YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Coping skills greatest lesson taught in law school

By Kathryn E. Brown | May 3, 2007

CHARLESTON -- For law school professors and their students, this time of year isn't springtime.

It's exam season, and the tests are as much about endurance and stress management than civil procedure.

The challenges before both groups of achievers extend beyond deadlines and academic excellence –- the latest task is to ensure that no one collapses under pressure.

Law professor Daniel Weddle works to help prevent such anxieties by serving as the director of academic support at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

In addition to teaching six different legal courses, this particular role requires him to oversee a comprehensive program that includes a lecture series on effective study skills, academic enrichment workshops, and individualized instruction sessions.

What may be the most valuable to the law school is Weddle's academic support blog, a site that inspires others to keep going when energy is extremely low and expectation is outrageously high.

Lately, Weddle's journal entries focus on the mental strain of students, and his concerns are evident.

In one essay, he wrote:

Law school can be a place where confidence goes to die. A student comes into law school believing she can excel and finds herself struggling near the bottom of the class, not entirely certain what went wrong. The effort was there; the time and energy were there; but the good grades were inexplicably out of reach. After a couple of semesters, all she knows to do is to tough it out. So she slogs on towards graduation, reminded every January and June that she is not what she thought she was.

Weddle ended his thought by asking colleagues to reach out to this type of student, whose world appears to be closed in at the moment.

The reality of campus shootings has required teachers of all types to spend more time studying their own academic communities, figuring out who needs help (and doesn't even realize it).

Clinical psychologist David Clayman provided thoughts on the issue of scholastic pressure and performance, referring to his own days preparing for doctoral qualifying examinations. It was a time when the angst, as he called it, became unbearable.

"I approached my major professor about this distress. He listened to me and calmly stated, 'tis better to be the lowest passing than the highest failing grade'," Clayman recalled. "After that, the pressure was off. I wasn't close to being the lowest, and as a matter of fact, I did quite well."

Clayman stated there is a need for each person to establish reasonable parameters of success when approaching exams. "The fear of failing becomes the rule of the day," he said. "Expectations are what create pressure. These may be internal or external demands, and for some, this pressure can become immobilizing."

Weddle counsels students dealing with stressors beyond the norm in law school, and as he explained in a recent e-mail, different approaches must be employed depending on what seems to be the root of the problem.

"Some feel inordinate pressure because they begin to believe that they are not as smart as they thought they were," he said. "With those students, I try to help them regain their perspectives. I may ask them to talk about where they have succeeded in the past, what skills and attitudes made those successes possible, and how they might transfer into the law school environment what made them successful in the past."

Weddle remarked that students also struggle to find a balance between law school and family life. He said the solution can be as simple as treating law school like a job, one that starts and stops at certain points each day. The act of being present in other parts of their lives is crucial if students are worried about neglecting their spouses or children.

However, for those students whose reactions to stress have become acute, or whose sources of stress are not part of typical law school demands, Weddle immediately recommends outside counseling. "I have no illusions that I can provide serious counseling, so I am careful not to try to do so."

Members of the law professors blog network stress that earning impressive grades on tests, winning awards, achieving memberships in societies, and passing the bar exam should not be matters of life and death to students. In the pursuit of knowledge and academic greatness, parents, teachers and administrators need to ask the most important question of all: Do they know this?

This series of stories is dedicated to psychology and law. Next week: Coping skills part II: A law student's perspective

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing and editing agency in Charleston.

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