By Jane Korn, Gonzaga University School of Law
I have taught first year law students for a long time. Please do not ask how long! But years ago, I became worried about the mental health and stress levels of my first semester, first year students. I teach a four credit, one semester course in Civil Procedure during the first semester of law school. On the last day of the week that I teach in Civ Pro, I take a few minutes out of class time and ask my students to tell me how they are doing.
The first time I do this, usually at the end of the first week of law school, I tell my students that it is my custom, from time to time, to take time out from Civ Pro, and talk about anything they would like (with some limits). In some years, it takes weeks for them to take me up on this offer. Other years, they start right in. They ask questions like the following:
- When should I start outlining?
- How much time should I spend studying every night?
- How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
- What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
- Do professors care about grammar and organization on a final exam? (I only answer what I expect and do not answer for other faculty)
I think that much of the time, they do not get a chance to ask a law professor these kinds of questions, and can usually only ask upper class students. While we have faculty advisors, students may or may not feel comfortable asking them questions like the above. They eventually do (and sometimes quickly) feel comfortable asking me a wide variety of questions. They sometimes ask personal questions and, within reason, I answer them because it makes them feel more comfortable with me. Questions on gossipy matters about other faculty are off limits. If for example, they complain about another professor, I handle this question with a smile and say something like – you should ask that professor about this issue.
I set aside class time for several reasons. First, while I do worry about giving up valuable teaching time, lessening the stress of my students may make them more able to learn. Second, students often feel like they are the only one with a particular concern during this first semester, and they often do not have the ability to know that others have the same concerns or questions. In the first year, many of our students are not from this area and are far away from support systems, at least at first until they can make friends at law school. The ability to know that other students have the same problems they do can lessen the feeling of isolation. Using class time to answer questions to the entire group may help them with this sense of isolation and being the only one who doesn’t know something. It also lets them see that their concerns are important and credible.
Every year my teaching evaluations reflect this process positively. Students feel like I care (which I do). However, the reason I do it is to increase their comfort during those first few exciting, confusing, and terrifying months of law school.