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Top 5 Things That Your Law Tutor Hates

Legally Blonde professor

We’ve been dying to know this for ages. At long last we’ve found a law tutor willing to tell us what they love and hate about our classroom antics and approaches to assignments...

5. Insufferable Know-it-alls

So. I’m aware that some section of this publication advises bright-eyed, uber-intelligent law students on how to become Grade-A Hermione Grangers. This is acceptable, even laudable behaviour except when, well – when a student doesn’t. Know it all. Instead, such a student substitutes actual knowledge with any of the following:

  • Self-righteous indignation at the unfairness of law. This is often a validly raised point, but rarely when it is a mere opinion without either some suggestion for reform or worse, a basic understanding of the law in question; or

  • Smarmy, faintly inappropriate wisecracks; or

  • Life experience. Life experience has its place. Often this place is (surprisingly) in life.

In a class of finite face-to-face teaching hours, which are devoted to the delivery not only of inspired classroom debate – but also examinable content – it’s advisable save these for post-class drinks.

4. Dead Silence

I know you don’t meticulously prepare for every class – or, in some cases, any class at all. This is understandable. We tutors know law isn’t your only commitment: work, family, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, special friends, internships, volunteering, sleeping (optional), bills to pay, bosses to impress, etc. Life intervenes. We have lives too, so we’re aware of this.

I’m going to say something that may be mildly controversial here. You don’t have to read every word, word for word, of your readings. Have you ever noticed how your textbooks – however well-written, however inspired, however respected their authors – have never won a Booker Prize? They’re reference books, not novels. Whatever your method – scan-and-read, highlight-and-go, divide-and-conquer in a study group- it is possible to gain a good grasp of the knowledge while retaining a vestige of sanity. Be organised, plan how you will accomplish at least the majority of your required readings each week.

If you do this, then maybe you can help out with this tutor’s pet hate #4 – the dead silence. You know what it’s like. Classrooms filled with non-rhetorical questions hanging in the air – it’s the bane of every tutor’s existence, regardless of their discipline. Help us out.

3. Playing ‘The Graduate’

Sucking up to your tutor in a quest for a grade hike – this is a delicate issue, I know. I appreciate students who have a passion for law, or for particular areas of law, and I’d encourage students who want to share that in classroom discussion or emails, etc. I really do. I think the only way to master what can be rather dry areas of law is to find an ‘in’, so to speak – find a way of liking it. Maybe it’s a strange case from the early 1900s involving litigation-happy barristers and a ferry ticket of 2 pounds, an eccentric collector who lurks at tips in the ACT, watching The Good Wife… This is all great.

It’s when students cross the line into phony – and sometimes, a little inappropriate and phony – that’s not so welcome. Yes, sometimes this can be the student’s fault, sometimes it’s the tutor’s. Often it’s a misunderstanding, a shared passion for otherwise reprehensibly dull intellectual subject matter, and a dangerously narrow age difference. That all happens. However, from this tutor’s point of view – and from the perspective of many, really – it’s just not cool. Understood? Good.

2. Speak up, speak out

40%. That’s an appalling statistic. 40% of law students in Australia experience some form of mental anxiety, ranging from mild anxiety to panic attacks, to depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviours. This statistic is not exclusive to Australian law students; it’s an experience mirrored in the US, and probably elsewhere, though this area is not well researched.

Psychologists offer various reasons for why so many law students (and later, lawyers) experience mental anxiety in some form or another. They say it’s the way we’re trained to think – like lawyers – in an inherently pessimistic, negative, almost cynical way. They say it’s the kind of people we are – perfectionists accustomed to being the very best, pitted against each other in competitive combat. They say it’s the nature of the profession – a push towards commercialisation rather than public service resulting in an emphasis on billable hours and, sometimes, inethical lawyering. It could be all those causes; it could be much more.

The point here is simple: we’re your tutors. We’re not counsellors. But we would, if possible and within the boundaries of a professional relationship, like to help – whatever this may mean. It might mean referring you to a professional counsellor or psychologist. It might mean referring you to study support services. It might mean advising you to reduce your study load.

Think of it this way: as academics, we turned down or left highly lucrative commercial careers to pursue some vague notion of ‘helping people’, or ‘teaching people’ or even ‘empowering people.’ We want to hear. And most of all, we’re generally not interested in turning your education into a kind of gladiatorial bloodbath.

We want you to meet your colleagues. Make friends. Work together (don’t plagiarise, but work cooperatively). Find the passion for a kind of intellectual exercise which might have attracted you to law – just find your passion in general. Be your very best. Forget the competition. Rise above it.

1. Failing students. I know. Crazy, huh. Yep. As a tutor, I don’t hole up in a twisted spire of a crumbling Transylvanian castle marking your papers and letting out an evil cackle every time I fail a student. I really hate failing students. I hate failing them so much, it’s my number 1 pet hate. Don’t get me wrong. If you fail to study, fail to ask for assistance during semester, fail to conscientiously apply yourself to what you are very likely capable of – you will fail.

Save us both the heartache. Here are my quick tips for avoiding failure:

  • Spellcheck.

  • Plan your assessments. Write assignments at least a week before they’re due so you can put down the first draft, run wild elsewhere, and return to it a few days before the due date for a review – and probably a bit of a rewrite. It will sound clearer to you and better to me.

  • Ask questions, lots of questions, BEFORE the assessment is due so that I can give you as much (reasonable) assistance as possible. I can’t give you the answer but I can give you an idea of what is the right approach… and what is oh, so completely wrong.

  • Request a review of your grades only after reading, in depth, the marking policy of your university. It is the policy to which all markers must adhere to; it allows, more or less, for uniformity of grades according to merit. Be sure, for yourself, that you deserve a grade increase.

  • Consider asking for guidance after receiving your assessment, if you did not do as well as you were expecting. Keep in mind that law is generally much more rigorous than other disciplines, and certainly in your first few subjects (if not throughout), getting a Distinction grade is quite rare, and an High Distinction even more so. Be prepared to learn and improve.

  • English. Whether you’re an international student or local, it’s always good to make sure your English expression is up to par. Law is a language unto itself and mastery of English is assumed. Not only of basic spelling and grammar, but of argument and persuasive expression. Read judgments. Read essays by Orwell. Read anything – and consider how the author communicated a certain point of view.

  • Humility– it’s a useful thing. Failing or doing less than expected is not really akin to having your whole house burn down due to a marauding band of secretive international terrorists devoted to destabilising corrupt societies – but it’s a useful word of wisdom, regardless. If you don’t get the mark you wanted, find out why and learn from it. Your life isn’t going to end.

So. That’s all, really. Hope that didn’t come across all cantankerous-cranky-preachy. Goodnight, good luck and go kick some law textbook ass.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 10 August 2010.

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