Taking Charge of Your Education—Informal Advisement for Law Students
The Bencher | March/April 2023
By Robert M. Wilcox
What if I am not ready?” “It is a question asked, most often silently but out loud at times, by all but the most confident of law students. It arises before the first day of class, the first exam, or the first job interview.
Rather than considering an answer that might be uncomfortable in the moment, students may attempt to ignore the question, as if it were possible to banish the doubt from their consciousness. Instead, all law students should own these six words, as motivation to become better informed about their own educational process. Only then can students be confident that they have maximized their opportunities to become as ready as possible, in only three years, for the day they will be called lawyer.
Unfortunately, many, if not most, students enter law school with little understanding of what knowledge and skills they will need as a new lawyer and even less understanding of how to develop their needed competencies. With access to myriad course choices and co-curricular opportunities after their first year, law students require guidance to navigate law school in a manner that will maximize the impact and value of their legal education.
Although law students display a nearly universal thirst for helpful information about their career, the availability of effective formal academic advisement programs to answer their questions remains a challenge within much of legal education. Even in the absence of a high-quality formal advisement process, however, students (and their mentors) can draw valuable guidance from the following three simple, but often overlooked, principles.
First, in selecting courses, students benefit by approaching law school as a progression in which each year builds upon the prior year, logically and with purpose. Second, all but a very few students are best served by putting aside a desire to over-specialize in law school. Finally, students should recognize that professional skills can be developed in any course, not merely those designated as skills courses. Even the most doctrinal course provides students with opportunities to develop important skills needed to become effective counselors of clients.
With an understanding of these principles, students will be better equipped to identify the most important experiences appropriate to the next stage of their professional development. By understanding the third point, students also can transform their otherwise potentially anxious classroom experience into a more productive professional developmental experience.
The disconnect between supply and demand for more formal advisement in law schools is understandable. Other institutional issues dominate the landscape. How can the school best control the cost of legal education to attract and retain top students? What new and creative solicitation methods would enhance private giving to support scholarships, faculty research, and programmatic initiatives? Which efforts will most consistently advance the diversity, equity, and inclusion or wellness goals of the school? To what extent should long-term electronic delivery of course material be incorporated in the curriculum? These concerns, which seem at times to be potentially existential in nature for the institution, receive the bulk of attention. By comparison, assurances of effective academic advisement take on less urgency.
Even when other advisement is available, the three principles I discuss in this article still can provide important insights for students seeking to take charge of their educational experience and to gain a better sense of purpose from their law school experience. With an improved sense of purpose comes greater motivation and a greater likelihood that, upon graduation, each student will indeed be ready for success as a lawyer.
The first advisement principle is to recognize legal education as a developmental process with relatively discrete stages. Without this understanding, the course catalogue has the appearance of an à la carte menu from which course selections may be made based upon any preference, with equal value. Likewise, except when prerequisites are required, it may appear to students that it is equally appropriate to take a given course as a first-year elective or as third-year capstone.
First-year curricula continue to be largely set by most law schools, with few if any electives. Thus, most students are introduced to material appropriate to the first year. It is then that students begin to develop their legal reasoning and analytical skills, as well as their communications skills in a legal environment. At the same time, they develop a broader understanding of the legal system, while also learning basic black-letter principles of certain core subjects.
After the first year, however, students are left largely to their own course selection, resulting in a blurring for many of any distinctions between the second and third years. In that context, the goal of the final two years can become one of simply gaining the necessary credit hours to graduate while seeking a job in the profession.
With a more defined sense of progression comes a healthier student perspective regarding the goals of the final two years. The second year becomes one in which students seek courses that broaden their core knowledge base in order to be ready for their third year. Business law, wills and trusts, evidence, and taxation are among the core courses that transcend particular practice areas and are of value in any work students may later do. As importantly, core doctrinal and skills courses create gateways to later substantive and skills courses and offer windows into subject areas that can spark new interests.
The third year then becomes the opportunity for courses, such as clinics and dedicated skills courses, that provide a change of pace from the doctrinally heavy first two years and allow students to begin to apply in practical ways the lessons learned in the first years. The upcoming transition from student to lawyer moves to the forefront of much of a student’s education. Having experienced a wide core of second-year survey courses, third-year students also can select more advanced study in fields of particular interest.
Viewed in this manner, law school is a progression of opportunities to develop a wide range of professional competencies within an orderly process that also exposes students to a range of potential interests early enough to pursue advanced courses later. Ideally, students’ individual goals shift with this understanding from the more mundane pursuit of credit hour completion and grades to a healthier and more engaging objective of knowledge and competency development.
The second advisement principle builds upon the first, in that law students who do not understand the progression goals of their development may become bored by courses that they consider to be of no relevance to topics that interest them. These students may attempt to mitigate their boredom by taking as many courses as possible within a single interest area. Other law students may, more positively, equate law school specialization with their observation of today’s specialized profession, assuming that their depth of knowledge will make them more employable.
A few advanced courses are well-advised. However, over-specialization in law school comes with risks. First, to take the advanced courses, students may forego certain core courses that would have laid better foundations for certain competencies or offered them a new area of interest. Second, students who specialize gamble that at the end of law school employment will be available in their chosen field. Finally, these students may be surprised later to learn that specialized study beyond a few courses in a field will likely offer little advantage in the entering-lawyer job market.
The third and final advisement principle focuses upon a gained appreciation of the doctrinal classroom as an environment also for professional skills development. Every law school offers courses designated as skills courses. These interactive classes attract students looking for practical competencies as well as relief from examinations, lectures, and Socratic dialog. Skills courses are an important and generally required part of the curriculum, but too much of a good thing is possible. Rather than ignoring important doctrinal courses in favor of excessive skills courses, students can look to further enhance skills opportunities in doctrinal courses.
For example, the law school classroom offers a laboratory for the practice of judgment skills. All who pass the bar exam after law school may become licensed lawyers, but not all lawyers are effective counselors. Lawyers are faced throughout their careers with legal and factual uncertainty regarding their clients’ matters and must learn to take a position and offer a client a path to navigate that uncertainty. Lawyers who merely lay out the legal options and uncertainties for a client, without exercising the judgment needed to offer a recommendation, will rarely earn the client’s respect as a valued counselor. Eventually, the attorney-client relationship suffers.
The development by a new lawyer of the judgment that is required to offer advice in the context of uncertainty need not wait until after graduation. Students called upon in class to take a position based on the materials they have studied are being called upon to practice their exercise of judgment. Mistakes can be made in the classroom. Judgment can be refined by trial and error with none of the costs of training on the job with clients.
Unfortunately, the effective development of counseling judgment through traditional classroom performance may be at risk today. Some students do not understand the value of classroom performance other than perhaps to earn a fraction of a grade allocated to that aspect of the course. Thus, faced with the prospect of being aggressively criticized on social media outside of class for a position taken, especially on a controversial topic, in class, the student opts to volunteer no position when possible. Students must be educated on the role that arguing positions in the classroom plays in their development of the judgment needed to be a counselor. They must also be educated on the harms caused by uncivil criticism. Otherwise, a generation of students will enter the profession lacking a fundamental skill necessary for the exercise of good judgment: the ability to discuss and evaluate the potential merit of an opposing argument.
Doubts about readiness will always exist. However, when law students are given just these three basic perspectives of recognizing educational progression, limiting specialization, and valuing classroom interaction as a part of professional skills development, they can better understand the educational process in which they are engaged. They are then able to better assess their progress along the path to readiness and avoid pitfalls that could impede their progress. With that knowledge hopefully comes increased motivation, confidence, and an overall healthier frame of mind, accompanied by less anxiety about not being ready.
Robert M. Wilcox is a professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law where he served as dean from 2011 to 2020. He is a member of the John Belton O’Neall American Inn of Court in Columbia, South Carolina.