To Orient, or Disorient?

Many, if not most, law schools conduct orientation for incoming first year students.  Faculty may be significantly involved.  Sometimes we might ask ourselves, in the hurry of early August, “Why are we doing this?!”  And, “How come we didn’t schedule time last April to talk about changing orientation?”  When faculties examine their orientation programs, we may start by asking what the purposes of orientation are.  Welcoming students to the institution, or into the legal profession?  Infusing them with a sense of higher purpose?  Instilling professionalism?  Or even just laying the logistical groundwork for the semester?

The risks of formalized orientation are obvious – overwhelming students with too much information, boring them to the point of disengagement, frustrating them with further delay before the long-awaited start to their law school studies.   Even inspirational speakers (judges, famous graduates) or motivational ceremonies (e.g., pinning) may need to be retooled, when these traditions start to feel stale.

What really needs to be accomplished during orientation?  Should faculty play a role, and if so, what should it be?  Or is orientation best left to the administration?

Recently, to enable my own participation in first-year orientation, my elementary-age daughter was sent off to a week-long, overnight language camp.  From the moment she entered the grounds, the camp counselors spoke to her in Swedish – the target language.  Having no prior experience with the language, my 10-year-old felt the full impact of immersion-style language learning.  Other than a brief conversation inside the cabin about rules, communications from and among staff – her teachers – took place in a language that was entirely new to her.

Should orientation of law students be designed to smooth the transition into law school, with the idea that comfortable students will be better positioned to learn?  Or is it possibly more effective to immerse the students in our professional language and culture – as legal scholars, teachers, and lawyers – from the very beginning?  Would recognizing and employing the power of “disorientation” actually better serve this purpose?

Some schools have revamped their initiation of new students in innovative ways (last I heard, Washburn has gone so far as to ban the use of the “O” word!).  What about schools that haven’t yet reached such a turning point – are there key roles that faculty can and should play in being a part of what happens during the first few days new students arrive on campus?

5 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this recent posting about Orientation. I’m new to the world of Student Affairs and just planned my second Orientation.

    Our first, was a bit of the kitchen sink — an overview of administrative departments; information about logistical matters ranging from keys to IDs and parking; and some ‘Legal Methods’ classes to help better prepare students for the first year of law school. We did a survey of the entire class and found their feedback very useful as we rethought the mission of our Orientation.

    This year, rather than focus on administrative details, we focused on several themes: (1) Student engagement and opportunities for cultivating legal skills; (2) Professionalism and pro bono; and (3) Legal Methods. We were able to do that by having all of the ‘logistical’ information available to students on-line prior to coming to the law school. That way, when they came to law school for Orientation, our focus was more on welcoming them to the intellectual community and the broader legal profession. We included faculty, community partners, staff and student leaders in our planning and implementation.

    In terms of opportunities for engagement: we highlighted the work of our many students groups; our renowned Clinics; and our Government Law Center through panels and an organizational fair. Student got a sense of the importance of the ‘continuum’ of practice opportunities at the law school — i.e. that they could gain valuable skills training not only through pro bono and internships, but also through our Clinics and Centers.

    The Orientation also highlighted The importance of pro bono and service as a central value to the profession. Orientation begn with a talk about the important of service to Albany Law’s core mission as well as an overview of our new pro bono program. We also hosted a reception with Brandt Goldstein, author of Storming the Court, who gave a moving presentation about his work on behalf of Haitian Refugees in the early 90’s. Orientation culminated in a Professionalism Day where students signed an oath and were ‘sworn in’ by Court of Appeals Judge Vicki Graffeo. Nearly 500 students and parents were present for this moving ceremony.

    In addition, all student were assigned Faculty Mentors and also received rigorous training in a series of important study skills important and unique to first year law school: casebriefing, active reading, time management, issue spotting and outlining were among the many skills explored in our Legal Methods curriculum.

    Bottom line: by frontloading and distilling the ‘logistical and administrative’ aspects of Orientation and focusing on several key themes of service, student engagement and leadership and preparation, this year’s Orientation was a great success.

  2. Do I sense a theme here? So many (potential) goals, so little time?

    ln another month my law school will unveil the fourth edition of our extended orientation program Foundation for Legal Study (FLS)( Yes, we’re on the quarter system with a late September start – eat your heart out now . You’ll get to thumb your noses at us in May and June!).

    To a more traditional version of orientation like the one at Albany, we added a substantial academic component.
    Using court documents, video, lectures, demonstrations, and role-playing simulations we trace a real case from start to finish. Bradley v. ASARCO arose in the Seattle area.

    The case shows up in some 1L Torts casebooks to illustrate the evolution of Trespass: Can a traditional trespass claim can be founded on entry of of microscopic particles on the plaintiff’s land without a showing of actual damages. In addition, the case was filed in state court, removed to federal court, certified to state court on the key issues of law. So it potentially illustrates the roles of the state and federal courts. Plus some interesting ethics and professionalism issues.

    Not surprisingly, we struggle to keep ourselves from pursuing too many goals, and achieving none. Possible goals? Let me count the ways:

    1. Introduce the big picture – stages of a lawsuit., elements of a claim;

    2. Demonstrate that law is about people (the plaintiffs and one of the attorneys for ASARCO talk to the students on the last day);

    3. Introduce basic civics concepts and vocabulary that some students — especially foreign educated ones — will lack.

    4. Teach basic statute and case reading skills.

    5. Provide context for how legal doctrine is used by attorneys.

    and . . and . . . and . . ..

    Last year an advisory committee evaluated the FLS effort . Overall, faculty and students viewed the effort favorably, so we decided to continue it. And, we decided to shorten FLS significantly, increase the number of student role-playing exercises, shorten lectures, and in some cases better integrate them with the Bradley case.

    The changes were a bit controversial among faculty most involved in the program. Not surprisingly, we can’t escape that familiar tension — how much content can students realistically absorb? What can we realistically “off-load” to orientation? I’ll be curious to see whether we’ve arrived at a reasonable balance.

    Interested? My colleague Tom Andrews will be presenting on FLS at the SALT Teaching Conference in Hawaii in December.

  3. Traditional version of orientation like the one at Albany, we added a substantial academic component. Thanks for your info.


  4. I love hearing new approaches to orientation. Having just had lunch with my student advisees this week, I was thinking about your post in that context. At Georgia State, all law faculty are assigned student advisees. The approach to advisement is left to the discretion of the advisor. Some make many efforts to develop a relationship with their advisees and to serve as a resource for them, but there is not a formal expectation about what this relationship should look like. For most students, a faculty mentor may be the first faculty member that meets with them outside the classroom environment. I wonder if we should create certain expectations about the advisor or mentor role that could help students with their transition? Or, is this the kind of relationship that becomes something because both parties put energy into it, so some flower and some die on the vine?

    Kudos to UW and other schools for the efforts they have made to create thoughtful and comprehensive programs like FLS.

  5. This is a great post on orientation. Upon entering a university of law school I can see how the feeling would be that of disorientation rather than orientation. Although the exact purpose of orientation may be unclear, what is clear is that students get a feel for the school before they start. I think it would be quite intimidating if there weren’t an adjustment period before classes start. Law school is a big adjustment, so sticking with the orientation method as opposed to the disorientation method seems like a suitable idea.

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