Vol. 40 No. 1
ByAmy L. Jarmon
Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Academic Support Blog. She has practiced law in the United Sates and the United Kingdom.
First-year students often look to the upper-division law students for guidance. Law school can be overwhelming because the experiences are so different from earlier educational experiences—Socratic method, cases to read and brief, outlines, law application to new fact scenarios.
Some law schools have formal mentoring programs with returning students matched to incoming students. Student organizations often run “boot camps” for incoming first-year students. At every law school, informal advice helps the first-years integrate academically and socially. Upper-division students are very generous with their advice, time, and study materials.
Most law students give sound advice to the new students. However, upper-division students, who are adept at legal reasoning and study tasks, may forget what it was like learning those skills initially. They may give advice that works well for an experienced law student but will unintentionally cause a new law student to flounder.
Remember that everyone learns differently. Each law student has learning preferences for absorbing and processing information. Techniques that work well for one student may be counter-productive for another. One student may benefit from audio study aids; another student may benefit from flowcharts. One student may enjoy policy classes while another may avoid them.
Preface your study advice with “this technique worked well for me” rather than “this is how you must do it.” Consider the effective study strategies that friends use and offer several alternatives, whenever possible. If a student seeking study advice has learning preferences different than yours, refer the student to another classmate who uses those strategies successfully.
Because of learning differences, students will vary in their opinions about the same course or professor. The most difficult course for one student may be the easiest for another. A professor’s teaching style may frustrate one student but match perfectly another student’s learning styles. When giving advice, stay objective and balance your response with positive and negative comments you have heard from other students.
Encourage students to do the work themselves rather than take shortcuts. Learners improve their analytical skills, gain deeper understanding of material, and retain more information when they process information themselves. As a result, reading and briefing the cases, making the outlines, and creating the flowcharts are preferable to using canned briefs, depending on commercial outlines, and borrowing someone else’s graphic organizers. Students benefit greatly when they use other people’s materials for comparison rather than as substitutes for their own efforts.
The legal reasoning skills learned during law school translate directly to success in later legal positions. New students must regularly practice the basic skills to become proficient. Refer students who are feeling overwhelmed by the workload and time demands to an academic support professional at the law school. That person can discuss learning strategies to achieve greater results from their study time.
Suggest that students distribute their work throughout the semester. New students have often had past successes from cramming before exams or starting papers right before the deadline. In law school the overwhelming amount of material and more rigorous grading standards will increase the risk of those strategies. Students use memory to their advantage and decrease their stress when they review regularly. Avoid telling new students that they can wait until Thanksgiving to outline or start studying for exams the last month of classes. Delaying will mean that they have forgotten weeks of material and have to relearn it.
Provide advice that supports a life-study balance. Most entering law students have a history of studying very few hours to get excellent grades. They have been very involved in other campus or community interests while achieving academically. Law school will require far more effort to garner those same grades. Lack of studying will result in poor grades. However, studying every moment can have the same result.
Returning students can help new students find the balance they need to do well academically while still being involved in other activities. Encourage them to join at least one student organization to feel part of the law school community. However, caution them not to become over-involved; they need at least a semester to adjust to law school academics.
New law students quickly neglect sleep, meals, and exercise even though these routines provide more “brain power” and effective stress management. They may become so focused on law school that relationships with family and friends suffer. Law school can be especially hard on law students’ spouses and children. Encourage new students to make time in their weekly schedules to nurture both themselves and relationships.
Be aware of any bad habits that shouldn’t be passed on. Upper-division students do not always realize they are role models for new students. Through their actions and comments, they
illustrate “how law school should be done.” Unfortunately, the illustrations
are not always positive. As you make friends with first-year students, think about the role model that you will be.
For example, procrastination is a problem for many law students. It is easy to waste time chatting in the student lounge, answering e-mails, napping, or pursuing other activities to avoid work. Procrastinators often entice others to join them so that they feel better about not working.
Gossip and rumors are two other problems in the fish-bowl existence of law school. Both problems would be resolved if people would walk away, not pass on what they heard, and not start rumors.
Be positive and supportive whenever possible. Be careful that you balance any “war stories” with more positive accounts about law school. Remind new students that it will get better as they learn the legal terms, understand the professor’s expectations, and attend more classes. Be there to listen. Get them to look for solutions and move forward. Encourage them to go to teaching assistants, professors, and deans for assistance.
Upper-division students are invaluable in the process of new students settling in successfully. By being sensitive to your impact as a “seasoned” law student, you can make sure that your words of wisdom are all for the good.