Schools develop program to boost first-years

Writing aid can help catch early problems

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At law schools around the country, students meet regularly with faculty to hone their writing skills, become more critical readers of legal documents and gain insight on taking legal exams. While some confer one-on-one with professors, others meet in workshops designed to provide support to students -- many of whom may be at risk of underperforming or failing.

At Duquesne University's School of Law, such support was stepped up recently with the launch of a new academic excellence program with a full-time director. Duquesne received an $85,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to support the initiative, and hired Robert Perkins, one of its law school graduates, to run the program.

"The underlying philosophy is that any student admitted to law school can succeed through hard work and working wisely," said Mr. Perkins.

Duquesne's program will focus on first-year students and offer specific workshops on skills including how to create an outline, time management and how to take a law school exam. It will also identify students who don't do well on mid-term exams and confer with those students to assess problems they're having and come up with an assistance plan.

While the majority of law students come prepared, Mr. Perkins said, they have different levels of writing and analytic skills because of the diverse backgrounds of people admitted to law schools.

"Nothing's the same as the study of law. It's not like medical school, where people are coming from four years of preparation in sciences."

Mr. Perkins earned his law degree in 2005, clerked for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Philadelphia, worked as a public defender in Allegheny County and taught part-time at Duquesne. He also practiced public interest law in Boston prior to taking his new position.

Kevin Deasy, associate dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, wasn't surprised that Duquesne created a new academic support center because Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne's law school, launched the academic support program at Pitt a couple of decades ago.

Mr. Deasy worked full-time in academic support at Pitt from 1987 until about eight years ago, when he became dean of students. At that time, the school realigned some positions and academic support became part of his duties.

Pitt's support program includes an intensive orientation for first-year students and study skills workshops, and an emphasis on legal writing.

Mr. Deasy teaches a writing class for students who are struggling at the end of their first year, and another law school faculty member teaches legal writing primarily to second- and third-year students and helps them prepare for the bar exam. An individual affiliated with Pitt's English department works with upper-level students who have problems with writing.

Though the academic support efforts are divided, "If you put all those resources together, it probably comes to somewhere between one full-time and one-and-a-half people doing it," Mr. Deasy said.

At West Virginia University's College of Law, the academic excellence program expanded last year and created a full-time director's position. Grace Wigal, the program director and formerly director of legal writing at the law school, said about 15 percent of the incoming first-year class is selected to participate in an early orientation for "at-risk" students that provides them with guidance on "how to be good law students."

Once the academic year begins, those first-year students are part of study sessions that include meeting two hours per week with Ms. Wigal and an upper class student for tutoring in writing and other activities.

After she reviews first semester grades, Ms. Wigal offers tutoring for any student whose grade point average is 2.2 or below "to help boost their grades so they're not in academic trouble" by the end of the first year. "What we see as a result of the program is that students who participate far outperform their predictors for success," she said.

The center at WVU also offers workshops for the 85 percent of students who are not at risk in their first year "because no one should be able to say they don't have academic support," said Ms. Wigal.

It also provides assistance for second- and third-year students, including workshops focused on writing and preparing for the bar exam.

"We have three years of support going on to catch people falling through the net," said Ms. Wigal. "These things are there for them to benefit from, but if there's not motivation to fully participate, those are the people who just don't make it. And rightly so."


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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