Within a few weeks, the 1Ls will understand what ASP is and why law schools have such programs. But how to communicate this understanding to the 1Ls today, before they have sat through their first law school class?Here is what I plan to tell them. We’ll see how it goes.
(1) One of the important truths about law school is that it is a unique educational experience unlike any educational experience you have had up until this point. For example, you probably did not have something like an Academic Skills Program in your undergraduate or other graduate school experience. So what is ASP and why do law schools have these programs?
(2) The views of upper-class students can provide some guidance in answering this question. I recently spoke with a group of 2L and 3L students, and asked them to reach back in the recesses of their memory to the beginning of their 1L year, and see if they could identify something they didn’t know when they started law school that would have been helpful to them had they known it. For a few minutes they struggled to remember what it was like not to know what it meant to be a law student and to study law. (Which is a testament to how thoroughly transformative the first year of law school can be.)
When they broke through and re-connected with that earlier version of themselves, a common theme emerged. Namely: they wish they had appreciated how different law school would be from their other educational experiences. Obviously, the substance of what you learn in law school is different. Less obviously: the way you learn is different. And the way you are expected to perform–to demonstrate what you have learned–is different as well.
I’ve said it before: in my view, law school is not an “advanced liberal arts degree,” as some claim. It’s more as if you studied philosophy as an undergrad and then ended up in graduate school for chemistry. Or if you studied mathematics, and are now suddenly endeavoring to become an expert in Russian Literature. You can do it, but it is a radical shift to a subject matter and intellectual discipline that is fundamentally unfamiliar to you.
Which is to say that part of successfully navigating law school is to recognize that we are novices in the field when we begin our studies. Before law school, many of us think we know at least a little bit about law. We are aware of the legal system and the political system; we are proficient in the English language, which is the operative language of American legal practice; we have read and seen countless portrayals of attorneys and their courtroom antics.
All of this is misleading. Legal analysis is a unique, extremely precise, and highly disciplined system of thought with its own rules, conventions, concepts, language and values. Learning so-called “black-letter law” is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is not meant to be discouraging. Rather, it is my belief that to appreciate the intellectual challenge of law school is to be empowered.
(3) But even if you agree with all I have said above, you might respond that this has always been true–law school has always been a unique intellectual challenge that students have struggled to grasp and master. So why are law schools developing academic support programs now?
To make you better lawyers. There has been a groundswell of criticism of legal education for its failure to produce so-called “practice ready” lawyers–that is, lawyers who are prepared for the practice of law the day they graduate from school. In support of the goal of graduating students who have a strong grounding in both the theoretical and the practical, ASP has a role in overseeing what skills students are acquiring throughout their legal education and assessing whether we are teaching those skills effectively. To the extent students feel that they could benefit from additional practice and feedback with respect to particular skills, ASP can provide that opportunity.
To make you better law students. To generalize, the traditional model of legal education was very much a “sink or swim” approach where expectations for academic performance were not made explicit, and the students who succeeded were the ones who could figure out this “hidden curriculum.” Progressive models of legal education seek to make the expectations and tools of academic performance explicit, and thus shift the focus to students’ ability to implement those tools.
To support diversity in law schools and in the profession. We can easily imagine that 100 years ago, law students came from a relatively uniform social, cultural, economic and academic background. Today, we seek to admit student bodies that are diverse by all of these measures. With this diversity come different orientations to the intellectual task of law school. By making academic expectations explicit, and providing all students with the tools to meet those expectations, we level the playing field so that students can be evaluated on their individual merits.
So that’s the plan. Wish me luck!