CHARLESTON -- Some law school professors feel that grading students' work is one of the most stressful parts of their job because constructive criticism can seem so overwhelmingly negative.
As a result, even the very best of the class feels deflated and discouraged.
Daniel Weddle, associate clinical professor and academic support director of The University of Missouri – Kansas City worries a great deal about assessing papers accurately and fairly, and he feels that first-year law students undergo a substantial amount of pressure.
The reason is simple: Most students have never been asked to think about human relationships and events with the level of precision required of lawyers and judges.
Therefore, they find themselves to be largely incompetent in an endeavor in which they have always excelled – academics.
"In addition, the level of competition has changed," Weddle explained. "Every student in the class was chosen from among the brightest and most motivated undergraduates, most of whom were routinely among the top 10 percent of their classes throughout their undergraduate careers."
Weddle said that in law school, 90 percent will not be in the top 10 percent, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Half of these students will find themselves in the bottom half of the class, a place they have never been before.
"The experience plays havoc with their confidence and their self worth," Weddle continued. "They lose perspective, forget their earlier successes, and begin to define themselves by their class ranks. The pressure, both internal and external, is tremendous."
Age and maturity may be positive attributes when it comes to time management, but study skills challenge those who have been out of the classroom for more than a few years.
Appalachian School of Law student, W. Brent Williams explained the different point of view.
"As an older student, law school presents pressures different than those felt by students arriving straight from undergraduate school," he said. "The learning habits I developed through undergraduate and graduate school were nearly useless in the Socratic setting. As an undergrad, study was much more akin to lecture, question and answer. The younger students are better prepared because their minds are more flexible and adaptable to the required new learning style."
Williams stated that his greatest source of pressure and stress was learning how to persevere in a learning environment filled with students who were vastly better prepared for the challenge.
David Clayman, a clinical and forensic psychologist, offered thoughts on the subject of competition, describing the classroom as an intense pressure cooker.
"The tendency is to focus on one's deficits rather than strengths," he said. "The ethic often is set in classes where the fear of being unable to answer a question prevails. That serves as a motivating force for many people."
Williams seemed to be familiar with this notion. "The only way to overcome these pressures is total absorption in the course materials," he said. "I had to develop the discipline and endurance to cope with the volume of work."
Williams plans on pursuing a career in criminal prosecution or malpractice defense. As he watches his fellow classmates choose paths for their own legal careers, a common problem burdens all of them.
"Reading, reading, and more reading," he said. "None of us are adequately prepared for the time crunch."
Professor Weddle argues that by a student's second year of law school, they have acquired the basic analytical skills necessary for legal problem solving. The stress of second and third-year students consists of keeping up with an even greater workload, while securing employment after graduation. The bar exam looms large for third-year students, but by that time, they have learned to take on such challenges and succeed with solid preparation.
"Too much preparation, as well as too little preparation will lead to suboptimal performance," Clayman responded. "Keeping a reasonable perspective is what is required to maximize one's specific learning style. Focusing on one's strengths is the best way to avoid crumbling under high pressure, especially during exams," he said.
The Web site toplawstudent.com listed the reigning stressors for students, which included the requirement to learn massive amounts of information on one's own. It was followed by students' frustration with the response that there often are no right answers to the great debates.
Symptoms of law school pressure include physical sickness, anxiety, anger, depression, and poor decision-making. Adding insult to injury, students complain of having as little money as they have time, triggering relationship problems with loved ones.
Yet, as one blogger posted on the site, such anxieties should be turned into an adventure. Congratulate yourself on entering law school, she wrote. Enjoy the ride!
This series of articles is dedicated to the topic of psychology and law.
Katy Brown is the managing member of The Write Word, LLC, a professional writing and editing agency in Charleston.