Wednesday, October 6, 2010

2L at U of L interview: Kimberly Ballard shares secrets of law school academic success

Kimberly Ballard

As the law school's Director of Academic Success, Kimberly Ballard aims to give students the keys to the Holy Grail of law school:  good grades. She oversees the school's Structured Study Group program for 1Ls, who attend weekly meetings with upper-level students during their first semester to learn about outlining, efficient studying, legal writing, taking notes in class, and other crucial skills. The Academic Success program's Web site also offers a wealth of online information for prospective and current students, and Ballard, a former litigation associate at Stites & Harbison and a 2004 graduate of U of L Law (magna cum laude), knows what she's talking about.  As part of my ongoing series of interviews with folks at the Brandeis School of Law, I interviewed Ms. Ballard via email about her job, the program, and her thoughts about law school in general. 

2L at U of L: How was the Academic Success Program started at U of L? Does every law school offer something similar?

Ballard: In 1991, the Law School created a new position for a Director of Academic Development to assess the academic needs of law students and to develop a program to supplement classroom teaching.  The initial program included student led tutorials and academic counseling.  Over the years, the Law School’s Academic Success Program has continued to evolve and now offers broader services designed to meet a variety of student learning needs.  Today, the majority of law schools offer some program of academic support to law students, although the scope of those services varies from school to school.    

Q: You offer a lot of great advice to law students. Is there a single lesson or tip that stands out above all the others?
A: Time management!  Almost all law students feel pressed for time.  To help curb the unnecessary stress that can be associated with the heavy workload, I strongly encourage all students to create their own personal study schedules.   I have found that the students who do not consciously plan their time in advance and self monitor the amount of time spent each week on various study tasks, are more likely to procrastinate, fall behind in their classes, be less efficient and effective when they study, and/or forget to complete an important study task.  Students who are successful in managing their time in law school are setting themselves up for success in practice.

Q: Of all the tips you offer, what's the one that students most frequently ignore, and why?
A:  When I informally survey upper-division students and ask them what they wish they would have done differently during their first year of law school, the majority of students tell me that they wish they would have started outlining sooner and updated their outlines regularly.   I think some law students tend to push the task of outlining off for a number of different reasons.  Some are intimidated by the process; some students (especially those who have not developed a study schedule) do not feel like they have enough time to begin outlining; some students simply do not understand the benefit of outlining until it is too late; and others simply try to take shortcuts and do not commit to creating their own personal outline.  After exams, students tend to better understand the correlation between the quality of their outlines and their exam performance.  

Q: I followed your advice very closely during my first year of law school, but with all the responsibilities of being a 2L I have started to modify my study techniques. For example, instead of briefing every case in a separate document, I now do a truncated brief that goes straight into my outlines. Does this show that I am:
a) hopelessly screwed
b) making a shrewd modification of my study habits to save time
c) hard to say before grades arrive
B, assuming you’re routinely reviewing your outlines and synthesizing the information

Q: Why do students spend so much time surfing the Internet during class?
A:  I’ve read a couple of articles about this issue and apparently some students believe that classroom surfing reduces sleepiness, increases their willingness to attend class, and helps them stay productive during dead or badly taught portions of class.  Yet, many studies have concluded that our brains just aren't designed to do multiple tasks simultaneously and do them well.
  Moreover, when students surf the Internet, play games on their computers, or check email, it is distracting to other students in the classroom.  It also sends a signal to others that you don’t care about class.  These types of distractions make students less present as participants in class discussion and degrade the quality of their attention.  I can’t understand why a student would want to invest so much financially in obtaining a legal education, and have solitaire be a central part of his/her educational experience.  

Q: The demands of law school are brutal, and the results can be downright cruel even for those students who follow your techniques and spend lots of time studying. What advice can you offer students who don't end up at the top of the class?
A: I give students a copy of an excerpt from Succeeding in Law School by Herbert Ramy.  I think he sums it up best:  Instead of striving for a particular spot in the academic pecking order, students should attempt to achieve their personal best.  Keep in mind that your personal best may not translate into “A’s” or even “B’s” on your examinations.  However, by definition, your personal best means that you had nothing left to give.  Anyone whose grades represent their best work has to be satisfied.  

Q: What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?
A: Getting the opportunity to work with law students on a daily basis and see them progress through law school is the most rewarding aspect of my job.

Q: How has law school changed since you finished in 2004?
A: Other than the obvious changes to the physical space (renovations to classrooms and common areas), the two biggest changes since I attended law school are related to technology and skills instruction.  During my 1L and 2L years, we handwrote exams (I feel like a grandmother!), and very rarely used technology in the classroom.  During my 3L year, students were given the option to take exams on computer, which most of us opted not to do.  Today, the overwhelming majority of students take their exams on computer, and can’t imagine it any other way.  With respect to skills instruction, the new Law Clinic allows students who may be interested in pursuing a career in litigation the opportunity to learn those skills and practice them before graduating from law school.  In addition, the Law School’s commitment to offering skills instruction in courses is also new.  These changes are benefiting students and helping them to be practice ready at graduation.

Q: Aside from grades, what are the top qualities that law firms seek in students, and how can students develop those qualities?
A: In my experience, law firms seek students who possess excellent writing skills, who have practical experience, and who are self-motivated and driven to produce their best work consistently.  Students can develop these qualities in law school and demonstrate their commitment to hitting the ground running by taking an active role in opportunities available outside the classroom – being a research assistant for a professor; serving on a journal; competing on a moot court team; participating in the Clinic; enrolling in an externship; assuming a leadership role in a student group or community project; and/or taking an independent study to intensely research and write about a specific area of interest.  These are just a few examples of what law firms are looking for in a candidate’s resume because students with these types of experiences are more likely to possess the qualities noted above.

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