Managing a bad law school result

Managing a bad law school result

So you got your marks back? Great!  How did you do? I’m assuming that if you’re reading this post, you probably didn’t do as well as you had hoped. Um, I’m sorry to hear that. But, before you drafting that email to your law teacher about how much you hate their unit (or them), take a minute. As a law teacher, I’ve had a bit of experience with disappointed and angry law students. Here’s some advice on managing a bad law school result.

You’ve probably read all the advice on the internet about how to manage disappointment and failure. They all tend to start with picking yourself and dusting yourself off. And that’s excellent advice. But what happens next?

Take a minute …

We all fail at something. And the natural response is to feel down. You’re allowed to. In fact, if you weren’t feeling disappointed, angry or upset, you’d have to wonder if it was that important at all.

But remember, you’re training to be an advocate. And if you’re thinking about asking questions about your mark, you’re actually thinking about advocating for yourself. Good advocates are passionate. But good advocates also prepare, consider their submissions and are precise. That instant fiery email you’re thinking about sending is undoubtedly going to be … passionate. But it might not tick the other boxes.

Make a time

Rather than sending a first email demanding answers, have you thought about sending an email asking for a time to meet with your law teacher?

I know that lots of colleges and universities have a type of ‘feedback day’. Law teachers post times of their office hours and then wait for law students to arrive. It can be a little helter-skelter for everyone involved. Your law teacher has no idea who’s going to turn up. If it’s a big class, they won’t necessarily have everyone’s marks and feedback at their fingertips. And, if lots of law students appear, time can be very limited.

Regardless of whether there is or isn’t a ‘feedback day’, asking for a time to meet with your law teacher has some advantages in terms of getting valuable and useful feedback:

  • Your law teacher knows you’re coming and will have all your material available. No mucking around with notoriously slow computers. Or worse, no access to the material at all. Unprepared law teachers are flustered law teachers. And flustered law teachers can be grumpy law teachers.
  • You can ask for a specific amount of time.
  • You can be prepared.
Stop and reflect

This is a tough question to confront. But if it were my office you were about to march into, I will have asked myself a version of this question: Who the hell is this person?

That may sound a little rude, but what I’m actually doing is a quick accounting of the number of times I’ve seen you in class or spoken to you. If I can’t remember when I last saw you, read an email from you, or answered one of your questions, I’m going to wonder about how much work you have put in.

Unfortunately, law teachers can’t see (and can’t assess) the effort you might have put into a unit. They can only see the product. They will have formed a view about the effort based on the product.

So (and this is a really confronting thing to ask yourself): Does the mark roughly equate to my effort?

You need to think about this since your law teacher will likely ask you the same or a very similar question.

Reflecting effectively

This isn’t about beating yourself up. Structured, critical reflection is a professional skill. If you’re looking for a little help with how that process works, I have written about it in another post. Secondly, it’s incredibly helpful in terms of figuring out what you’re going to talk to your law teacher about. Like all good advocates, it can also help you provide clear advice to ‘your client’ about realistic outcomes. An honest reflection might produce one of three answers with three corresponding objectives:

  • No. I still don’t know how I got the mark I got. I want to ask about my assessment.
  • Maybe. I worked really hard and did everything I needed to, but I still didn’t do well. I need to ask what the law teacher thinks I did, didn’t do, or should have done.
  • Yes. I possibly didn’t put as much effort in as I should have.

Answering ‘yes’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a time to speak to your law teacher. If you have failed the unit, you can ask some questions about improving your performance next time. If some things happen to you across the semester, it might also be an opportunity to talk about some of that (but keep reading since that means doing a little preparation).

Know what you’re talking about

Like all advocates, you need to know ‘the law’. What we’re talking about here is the administrative background against which your law school assesses law students.

That’s going to include, at the very least, the school’s assessment policy and the unit outline or syllabus. If you have questions about a particular assessment, it will also include the instructions for that assessment and any marking guide or rubric that might have been published.

This is really important. These things will set the parameters for an assessment, marking and (possibly) how a mark might be reviewed. Some assessment policies might guide how marks are reviewed, who reviews them and set a time limit on requesting a review. The outline or syllabus might adopt that policy or make minor changes to it. And one of the things your law teacher will ask you is ‘Did you read the syllabus?’, followed closely by ‘Did you read the assessment instructions?’

If something happened to you during the semester that affected your performance, the policy, syllabus, or instructions will have some information about extensions and special consideration. They might even set some expectations on when and how issues should be communicated to the law school or the law teacher.

Prepare to be precise

Walking into your law teacher’s office with a general request to review a mark, or a general complaint about the mark you got, isn’t going to get you an outcome. It’s a little like appearing before a court and saying, ‘But Your Honour, it’s just not fair.’

Having reflected on your effort and the mark, you’ll now be in a position to know what you’re going to say and the outcome you might want. If you are clear and precise in your questions, you will get clear advice and guidance.

So now you can prepare the things that you might need to ask. For example:

  • Have a look at the assessment and the feedback you received. Are there some specific comments that you would like to ask about?
  • Was there something in particular that you missed or should have explored further in an assessment?
  • Was there something that your law teacher didn’t take into account?

This last one picks up things that might have happened to you during the semester that affected your performance. But, before you raise those sorts of issues, make sure that you have read the policy, syllabus or instructions. And be prepared for the obvious question: ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’

Be confident

Remember I said that good advocates are passionate, but they’re also considered and precise? If you can keep your cool and appear confident, you’ll find that your questions are more specific, and the answers you get are clearer.

It’s also a good idea to make notes about the answers. Even if you lose the notes, writing things down helps you think about the answers and can help you remember the answers later on.

Being an advocate is a challenging thing to do. It gets easier with practice. Being an advocate for yourself is even more challenging. But seeking clarification, asking questions and understanding how you can improve is all part of being both a successful law student and a successful lawyer.

About Andrew Henderson

I am a lecturer, lawyer and researcher in Canberra with an interest in the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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