Learning Curve

Giving Good Advice to Law Students: A Holistic Approach

Heather Varanini

Director of Academic Achievement and Adjunct Professor
Golden State University School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Summer/Fall 2021

It is that time of year again when another semester has ended, and grades have been posted. With it comes a plethora of feelings along the spectrum, from elation to relief to devastation, for our students.

When grades are released each semester, I read advice professors share with students, and I hear about the various interactions students have with their professors when they look to them for guidance. Some professors tell students that if they do not get “good grades,” the student:

  • Should rethink law school;
  • Should rethink becoming a lawyer;
  • Will never pass a bar exam;
  • Does not have what it takes;
  • Is not cut out for law school or the practice of law; or
  • Is wasting their money.

“Good grades” is in quotes because some professors are not familiar with their school’s policies and procedures regarding academic standing. And as a result, they may give factually incorrect advice to students in this area, which can be unnecessarily damaging and painful for students.

If students are struggling, advice like the examples referenced above reinforce what the students are already telling themselves. Law school is incredibly difficult, and many struggling students are full of self-doubt, feeling the effects of imposter syndrome. Some are first-generation college and/or law school students, and some come from other underrepresented backgrounds. Law school and the legal profession are full of barriers. Reinforcing these thoughts is not helping students. It makes things worse.

In law schools across the country, there are controls in place to catch and help students who are underperforming academically. These controls are an interconnected web, working together to support students: the professors who teach students and grade them; the student affairs professionals who meet with and advise students about course schedules, disciplinary matters, and student life; the various committees dedicated to ensuring sound academic standards are in place and maintained; the academic support educators who work with students to provide the essential skills for success in law school through individual meetings, programs, and classes; and the Registrar’s Office that scrupulously checks and rechecks final grades for accuracy. Many of us rely on and trust those controls. We frequently check in with our colleagues and follow up with students when professors and teaching assistants bring them to our attention.

As academic support professionals, we have seen many students disqualified, or placed on supervision or probation, only to bounce back academically, pass a bar exam, and go on to become great lawyers. We know this, but it always bears repeating: grades are not determinative of a person’s ability or worth as a person.

But how should we navigate conversations with students and faculty when inaccurate or harmful advice is given and received? How can we best help students who come to us and our faculty colleagues for advice when students do not receive the grades they were hoping for? The following are things we should consider in those situations.

Remember that we are in positions of power as professors. We are lawyers—we have already achieved a status students want and are working toward. Depending on whether the student is currently enrolled in your class, you also have control over their grade. This power dynamic matters. Students come to us for help, and they trust us. What we say and how we say it matters.

Know the school’s academic standards and procedures. We never want to provide students with incorrect information about grades and disqualification, and it is important that our faculty colleagues do the same. For example, students should not be advised that they will never succeed in law school if their grades are not actually in danger of getting them disqualified or do not put them on provisional status. This information is typically found in a law school’s handbook. If faculty colleagues need clarification, consider working with the academic dean or someone in your student affairs’ office to provide an update during a faculty meeting.

Encourage collaboration between faculty and your academic support department. Think about giving a short presentation at a faculty meeting for your colleagues to get to know you, what your department does, and when to refer students to your department. It is important that your faculty colleagues know you, trust you, and understand the work you do so they know when to refer students to your department for additional help. When the law school community works together, students perform better.1

Know your disability resources. Be familiar with the disability resources contact person for the law school. Go a step further and include language in the syllabi for your department courses with the appropriate contact information and school policies. Consider working with disability resources to create sample language for syllabi. Then, share it with all professors (our adjunct colleagues, too) and encourage them to use it in their syllabi. Students are not required to disclose their disability or accommodation(s) to professors, but it may come up in conversation. In addition, know that having a disability will not prevent our students from being successful attorneys. This approach is critical for our students with disabilities.2 Sometimes law school is the first time a student is diagnosed with a disability, and they may be navigating the accommodations process for the first time. Other students may need modifications to prior accommodations. Additionally, it can be important for students to create a history of documented accommodations if they are looking to obtain them for a standardized test, like the bar exam.

Learn about your school’s mental health services. Know the contact person for this department or these resources. It also helps to know whether the school offers nocost or low-cost sessions like many schools do. This is a good opportunity to collaborate with the department that offers mental health resources to create sample language for syllabi so it can be shared and used throughout the law school. These conversations are important because more law students face significant stress than other types of graduate students, and law students and lawyers are impacted by substance use issues and other mental health challenges at rates much higher than the general population.3 As the stigma about mental health decreases, conversations about it increase. More students may mention it in conversation, so it helps to know where to refer students.

Identify different ways to help lighten the financial cost of law school. Encourage faculty to use open-source casebooks to reduce costs4 or allow students to use old editions of required textbooks. My department has supplements and old editions of casebooks available to borrow on the honor system that are used frequently. These steps help students manage the cost of law school now to ease the burden and set them up for success after they graduate. With some schools surpassing the $100,000 per year mark,5 the cost of law school is on the rise. This is a growing concern for many students since more than 95% of new lawyers took out loans to attend law school6 and the average amount of law school debt exceeds $100,000.7 As a result of the debt load, the well-being and mental health of new lawyers suffer.Further impacting the problem, the average lawyer salary fails to keep pace with growing student loan debt and
significantly impacts their life choices.9 One student with a few professors using old editions or open-source casebooks means saving hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in the short term at the time of purchase, and even more money in the long term as the student can borrow and repay less money in loans.10

Think about the role holistically. The role of a law professor is bigger than educating students about the substantive law alone: if we want good attorneys in the world, it is our responsibility to teach them what it takes to be one. The advice we give and how we give it sends a message about our interest in the student’s well-being and future. Students hear these messages loud and clear, even when we think they may not be listening. We must think about our students as more than just a single grade or cumulative GPA because it makes all the difference to their success.
1 “Feeling connected to and supported by their law school results in meaningful outcomes to students’ academic and professional development.” Ind. Univ. Ctr. for Postsecondary Research, Law School Survey of Student Engagement 2018 Annual Survey Results: Relationships Matter 9 (2018).

2 It is also important to remember that not all disabilities are visible, meaning that you may have students in your classes whose disabilities are not readily apparent. See Words Matter: Invisible Disability, Invisible Disability Project, https://www.invisibledisabilityproject.org/words-matter#letter-i (defining invisible disability as “[a] disability that cannot be easily seen or measured; often discounted or not respected”) (last visited July 7, 2021).

3 See Rachel Casper, The Full Weight of Law School: Stress on Law Students is Different, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (Jan. 18, 2019), https://www.lclma.org/2019/01/18/the-full-weight-of-law-school-stress-on-law-students-isdifferent/.

4 There are many open-source casebooks available through CALI. The eLangdell Bookstore, CALI, https://www.cali.org/the-elangdell-bookstore (last visited May 24, 2021). Professor Brian Frye has written several of his own, discusses the importance of open-sources casebooks at length on Twitter, and has compiled a list of some of them in a thread. Brian L. Frye (@bryanlfrye), Twitter (Sept. 22, 2019), https://twitter.com/brianlfrye/status/1168632836712259585 (Twitter thread listing various open-source casebooks).

5 Staci Zaretsky, Annual Cost of Attendance at 3 T14 Law Schools Now Exceeds $100k, Above the Law (Aug. 22, 2019 2:43 PM), https://abovethelaw.com/2019/08/annual-cost-of-attendance-at-3-t14-law-schools-now-exceeds-100k/.

6 ABA 2020 Law School Loan Debt Survey Report 19-21 (2020), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/young_lawyers/2020-student-loan-survey.pdf.

7 The average law school debt load for those who graduated in 2015-2016 was $116,890. Paul Caron, What Do We Know About Law Student Indebtedness?, TaxProfBlog (Sept. 24, 2019), https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2019/09/accesslex-what-do-we-know-about-law-student-indebtedness.html.

8 ABA 2020 Law School Loan Debt Survey Report 7 (2020), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/young_lawyers/2020-student-loan-survey.pdf.

9 See 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 24-26, 46, 50 (2020) https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf. New lawyers surveyed about their debt indicated that student loan debt impacted almost every aspect of their lives, such as delaying or deciding not to have children, go on vacation, get married, or buy a house. They also said they did not choose the job they really wanted but instead chose a job that qualified for loan forgiveness. Additionally, lawyer salaries have increased at less than the rate of inflation. This suggests that, while the costs of law school increase, and also student debt, lawyer salaries have not kept pace. This problem is further impacted by the fact that wages for lawyers employed in the public sector where graduates qualify for loan forgiveness “are paid far less than lawyers in other settings.”

10 See Understand How Interest Is Calculated and What Fees Are Associated With Your Federal Student Loan: What Is Interest?, Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/loans/interest-rates#rates (explaining that federal student loans accrue interest daily based on the overall amount borrowed) (last visited July 7, 2021).

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments