Main Body

Assessing your Resources

Chapter One: Assessing your Resources

 

To succeed in law school, you must use all of your resources: physical, psychological, emotional, social, financial, and educational. Planning for law school requires a careful assessment of your available resources and plans to use those resources most efficiently. This chapter is designed to assist you in that planning. This chapter covers four basic topics: Resource Priorities, Survival Resources, Time Management, and The Non-cognitive Resources: Self-knowledge and Self-esteem.

 

Resource Priorities

 

Some resources are more critical than others to success in law school. One way of assessing the importance of a resource is by reference to psychological theory. Listed below are five categories of need identified by Abraham Maslow.[1] Often, students who are dismissed for academic deficiency reveal that they were unable to study well because they lacked sufficient resources for the necessities of life. Consider this need hierarchy and look for potential problems you may face in law school

 

Maslow’s Need Hierarchy

 

I.       Physiological Needs – Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Rest, and Exercise

 

II.    Safety Needs – Shelter, Protection from immediate or future physical harm, and Protection from immediate or future threat to physical, psychological or economic well-being

 

III. Social needs – Love and affection, Friendship, Association with others, Affiliation

 

IV.  Self-esteem needs – Self-confidence, Independence, Achievement, Competence, Knowledge, Status, Personal recognition, Respect, Influence with others

 

V.     Self-actualization needs – Realization of one’s own potential, Self-development activities, Creative behavior, Problem-centered orientation toward life, Identification with the problems of humanity, Acceptance of self and others

 

The Survival Resources

 

As the need hierarchy demonstrates, if one is to attend to the higher-level need to realize one’s own potential, the basic resources of survival must not be threatened. Think about your timing as you begin law school. I believe that a major reason many students do not succeed in law school is that they started at the wrong time: Don’t start law school on the same day you are also beginning major medical treatment, a divorce, or have just had a new baby. Don’t start law school without a decent plan for financial support. Do not – unless you are in a part-time program – try to “work your way through law school.” There is little room for a second chance in law school. Even if you do manage to get through in these extraordinary circumstances, your education will not be the fulfilling, exciting, and truly successful experience it could be if you would just wait one more year and sort out your problems first.

 

Financial pressures, in particular, can play a critical role in law school success. As you are painfully aware, law school is extraordinarily expensive and many students arrive at law school with large debt burdens from prior education. These financial pressures can interfere with the ability to succeed in law school – diverting needed time and energies. Some students do not plan sufficiently to avoid financial emergencies. Every student needs to prepare a budget for their law school year. (If you have never prepared a budget, you may benefit from the resources available at a non-profit credit counseling service.)

 

If your budget reflects financial threats, identify sources of additional assistance. One source of assistance some students look to is part-time employment. However, unless you are in a part-time law program, you should not be working during your first semester of law school. Not only is this a violation of law school rules and American Bar Association accreditation standards, it is a short-sighted solution. Why threaten your long-term learning and earning by working during the first semester of law school?

 

Even if they do not interfere with your ability to succeed in law school, financial issues can pose a threat to your bar admission as well. If you have current debt problems, beware of simply ignoring obligations while in law school. As part of the bar admission process, you will need to disclose your debts and the bar examiners will investigate your credit record. Large, unmanaged debt is a red flag on bar applications. Address your debt problems before you come to law school and do not ignore debt issues while in law school.

 

For assistance, you may wish to work with your local consumer credit counseling service. The CCCS is a non-profit agency that counsels people on debt managements, budgeting, and other principles of personal finance. You can find your local member agency at the website of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, where you can also find useful financial education resources.

 

Health and personal resources are the second set of resources you need to address before coming to law school. Few of us are in the kind of physical shape that we would like to be — imagine the results of a diet consisting heavily of coffees, donuts and Wednesday pizza, and a workout program that consists entirely of carrying 100 pounds of law books from locker to library. (It’s not pretty.) The stress of law school causes many students to neglect their health. However, saving time by neglecting meals, rest, and exercise will not pay off in the long run. Follow the advice your mother gave you (or should have given you). Pack a nutritious lunch — don’t make breakfast three cups of coffee and two chocolate doo-wahs out of the vending machines — eat your veggies. Get enough sleep — especially during the times you think you can least afford it. Get some exercise — the Law Book Bench Press is not enough. Take twenty minutes a day to go for a walk at least.

 

Some students try to cope with the stress of law school through chemistry: caffeine (or stronger) to keep them up; alcohol and other substances to help them down. Not only is this strategy guaranteed to interfere with your studies, but it is a sure-fire way to guarantee that the Board of Bar Examiners will refuse your application for admission to the bar. Substance abuse and criminal records are major red flags on any application — and yes, that little DUI ticket counts, even if you went through a diversion program and were told that your record was “clean.” You need more than a “clean” record to be a lawyer — you need a “clean” brain.

 

If you think you may have a problem with substance abuse already, don’t begin law school until you are in recovery. If you are in recovery, set up a strong network of support to keep you there. Every state has a lawyer’s assistance program (LAP), which provides confidential, professional assistance to law students and members of the bar. Find the LAP program in your state at the website of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. ABA also runs a listserv for law students in recovery that you can locate there, along with useful resources on stress, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues.

 

Equally important to your success in law school is your social support system. Who is your “family”? What demands do they make upon your resources? How do they feel about you going to law school? Are there resources, supports, or limitations you need to address with them? You will have less time and energy for your family and friends — but be sure not to neglect these important people in your life. They are your buffer against stress — your link to the rest of your life and self. And for heaven’s sake, when you are spending time with them, don’t “lawyer” them. Watching a football game with your friends is not a good time to review your knowledge of the tort doctrine of assumption of risk. Don’t use a discussion with your spouse as an opportunity to practice rephrasing the issue. Instead, keep track of yourself and nurture the relationships that will nurture you.

 

The Most Limited Resource

 

Time is a most precious resource in the law.  Lawyers charge for their time, often billing clients in six-minute increments at rates averaging over $100 an hour.  In law school, as in the profession, you will need to make every minute count.  There is always more to do — more than can possibly be done — in learning to practice law.  Thus, effective time and study goal management is essential.

 

To complicate matters further, time management is a very individualized process.  Some people work best in the morning, others in the evening.  Some people can concentrate best on tasks by shifting back and forth between tasks for variety; others require sustained blocks of time to concentrate on one subject.  Some of us require more sleep than others; some have family or community responsibilities.  The bottom line is that you have to manage your time according to your needs in a way that will allow you to accomplish your goals.

 

You must be realistic about the intensive time demands of law school.  You must recognize that you simply will not have time for many of the activities or responsibilities that you were able to carry before law school.  If you fail to recognize the time demands of law school, you will set unrealistic goals and have unrealistic expectations about what you can accomplish.   You will end up being unhappy, harried, sick, and you will not be able to reach your goals. Probably one of the most common reasons for student dismissal from law school is time:  students who continued to work or continued to engage in extensive outside activities during law school — especially in the first year.  That is not to say that you will have no time for family, community, or other important outside commitments.  Indeed, these outside commitments are important in reducing the overall stress caused by the time demands of law school.  But outside time demands are a double-edged sword.  It is not uncommon to feel as though you are walking, talking, and thinking nothing but law during the first year.  If you are highly motivated to achieve academic success, you will neglect “off time.”  The inevitable result for all but a few students is burn out — often just at the crucial exam time.  However, if you view law school as “off time” — scheduling law school around your outside activities rather than vice versa — you are unlikely to be using your most productive time for study and learning.

 

 

Obviously, then, the key is balance and planning.   If you have never spent any time thinking about how to manage your time, you should do so now.  There are hosts of self-help tools for time management, but the essential principles are relatively simple.  First, plan your time.  That means more than just making a to-do list or a schedule but having a clear sense of priorities, a realistic sense of how much you can accomplish, and the knowledge of what works for and against your time management.   If you have been plagued by procrastination in the past, now is the time to address the circumstances that feed that tendency: whether perfectionism, fear, or simply the thrill of pulling off a last-minute save.

 

Time management is an integral part of effective law practice.  Most lawyers keep records of their time.  Even for attorneys who do not charge on an hourly basis, there are important reasons to keep track of the time spent in representing clients. The practice of keeping time records is an important management tool for monitoring efficiencies, comparing productivity, and justifying fees determined on other bases.  Good timekeeping is a skill that must be mastered with practice and can be an effective exercise in learning how to manage your time in law school.  The essentials of good timekeeping are:

 

Timekeeping—waiting until the end of the day and trying to reconstruct the time spent on a particular matter will inevitably result in inaccurate—and thus unethical—billing.  You can keep time using a simple paper-and-pencil method, an electronic notepad on your computer, phone, or other electronic device, or timekeeping software.  Regardless of the method, the key task is the same—note down the beginning and ending time for each task you perform.

 

“Billable time” —not every minute of every day of legal practice is spent in work for a particular client; yet, it is important to know how those additional hours are actually spent—whether it is attending a CLE or other professional development activity, client development and networking, or simply managing the practice.  These hours are part of your overhead, which go into the determination of your hourly rate.  You may not charge a particular client for these general overhead tasks, but you should nonetheless record your time on these tasks.  Getting into the habit of recording all your time allows you to see why an eight-hour day gave you only five billable hours.

 

Itemized task records—Even if you spend an entire day working on one case, you may have completed several different tasks—investigating, consulting, researching, and writing for example.  A record that reads “7.2 hours—interviewed client, researched legal issue, phoned records department, drafted motion” is simply no longer acceptable to most courts and clients.  Rather, you should describe each separate task and the time spent on that task.

 

Billing increments—while you could simply charge on a per-minutes basis, most attorneys keep their time in larger increments, with one-tenth of an hour being the most common. In this approach, if you spend three minutes on a phone call for a client, you would round that time up to six minutes.  Attorneys who use increments of larger than one-tenth of an hour may be significantly overcharging their clients.

 

To have a taste of how you will likely be required to manage your time in practice, and to gain insights into your own time management practices, try keeping your time spent on law school for one week.  Consider each class, office or activity, a separate “client” and record your time for one week. At the end of the week, stop and reflect on the experience.  Did you find it difficult to keep track of your time?  Did the process of keeping time affect the way you worked?  How?  Were you tempted to “cheat” and inflate or estimate your time?

 

In addition to time keeping, essential tools for time management in practice that you will need to use in law school are a calendar with due dates and a weekly schedule.

 

Obviously, then, the key is balance and planning.   If you have never spent any time thinking about how to manage your time, you may find the following article useful in thinking about time management and planning.

 

A Calendar

 

Fill in the calendar for the semester now. When do your classes begin and end? When are exams? When are significant assignments due (mid-term exams, if any; legal writing papers, etc.) To get you started, check the law school’s master calendar and fill in the dates there. Consider that the last three weeks of the semester are generally extremely time pressured, as you struggle to maintain your class preparation and also prepare for exams. Plan now for the most intensive time demands during that period. If you have children or other family responsibilities, plan for additional child-care or other alternative arrangements now. Next, fill in significant dates of other responsibilities. Is your cousin’s wedding during the last week of classes? Do you have medical appointments during the middle of the semester? Is your child’s school play during exams? Decide now how to balance or rearrange these responsibilities.

 

A Weekly Schedule

 

Now that you have an overview of the entire semester, look at the law school schedule. When are your classes and workshops? Block out these inflexible times. Next consider your study times. Study time should be allocated for three separate tasks: preparing for class, reviewing class, and preparing for exams. You should set aside time each week for each of these tasks for each of your classes. As a general rule, you should plan on studying at a minimum three hours for every class hour. THIS IS NOT AN EXAGGERATION. What about outside responsibilities? Block out time for church, community, or family commitments. What about yourself? Block out time to sleep, to relax, and to play.

 

Consider that you will have fifteen hours of class time each week. Add your four to one study time ratio. That’s sixty hours a week. How will you allocate that time? Consider that there are 24 hours in a day; that most people need about 8 hours to sleep and another two hours for eating, bathing, and other basic human functions. That leaves 14 hours a day (98 hours a week) to allocate between law school and life. What choices will you make? Can you work ten hours a day, six days a week so that you can have a free day? Or would your style be better served with seven days a week of eight hours? Or how about fourteen hours a day Monday thru Thursday, and five hours on Friday? These are not easy choices and perhaps you may be saying to yourself that these are choices you can avoid. But you are risking a great deal if you proceed with any other than these assumptions about the time required during the first year.

 

While you are at it, think about where you will study as well. The library at school? The public library near your home? Your home? Where will you honestly be the most efficient and the least subject to distractions? Where will you have the resources at hand to study well?

 

The Non-cognitive Resources: Self-knowledge and Self-esteem

 

One fundamental resource for success is what might be termed “spirit.” This resource is more than self-knowledge and self-confidence; it also involves high motivation and the ability to act as part of a community. Overall, one’s attitude toward law school can be as important in success as one’s aptitude. What are the necessary attitudes you need to instill in yourself and look for in your study partners?

 

The successful law student is highly motivated to learn. The first aspect of this “spirit of success” is self-knowledge and the ability to maintain your motivation. To be effective in learning, you must be motivated to learn and must have effective study habits. This is especially so when, as in law school, the demands are so rigorous and the feedback or reward so delayed. Sometimes students excel in law school simply because of extraordinarily high motivation; others fail because their motivation was lacking or insufficient to carry them through the process.

 

There will be points in law school when you will lose your motivation: either because you are bored, or tired or simply do not see any reward for your efforts. You will need to have ready some techniques to keep your motivation strong. What has worked for you in the past can work for you here. How have you maintained your motivation in other long-term, high-demand tasks? You might challenge yourself: for example, volunteer to participate in class discussions so that you will have an incentive to prepare more fully, or set goals for outlining subject matters by certain dates. Break your work down into small parts and give yourself rewards for completing each part. Make a visible reminder of your progress — keep all your briefs and class notes in one notebook and watch it grow, or make lists of assignments and cross them off as you complete them. Remind yourself of the importance of sustained effort to long-term learning. Remind yourself of the importance of long-term learning to your goals of completing law school and pursuing whatever career in law or elsewhere you have set as a goal. Turn to your support system for support and encouragement.

 

The successful law student is connected and cooperative. Ironically, one of the least effective methods of motivation may be one that seems most predominant in the law school environment: that is, motivating yourself by measuring yourself against your peers. Ironically, those students who are most motivated by the desire to “come out on top” or “earn all A’s” — that is, students with a competitive orientation toward study — are less likely to “win” than are those students whose motivation comes from the pursuit of more intrinsic rewards, like the enjoyment of learning, accomplishment, or improvement. This is true, in part, because motivating yourself by focusing on grades tends to lead you to focus on strategies for short-term learning, and on finding short cuts to success. Research indicates that this approach to study is unlikely to be effective in creating long-term learning.

 

Because law school success depends in large part on long-term learning of skills that require daily practice and deep mastery, there are no “short cuts” to success. Moreover, very competitive students also tend to isolate themselves in their learning. Research into law school success demonstrates that a feeling of social isolation is a fundamental variable in predicting success in law school. Even if you generally prefer to work alone, you should at least try to work with study partners for purposes of review and exam preparation. One of the skills that law schools develop is the skill of generating alternative interpretations or solutions. For this skill, two (or more) heads are definitely better than one. Study partners can be important sources for insight into the process of law school learning and support for flagging confidence. When choosing study partners and working with them, look for positive, directed people with a sense of humor and beware the student who takes him or herself too seriously.

 

The successful law student is confident and positive Just as isolation is a variable in law school success, so is self-confidence. As Maslow’s need hierarchy demonstrates, one cannot realize one’s potential until one has fulfilled the need for confidence. Self-confidence is a complex amalgam of prior experience, personality, and setting. You may come into law school with prior experiences of success and a personality geared toward confidence. Unfortunately, the law school setting can shake the confidence of all but the most secure. Throughout a semester, you will receive very little specific, evaluative feedback. Most faculty in the first year give mid-term exams, but few (outside of perhaps your legal writing instructors) provide the type of weekly, graded homework that you might have received in undergraduate education. The classroom process, designed to challenge and expand your learning, will not necessarily provide positive feedback or bolster your confidence.

 

Some students are especially adept at trying to undermine the confidence of their peers. The first grades you receive in law school are very likely to be the lowest grades you have ever received in your life. And those grades count for so much — becoming a source of considerable stress as you engage in a more competitive, explicit ranking process than many of you have faced since junior high. Law students are all highly talented and intelligent people, used to achievement. But all law students cannot graduate with a 4.00 grade point average. (You can all graduate, but 90% of you will not graduate in the top 10% of the class). How can one maintain confidence in the face of such a situation? Focus on the positive. Remind yourself of the successes you have had. Re-frame your disappointments in positive directions. If you get a poor grade on your first legal writing assignment, for example, you might frame this as “Better now than later – at least I have a chance to find out how to improve.” Be careful about re-framing in ways that undermine your overall motivation (e.g., “The Professor must not like me — there’s nothing I can do to improve). Many people find affirmations or giving themselves pep talks to be effective in boosting confidence. Try using some of these techniques when you feel your confidence flagging.

 

The successful law student is an active, independent learner. Successful law students are enthusiastic about their learning rather than viewing learning as an imposition. These students take personal responsibility for their learning and do not expect to be “taught.” They are active in their reading and listening. To be an active learner, you must create your own organization of the materials — not rely on the casebook, outlines, or syllabus to organize the materials for you. Law school casebooks are rarely written in the style of most undergraduate textbooks — building from simple to complex, containing all the materials needed to master the course, or explaining concepts or organizing materials. The same can be said for many law school classes. Students can become frustrated with questions that have no answers, or no rhyme or reason for being posed. Or students can take charge of their own learning and save the time wasted in blaming the book, professor or law school.

 

The successful law student has a tolerance for ambiguity. Most undergraduate learning is based on a dualistic mode of thinking. There are “right” and “wrong” answers and the student’s task is to memorize as much materials as possible in order to be able to recognize or provide the “right” answer. Having found and provided that answer, no further explanation of the process is required. Law schools are based on a multiplistic and relativistic mode of thinking. Questions, interpretations, explanations and arguments are far more important to most exam performance than providing the correct conclusion. (For more insight into this aspect of law study, see the section on “the right answer” in the next chapter.) If you expect that you will be learning “THE LAW” during law school — as a set of formula into which you can plug some client facts and get an answer — you will not succeed. You need to recognize that attorneys are not sought for their knowledge of the law nearly so much as their ability to research, analyze, and use the law.

 

The successful law student knows how he or she learns best. Just as everyone has different study habits and attitudes, everyone uses different approaches to study. There are several ways that you can categorize your learning style. They key here is to use these tools, not to label yourself or others, or to predict success or failure. These assessments are simply ways of understanding your own preferences and strengths, so you can devise the most effective methods of study.

 

For example, one useful way to assess learning style is to consider your preferred mode of perception: how do you take in information about the world? The way people perceive reality can be broken into two categories — sensing and intuition. Persons who prefer to take in information about their world through sensing use sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. They prefer concrete information and notice what is. In comparison, persons who prefer intuition gather information more often in terms of feelings, thoughts and emotions. They prefer abstractions and notice what might be. The following chart provides some key vocabularies preferred by each of these types. Try to identify which approach to perception you prefer. (Remember, there is no “better” preference).

 

 

Sensing (75% of Population)

 

Intuition (25% of Population)

 

experience

 

hunches

 

past

 

future

 

realistic

 

speculative

 

perspiration

 

inspiration

 

actual

 

possible

 

fact

 

fiction

 

utility

 

fantasy

 

practicality

 

ingenuity

 

sensible

 

imaginative

 

 

How do these preferences impact your learning? Each preference brings strengths and weakness. For example, often persons with a sensing preference are able to learn step by step, without the “big picture”; whereas a person who prefers intuition learns better with a global scheme in mind. Since law school rarely provides a “big picture” up front, intuitive learners may have to work at finding that model or develop greater patience. On the other hand, intuitive learners are often much more tolerant of ambiguity and complicated situations, qualities that abound in law, whereas sensing types will need to become more patient with complicated details or problems for which no standard solution exists.

 

Sensing types are better at learning applications — they would learn rules of law best by developing factual settings for those rules, for example. Intuitive types are strong in developing theory — they would learn rules of law best by relating them to a conceptual model. Sensing types often work more steadily, with a realistic idea of how long things take. Intuitive types work in bursts of energy powered by enthusiasm, with slack periods in between. Neither approach is necessarily superior. Intuitive types do need to be aware of the dangers of their preferences to procrastinate and flitter from project to project. Likewise, however, sensing types need to be able to extend themselves for flexibility in their schedules as the situation calls for.

 

For more information, try the taking the Solomon & Felder Index of Learning Styles, or, for a resource specifically geared to law school learning, read Don Peters & Martha Peters, Juris Types: Learning Law Through Self-Understanding (2007). The point here is to be aware of what works best for you and to build on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

 

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