At the beginning of the semester, I introduced you to my new student editor, Anna Jirschele.  The following post reflects her thoughts on awesomeness.

Chicago-Kent students have completed about one-third of the semester and we are all feeling the pressures of law school in full force. Perhaps that new semester glow has faded, the case briefing is getting monotonous, and outlining has begun. So this post is dedicated to encouraging my fellow classmates to take a step back, acknowledge your goals and plans, and tap into your inner-awesomeness.

Awesomeness isn’t always easy to see in ourselves when the harsh stress of the semester kicks in. Last semester, Professor Walters and I would meet every few weeks and brainstorm ways to overcome stress and have confidence in the future. He pointed me to a presentation by Professor Frank Snyder from Texas A&M called “Innovations in Teaching and Mentoring.” In order to encourage you the way I felt encouraged by his presentation, I want to share some of Professor Snyder’s main points.

Professor Snyder starts his presentation by saying law school is unintentionally a “toxic environment.” He doesn’t focus on who is to blame for the nature of this environment. He instead dives right into how to change it. He challenges the professors he is speaking to, to “harness students’ total freaking inner awesomeness to increase happiness and improve school performance.” I think us students should be tasked with this challenge ourselves!

But where does one even begin to harness her awesomeness? Snyder discusses the power of starting with a vision for your future. He says “students always want reasons why they can’t.” But he says it is a “disservice” to talk about what we can’t do. So when a student gives him a vision for her future he says, “somebody’s going to be that and is there any real reason why it can’t be you?” The answer is no, it can be you – so make it you!

After you have a vision and hopefully feel encouraged to pursue it, create a plan. Long-term plans are important, but I would argue short-term challenges are more effective in gaining immediate confidence. Last semester, Professor Walters would give me a few challenges to meet in the following week. Good challenges for me included asking a teacher I admire out to coffee, or applying to a job I think I can’t get. With each completed challenge, I inched towards the person, student, and professional I envisioned myself to be. The challenges will be different for everyone; the important thing is taking the time to make them for yourself and follow through. Visions, goals, and plans equal confidence and awesomeness, and I learned that from both Professor Snyder’s presentation and Professor Walters.

Today, my challenge to my fellow classmates is this: set aside a half hour one day this week, and ask yourself what your vision of the future looks like. Remember Professor Snyder’s fundamental question: “somebody’s going to be that and is there any real reason why it can’t be you?” Then create just two small challenges to complete in the next week that will inch you toward your vision. Make the “somebody [who’s] going to be that,” you!

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.