The Perilous Second Semester, Part 2

February 17, 2011

Editor’s Note:  Please welcome  back our guest blogger, Professor Andrew J. McClurg, who writes PART 2 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 2

My last post discussed the insights I gained in writing 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to the First Year of Law School (West 2009) about the malaise that affects many 1Ls in the second semester. Below are some possible explanations for it, which are explored more deeply in the book:

• The thrill is gone. Students arrive at law school brimming with anticipation and energy. Seeing and feeling it is one of the great joys of being a law professor. But like romances that lose their dizzying effects when the newness wears off, law school becomes more of a chore than an adventure after the ebullience of the first semester subsides. In the words of bluesman B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

• The double-edged grade blade. Depending how they turn out, first-semester grades can be either a major boost or impediment to starting the second semester. Most students begin law school with at least some hope of finishing near the top of their class, but, of course, the mathematical reality is that only 10 percent of students finish in the top 10 percent. High expectations, previous educational successes, mandatory grading curves, and an abundance of talented people create a perfect storm for dashed hopes. The storm is unleashed the moment first-semester grades are released. Grades also create an unfortunate divide. In the first semester, everyone is in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat. The shared experience creates a communal bond. But once those first grades come out there may be a feeling—both among some high achievers and lower achievers—of “Hey, you’re in that boat and I’m in this boat.”

• Getting back in the groove. After going and going like the battery bunny on meth for three months, students finish that last exam of the first semester and everything suddenly stops. Many students don’t know what to do with themselves during the holiday break. Then, just about the time they readjust to an unstructured lifestyle full of leisure time, it’s time to get back to the grind.

• Enhanced workload. Some law schools add an extra course in the second semester. Professors may move at a quicker pace, which means longer reading assignments. The appellate brief and oral argument in Legal Writing is a heavy burden. Many students also start pursuing more co- and extracurricular activities.

• Second-guessing life as a lawyer. In the first semester, students are struggling just to keep up, giving them little time to ponder the long-term wisdom of their career choice.

In the second semester, nagging doubts about that choice may begin creeping into consciousness. Should I be here? Is this really what I want to do with my life?

• Financial issues. New students often arrive having saved enough money to get them through the first semester only to realize they need to borrow more heavily to keep going. Debt load, in turn, increases anxiety as students become more attuned to the state of the legal job market in a struggling economy. Immediate pressure comes in the scramble for summer jobs after the first year, which may be few and far between depending on the student’s grades and the local job market.

With another second semester approaching, consider talking to your students about these issues. Many of them aren’t even aware of what’s dogging them until someone raises the issues.

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.