Vol. 41 No. 3
G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago.
Everyone struggles in something. What if your struggle is unraveling the concept of foreseeability in torts? Or the intricacies of personal jurisdiction in civil procedure? You are not alone—and help is available.
Feeling Lost? Join the Club
Deciding whether you need help in a class is difficult, perhaps even more so for first-year students. “There really is a difference between first years and subsequent years,” says Suzanne Darrow-Kleinhaus, director of academic development at Touro College—Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip, New York. “First-year students are overwhelmed and don’t even know what they should know, and they have no way to judge what they don’t understand. They might think, ‘I need a tutor for contracts because it is my worst subject.’ But truthfully they don’t know what their worst subject is yet. They are looking for help and will listen to everybody.”
That happens partly because law students operate in a vacuum. “The most difficult transition from undergrad to law school is the lack of feedback students get,” says Christine Gregory, assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. “There is typically one exam at the end of the semester, and students don’t really know how they are doing. They may feel quite lost, yet how they and their classmates sound in class are imperfect sources of information to ascertain how one is progressing. So it is sometimes difficult for students to determine what kind of support they need. The inclination is to run out and hire a tutor. But that is expensive and may not be helpful.”
If you sense you are not on top of your course material, give yourself time to settle in. “There is a real danger in the beginning of law school to think you need a tutor,” Gregory says. “It is natural to feel confused, so it is really important to sit with the material for the first third of the semester. It may start to come together. But if you are approaching the halfway point and still don’t feel you understand what is going on or you have big-picture questions, there might be a benefit to going to the professor.”
That is a good place to start, agrees Kathryn J. Walker, a third-year student at University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Florida. For two semesters, Walker served as a dean’s fellow leading civil and criminal procedure study sessions for first-year students. “If professors are doing a good job,” says Walker, “they will let you know if you need extra help.”
Hesitant to approach a professor for fear of leaving a bad impression that may seep into the professor’s consciousness at grade time? Go anyway, but be prepared. “It is not effective to go in and say, ‘I don’t understand,’” says Sarah Kaltsounis, director of the academic support program at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. “The professor will likely explain the concept the same way as in class. Your meeting will go a lot more smoothly and be more productive if you bring something in the professor can use to diagnose where you are going wrong, whether it is your case briefs or notes you are creating when you are reading. Or if you are doing a course outline, the professor may be able to look through it and spot where you are going wrong.”
After meeting with your professor, again evaluate where you stand. “If you feel like you got help with that one area of the law but still feel shaky about another area,” explains Kaltsounis, “or you decide you would love to do this every week but don’t want to bug the professor, those are signs that hooking up with a peer is the better way to go.”
Get the Right One-on-One Help
If you need more guidance, research all of the options at your school. Most schools have an academic support office that can provide additional resources.
“If you don’t understand something going on in class—like a concept or assignment—your first source should always be your professor,” says Darrow-Kleinhaus. “Still, law school is so new many students don’t even know how to frame a question. That’s when students should seek out their academic support system. I can’t think of a school that does not have one. Even the top schools have these resources.”
Resources differ among schools. Touro provides teaching assistants, who work with students in small study groups. The University of Miami School of Law offers its dean’s fellow program to all first-year students; in it, students like Walker who did well in a course take the course again with first-year students and lead two hour-long study groups each week covering study tips, how to organize thoughts and essays, and class-specific information. The University of Michigan Law School offers tutors to students whose grade point average is below the median. “We try to offer tutors who have excelled in that course with that professor,” says Gregory. “The next best tutor is someone who got an A in that course and has an honors-eligible GPA.”
After exhausting your school’s resources, you may decide you still need the one-on-one guidance only a tutor can provide. Again, schools have different options for students seeking tutors, including discouraging the practice altogether.
“If you hire a tutor for a subject, that tutor usually just focuses on blackletter law, which is fine if you really have trouble understanding concepts in a particular area, but teachers are the best ones to help students with that,” says Darrow-Kleinhaus. “And students have to learn how to figure things out themselves. That’s why we discourage tutors per se.” That said, Darrow-Kleinhaus has a list of Touro graduates who she can recommend to students intent on hiring a tutor.
It was an advisor who recommended Walker as a tutor. “Faculty members knew students had found my dean’s fellow sessions useful,” she says. “So when a struggling student was talking to an advisor, the advisor put us in touch. We ended up meeting once a week for most of the student’s second semester, and I tutored him on writing and any substantive area he wanted.”
Get the best tutor for your needs by following these tips:
Know the different philosophies on tutors. “‘I need to know how to get an A with that professor’ is something we hear all the time,” says Darrow-Kleinhaus. “Students feel that if a tutor has had their professor, the tutor will know how to get an A with that professor. That attitude is something we work to overcome. It is not what that professor wants that students should be learning; it is what legal analysis requires. Our goals are to teach the student how to think and learn about the law.”
However, Gregory sees a benefit to choosing one familiar with your professor. “I think the best are those who have taken the same course with the same professor,” she explains. “If you are hiring a tutor who knows the substantive law but doesn’t know how the professor teaches the course, how helpful that person can be is limited.”
A third option is to find a tutor outside your school through the growing number of online tutoring companies. “The tutoring industry is very fragmented,” says Andrew Geant, co-founder of WyzAnt, a national online marketplace for private tutors. “Some companies offer courses, while others offer all in-home tutoring. The most important thing when hiring a tutor is getting the right match. It is not just about the right material but the right personality and the right schedule and having someone you can communicate with.”
Don’t delay once you realize you need help. “Act as soon as you have any inclination your goals are slipping out of reach,” advises Geant. “The worst-case scenario [when getting help] is that you get ahead in the class.”
Yet it’s rarely too late to get help. “Near the end of the semester, some students say, ‘Is it too late now?’” explains Gregory. “But you can get a tutor to review your practice exams. You can ask things like: ‘What did I miss? Does the professor like this sort of answer? Should I talk more about policy? Have I included enough case law? Is it too conclusory?’ That is a very practical thing to do even if you haven’t had a tutor all along.”
Get pricing information up front. The cost of tutoring varies widely. Walker charged $50 per hour. WyzAnt’s legal tutors charge as much as $100 per hour, says Geant, though their average hourly fee is $46.
Ask how your tutor will prepare for your sessions. “Make sure you get what you pay for,” suggests Gregory. “The best tutors prepare for students, have a sense of what you are covering in class, and find out where you are in the class. Don’t let anxiety drive your choice. Sometimes you want to do something, but that something may not resolve your issue.”
The key to finding the right tutor is doing legwork up front to ensure you are both on the same page. “Having a frank dialogue is important,” says Geant. “Discuss expectations, and make sure the tutor’s on board with them.”
Gregory agrees: “You need to have a meeting of the minds of what you are trying to accomplish together.”
The Flip Side: Can You Earn Money Helping Others?
Feel qualified to be on the other side of the tutoring equation? Your school may offer opportunities for you to improve your own understanding of legal concepts while earning extra cash.
At Touro College—Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip, New York, students can choose between earning credit or hourly pay of $10 to $12 working as teaching assistants. But the job is no walk in the park. “We don’t pick TAs and let them loose with students,” says Suzanne Darrow-Kleinhaus, director of academic development. “We take only students who have demonstrated social and academic skills. Then we have a weekly training program in which we tell them how to work with a small group and the problems they should be using. We also monitor their sessions. They do it because they love working with students. But they also end up improving themselves because when you teach someone, you also learn.”
There are no TAs at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. But students may participate in the school’s tutoring program for students whose grade point average is below the median. “We pay tutors $10 an hour, but they don’t do it for the money,” says Christine Gregory, assistant dean for student affairs. “Sometimes they don’t even turn in their timesheets. It is something students can put on their résumé showing they understand the material.”
Like Touro College, the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle hires students as TAs. “We often hear it helps students get a better handle on the material,” says Sarah Kaltsounis, director of the academic support program. “By going through that course a second time around as a TA, their skills just skyrocket.”
Pay for UW’s TAs is $15 per hour, and the job is available to more than just students with the highest grades. “We will hire people who did not have the top grades all the way through the course but who showed incredible improvement,” says Kaltsounis. “If people did not have to work to learn the material, maybe they can’t help others understand it better. It is not a brilliant student we are looking for; it is a student who is able to help someone else be brilliant—and that is a totally different skill.”