The Perilous Second Semester, Part 1

February 1, 2011

Editor’s Note:  Please welcome our newest guest blogger, Professor Andrew J. McClurg, who writes about the dangers of the second semester of law school.  Professor McClurg is the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law & Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, The University at Memphis.

The Perilous Second Semester, Part 1

The first semester was like me going into a burning building to pull somebody out of the fire. I wanted to go and was happy to do it, and after coming out I was glad I did it, but felt like I wouldn’t want to do it again. Now for the next semester I feel as though there is somebody else in the house and the fire has gotten worse. I groan and make myself go in again, and part of me wants to go back in, but in the back of my mind I’m aware of how tired I am from the first time and am a little more worried about whether or not I will get out of the building alive this time.

            In writing 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to the First Year of Law School (West 2009) I asked a group of 1Ls to describe their state of mind as they began the second semester.   Responses like the one above surprised me.   I had never given much thought to the second semester until writing the book, believing that the first semester was the source of most law student distress.  

            Studying and surveying students at the University of Memphis brought home the realization that the second semester is, in fact, one of the most daunting challenges in all of law school.   How students respond to it is a crucial determinant of their long-term success.   The second semester is the juncture where students make self-assessments and decisions that play a large role in determining and defining their ultimate “law school selves.”

            For two years, I polled my 1Ls via The West Education Network (TWEN) to name their dominant feeling as they started the second semester, offering these answer choices:

• Excited

• Tired

• Bored

• Depressed

• Rested and ready

By far, “Tired” and “Depressed” were the most common answers.   Probing more deeply, I asked students to comment on, among other things, their state of mind and motivation and happiness levels in comparison to the first semester. The responses showed that, while some students feel better off in the second semester, a significant number are less happy and less motivated. I received several responses resembling this one:

1. State of mind: Unhappy and sullen.
2. Motivation level: Much less motivated—I’m already convinced I failed out of school, so the last thing I want to do is continue to work hard.
3. Happiness level: The same amount of light unhappiness, but it’s for different reasons. In the beginning it was fear and anxiety. Now I just feel defeated.

            At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that many law students find the second semester more difficult and dispiriting than the first. With three months experience under their belts, one might think the second semester would be a “been there, done that” relative breeze. Students know how to read cases, outline courses, and take law school exams. They’ve made good friends and discovered that the Socratic Method and the law profs who administer it aren’t as bad as the horror stories they heard before starting law school.

            So what’s the problem?   Part 2 of this post will explore some of the reasons for the second-semester malaise.

Professor McClurg is the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law

Associate Dean for Faculty Development

Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, The University at Memphis.

1)       What is your favorite TV show? 

I don’t watch much television, but still enjoy Seinfeld reruns.  As a once-aspiring sitcom writer, I’ve studied the scripts and know them practically by heart.

2)      What are you reading now? 

“How Doctors Think” – Jerome E. Groopman.  Every patient (i.e., all of us) should read this book, and it should be assigned as mandatory reading in medical schools.

3)      What is your favorite movie of all time? 

It’s hard to pick just one, but a few top candidates are The Wizard of Oz, Young Frankenstein, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.