A 3L takes stock…

OK folks, I know it’s been a while.  I’ve been busy this past year with teaching and writing projects. This post is by current Chicago-Kent 3L student, Erica Burgos, who has contributed to the blog before.  It’s clear to me reading it that we need to create and model pathways for all law students as early in law school as we can and continue to support students in making adjustments. It is quite normal to feel all at sea at first in any new endeavour. But the feeling should not persist!   AW.

Eighteen months ago, I had already completed the dreaded OCI process. For those of you, who like myself had no clue what that was prior to law school, OCI means “On Campus Interviews”. I applied to law school thinking that I had some idea as to what area I wanted to practice. I thought maybe I’d be a real estate attorney, because I had already worked in real estate. I also thought that being a litigator could be fun and I would probably be good at it because I was great at arguing.

So I applied to law school, got accepted, and jumped head first into my first year of law school. I’d been out of the school groove for some time, having worked about 5 years post graduation, but I figured it was just like riding a bike. What I learned was, IT IS MOST CERTAINLY NOT LIKE RIDING A BIKE. It is like being dropped off in the middle of a bustling city in a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, and yet everyone looks at you like you should because you chose to be there. You try to navigate and you think you can manage because you’ve managed to survive the last 20 years as a functioning human being in your own country except you realize that most of the skills you possess don’t really help you in this new place. So, naturally, you begin to panic. Maybe you cry, or drink, or even feel like giving up. You pass out from exhaustion a few times but then eventually, you realize that you’ve started to pick up a few things. You understand a few more words, you can ask for directions, and you’re able to get some food so you know you’ll survive. And just when everything seems like it’s getting a little better, you realize that if you plan to stay in this country, you need to find a job. And then the panic sets in again.

At this point in law school, you know you’ve learned a few things but if you’re anything like me, I still wasn’t sure what area I wanted to practice and I recognized I had very little idea on how to go about looking for a job. Toward the end of my first semester and into the spring semester of 1L year, I began hearing people talk about “OCI” but I really didn’t understand it. What I didn’t realize is how important first semester grades were to the process and I didn’t realize how much of your career is based on it. Obviously, I can’t begin to speak about what it’s like for everyone else; however, because I knew I wanted to work for a larger firm, I needed to participate in OCI.

Fast-forward through 2L year and there I was, about to start my summer job. I had placed tremendous pressure on myself to do well because there was an opportunity to secure a full-time offer from this firm after law school. I expected it to be a lot of work but after successfully getting through another year of law school and having already worked part time as a law clerk, I felt confident. What I didn’t expect was to feel so lost. I know that there are many students who loved their summer jobs. They felt like they rocked it and made tons of connections. And while now I appreciate my summer associateship and the firm that I’ll be working for next year, I admit that I struggled for the first few weeks. For most of my summer, I thought I was the only one who doubted the work I was doing, doubted how relatable I was to the other attorneys at my firm, and even doubted if I wanted to be a lawyer. I found out later that many of my law school friends felt that same sense of uneasiness and doubt.

I’m here to say that doubting yourself and feeling terrified is entirely normal. But those fears don’t necessarily reflect reality. What I’ve come to realize looking back on my last 2 years of law school, is that we are constantly lying to ourselves. We are continually allowing negative thoughts and feelings to creep in and tell us we are not good enough. That we are not smart enough, that we’ll never really fit in, and that we’ll never get the job. And while it is true that we all start out as new lawyers knowing very little about the law, it’s because we are green and inexperienced, not because we are incapable and unworthy.

While it’s great that some of our peers already know the area of law they want to practice, it’s also true that many of us don’t. And that’s okay. It’s also true that even when you think you have an idea; many times your work experience reveals another practice area you’ve grown to prefer. What I’ve had to learn throughout my summer associate experience, and law school thus far, is that I have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The law is constantly changing and evolving. Partners and senior associates still don’t know everything about the law; that’s why they hire clerks to do research. You have to get comfortable feeling like you don’t know the answer, comfortable feeling a bit lost in your quest to find that answer, and comfortable knowing that you are not a bad student or lawyer when you make a mistake. It’s the only way we can survive this practice and become better attorneys. We can’t convince others we should be in this profession if we can’t first convince ourselves that we are good enough and smart enough to be here.

Here is the latest post from student editor, Anna Jirschele:


The title of this post comes from the inspirational “holistic lawyer” J. Kim Wright, who emphasizes peacemaking in the law profession.  J. Kim Wright spoke about her book, Lawyers as Peacemakers, on the Jeena Cho’s “The Resilient Lawyer” podcast (which I would highly recommend!). One part of the podcast that caught my attention was Jeena and Kim’s discussion about the law school culture which breeds a certain type of lawyer. Peacemaking is an all too rare goal among lawyers, and it starts in the environment of law school. After an unfortunate experience with ruthless classmates in law school, Kim made it her mission “to be a lawyer without being a jerk.” In the podcast, Kim discusses her journey to become the holistic and collaborative lawyer she is today. In her now flourishing career as a lawyer, speaker, and consultant, Kim emphasizes helping lawyers discover their authentic path while staying true to their values. In Lawyers as Peacemakers, being authentic means “a focus on a more holistic, humanistic, solution-based approach to resolving legal problems.”

I began thinking about a similar message last semester when I chose to explore the Mediation Clinic at Chicago-Kent. I became a certified mediator, mediating real cases in small claims court within the first month of the semester. During my 1L year, I found myself longing for an area of law that would allow me to incorporate parts of my personality that a traditional attorney position would not offer. Mediation allows me to tap into my “clients” true needs and interests. Yes, attorneys serve their clients to the best of their ability, but I often found that clients still feel marginalized by the court system whether they win or lose their suit. I think every attorney or law student has heard a client say “it’s about the principle of the matter!” I believe clients want to feel heard within the legal system, and mediation best serves that end. Connecting my story back to Kim’s mission, my authentic legal path means seeing clients’ needs and interests beyond winning, and finding a legal solution that promotes the most peace among the parties.

As a law student or as a lawyer, I challenge you to find figure out what your values are. Figure out what parts of your personality must shine through in your career (legal or otherwise). And finally, never compromise those values. Read more about J. Kim Wright at lawyersaspeacemakers.com; and listen to Jeena Cho’s conversation with J. Kim Wright on The Resilient Lawyer podcast.

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.



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.