "I don't know everything yet."
- Abandoning completion of practice questions because "I didn't get them all right."
- Despairing over an average grade on a quiz because "I should have gotten an A."
- Continuing to research after the exact same sources are found because "There may be something out there that I missed."
- Procrastinating because "It won't be perfect and starting late gives me an excuse for it being less than perfect."
Perfectionism makes people miserable. No human will ever be perfect. Our students come with histories of success: high grades; superb recommendations; trophies; accolades for A-Z. Many of them have minimum experience with being less than perfect (or at least appearing perfect). Consequently, it is hard to settle for excellent or very good instead of perfect.
One of my law professors warned me my first semester of law school that I would never feel that I had done everything that could be done. There would always be one more case I could read, one more edit of a draft I could do, one more practice problem I could complete, one more study aid I could check, and so forth. He warned that perfect was not the goal - the best I could do under the circumstances for that day was all I could ask of myself.
He was right - not only about law school, but also about legal practice. We could spend 24/7 and still feel as though there was more we could do.
We need to put aside perfectionism before it gives us sleepless nights, ulcers, migraine headaches, and more physical souvenirs. We need to refuse perfectionism's cocktail of shame, guilt, worry, frustration, and depression.
So, let's embrace accomplishing what we can to our best ability today under today's circumstances:
- Set a realistic number of goals for today.
- Prioritize those goals as very important, important, least important and finish them accordingly.
- Set a realistic time allotment for each goal and stick to it rather than push for perfect.
- Recognize today's circumstances and work realistically within them: deadlines, appointments, personal illness, etc.
- Refuse to equate your human imperfections with failure.
- Make a new "to do" list for tomorrow and realize tomorrow is another day to do your best.
- Get a good night's sleep: you will be more alert, focused, and productive for tomorrow's tasks.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
It's that time of year. In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.
There are many that are not celebrating. Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers. And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.
For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn. Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues. All alone.
I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have proven quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers:
First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one. Make yourself available on their terms. Let them know that you care. Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not. Support them, one and all.
Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve. Don't push them into diving back into the books. Don't lecture them. Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies. Help them to be kind to themselves. It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard. Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.
Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one." Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one". Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe. They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates. They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam. Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out. How are they feeling? What went right? What's their passion? What saddens their hearts?
Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well. Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you! That's because you are on the same team. Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see. But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period. And, you do the same. Exactly the same. Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with. Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play. Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer. This is important, just look. Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve? In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage. Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam. In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law. And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all. They know plenty of law. That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two (2) active learning tasks.
So, here are the two activities that bar re-takers should be prioritizing to successful pass the bar exam:
1. First, they should work daily throughout the bar study period through lots and lots of practice problems (essays and MBE questions). Every one that they can get their hands on. Open book is fine. It's even better than fine; it's perfect because they should be practicing problems to learn because we don't get better at problem-solving by guessing.
2. Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).
Just two steps. That's it. There's no magic. But, in not redoing the lectures, graduates will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice. Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.
Finally, I want to write directly to those of you who find yourself in the situation of having to re-take the bar exam. You really aren't alone. Need proof? Here's a short video clip put together by the Colorado Supreme Court about re-taking the bar exam to include a few tips from some jurists and practitioners that have been in your shoes. (Scott Johns)
Thursday, October 4, 2018
As reported in a Wall Street Journal essay by author Nicholas Carr, if you have a smart phone, you'll likely be "consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year." Most of us seem to think that is not a problem at all, at least based on our actions.
That’s certainty true of me. I depend on my smart phone, nearly all of the time. It’s with me everywhere. To be honest, it’s not just a telephone to me. It’s my mailbox, my knowledge bank, my social facilitator and companion, my navigator, my weather channel, my bookshelf, my news outlet, my alarm clock, and my entertainer, just to name a few of the wonderful conveniences of this remarkable handheld technology.
But, here’s the rub. As outlined by Mr. Carr, there are numerous research studies indicating that smart phones, while often times beneficial to us, can also at times be harmful to our intellectual life, our communication and interpersonal skills, and perhaps even our own emotional and bodily health.
First, Mr. Carr cites to a California study that suggests that the mere physical presence of smart phones hampers our intellectual problem-solving abilities. In the study of 520 undergraduate students, researchers analyzed student problem-solving abilities based on smart phone proximity. The researchers divided students into three classroom settings based on phone proximity while watching a lecture and then taking an exam. In one classroom, students placed their phones in front of them during the lecture and the subsequent exam. In another classroom, students stowed their phones in purses and backpacks, etc., so that students were prevented from having immediate phone access during both the lecture and the subsequent exam (i.e., sort of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach). In the last classroom, students were required to leave their phones in a different room from the lecture classroom. Interestingly, nearly all students reported that the proximity of their phones did not compromise their attention, learning, or exam performance. But, test results indicated otherwise. The researchers found that exam performance was inversely correlated with smart phone proximity. Students with phones on their desks performed the worst while students with phones in another room performance the best. Surprisingly, however, just having a smart phone stowed nearby detracted from exam performance too. Apparently, just the knowledge that our smart phones are readily available negatively impacts our problem-solving abilities. In other words, to perform our intellectual best as lawyers and law students, smart phones need to be - not just out of sight - but well beyond our grasps whenever we are engaged in intellectual tasks on behalf of our clients because problem-solving appears to be compromised just by the presence of our smart phones.
Second, Mr. Carr cites to a study where researchers found that smart phone proximity is harmful to face-to-face communication and interpersonal skills. In this United Kingdom study, researches divided people into pairs and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation. Some pairs of conversationalists were placed into a room in which there was a phone present. The other pairs were placed in rooms in which there were no phones present. The participants were then given tests to measure the depth of the conversation experienced based on measures of affinity, trust, and empathy. Researchers found that the mere presence of cellphones in the conversational setting harmed human relationships and interpersonal skills such as empathy, closeness, and trust, and the results were most harmful when the topics discussed were personally meaningful. In sum, smart phone proximity can negatively impact our interpersonal social communication skills, important skills for law students and attorneys to attend to and strengthen in order to better serve our clients and the public.
Third, Mr. Carr references a study substanting that smart phones can negatively impact our emotional and physical well-being. In this study out of large US university, researchers evaluated the impact of the presence of smart phones in self-identity, cognitive abilities, emotional anxiety, and physiology by having participants work on word puzzles while measuring blood pressure and pulse correlated with self-reported survey results on anxiety levels and emotional well-being based on a state of pleasantness. While solving word puzzles, researchers at times would remove phones from the presence of the subjects while on other occasions researchers would ring the phones of the subjects. The results are startling. Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, anxiety increases, sense of unpleasantness increases while cognitive abilities decline both when participants are removed from their phones and when they receive phone calls. In other words, we identify ourselves with our phones. They have become extensions of ourselves, to such a large degree, that to be deprived of access to our phones or the use of our phones negatively impacts our well-being as human beings. In short, we have allowed our phones to become part of us, to share in our feelings, such that we feel detached from ourselves when we are detached from our phones. In my own words, we feel alone (and indeed unalive) without our smart phones by oursides and in control of our lives. Or, to put it more simply, we can’t seem to live without our smart phones, and we can’t live with them too.
Plainly, that's a lot to think about. And, with all of the conversations swirling around with respect to the beneficial and detrimental impacts of technology on our cognitive, emotional, and physiological beings, there is still much that is yet to be known. But, I leave you with this thought.
Recently, I had one of my best weekend ever. But, it didn’t start out grand at all. In fact, the weekend begain like most of my weekends, busy, so busy that I neglected to check my pockets before washing my jeans. In my haste, I washed my smart phone too. Now horribly drenched, my phone was lifeless. Comletely dead. Stlll. At first, I was speechless. But, oh what I weekend I then experienced. Freed from my smart phone, I slowly began to relax. I started to connect to real people in real relationships and with real things. No phone calls and no buzzing emails or texts to interpret life’s relationships. I have to admit; it was one of the most best days of my life. Because of that experience, I now try to take one day per week free from my smart phone. Life can indeed be sweet to our souls, bodies, and minds without the constant intervention of our phones. And, better yet, life can be even sweeter for those around us too. So, feel free to join me in taking meaningful smart phone respites. The more the better. (Scott Johns)
Nicholas Carr, How Smart Phones Hijack Our Brains, Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, 2017.
Mr. Carr references numerous research articles, several of which are discussed in this article.
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (April 2017): 140-154, https://doi.org/10.1086/691462.
Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512453827.
Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, Anthony Almond; The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 2 (2015), 119-135, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12109.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
With National Mental Health Day for Law Schools just around the corner on October 10, it's a good time to think of how to help those struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mental health issues. Just like every law school should have faculty or staff trained in first aid to help those who are physically injured, every law school should have faculty and staff certified in mental health first aid to provide early intervention and to help persons developing mental health problems or experiencing mental health crises.
Originally developed in Australia in 2000, Mental Health First Aid programs now operate in over twenty nations. The U.S. program, developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health and cooperating agencies, is explicitly patterned on the model for providing physical health first aid. After an eight-hour in-person training, participants receive a certificate good for three years; participants can be re-certified by doing online or additional in-person training. Programs are offered throughout the country, sponsored by universities, medical providers, government agencies, and non-profits. The Mental Health First Aid web page offers access to training schedules and more information.
In mental health first aid training, participants learn risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for helping persons in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and resources for professional and peer help. Using role plays and other active learning techniques, participants practice an action plan which consists of assessing for risk of suicide or harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging the affected person to seek appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.
Mental Health First Aid is a great addition to the ASP toolbox. While we have all practiced risk assessment, active listening, and appropriate referral, this training program formalizes and structures our efforts, as well as giving us measurable credentials. Because courses are offered locally, they also help strengthen our awareness of local resources available to help colleagues, students, and members of the community.
Finally, don't forget the great law-specific resources available, including the Law School Academic Success Project Wellness page, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, National Mental Health Day for Law Schools materials, and Professor Larry Krieger's invaluable booklet (newly revised and expanded), The Hidden Stresses of Law School and Law Practice. (Nancy Luebbert)
Thursday, September 20, 2018
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), citing to Law.com and TaxProfBlog editor Dean Paul Caron, the national average score on the MBE multiple-choice portion of the July bar exam dropped to its lowest level in 34 years. http://www.abajournal.com; https://www.law.com; http://taxprof.typepad.com. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) reports that the July 2018 MBE average score was just 139.5, while for the July 1984 exam, Law.com reports that the MBE average score was likewise low at 139.21. http://www.ncbex.org/news; https://www.law.com.
In an article by Law.com, the President of the NCBE - Judith Gundersen - is quoted as saying that "they [this summer's lower MBE scores] are what would be expected given the number of applicants and LSAT 25th percentile means of the 2015 entering class." https://www.law.com. In other words, according to the NCBE, this summer's low score average is the result of law school admissions decisions based on the NCBE's appraisal of 25 percentile LSAT data for entering 2015 law students.
Nevertheless, despite the NCBE's claim, which was previously theorized by the NCBE back in 2015 (namely, that bar exam declines are related to LSAT declines), previous empirical research found a lack of empirical support for the NCBE's LSAT claim, albeit limited to one jurisdiction, one law school's population, and admittedly not updated to reflect this summer's bar exam results. Testing the Testers.
As an armchair statistician with a mathematics background, I am leery of one-size-fits-all empirical claims. Life is complex and learning is nuanced. Conceivably, there are many factors at play that might account for bar exam results in particular cases, with many factors not ascribable to pure mathematical calculus, such as the leaking roof in the middle of the first day of the Colorado bar exam. http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/ceiling_leaks_pause_colorado_bar_exam.
Here's just a few possible considerations:
• The increase to 25 experimental questions embedded within the set of 200 MBE multiple-choice questions (in comparison to previous test versions with only 10 experimental questions embedded).
• The addition of Federal Civil Procedure as a relatively recent MBE subject to the MBE's panoply of subjects tested.
• The apparent rising incidences of anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities found within law school populations and graduates.
• The economic barriers to securing bar exam testing accommodations despite longitudinal evidence of law school testing accommodations.
• The influence of social media, the internet age, and smart phones in impacting the learning environment.
• The difficulty in equating previous versions of bar exams with current versions of bar exams given changes in the exam instrument itself and the scope of subject matter tested.
• The relationship among experiential learning, doctrinal, and legal writing courses and bar exam outcomes.
Consequently, in my opinion, there's a great need (and a great opportunity) for law schools to collaborate with bar examiners to hypothesize, research, and evaluate what's really going on with the bar exam. It might be the LSAT, as the NCBE claims. But, most problems in life are much more complicated. So, as a visual jumpstart to help law schools and bar examiners brainstorm possible solutions, here's a handy chart depicting the overall downward trend with respect to the past ten years of national MBE average scores. (Scott Johns).
September 20, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, September 16, 2018
We are finishing our fourth week of classes for all students and the fifth week of Torts for 1L students (they started Torts during orientation week). Multiple 1L students have been in my office the last 2 weeks stressing over the amount of work and their struggles to comprehend the material. Many of them have been comparing themselves to "everyone else." They are convinced that they are the only ones who are confused, overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and chips-and-coffee-fueled.
When I reassure them that they are not "the only ones" and that "everyone else" is not leaps and bounds ahead of them, I see a glimmer of hope. They are not yet convinced, but they are willing to take a deep breath and regroup.
Each student's concerns are somewhat different. We unpack what is going on, and most often make future appointments to address specific topics (time management, learning preferences, reading/briefing, etc.). Here are some of the things we may discover with different students when we start to unpack the overwhelmed responses to the situation:
- The student does not fully account for the newness of law school: a new language, a new way of thinking, a new way of questioning, a new way of writing, and a new professional experience.
- The student has always been one of the brightest immediately in a new course and suddenly is not.
- The student's prior education has not been very challenging and did not require much time and effort to get high grades.
- The student believes that "fast is best." Finishing before everyone else has been the student's measure for success in learning. Suddenly the student is painfully slow.
- The student has lost perspective of what is needed for a course and is overworking (capturing trivia, reading multiple study aids, reading string cites and note cases in full).
- The student believes that everyone else is grasping the classes in less time, with less work, and at greater depth.
- The student believes every classmate who brags s/he understood the 25-page assignment in 30 minutes or never studies evenings and weekends.
- The student forgets that judicial opinions are not written for law students, that not all questions have right answers, and that edited opinions may skip paragraphs linking ideas.
- The student is preparing for either case understanding or synthesis but not both so that some questions are always "from left field."
With each student's appointment, I am once again reminded of what it was like to be a fall semester 1L without an academic support professional to help. The good news is that they already know more than 5 weeks ago (if they just look back), they will know far more in another 5 weeks, and at the end of the 1L year they will be amazed at themselves. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, September 10, 2018
Bar results began rolling in last week. Oklahoma results posted on Friday. Bar result day is both exciting and disappointing for me. My emotions yo-yo from talking to thrilled students to discussing disappointment with unsuccessful alumni. The personal stake we take in our students is what makes us successful, but it is also why we feel so much disappointment on an exciting day.
Nike has a famous Michael Jordan ad where he says “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Jordan is famous for being extra critical and focusing on what he missed. He enjoyed his successes briefly, but he dwelled on defeat. Nick Saban, Alabama football coach, is arguably the best college football coach in history. When asked how long he would celebrate his recent National Championship, he said 1 day. After that, he needed to start recruiting and preparing for the following year. Neither person enjoyed their victories.
Anyone can make an easy argument to “be like Mike,” or get ready for the next bar the day after results. February is only 5 ½ months away, and the bar does not wait for anyone. However, dwelling on the disappointment robs both you and your students of the joy of their accomplishment. Many students worked with us from the first day of school. Other students struggled and sought our help 2L or 3L year. Their excitement is worth celebrating. Being a part of their accomplishment is important. They will enjoy their celebration more with our excitement as well. Celebrating the successes will also help fuel us to help more students clear their hurdle. Celebrate with your students more than momentarily.
Celebrating does not take away the disappointment for the unsuccessful students. We can learn from their experience and develop a plan to help them clear the hurdle as well. Their pain is very real and has a significant impact on their future. However, you can make a difference in their life by being ready to lift them up. Lifting up someone else is difficult if we don’t have the emotional strength. Celebrate successes to build strength to help those who need you even more now.
I completely understand the emotional difficulty revolving around bar results. I have to work hard to not take students not passing as a personal failure. It is easy to think about what we could have done different. Suppress those thoughts to celebrate what you did correctly for the majority of students to pass. You can then go back to the drawing board and be both an academic and emotional support for your re-takers. Celebrate success!
Monday, September 3, 2018
My favorite season began last weekend. Some people like one of the weather seasons, but my favorite season is college football season. The pageantry, great food, and fanaticism permeates the air. Last Saturday’s heat index rose above 100 degrees while hanging out with over 85,000 of my closest friends, but I couldn’t be more excited. I get to experience that pure joy with my 2 sons, and we have a blast. Similar experiences and joy are important for a successful law school career.
My love of college football didn’t start after law school. I grew up rooting for my hometown team, which eventually became my alma mater. I watched them consistently growing up and attended some games in college. I wouldn’t miss watching a game. When I got to law school, I made the decision to take off every Saturday to continue watching or attending games. It was one of the best decisions I made for myself.
Law school is hard and busy, especially the first year. The language isn’t the same as undergrad. Readings take longer. No one feels prepared, and many first year students feel behind almost immediately. Many students have a tendency to work non-stop to make up for the perceived inadequacies. Students will read something every day and not schedule down time. LRW assignments start increasing, and by mid-October, many 1Ls start hating law school.
Law school hatred is fueled by burn out and being overwhelmed. Those feelings lead to less focus when reading, which then requires more time to complete the work. Students will then take more breaks throughout the day, extending work late into the evening. The extended work deprives them of relaxation each night. Feeling behind causes some students to work 7 days a week, which then exacerbates the exhaustion. The downward spiral unfortunately continues throughout the semester, and it causes many students to despise the law school experience.
While law school is definitely hard, the experience can be much better with built in balance. Work-life balance isn’t a fad, and balance isn’t a problem for “other people.” Everyone needs time away from studying to stay both happy and productive when preparing. Everyone is different. I took almost every Saturday off during law school. I made the choice that what I enjoyed would be a priority. It made outlining on Sunday easier for me. I had my break and could get back to work the next day. I have students who spend every Sunday with their family. Think about what is important for you. Write it down. Decide now what will help you enjoy life outside law school.
After deciding what is important, decide when you take time off to enjoy it. Planning the time away now is important. Everyone has difficulty taking time off when already overwhelmed. Trying to come up with coping mechanisms while stressed is difficult, and trying to add in relaxation when overburdened is near impossible. The time to plan your non-law activities is now.
While planning when to take time off, consider the impact when everything is scheduled. Our 1L students have classes M-F. Many students read the day before class. On Friday, students go to class, but then tend to take the rest of the day easier. They may look at a few extra problems or organize material from the week, but they don’t spend 4-5 hours on those tasks. The day is still long, but not as productive as a normal day. Those students then spend a significant portion of Sunday completing the reading for Monday, which is still exhausting. For those students, 6 days a week are long and exhausting. They also struggle to find time to complete outlines, practice problems, and LRW assignments.
A different plan may increase effectiveness and decrease stress. I encourage students to spend Friday reading like a normal day. Read the material for Monday. The stress of required work on the weekend is gone. Spend a day off either Saturday or Sunday. On the other day, work on outlines, practice problems, and other study tools to prepare for finals. I wouldn’t casually study on Sunday, but working for a couple hours, then taking a break is easier when class isn’t looming the next day. Spending 5-6 hours on study tools provides a huge benefit for final exams. Choosing what to study each day has an impact of how overwhelmed you feel. This schedule benefits from a clear day off and a day focused on final exam study.
Peanuts, hot dogs, fresh air, and exuberance helped my mood throughout law school. The break can help your mood as well. Make time for your fun activities to not merely survive, but to thrive in law school.
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Hat tip to Kirsha Trychta for the link to the ABA's announcement that the new date for Law School Mental Health Day will coincide with the World Health Organization's World/National Mental Health Day: ABA Mental Health Day. The write up headline indicates the correct new date of October 10th; the body of the information incorrectly still indicates the old March date. The link will take you to additional resources at the ABA and other organizations including a link to the David Nee Foundation.
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
While many students are mildly uncomfortable with some of the speaking and social interaction involved in law school, for some students the discomfort can be almost paralyzing. Extreme shyness can make law school seem a Herculean task. Gripping, gut-wrenching social anxiety can result in students missing class, losing focus because of the fear of being called on, passing on opportunities to engage with professors after class or during office hours, or shutting themselves off from peer learning and networking.
It's not uncommon for a law student to confess to me that s/he is shy. "Confess" is, indeed, the operative term, because the shy student invariably feels that the shyness is something shameful that should be hidden from others. But having the courage to disclose something which feels like a defect can be in itself a monumental step towards overcoming the obstacles posed by the shyness.
While students with debilitating social anxiety may benefit from professional help from a licensed counselor, most students can mitigate the effects of shyness by self-help, following these principles:
- Believe in yourself, in your own abilities and your own worth.
- Recognize that overcoming shyness is a skill.
- Reward yourself for your efforts rather than dwelling on how others react.
Believe in yourself. We all have different gifts and natural abilities. Others may be more fluent or quicker to understand in the classroom. Rejoice for them. But you have your own gifts that will make you a great lawyer. Perhaps is is a gift for listening, or for simplifying, or for seeing patterns in a morass of details. In addition to celebrating the gifts you already have, trust that you can develop new skills, even if they don't reach the level of perfection. Invoke self-efficacy by believing that you can succeed in meeting the challenges posed by your shyness. Corny as it may seem, write supportive notes on your mirror or state your aspirations every time you walk through a doorway. Practice mindfulness or meditation to quiet your inner critic and strengthen your trust in the person you are.
Recognize that overcoming shyness is a skill. All the skills you are developing in law school take practice to master, and overcoming shyness is no exception. Recognize that performance is the measure of your success, not how you feel inside. At the end of the semester, if you can ask a coherent question in class --maybe even with follow-up comments! -- you are succeeding, even if you still get butterflies in your stomach.
Experiment! Experiment to find techniques that help you feel comfortable in speaking and social interaction. Just like you may experiment with flow charts, flashcards, and mnemonics to discover how you best understand and remember legal rules, experiment with different techniques to combat your fear of speaking in front of others. Here are some ideas:
- Visualize yourself speaking clearly and confidently.
- Adopt a confident physical posture like the "Wonder Woman pose." See https://jamesclear.com/body-language-how-to-be-confident for a discussion of the science behind this and to watch Professor Amy Cuddy's influential TED talk on how confident body language can boost confidence and success.
- Take a deep, calming breath before you start speaking.
- Before class, prepare your briefs to answer the question you anticipate the professor asking.
- Write down questions as they come to you and then read them out, rather than trying to formulate a question and speak at the same time.
- Enlist a supportive friend to help you practice in mock classroom settings.
- At presentations or receptions, realize there are probably people who are even more uncomfortable than you. Seek these people out, strive to put them at their ease, and ask questions to draw them out.
- When others talk with you, believe that they are interested in you and in what you have to say.
Reward yourself for your efforts. Set goals for steps you can take, and reward yourself based on what you do, not on whether others reacted as you hoped. For example, "I will raise my hand at least once in every class this week to ask or answer a question." If you raised your hand, count it as success even if the professor called on another student instead of you. Likewise, "At this reception I will talk with one person I don't know." If you introduce yourself and the other person grunts two works and moves over to the refreshment table, you were a success despite the other person's bad manners. And celebrate your successes! They merit a gold star on your mirror, some time with a mystery novel, a walk with the dog, or whatever you do to give yourself an "attaboy" or "attagirl." (Nancy Luebbert)