Archive for the 'Inspiration' Category

Mar 10 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part II

1L of a RideThis is Part II of my guest posting derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I related to psychological distress in law students. This installment explores “The Perilous Second Semester”

II. The Perilous Second Semester

In a way I kind of feel as though the first semester was like me going into a burning building to pull somebody out of the fire. I wanted to go and was happy to do it, and after coming out I was glad I did it, but felt like I wouldn’t want to do it again. Now for the next semester I feel as though there is somebody else in the house and the fire has gotten worse. I groan and make myself go in again, and part of me wants to go back in, but in the back of my mind I’m aware of how tired I am from the first time and am a little more worried about whether or not I will get out of the building alive this time.

1L’s comment about starting the second semester

I’ve been teaching law for what seems like an eternity and, yet, until writing 1L of a Ride, had never given serious consideration to the second semester of law school as an entity of independent significance. Studying and surveying students at the University of Memphis brought home the realization that the second semester is, in fact, one of the most daunting challenges in all of law school, as reflected by the quotation above. How students respond to it is a crucial determinant of their long-term success. This is the juncture where students seem to make judgments and decisions about themselves and law school that play a large role in determining and defining their ultimate “law school selves.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve polled my Torts students at the start of the second semester with this online question:

What is your dominant feeling as you begin the second semester?

  • Excited
  • Tired
  • Bored
  • Depressed
  • Rested and ready

The most common answers by far are “Tired” and “Depressed.” Recently, I probed more deeply into student sentiments about starting the second semester. Just before classes began, I asked a section of Torts students to comment on, among other things, their state of mind and motivation and happiness levels in comparison to the first semester. The responses showed that, while some students feel better off in the second semester, a significant number are less happy and less motivated. I received several responses resembling this one:

  1. State of mind: Unhappy and sullen.
  2. Motivation level: Much less motivated—I’m already convinced I failed out of school, so the last thing I want to do is continue to work hard.
  3. Happiness level: The same amount of light unhappiness, but it’s for different reasons. In the beginning it was fear and anxiety. Now I just feel defeated.

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that many law students find the second semester more difficult and dispiriting than the first. With three months experience under their belts, one might think the second semester would be a “been there, done that” relative breeze. Students know how to read and brief cases, outline courses, and take law school exams. They’ve made good friends, the physical surroundings are familiar, and they’ve discovered that the Socratic method and the law profs who administer it aren’t as bad as the horror stories they heard before starting law school.

The Pitfalls of the Second Semester

While the above are all real advantages, the second semester carries with it a whole new set of challenges. I list and briefly describe them below. The book expands on them and offers ways for students to address them.

Ignorance can be bliss. The uncertainty of the first semester is a substantial cause of strain on 1Ls, but unveiling law school can be problematic as well. In the second semester uncertainty about law school is replaced by a disquieting certainty that it can be an exhausting, onerous drudge. As one student put it: “Now I know exactly what I’m walking into. First semester there was a bit of excited anticipation, etc. Now I know I’ll be in the library for the next four months.”

The thrill is gone. Students arrive at law school brimming with anticipation and energy. Seeing and feeling it is one of the great joys of being a 1L law teacher. But like romances that lose their dizzying effects when the newness wears off, law school becomes more of a chore than an adventure after the ebullience of the first semester subsides. In the words of bluesman B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

The double-edged grade blade. Depending how they turn out, first-semester grades can be either a major boost or impediment to starting the second semester. Most students begin law school with at least some hope of finishing near the top of their class, but, of course, the mathematical reality is that only 10 percent of students finish in the top 10 percent. Ninety percent don’t.

For those who performed well, first-semester grades can infuse new energy and confidence. But for every student whose confidence gets a jolt from grades, three or four others get their egos electrocuted. High expectations, previous educational success, mandatory grading curves, and an abundance of talented people create a perfect storm for dashed hopes. The storm is unleashed the moment first-semester grades are released.

Getting back in the groove. After going and going like the battery bunny on meth for three months, students finish that last exam of the first semester and everything suddenly stops. Many students don’t know what to do with themselves during the holiday break. They’re not used to having so much free time. Many report that they can’t enjoy the break at the beginning because they feel guilty about not studying. Then, just about the time they readjust to an unstructured lifestyle full of leisure time, it’s time to get back to the grind. One of my survey questions was: “The hardest thing for me about starting the second semester is [fill in the blank].” Getting back into the groove was the most common answer.

Increased competitiveness. To the extent competitiveness is a problem in law school, students tell me it gets worse in the second semester. I think much of it relates back to that first set of grades having been issued. In the first semester, everyone is in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat. The shared experience creates a communal bond. But once first semester grades have been issued, there seems to be a feeling—both among some high achievers and some lower-than-hoped-for achievers—of “Hey, you’re in that boat and I’m in this boat.”

Enhanced workload. Depending on the law school, a major cause of second-semester stress is an increased workload. Some schools (like the University of Memphis) add an extra course in the second semester. Some professors move at a quicker pace in the second semester, which means more material and longer reading assignments. And then, of course, there’s the appellate brief and oral argument, one of the heaviest burdens of 1L existence.

Second-guessing life as a lawyer. One obstacle some students face is larger than the second semester and even law school itself. It’s the global issue of wondering whether one made the right choice in sacrificing everything (e.g., time, effort, financial resources, relationships, other opportunities) to come to law school. Should I be here? Is this what I really want to do with my life? In the first semester, students are struggling just to keep up, giving them little time to ponder the long-term wisdom of their career choice. In the second semester, nagging doubts kept at bay in the first semester start to creep into consciousness.

Financial issues. Many students get panicky, or at least very concerned, about financial issues in the second semester. Students often arrive having saved enough money to get them through the first semester only to realize they need to start borrowing more heavily starting in the second semester. Debt load, in turn, takes on greater prominence as a source of anxiety as students begin to realize that the lawyer salary data they read about prior to attending law school—and which, unfortunately, draws many students to law school—is skewed. Those $160,000 starting salaries and lavish annual bonuses splashed across the media go to only a small percentage of top-performing students who land jobs at large law firms in big cities. To make matters worse, these days students are barraged with reports about many of those highly paid associates being laid off as a consequence of the weak economy.

Summer job anxiety. Students feel tremendous pressure in the second semester to land summer clerkships at law firms. In many cases, this pressure arises from pressing financial needs, but it also stems from an expectation that getting summer legal jobs is something 1Ls are supposed to do. Depending on the city and job market, obtaining a summer association position at a law firm may be in unconquerable obstacle for a 1L, especially for those who aren’t in the top of their class.

Becoming aware of these second-semester issues has made me be a better advisor/mentor to my students. I never used to mention any of these issues to my students. Most of them never even occurred to me. Now I talk about each of them at some point during the second semester. The discussions don’t eliminate my students’ stress or worries, but they do seem to help relieve them.

For further discussions about the book click here.

4 responses so far

Oct 16 2008

McCain, Obama and forms of argument

Published by under Inspiration

After watching the debates between Obama and McCain, I was less interested in who “won,” (unlike the many pundits who always declared victory for their guy), than how they responded to each other’s assertions. It seems to me they generally had two basic structural choices in responding to the opponent other than saying “I’m not sure:” (1) You are wrong because…..; and (2) You are correct, but….. Most of the time, they both were uttering “you are wrong” before the other person had finished his sentence. I don’t know what this means, but perhaps it has to do with going on offense or being on defense. At the very least, how they argue seems like something worth keeping track of, rather than who “won.”

–Steve Friedland

No responses yet

Aug 26 2008

OFF (the switch, not the bug spray)

Published by under Inspiration

Dear friends, I stumbled today on a glorious revelation – like, the kind they had way back when God Himself would make it all windy on mountains and stuff and then appear in a cloud and scare the living daylights out of you (I’m pretty sure I just fused two different stories from two different Testaments there, but you get the drift).

Friends, this revelation I’m about to share is earth-shattering. It’s iconoclastic. It’s unfathomable in this day and age. It could bring the downfall of humanity as we know it, so I beg you: tread carefully into what you are about to read.

The revelation is this:

I get more work done… when I turn the internet…

OFF.

No responses yet

Aug 25 2008

A Funeral for a Phrase

Published by under Inspiration

One of the aspects of law study I most enjoy is the nature and importance of words and phrases. As a lawyer and a teacher, I am continually reminded of the import a word or phrase has in the context of an analysis, argument or discussion. Although my students could not tolerate it, I could spend many happy class hours dissecting the phrases “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” and “purposeful availment” as I hold those phrases to have the same import in my discipline as my Shakespeare professor held “out damn spot” to have in Shakespearean drama.Despite our fondness for the weight of words, I suggest we have overlooked the import and implications of a phrase we use freely as legal educators. Paul Bergman’s May 21st CELL posting, “Thinking Like a Lawyer”, prompted me to rethink that traditional phrase used most often to promote the intellectual distinction of legal education. When a law student has learned to “think like a lawyer”, he has graduated to the next level of intellectual ability. As Professor Bergman suggests, when he thinks like a lawyer, a student has transcended the ability to read rules and has acquired an understanding that allows him to make legal arguments based what a case “stands for.”

This “thinking like a lawyer” concept is difficult to explain and I think we all, like Bergman, have struggled to describe to students the intellectual exercise enveloped in this phrase. However, how many of us have considered the phrase itself as part of the communication problem.

I met a law faculty colleague last summer at the Institute for Law Teaching conference in Boston. She is faculty at a Canadian law school with a student population that includes a large percentage of aboriginal students. After participating in a discussion on teaching students to “think like a lawyer” she remarked to me that this phrase lent nothing to discussions with her aboriginal students. Those students viewed the phrase as a suggestion they should become more white, more like the traditional picture of a lawyer, to succeed in law school and in the profession.

This phrase is best known as part of a statement made by the fictional Professor Kingsfield to his first year Harvard Law students: “you come in here with a skull full of mush, and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Kingsfield’s words come from the novel “The Paper Chase” by John Jay Osborn, a 1970 graduate of the Harvard Law School. Although the exact origin of the phrase before Kingsfield and Osborn is undocumented, the idea of a method of thinking unique to lawyers roots itself in the teachings and methods of Christopher Columbus Langdell, the ubiquitous Dean of Harvard Law School in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Langdell essentially created the study of law through his development of the case method, elevating law study to the level of a science, comparable to the study of medicine and other physical sciences. Langdell viewed the law library as a large laboratory where students work to develop themselves as learned intellectuals – elites. In Langdell’s time and for many years following, law school was a world of study and intellectual pursuit that belonged exclusively to privileged white males.

I teach now in a private southern University and we struggle to recruit and retain minority students. As a faculty, we are aligned in our desire to create a diverse student and faculty environment and we acknowledge the importance of diverse ideas in the academy of legal study. However, despite our best efforts, I wonder sometimes if we are missing the mark as we set our sites on the text and not the sub-text of our situation.

Recently, a minority student was talking with me about some of his law school experiences. He was struggling with how a black man would fit into the apparently white world of the legal profession. He commented that if “thinking like a lawyer” meant thinking like a middle-aged white man, he was not sure he really wanted any part of it. The phrase suggested to him also a picture of an elite, white, male world where the privileged prevailed.

Honestly, the phrase suggests the same to me. I cannot forget that the elite idea of an intellectual club for legal thinkers predates any time when I would have been allowed to attend law school or accepted as a legal professional. If we want to introduce our students to the world we value, the world of reading and understanding the law, perhaps we should reconsider the label we have placed upon the very goal of our guidance. What we really want students to do is to engage in learning the law for their own goals, not ours. We want students to find a sense of themselves in law school, as individual intellectuals and professionals, not to convert themselves to better match the idea of a lawyer. When we phrase their goal as we have heard it, as it has always been phrased, we are cutting them off from themselves and from a vision of themselves in the new context of law.

Thus, I have resolved to bury the phrase “thinking like a lawyer.” This comment will serve as its eulogy and as a public promise to my students that I will examine my words carefully as I stand before them advocating diversity and learning. I will still endeavor to guide students, as Professor Bergman suggests, to look at what a case or ruling stands for, then understand the role the law’s particular phrases and words play in the arguments lawyers make for their clients. I will try, however, to teach students to think as themselves … only better.

No responses yet

May 08 2008

Hopes and Fears

Published by under Inspiration

Thursday, May 8, 2008, 10:39 AM –
Posted by Gerry Hess

One of my colleagues organized a meeting of all the faculty members who will teach first-year students next year. The purpose of the meeting was for us to discuss our goals for first-year students and to explore ways to collaborate to achieve those goals.

I was hopeful. I was skeptical. My hopes and fears were realized.

Some of the meeting descended into faculty whining about students – indifferent work ethic, failure to listen, deficient writing skills, etc. I think these faculty members needed to get these comments out before moving on to more productive matters. The semester had just ended and my colleagues were feeling a bit of burn out.

However, I believe that my colleagues care about their students and work hard to be effective teachers. Much of the meeting reflected my colleagues’ commitment to their students’ learning.

We explored what level of analytical sophistication we should expect from students by the end of the first semester.

We agree that we needed to help students integrate their learning in their first year courses.

We discussed our obligation to give feedback to students in the first semester of law school and committed to giving a midterm exams (graded or practice) in October.

I left the meeting with hope. We had taken a small step to collaborate for the benefit of our students. We had reaffirmed the need for us to support one another’s efforts to help our students become effective lawyers.

Big changes start with little actions.

No responses yet

Apr 07 2008

Inspiration from the Best Law Teacher Nominees

Monday, April 7, 2008, 10:05 AM –
Posted by Michael Hunter Schwartz

So far, I have received more than 70 nominations. The inspiration I have found in just reading the nominations has already justified my effort in creating this project. There are many inspiring law teachers out there. Here is a link to the list of nominees: http://washburnlaw.edu/bestlawteachers/nominees/. I encourage you to visit on a day when you are looking for inspiration.

One common comment from nominators has stood out so far– the nominees care about their students and manifest that caring in many, many ways. Most not only know their students’ names, but also take the time to learn about their students as people. Several stay in touch with their students long after they graduate. All are genuinely accessible to their students well beyond the classrom walls.

All seem to care about how well their students learn, seeing their students’ success in learning as a measure of the work they do as teachers. Most provide multiple opportunities for practice and feedback so the students can self-regulate their learning.

But it all starts with caring about their students.

I can’t wait to learn more!

~Mike

No responses yet

Mar 25 2008

What the Best Law Teachers Do

Tuesday, March 25, 2008, 01:27 PM –
Posted by Michael Hunter Schwartz

I am in search of the best law teachers in this country, and I could use your help. I have the extraordinary opportunity to conduct a law professor-focused, follow-up study to Ken Bain’s wonderful WHAT THE BEST COLLEGE TEACHERS DO (Harvard University Press, 2004).

Thus, this posting is a solicitation of nominations. In particular, I am looking for teachers who consistently produce extraordinary learning, who change their students’ lives and whose instruction stays with students long after they graduate from law school.

I hope what I produce inspires you as much as Professor Bain’s work has inspired me. Over the next three years, I will be:
** soliciting nominations;
** gathering evidence of nominees’ excellence;
** paring the list of nominees to the most extraordinary law teachers; and then
** visiting law schools around the country, sitting in on classes, interviewing the nominees, and talking to focus groups of students and alumni; and then publishing what I have found in a book: WHAT THE BEST LAW TEACHERS DO (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011).

I have set up a web nomination process (although I will also accept nominations by phone, by e-mail, by regular mail, or in person). To nominate a candidate or learn more about this project, please go to http://washburnlaw.edu/bestlawteachers. Click on the link on the right side of the page to get to the nomination form.

To honor those who have been nominated, I have set up a website on which I will report the name of each nominee, the nominee’s institutional affiliation, and a few comments from the nominator. Here’s a link to that website: http://washburnlaw.edu/bestlawteachers/ … index.php.

I hope to gather as many nominations as possible, so I would appreciate any efforts to forward this message to your colleagues, listservs, students, and alumni. If you are a blogger, please post this information on your blog.

Feel free to e-mail me at michael.schwartz@washburn.edu if you have any questions. The names of nominators and nominees will be withheld upon request.

No responses yet

Mar 22 2008

Tapping into a University’s Resources on Teaching and Learning

The faculty of my school invited the director of the undergraduate teaching and learning institute, Peter Felten, to speak with us this past week. He was very helpful and I left the room with new ideas and perspectives. He talked mostly about metacognition and how people learn. He recommended a book that might not make the “Oprah Book Club,” but would have a chance to make its law equivalent. It is accessible not only in the way it is written, but also because it can be read on-line. The book, “How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice” (The National Academy Press 2000)(M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford and James W. Pellegrino, Editors), can be found at www.nap.edu/catalog. As Peter noted in his presentation, Chapters 2 (Key Findings) and 3 (Responses from the Education and Policy Communities) are particularly useful.

Peter’s site also has some terrific resources. If interested, go to http://org.elon.edu/catl/resources.html.(Peter has no idea I am promoting him, his site or his material.)

–Steve Friedland

No responses yet

Mar 20 2008

Learner-Centered Teaching

Published by under Inspiration

That is the title of an excellent book by Maryellen Weimer, who is a national leader in teaching, learning, and faculty development in higher education. This little gem of a book (201 pages) delivers the what, why, and how of learner-centered teaching. Weimer’s Learner Centered Teaching arose out of her review of the vast literature on student learning in higher education. She identifies five aspects of learner-centered teaching: (1) balance of power, (2) role of content, (3) role of the teacher, (4) responsibility for learning, and (5) evaluation purpose and processes. In clear, concise language, Weimer explores each of these concepts and provides examples from college classrooms.

Too busy to read a book? Maryellen has you covered. She is the editor of The Teaching Professor, a monthly newsletter on teaching and learning. Most issues are 6-8 pages long and contain 8-12 short articles containing helpful ideas for teachers. Most of the ideas are directly applicable to law teachers. For example, the January 2008 issue contained articles on:
•    Leading effective discussions
•    Dealing with students who over-participate
•    Effects of hurtful comments on student evaluations
•    Student attention spans.

Learner-Centered Teaching is published by Jossey-Bass – www.josseybass.com.
The Teaching Professor is published by Magna Publications – www.magnapubs.com.

(By the way, I met MaryEllen Weimer only one time – more than ten years ago at an Institute for Law School Teaching conference at Gonzaga. She has no idea that I am posting this blog.)

No responses yet

Feb 15 2008

Small Group Instructional Diagnosis

Published by under Inspiration

I just completed a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis with one of my colleagues. I’d read about the SGID process but had never experienced it until today. My colleague is an experienced educator who is in her first year of teaching Legal Research and Writing at Gonzaga. She wanted to gather formative feedback from her students that went deeper than the end-of-the-semester numerical and narrative student evaluations.

Last week, my colleague and I met to plan the SGID process. She agreed to produce a document that divided her (17) students into groups of three or four. We discussed the types of feedback she hoped to gather and I drafted the following handout.

***
Small Group Feedback to Professor ________

The purpose of this activity is to provide feedback to Professor ______about your learning and her teaching. In your small group, please address the four questions below. For each question, please record one or two responses on which the group reaches consensus. You have about 10 minutes to do so.

1. What aspects of Professor _______’s classroom teaching are most effective for you?

2. Evaluate the Writer’s Workshop. As a result of the Writer’s Workshop are you better able to diagnose and remedy problems in your own writing?

3. What aspects of Professor _______’s teaching are least effective for you?

4. What suggestions do you have to enhance Professor_______’s teaching and your learning in this class?
***

Earlier this week, my colleague described the SGID process briefly to her students. Today, I observed the first half of her class and then facilitated the SGID process for the final 25 minutes of class. Students spent 10 minutes in their small groups. Then in a large group sessionwe listed on a whiteboard the responses on which the students had consensus. One of the students captured the list on a computer and emailed me the results. An hour later, my colleague and I discussed the SGID process and results.

My colleague appreciated the confirmation that many aspects her teaching were working well for students. She also welcomed the students’ thoughtful suggestions about how the course could be even more effective for them. As she left my office, she was planning how to implement several student suggestions and how to explain her rationale for several of her teaching methods.

The SGID experience gave me hope. The students were insightful, respectful, and professional. They took the process seriously, welcomed the opportunity to provide formative feedback, and worked well cooperatively. Likewise, my colleague was insightful about her own teaching decisions, respectful of her students as learners, and professional in her approach to developing as a teacher. She really gets that the bottom line is not our performance but our students’ learning—our performance is relevant to our students learning—but our performance should not be an end in itself.

No responses yet