The difference between the child and the man lies chiefly in the unlimited confidence and buoyancy of youth. The past failure is wholly forgotten in the new idea. As we grow older, more and more do we remember how our plans fell short; more and more do we realize that no hope reaches full fruition and no dream is ever quite fulfilled. Age and life make us doubtful about new schemes, until at last we no longer even try. Well, our youth brought its mistakes and its failures, its errors of judgment and its dreams so hopeless to achieve. But still it carried with it ambition and life, a boundless hope, and an energy which only time and years could quench. So, after all, perhaps childhood is the reality, and in maturity we simply doze and dream.
Well, it’s the end of January, and I’m cleaning up incompletes. This means most of my posts will seem random, but they’re actually posts that have been waiting in the wings for an appropriate publication date.
This past weekend I had an e-mail from a first year law student who’s undergoing some PGSD (Post Grade Stress Disorder). While not yet in the Desk Book of Psychiatric Disorders, it’s a common affliction in graduate school. It’s also repeated in law firms all over the country this time of year as evaluations begin (in that situation it’s known as PESD). It’s interesting to evaluate the coping mechanisms for PGSD, as if the student believes there is something he or she can really do to change the dynamic.
So, here is the letter I wish I’d received in January 1986:
Dear Tamar, This is me, the you from 2011.
Twenty-five years is a long time, and I’m sure I should have gotten back to you sooner. I’ve been busy, what with building a career and teaching and having a life and such. That doesn’t mean you haven’t been on my mind.
By now you will have had your report card from your first semester, and you will have made the mistake of opening it. Sorry. I really should’ve written you SOONER. But now that you have, I have a few words of advice that may ease the sting a bit.
You’re Now Average.
1. In about a year, Cliff Fleming will tell your taxation class that law students are in the top 2% of the population, using whatever intellectual measuring stick. That means that even at your worst, you’re still smarter than 98% of the population. Unfortunately, that means you’re just average among your law school peers. Feh.
2. Now, after dealing with perfectionism all your life, we all expect you to be completely sanguine about your averageness. I know that’s very sad, but suck it up. You’re still pretty remarkable. Read our blog on perfectionism. it’s perfect.
3. You need to take responsibility for your performance. Doing this doesn’t mean you beat yourself up about it, or vow to change your practices. Get some factual evidence to back up your concerns, or you’ll just spin your wheels.
4. This means you’ll need to schedule some time with your professors. Instead of asking them why YOU did so poorly, ask more general questions. This lets them sound like an expert, and it gets them off the hook for just throwing the exams down the stairwell and giving A’s to the bluebooks that fell the farthest.
5. Here are 3 questions to ask as part of your review. Tell them this is for a blog one of your loopy mentors asked you to guest post, and then we’ll put it on elifementor. (Having a list of “publications” to your credit from law school is kinda cool, so look for every opportunity you have.)
A. As a general rule, what did you see as the greatest weaknesses in the grades and performance of the students in the class exams?
B. As a general rule, what were the strengths?
C. What would you look for in subsequent exams/what did you expect from the last round of exams?
You see, the problem with exams of this nature are their subjectivity. It’s not like a math problem, where there is a right answer unless you’re studying string theory (don’t ask). We’re not dealing with an Isosceles triangle here. So, the only thing we can do as professors is look for the elements of the particular problem, and whether you understood the fact pattern well enough to apply the elements to the problem. That really didn’t make sense, and I’ll try to think of a better way to say it. It’s a good thing I have 10 years of teaching and professor friends who can help me make an explanation really obtuse.
Then you build a study plan from there.
GET Feedback. Don’t make it up.
Okay, you could outline earlier, and maybe change your study habits. That might not be what needs to change. Getting feedback instead of making it up is really the best way to understand what you’re going to need to do for the next semester.
You may want to figure out a way to game the system a little bit, too. Talk with the students who did well. 90% of them won’t be able to say how they did it. You are going to have to take the bar exam, so you might as well get a jump on the thing and figure out how to take the bar exam. Probably, your law professors are thinking in the same kind of direction as a bar exam grading committee. Find out what a grading committee would look for. Or ask the lovely eLife Mentor to find out and maybe post it on her blog.
You’re in law school because you have to go to be a lawyer. You need to graduate to take the bar exam. The days are gone when you can read law and get a judge to sign your certificate. So you have to finish and graduate. I really doubt you’re on academic probation – you’d know it if you were. You might not get hired next summer by that mega firm you’re trying to get into, but believe me it’s not the dream you think it might be.
It’s okay to focus on grades, but now is also a good time to implement other ways to differentiate yourself. Build a network of professionals and mentors, join a law school association or a national association, get involved in other aspects of law school, work in the legal clinic, or moot court or whatever – anything that will also show your mettle and provide you with a body of well-regarded work. Learn what you’d need to make your grades irrelevant.
All of this says: grades are important because they GET you out the door. What you BRING out the door in terms of understanding and knowledge are going to be a lot more important in the long run. Just so you pass. I know lots of people who were on law review and are terrible lawyers. They know the drill, but can’t APPLY the drill. You need the latter to survive in this economy.
You’re going to be fine. I’ve got your back, and so do a lot of other people! Take some pressure off yourself and choose another metric to gauge your success in law school.
Oh, and never open anything from the Registrar again. I promise you it’s better that way.