Recently I was talking with some of my colleagues, discussing the need to empower students to make informed decisions about how to best pursue their legal education. And my colleagues expressed surprise at my belief that students need to be empowered. So I started to examine the basis for my assumption.
I realized that when I think about what makes for effective teaching, I always think about it from the perspective of effectively teaching a theoretical student who is an underdog or outsider in some way. In fact, it is my committment to seeing these students succeed that fuels my passion for teaching generally and for academic support work in particular.
But what exactly do I mean by an “outsider” law student? I don’t think there is any one, clear definition. My sense of this category comes from the myriad individuals who have sat in my office over the years and told me about their successes and struggles as law students.
For some students, they feel like outsiders because they come from a racial, ethnic, or social group that is underrepresented among law students and lawyers. For others, it is the fact that they are the first in their family to complete college, much less pursue an advanced degree. For others still, it is because their only prior experience with the law is being on the wrong side of it. Yet another example: I have worked with many students whose demanding family lives have pulled their energy away from their studies, leaving them less engaged in and comfortable with the persona and experience of “law student.”
Just as there are different reasons why students might feel outside of the experience of law school, there are different degrees of alienation that a student may experience. On one end of the spectrum are students who are struggling across-the-board with the peculiar intellectual and social demands of law school; these students may be on academic probation or otherwise in danger of dropping out. On the other end of the spectrum are “high-performing” students who nonetheless feel alienated because they can’t imagine working in the conservative environment of a large law firm (the path they assume they are destined to follow). Somewhere in the middle you might find students who are fantastic writers and are holding their own in law school, but who are under-performing on their exams because of a quirky, creative way of thinking.
Further adding to the complexity of this portrait: It is entirely possible for a student with “objective” indicators of outsider status to nonetheless not experience this as interfering with his or her academic performance in law school.
In short, we focus on LSAT scores as a predictor of success in law school, but the real story of who experiences barriers to optimal performance and why is much more complex.
It is probably apparent at this point that my goal is not to get students to obtain a certain GPA or to pass the bar per se; rather, I see these accomplishments as the natural result of cultivating a rigorous yet rewarding educational experience over the three years of law school. What constitutes optimal performance will be different for every student, but all students should be supported in removing any unnecessary barriers to achieving that level of success.
The other piece of this story is that I’m not sure that the mythical “insider” or “typical” law student exists. A couple of years ago at an orientation event, I asked students to describe the characteristics of a typical law student. One of the most important markers for this imaginary person was that his parents were lawyers, or at least someone close to him in his family was a lawyer, and therefore he understood and felt comfortable with the legal system in a way that others did not.
But when polled, the majority of students in the room did not identify with this supposedly “typical” law student for one reason or another. Which raises the question of whether this student actually exists.
And I’m not sure it matters. The much more important inquiry is what are the characteristics of the student we as law professors imagine when we set out to teach? Do we assume that there is a lawyer in their family? Do we assume they grew up in this country? Do we assume that they understand the difference between the state and federal court systems? Do we assume that their undergraduate education was rigorous in terms of developing their writing and oral participation skills?
I am by no means suggesting that every law school professor attempt to address every possible iteration of law student—we have to formulate fair and reasonable assumptions in our teaching. But as we admit increasingly diverse law school classes, there must be a mechanism for providing additional support to students who do not meet our un-articulated norm. This is how, to me, the mission of academic support is at least in part about leveling the playing field to create conditions where individual students can maximize their performance.