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Why Law Students Have Anxiety and Feel Overwhelmed Irrespective of How Much They Study

This post seeks to explain why both law students and their lecturers are often left feeling overwhelmed and inadequately prepared for the tasks required of them. By telling the story of the first day of law school from the perspective of a law student and a lecturer this post hopes to make both staff and students feel they are not alone if law school is making them feel stressed and anxious. The post hopes to show how so much anxiety in law school is caused by law schools and is not due to a lack of effort on the part of law students.

I remember my first day of law school as clearly as my first kiss. I couldn’t find a car park, I couldn’t find the lecture theatre, and couldn’t find my textbooks in the bookshop that at first I also couldn’t find. As I sheepishly walked in late to my first lecture a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation blared enormously above a stern middle aged woman who sharply spoke too close into the microphone so that an audio-feedback squeal shadowed every syllable. Before learning anything we were being told about our first pieces of assessment, and it seemed to me I was already behind and I hadn’t even started.


When I showed up to my first tutorial (now often called ‘seminars’) I was alarmed to learn that we were supposed to have read an entire High Court case prior to class and to have somehow formed deep opinions about the foundational legal principles espoused in the judgement. Not only had I not been taught how to find a High Court case, I could barely work the university’s website and had no opinions whatsoever about Australia’s legal system given I knew nothing about it yet. It would have been very easy to feel overwhelmed, inadequate and unsure of whether this was the right path for me, but my joy of being at university kept me eager in spite of the odds.


Against all odds and without any planning on my part I eventually was offered a position as a lecturer in law. Before standing in front of a lecture theatre filled with students I was given no guidance how to use the microphone, run any of the tech, no instructions on what to do if something went wrong, or any materials on effective teaching methods. A single USB had some very sparse lecture materials, a course outline, an out of date text book, and some very bland PowerPoint slides. The course convenor proceeded to then leave the country and was uncontactable for weeks on end. This was my introduction into legal academia. And having spent over a decade in the system I know that my experience is not some weird anomaly but is fairly common. 


When law students have a chance to see what life is like on the other side of the lecture theatre I think they may have a little more patience for their lecturers. I’m not writing this to justify poor teaching, or inadequate organisation, but simply to let law students see the full picture. To that end, let me reimagine that first lecture of mine from the perspective of the lecturer.

Given that it was a first year introductory course the lecturer likely had no job security and was employed on a contract-to-contract, trimester-to-trimester basis. At the three universities I worked at least two thirds of all teaching was done by contracted staff with no job security. My first year lecturer was likely thrust into teaching this course without much choice, or training, or time to prepare, just like I was. They may have not even been provided with any teaching materials, and had to cobble together that PowerPoint slideshow two weeks before the trimester started. The lecturer likely also couldn’t find a car park even in the staff-only spaces and was consequently running late. As the lecturer entered the lecture theatre for the first time that year they were startled to see a new IT system had been installed without any warning. With speckles of sweat appearing on their brow the lecturer madly tried to navigate the new IT system to log in, find the PowerPoint presentation file, and somehow figure out how to get it to appear through the projector. At first every attempt failed. A new password was required to be set up before the lecturer could log onto the computer. The clock was ticking as the lecturer theatre filled up. The USB stick with the PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t appear. Then the projector would not turn on. With only seconds to spare the projector finally fires, the red light to indicate the lecture is being recorded flares a hot red, and the lecturer stares up at hundreds of faces lit by laptops. The enormity of the lecture theatre naturally makes her speak much louder than usual, and she notices that the microphone is slightly squealing but can’t hear herself properly and the button to turn down the volume is hidden behind the new IT system, so she simply perseveres. The lecturer doesn’t want to start the lecturer talking about assessment, but the university has a policy to have the first assessment item marked and returned to students before the census date, and so something has to be due in the first few weeks of classes. That seems like the most important thing to students in the second and third year subjects she teaches, so that’s where she starts her lecture. After nervously talking for most of two hours, the lecturer goes back to her car (as a sessional staff member she doesn’t have her own office), and lets out a long sigh from a hanging head.


It is only when you know both sides of the story that you can start to see how both students and lecturers are let down by law schools in very similar ways. Neither students nor many of their lecturers have the support they need to competently complete the tasks required of them.


Students are rarely taught the skills they need to complete assessment tasks. Perhaps a single tutorial or seminar is dedicating to teaching students how to use legal databases for research purposes and the other valuable resources they contain. Typically, twenty students sit in a computer lab while a tutor tries to show them all simultaneously how to use complex databases. Inevitably a student can’t even log in and ten minutes are wasted before the class can even begin. Technical difficulties create further setbacks and there isn’t enough time for all of the features of the databases to be shown to the students. It is rare for these classes to show students how to use databases to research specific types of assessment questions, or how to use them efficiently, and instead these classes are typically general and generic in nature. For those students who don’t attend this most vital of classes, or who did but failed to take adequate notes so that what they learnt can be retained, obtaining distinctions in assessment tasks becomes almost impossible. And as feedback on assessment tasks is so sparse and unhelpful students are never shown a path to develop their skills and see their grades improve. So many students are left feeling inadequate, anxious, and highly stressed.


On top of not showing students how to adequately use legal databases, law schools frequently fail to teach students a range of core skills. It is rare for students to be taught how to develop key words for research, how to organise their research, how to develop a thesis from their research, how to plan an essay and logically sequence arguments, how to craft paragraphs, how to properly reference and proofread, how to critically assess what they read or the outcome of a case, and the list goes on and on. Unsurprisingly, students typically struggle in their attempts to write essays or summarise law and develop legal arguments. Instead of developing practical skills necessary for completing academic like research, writing, critical analysis, summarising law, and developing templates for advising clients on specific legal issue, seminar questions are frequently abstract, generic, theoretical, or problem-based questions that are so divorced from reality to be comical.


But to lay the blame of this seemingly systemic problem at the feet of university lecturers is unfair I think. As I’ve explained in this post – universities don’t teach lecturers how to teach. There is no professional development. No exemplar lesson on how to teach core skills, or how to write assessment tasks, or how to organise a course so that each week builds on the previous week’s work. Course convenors are largely left to themselves to determine how much content a course contains, the order it is taught, the design of assessment tasks, and what out of the vastness of the course content is worth knowing. In truth, most course convenors retain the basis structure of a course when they take over it as there is not sufficient time to restructure or redesign much material. As proof I can let you know that I tutor many students today who are being taught almost the same course content in the same order was taught to me over fifteen years ago. Even many of the essay questions are exactly the same.


So those on both sides of the microphone in lecture theatres are being inadequately supported by law schools. The result is staff and students who have not been taught the core skills necessary to succeed in their roles. This is exacerbated by the fact that law professors are rarely trained to properly teach, and there is no incentive for them to develop their skills.

Universities incentivise bad teaching


If you have been studying law long enough you have come across a lecturer or seminar leader who make law even more confusing. At first this might strike you as odd. Wouldn’t you expect to be taught by high quality teachers given the enormous amount of money you are paying for your degree? After a few years of law school though you will notice that poor teaching is the norm rather than the exception, and it is rare to be guided through the legal quagmire by a capable and engaging teacher. During my five years of law school I had only three useful lecturers who simplified complex concepts and ideas and presented them in an interesting and insightful way. I am deeply indebted to these lecturers who had as big an impact on me as almost anyone else in my life. Not only do I imitate their teaching style to this day, but many of the ideas they taught me profoundly altered my world view. The rest of my lecturers and tutors mostly read every word they spoke and adopted the same indecipherable language of judges, making their classes as dry as dust. If you asked them a tough question not only could they not answer it but often belittled you for daring to ask. Why is that law schools are so full of incompetent, boring, and at times rude teachers?


Universities provide no incentive to become a good law lecturer or seminar leader. It strikes students as odd when I first tell them that the staff that teach them are not hired to teach, but to publish papers. In other words, legal academics are hired, fired, and promoted on the basis of their research output. Universities do not care at all about whether a staff member can actually teach. Let me tell you a story to exemplify this.


After a few years of lecturing property law I became quite good at explaining complex concepts in simple language. This technique is necessary for me to understand law, and so I would spend time breaking down areas of law into small and manageable chunks. I would organise these chunks into a logical order, and use this as a template for my classes. When running tutorials and seminars I would provide a structure for how to answer legal problems on specific topics and provide this to my students. I saw this not as something exceptional or unusual, but as my job. My students thought differently, and word started to spread. Not only would I often receive outstanding student evaluations of my teaching, but students began to travel long distances to attend my classes. At the time I was teaching at Griffith University, and the same course would be taught across two campuses – one in Brisbane, and one on the Gold Coast. Larger and larger numbers of students began making the one hour commute from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to come to my classes instead of those run by another lecturer. This other lecturer was the epitome of a tweed wearing academic. His language was dense, his demeanour was disrespectful, and he clearly put no effort into teaching. A nice guy behind the scenes to be sure, but he was not a teacher.         


Every year I taught this course the evaluations were exactly the same – student after student criticised the other lecturer as the primary problem with the course. Yet, as this lecturer published books, his position was never threatened. It didn’t matter that the books he published were on the most obscure legal theory decipherable by maybe twenty living souls. All universities seem interested in is data. A published book is good data, and makes the law school look good. For some strange reason, teaching evaluations are largely ignored even though they provide clear data on the impact poor teaching has on students. I’m unaware of a single incidence where student evaluations of teaching have had any impact on the hiring, promotion, or firing of law academics. In short, universities incentivise bad teaching as research output is treating as the highest priority and so staff focus on research rather than teaching as this is all that matters in terms of getting a promotion. And it is students who lose.


Feedback on Assessment Fails to Help Students Improve


The next major problem with law school I want to discuss is how assessment tasks are marked. Assessment tasks are the primary opportunity to let students know how they are going with their understanding of the law and their ability to apply law to novel factual scenarios. Feedback on assessment tasks therefore should be a main method to provide students a road map to improvement if they do not have a perfect understanding of assessed law. Yet feedback on assessment is rarely more than a rubric and a couple of generic comments. Why is this so? Let me tell you. Universities have a blanket policy that every student is allocated one hour of marking. That means that for all your assessment each semester the academic in charge of the course is only allocated a single hour to mark everything. An additional problem is that most universities refuse to pay the subscription for marking software that stores comments. Frequently the same comment is needed to be given to many students. Currently, every single comment must be individually typed. It is a painstaking process. When I worked at the University of Queensland they had access to marking software called ‘Turn it in.’ This software stored comments so I would spend a lot of time writing detailed comments on the first few papers, then I could use these on subsequent papers. Not only did it save me a lot of time but it meant I could actually provide detailed guidance as to the mistakes made and the path to improvement. But as most universities refuse to pay for this software marking is made very painful and laborious.

Moreover, it is rare for the course convenor to mark your assessment. Generally a sessional academic is employed who rarely has any expertise in the subject. This means that if students reference a different case to that on the marking guide they often are marked down, even though the case they mentioned is relevant authority. Marking becomes like a sausage factory where assessment tasks are marked as quickly as possible. The result is feedback that is brief, generic, and inadequate to assist students in improving their work.


Much of the anxiety felt by law students stems from systemic problems with law school. Law students are not taught the skills they need to succeed, are taught by people without adequate training or skills, and there is little incentive for law professors to improve their teaching. And as feedback on assessment is insufficient to guide improvement the result is that most law students experience intense anxiety, irrespective of how much they study.

I hope this blog post has made you feel less alone, and less inadequate.

Dr Ben Wardle


Help is here if you need it

Law school can be stressful. If this post rings true to you and you think you could use a hand developing the skills you need to complete assessment tasks, check out our masterclasses in:

  • Legal research

  • Legal essay writing

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  • Tips and tricks for success in law school

  • Critical analysis for law assessments


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