The Final Countdown

For the forthcoming school year I have invited Anna Jirschele to act as editor of the blog. Anna is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin who is about to start her 2L year at Chicago-Kent. As a 1L student in my Contracts class, Anna helped me once again to see how essential it is for law professors to focus on student welfare and personal development. Here’s her first post.

Anna Jirschele

Anna Jirschele

The end of summer is just one short week away and law students, such as myself, are about to embark on another year in pursuit of a legal education. Recently, I have been reflecting on how my summer was spent, and pondering what the next year has in store. Along the same vein, Professor Walters suggested I read an article titled: What to Do Before You Start Law School. .Although I am a rising 2L, I thought back to where I was at this point a year ago; a nervous yet excited rising 1L. I think the article gives similar advice to what I received regarding my summer before 1L year: take it easy and enjoy your freedom. To be sure, 1L year is a lot of work and some R&R before it begins is healthy. However, I don’t think turning off your brain and not thinking about the law is the best option.

In my experience, the best thing law students can do at any time is to stimulate their brains in ways traditional classroom learning can’t. For some students, briefing cases and outlining courses isn’t thrilling and it doesn’t have to be. Whether you are beginning your first year, or you’re in the middle of your third, figure out what gets the wheels in your head turning. I would challenge all law students to dig deep and figure out what fires them up. What topic makes your eyes light up when you speak about it? What topic can you not seem to get enough of? Discuss these topics with your classmates, professors, roommates, or parents. Initiate a conversation in a professor’s office hours that may not happen in the classroom. Research a topic simply because you want to learn more. School doesn’t have to be all about reading your 100 pages per night and preparing to be called on the next day. Take your education to the next level, on your own and push yourself to figure out what makes your brain come alive.

To all rising 1Ls, my advice is simply that you don’t have to think about the law or law school in the traditional way you think you do. 1L year is so much more than just work; it’s an opportunity to begin learning about what makes you passionate. As school begins, just remember that this passion could be anywhere so keep an open mind to all that is around you.

As law students and the study of law are my life’s work, I decided that the time has come to give students more of a voice on this blog. With that aim in mind, I’m trialing the idea of inviting a student or students to become guest editors and posters.  First up is my 1L research assistant, Erica Burgos.  In her first post, she discusses the implications of the recent ABA survey of current rates of substance abuse and mental health issues among lawyers.

Erica Burgos cropped

Erica Burgos

As a current 1L at Chicago-Kent, I can personally attest to the challenges that first year law students face. Classes are more fast-paced, cold calling is terrifying and homework has consumed most of our lives.  With one semester and a series of exams already under our belts, many of us feel as though law school is not insurmountable.

That being said, the first semester was far from a being a breeze and this semester has proven to be just as difficult. It’s not just the substantive material itself that makes the first year of law school difficult. It’s the entire process in and of itself. We’ve all heard that law school is meant to teach us how to think like lawyers but it wasn’t until I stepped through the doors on the first day of class that I began to realize just how difficult it would be to change the way I think. Law school changes the way you think about the law but it also has changed the way I see school. For many of us, the old “flying by the seat of our pants” approach to studying that we learned in undergrad just isn’t going to cut it. We also had to change the way we thought about our schedules and our social lives. At this point in our law school careers, most of our lives have been turned upside down and it’s likely that many are still struggling to find a balance.

It shouldn’t come as such a shock then to find that young lawyers and law students are now considered to be “at risk” for substance abuse and mental health problems when compared to the general population. A recent ABA survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers and judges in the United State provides compelling evidence that mental health and drinking problems were higher than indicated by previous studies with young lawyers most at risk.

The new stresses of law school including deadline worries, lack of sleep, and social alienation can all lead to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. These chronic stresses can open the door to substance abuse, which could further trigger a latent addiction problem. Coupled with the surplus of opportunities students have to drink and to do so heavily at school-sponsored networking and social events, it’s not difficult to see how and why these rates could continue to rise.

The question then becomes what can we do to try to combat this troubling realization starting in law school? Commentators have identified some possible remedies (see here and here):

  1. Require law schools to have mandatory programs on wellbeing that would compel students to attend classes on self-care that would include coverage of substance abuse and mental health and provide strategies for improving personal welfare. These classes could also focus on the nexus between impaired lawyers and ethical violations and potential sanctions. Whether these mandatory classes would be a good idea or not is yet to be seen. It is possible that students not facing these issues at the time would find it pointless while those already struggling but not yet ready to face their realities would find the classes upsetting, only further alienating them from the help we wish them to have.
  1. Encourage students not to hide their problems. In this respect, law schools should consider strengthening their relationships with local Lawyer Assistance Programs in order to help promote ways students can better strike the school-life balance. Relatedly, the culture in which a student “all nighter” is treated as a badge of honor fundamentally needs to change.
  1. Review school-sponsored social events. Since the beginning of the Spring semester, at least five student events at my school have encourage alcohol consumption with “$5 all you can drink wristbands.” While it is not necessary for law schools to ban drinking entirely, the purpose and benefit of the event itself should be the central focus and the alcohol available deemphasized. Schools should also continue to diversify social events to include more relaxing daytime events and additional events that promote wellness.

Regardless of the approach law schools choose to adopt, there is no denying that law students’ stress levels are at an all time high.  Students are concerned about grades. Students are concerned about their futures. Furthermore, this negative emotion can lead to fear, anger, increased mental instability, and a surge of substance abuse problems. Ultimately, the key is for both faculty and students to become more familiar with the warning signs of distress and to ensure students are aware of the confidential health resources available to them.

If you or someone you know may be in need of mental health or substance abuse help please contact your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program or campus counseling service.  If you are at Chicago-Kent two great resources are the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program and IIT’s Student Health and Wellness Center.

Now that thought leaders in the profession have started talking about the need for law firms to be (or become) learning organizations, there can be no doubt that the times have decisively changed.  And very likely for the better.

This post by Mark Beese suggests (among other things) that firms that prize skills acquisition over knowledge acquisition, sharing and collaborative learning over formal training, risk taking over fear, and humility over ego will be very well placed to deal with the not so new normal.

If this is the future of legal services… and the future of law schools… then let’s bring it on!  It will be truly transformative.

[Hat tip to Amy Jarmon at the Law School Academic Support Blog]

Friend of the blog, Ken Adams (see here, here and here) has a great new co-authored article out on his favorite subject – contract drafting and contract process.  Worth reading as always.

I am pleased to announce the publication of the second edition of Michael Hunter Schwartz’s Contracts: A Context and Practice Casebook, the book from the Carolina Academic Press Context and Practice Series that I use in my Contracts class.

I have posted previously about my admiration for the first edition (which Dean Schwartz co-authored with Denise Riebe).  It seems that Mae West may have had it right when she said that “flattery will get you everywhere” because Dean Schwartz asked me if I’d like to be his co-author on the second edition.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with one of National Jurist Magazine’s top twenty-five most influential people in legal education and, thus far, things have worked out well. Our aim was to get the new edition out for Fall 2015 and we have succeeded in that.

Schwartz & Walters

Our approach to the second edition has been to not fix what ain’t broke.  We’ve tuned the engine. We’ve cleaned up a few glitches. We’ve updated and we’ve tinkered. We’ve introduced a few new cases and a few new problems. As Mike says in the preface:

“[W]e have retained the first edition’s heavy emphasis on good teaching, multiple assessments, visual learning aids, professional identity development, and practical lawyering. We also have kept most of the cases from the first edition, and, as to the cases we did eliminate or replace, we moved them to the teachers’ edition so that no former user will suffer withdrawals.”

So, folks it’s over to you. Be you a student or a faculty user, please let us know what you like and what you hate about the new edition; what you can live with and what you can live without…  We hope that it provides a foundation for a useful and enjoyable learning experience.

At this time of year, I begin to think about my next 1L class. Once again, I’m slated to teach Contracts in the Fall and I’m very pleased that Chicago-Kent continues to give me the gig. 1L Contracts teaching in the US is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my twenty year plus teaching career.

A recent article by Sean Darling-Hammond and Kristen Holmquist called Creating Wise Classrooms to Empower Diverse Law Students has got me thinking about how incoming students can best advance prepare for law school so as to hit the ground running come Fall. Ostensibly, the problem that Creating Wise Classrooms sets out to address is how law students from underrepresented groups often struggle in law school even though they enter with comparable accomplishments in high school and college as the rest of the entering class. According to the authors’ research, many Black, Latino, female, and low-income family students report that they suffer academically from “classroom…environments that [do] not encourage or allow students from diverse backgrounds to excel.”  These are profound and important issues. The thesis of the article is that we need to “create wise classrooms” in order to address institutionalized features of the law school experience that work structurally in a way that unintentionally exacerbates what the authors describe as the “triple-threat of the solo status that accompanies being a member of an underrepresented group, the stereotype threat that accompanies being a member of a stereotyped group, and the challenges that attend lacking a background in the law before beginning law school.”

Creating Wise Classrooms has challenged me to think further about my own practice and, in particular, one teaching axiom that I have always tried to live by – that we should take our students as we find them and go from there. Of course, it is difficult to provide a truly differentiated educational experience with a class of 70 students. But we should always make the effort to work out the baseline from which students will then be adjusting and developing. 1L year is about adjustment and 1L grades are in truth the measurement of a process of adjustment. The As that I give out in December after one semester of law school are clearly not a good predictor of whether the ‘A’ students will turn out in ten years time to be better commercial lawyers than the students who get B minus. It follows then that the right approach is an inclusive approach that gives everyone a decent opportunity of making a reasonably quick adjustment.

Darling-Hammond and Holmquist have many useful and practical recommendations for how to go about creating the kind of learning environment that will ameliorate the “triple threat”. I am perhaps best qualified to say something about the third of the threats, namely “the challenges that attend lacking a background in the law before beginning law school.” The important thing here is for students to try to put in place some foundations before they arrive. I think there are three important foundational pieces: 1) general orientation and study strategies; 2) a very general knowledge of the legal system (which you otherwise tend to learn on the fly in your required classes; 3) emotional well being and building resilience.

If there are any soon to be new law students that want specific recommendations of readings in any of these areas, please drop me an email at awalters@kentlaw.iit.edu.  I have a few ideas. Though, equally, I think it is important not to overload on too much “pre-school”.  There are some useful resources at Law School Interactive for anyone who wants to start exploring.

Do not neglect my suggested third foundation. I was reminded again of why I hold it so dear when I read about this initiative from the University of Wisconsin Law School the other day. It is important that the emphasis in law school on the “left-brained” reasoning and analytical skills does not end up as its own structural impediment to the development of effective, holistic, empathetic lawyering. In that vein, I am a big fan of Paula Franzese’s A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student and other books in the Short and Happy Guide book series.



Professors are wont to say that the worst part of their (our) job is grading.  The subtext of the complaint is that grading large numbers of essays or exams is tedious and repetitive.  A kind of necessary evil.

The problem is that grading is self-evidently very important because it involves decisions about student performance that can have potentially far reaching personal and professional consequences. And so in my view grading – which is part of a much wider process of student assessment – has to be thought of as a core professional and ethical responsibility rather than a distraction that (*shrugs shoulders*) just happens to go with the territory. If that’s right then we should be talking more about effective assessment design and assessment process. Perhaps because US higher education as I have experienced it assumes our professionalism by granting individual class instructors a large degree of autonomy over how we teach and assess, left to our own devices, we don’t seem to talk about student assessment much with each other (at all?).  Maybe we should.

I’ve just finished grading my Spring semester classes and have begun to reflect on my own assessment design and process. In my Bankruptcy class I succumbed to giving the students an end-of-semester “high stakes” final.  I don’t like “high stakes” finals as a general rule (my 1L contracts students get a graded midterm about which I may say more on another occasion).  But this was a big class and I decided to trade off a more continuous approach to assessment and instead provide opportunities along the way (for example, through non-graded quizzes) for students to self-evaluate their own learning.  I also made a very deliberate decision to test breadth rather than depth because the class was very much designed to provide a conceptual and functional understanding of how federal bankruptcy law works across the board. Neither high theory (which I can’t do) nor street level minutiae. Rather something in between. Or as a sociologist might say, neither macro nor micro but meso.

Despite my instinctive dislike of “high stakes” finals, I’m reasonably happy that the test instrument did a good job of assessing student learning benchmarking the results (once the cloak of anonymity is removed) against what I would describe as my “expectation curve”. My predicted grades on the expectation curve based on student performance in class, levels of attendance, and my impression of student engagement, were in the vast majority of cases no more than one increment off. There were outliers (a couple of students who did significantly better or worse than expected). There are always outliers. But overall the results were consistent with what I see when I base the grade on more than one or on multiple pieces of assessment.

Changing tack, I just read a piece by a college English professor, Raymond DiSanza.  Professor DiSanza doesn’t give a “high stakes” final and experiences lack of student engagement with end-of-semester classes that don’t specifically relate to assessed work. He laments that: “In our culture of assessment and evaluation, students can’t see the value in learning anything on which they’re not going to be assessed.” This too is a familiar refrain. You might blame our students’ instrumentalism on the fact that a surfeit of standardized testing is part of their lived experience. You might blame our students’ instrumentalism (in the law school context at any rate) on the fact that they are paying tuition to study for a credential that is linked pretty directly to a career aspiration.  And I am sceptical that there was ever some past golden age in which all students embraced the joy of learning for the sake of learning.  To me, it conjures up the image of a leisured elite that could well afford to learn so as to learn, rather than learn so as to earn. I could be wrong about this but I think we should be careful not to stigmatize instrumentalism. It’s not so terrible.

More interesting to me is the wider implication of the DiSanza complaint that when students are assessment focused, it detracts from a less instrumental, more engaged, more “wholesome” kind of learning. The wider implication is that there is as much danger in over-assessment as there is in under-assessment.  This was my experience in the UK where the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education rules the roost and dictates, or at least frames, much of what goes on in terms of teaching and assessment practice.  There, multiple points of assessment are increasingly the norm.  So, for example, my corporate law module had four points of assessment (a short IT-based research project, two 2,000 word problem solving essays, and a final exam that counted for no more than 50% of the grade). What tends to happen in that system is that students get amped up about the non-exam portions of the grade and will therefore tune out of your class, and their other classes, around the times when those assignments are due.  Moreover, I had several students that absolutely convinced themselves that the quality of their grade depended on the non-exam portions because “I’m not very good at exams”. This added further to the angst and was a self-perception that I spent considerable time trying to dispel.

I wouldn’t want this to be read as some kind of advocacy piece in defence of the “high stakes” final. Finals have their downsides, of course. The obvious downside is the otherwise excellent student who gets sick or just has “a bad day at the office”. And to be effective and fair measures of student learning, instructors must design finals purposively and well with clear benchmarks in mind.  But, if like me, you are not overly worried about student instrumentalism, a well-designed final that brings together a semester’s worth of material and assesses learning holistically may have as good a chance as anything else of concentrating students’ minds.