Contextualizing Law School Apprehensions
With soaring orchestral accompaniment and Hollywood production, it is easy to imagine law school as a place where the richest ideals of bright-eyed students are fostered and nurtured by wise professors between marble walls trimmed with mahogany as slight stumbles are smoothed over, commencement is reached, and the bar exam conquered in a tidy 100 or so minutes.
Everyone at Albany Law School hopes that each student has those perfect experiences, but, for many students, inevitably there are going to be bumps – sometimes big bumps – during their time on campus on New Scotland Ave.
Each student that runs into stressors has a different way to overcome them and Albany Law School has resources to help. Current Albany Law School students, faculty, and staff shared their expertise, experiences, and strategies to help others successfully deal with the stress of law school.
Asking students to answer questions in a classroom is a pedagogical technique that dates back to, well, the start of education. But the idea of an experienced professor singling out—colloquially called “cold calling”— law school rookies may be a new and intimidating experience for many students.
Cold calling is a teaching technique where professors randomly call on students to answer questions about the days' reading instead of asking for volunteers. While some Albany Law School classes do not feature cold calls or cases/problems are pre-assigned to a student or group, there are some professors that believe, particularly in first-year classes, the experience has benefits both in law school and later, in practice.
“The reading is difficult and comprehending exactly what is going on in a case, both factually and legally, is often a significant challenge. It is supposed to be that way. When the identity of the student who is to be called on for a question is unknown, this forces all of the students to give some thought to what they would say if called upon. In other words, no student is free to ‘skate’ over the material,” said Distinguished Professor of Law Patricia Reyhan, who teaches several 1L courses.
“To deal with the stress of cold calls, you just need to always be prepared. The more prepared you are on the material, the easier the cold call will be,” said Alizabeth Volkman ’21, who was the President of the Class of 2021. “Cold calls are most definitely intimidating. Even in my last semester, I was still intimidated by them. But they do get easier!”
Cold calling also has roots in what professional attorneys often face.
“Sometimes the appropriate answer is, ‘I do not know; I will study and get back to you.’ Other times, particularly in trial or appellate practice, the lawyer must be prepared to answer any relevant question posed,” Reyhan said. “Cold calling gives the student exposure to the reality that often preparation and rational, well-considered answers are required professional skills.”
Even with the difficulty, cold calls aren’t designed to damage a student’s confidence.
“It's okay to glance at notes when answering cold calls, so it's important to take good ones while you're studying too,” Volkman said. “Also, no one remembers the time you got an answer completely wrong, but they will remember when you had to admit to the professor you didn't know the answer because you weren't prepared for class, so always give your best effort.”
“I think my students understand that I do not expect them to be perfect and that I will not humiliate them if they are fumbling or wrong. What will infuriate me is not the student who has tried and come up short, but the student who has not tried and has instead come to class unprepared,” Reyhan said. “I believe that cold calling requires students to work harder and deeper with the material. Is cold calling stressful? Yes. Intentionally. Cold calling is preparation for the professional role of protecting the lives, well-being and fortunes of one's clients.”
While self-preparation is a big part of conquering cold calls once classes officially start, Albany Law School also helps get its students started with new student orientation workshops including “How to Take Extremely Useful Notes” with Professor Ava Ayers and “Legal Methods: Preparing for Class/Reading and Briefing Cases” with a number of faculty including Reyhan. Orientation also features sample classes (Legal Methods: Getting Ready for the First Week) so students can get a feel for the classroom environment and a picture of what is expected of them before the academic year officially begins.
Once the academic year starts, typically in the third week of August, faculty are also available to work through class subjects during regular office hours or by appointment. Away from the full classroom, the low-key, one-on-one setting is a good opportunity to explore questions, answers, and ways to prepare the next time a student’s name is called.
For some students the law school experience is defined by grades.
For all students end of semester marks are certainly part of the journey as grades impact class rank and opportunities such as scholarships, clinical and field placements, or law journal participation.
Couple all that with the fact that each student that steps on Albany Law School’s campus has an outstanding academic pedigree, then, of course, there is going to be discouragement when a disappointing letter grade lands on a student’s transcript.
Currently serving as a Logistics Specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves, Gienabou Diallo ’23 is one of those accomplished students. Beyond her service, she was a legislative intern in the New York State Senate and majored in Africana Studies with a minor in Sociology at the University at Albany. She also holds a masters in African-American/Black Studies from UAlbany. However, when she opened up her final grades in the late spring of 2021 she felt that twang of disappointment. Her first semester was tough—she started mid-academic year—but she had gotten through it and was starting to figure out what law school was all about.
The only thing was, “I received a ‘C’ in Property. I was utterly disappointed in myself,” Diallo said. “I was disappointed because I worked hard and still received a C.”
Always outgoing, even with the setback, Diallo talked with teaching assistants, upper-class students, classmates, Professor Ava Ayers (who she is working with as an intern in the Government Law Center this summer), Dean of Students Rosemary Queenan, and friends about the grade. Each of them all had similar experiences and each offered their own advice and support.
“I had to accept that I did my best and my best is enough. I commended myself even though I did not get the grade that I wanted because I got through the class. That fact helped me grieve, reflect, and talk with people who gave me a different perspective to cope with my feelings,” she said.
“[The grade] made me realize that I had set impossible expectations for myself, especially because I had not taken into consideration that law school subjects are all new information. I realized that it wasn't about the grade nor about my capability to learn, but about developing strategies for my learning style that would enable me to succeed,” she said. Erik Piorkowski ’22—a teaching assistant (TA) in Diallo’s Intro to Lawyering class—told her, “the first semester is always the toughest, but because you got through it, you are already prepared for the next level.”
“That empowered me to think beyond the letter mark, and to expand my mind to take every mistake or failure as an opportunity to listen, learn, and grow,” Diallo said.
While many students form study groups and spend time going over coursework and cases to buoy each other, those TAs – often upper-level students who have previously excelled in the course – are always available to help too.
According to Alex-Marie Baez ’20, who is now the law school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow, but was a TA during her time as a student, TAs play different roles depending on the professor.
“It’s important to listen to the Professor, read the syllabus, and look out for any emails from your TAs so that you know how they can help you and what they can help with. But regardless, TAs chose this role because they want to help and answer student questions so it’s never a bad idea to reach out to your TAs when you’re confused on a topic or need help studying,” Baez said. “And outside of class work, many TAs are open to other questions about internships, their own law school experiences, and are willing to offer general advice.”
Even though each TA has a different approach, nearly all of them have office hours - many are often in the Foyers of the 1928 Building.
“TAs may have some tips and tricks because they did well in the class they’re working with and they have a better understanding of the Professor’s expectations,” Baez said.
“TAs chose to be TAs out of a passion for teaching, a love for the subject matter, or even because the Professor is one of their own favorites,” Baez said. “TAs want to help and they will be flexible and patient.”
Beyond the traditional academics of the classroom, many Albany Law School students also get real-world experience through field placements, internships, or by working in The Justice Center.
Split into five in-house clinics, The Justice Center is, essentially, the law school’s active law firm. Students often note that the experience of seeing and interacting with both the law and clients first hand is an invaluable experience. But, the cases often involve difficult subject matters and outside factors beyond a student’s control.
Working in the Family Violence Litigation Clinic under the guidance of Professor Jaya Connors, Kelly Amorim ’21 and Shaun VanBuskirk ’21 handled six cases – an above average number – in early 2021. Among those was one where a client died before the case could be heard in court. In another, a survivor of domestic violence withdrew the charges before the case made its way to court. In a third case, helping a child in need, there was a ruling that the pair couldn’t continue to work on the case because of a professional conflict with another Albany Law School student.
With each setback nerves frayed.
“It was definitely difficult to be faced with these challenges and although it made us sad at times, it also motivated both of us to keep pushing because there were clients out there that needed us,” VanBuskirk said. “In order to deal with the stress, we definitely relied on each other as well as Professor Connors for support, whether that be emotional, physical, or just cheering each other on. We definitely had to be there for Professor Connors at times emotionally because of the nature of our cases, and she was there for us when we needed it as well. A good support system goes a long way in Family Law.”
With rising costs of living, tuition, and more, paying for law school can sometimes seem impossible.
Adding together tuition, room and board, food, books and many other factors it can cost around $70,000 per year to attend Albany Law School. Even though this is a very competitive amount – Hofstra can be up to about $94,000 and Syracuse around $80,000 just to name two other regional law schools – the raw number can be intimidating.
“We certainly understand that there are significant financial obligations that students and families take on for a legal education,” said Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Chief of Staff at Albany Law School Jeff Schanz said. “We feel that everything that Albany Law School offers – our location in the Capital of New York, our distinguished and passionate faculty, our impactful Justice and Government Law Centers, and so much more – makes the investment in a student’s future worthwhile.”
To help students with fiscal questions and concerns, Director of Financial Aid Andrea Wedler often holds information sessions on all of the different kinds of aid that is available to all students. She routinely emails students about additional scholarship opportunities.
With more than $5 million awarded annually, Albany Law School offers a generous merit-based scholarship program for all Juris Doctor candidates. More than 75 percent of 2020 first-year students received merit-scholarship awards ranging from $5,000 to full tuition.
Scholarships are offered by the Admissions Committee at the time of acceptance, based upon the strength of the admissions application. All admitted students are automatically considered. No separate scholarship application is required. Class rank or good standing, as specified in the scholarship offer, may be required for annual renewal.
Half of the annual award is credited toward the tuition bill each semester for up to six full-time (or eight part-time) semesters. Scholarship amounts are pro-rated for those who elect the four-year program or are admitted into the 2-year accelerated program. Additional details regarding disbursement and retention criteria will be provided to all awardees.
Intuitional Financial Support
Beyond scholarships, work-study programs are available to many students. There is also help available in the event of an emergency through the Helen Wilkinson Memorial Student Assistance Fund. The fund, established in 2017, honors Albany Law School’s longtime registrar, Helen Wilkinson, who was known to offer support—both financial and emotional—to students during some of their toughest and most unpredictable times. The namesake fund was a lifeline for many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as emergency expenses arose in response to public safety orders. Some students needed help with groceries, some needed emergency funds to cover rent, technology to continue their education from home, and more.
“While we sometimes talk about Albany Law School as an institution, the people that make up the Albany Law School community – our alumni, faculty, students, staff – are all indescribably generous, caring, and thoughtful,” Schanz said.
“As we are closing the We Rise Together Campaign I am staggered by the overwhelming waves of support and love so many have for this community,” Schanz said about the campaign that exceeded its $30 million goal. “Our donors have stepped up to the challenge to support our school, our scholarship, our centers, and most importantly our students. If there is ever a student facing financial hardship they can always reach out for support. With the love our community has the help is out there.”
We Rose Together
Albany Law School Celebrates Completing $33M Campaign
We Rise Together: The Campaign For Albany Law School officially came to a close on June 30, 2021. The most successful fundraising campaign in the School’s history surpassed the goal of raising $30M with nearly 3000 donors giving $33M.
Law school can be an emotional grind. Albany Law School has taken active steps to help its students, faculty, and staff feel supported and have access to resources.
Established in 2018 through generous support by Andrea Colby ’80, The Wellness Initiative at Albany Law raises awareness of issues related to health and wellness, provides resources for those dealing with issues related to mental health, and provides educational programming related to mental, physical, social, financial and academic health within the law school community.
Annually, two Colby Fellows coordinate live events, guest speakers, and a continually updated a wellness-centered blog to help fellow students. The initiative also spearheaded an effort to create the meditation room in the library where those who are hitting the books hard can take a break when they need one.
“We want to destigmatize mental health issues so that students feel comfortable seeking support when they need help,” said Rosemary Queenan, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and works closely with the fellows.
“The Initiative focuses on one of the most important things for students to succeed: overall wellness,” said Sarah Dixon-Morgan ’22. She was a Colby Fellow during the 2020-21 academic year. “It is so important because it centers students on the idea of taking care of yourself, it allows students to set themselves up for the most success in law school.”
Law school counselors, Dr. Peter Cornish and Kelly Keohan, are also available to help students. Cornish, the Director of Counseling and Wellness at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Services, provides confidential counseling services on campus each week.
While each student has unique stressors and disappointments, some of the most common issues that he speaks with students about are academic stress, being successful, class rank and “the dreaded” curve. He also pointed out that many students come in for, “regular life stuff,” such as relationship issues, family concerns, preexisting anxiety and depression, and other adjustment issues.
“Sometimes it is hard to categorize as there is so much interplay between the concerns. As you might expect, the pandemic brought up its own unique issues in terms of remote learning, isolation, and feelings of disconnect,” Cornish said.
While many students find one or two 45-minute meetings helpful, some benefit from more regular sessions. The approach often utilizes cognitive-behavioral techniques, challenging negative thoughts, self-care, and mindfulness.
Cornish did offer some advice for students who are feeling down or are trying to overcome a challenge.
“Help and treatment is always available, but peers, family, and friends are all wonderful support systems,” Cornish said. “Many students use relaxation and breathing apps, online videos, and podcasts. The possibilities are numerous. Most importantly, especially now that the weather has improved and the pandemic restrictions are lifting, get out and move, walk, hike, whatever you can do outdoors.”
The New York State Bar Association has also identified, "The well-being of attorneys is critical to the effective practice of law, the public trust, and the culture of our profession – all of which make it of paramount importance to the New York State Bar Association." Read more about "Attorney Well-Being" here.
If students are seeking help they can contact:
- Albany Law School Counselor - Dr. Peter Cornish – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Albany Law School Counselor - Kelly Keohan - email@example.com
- Associate Dean of Student Affairs – Rosemary Queenan - firstname.lastname@example.org
- Any Professor or Staff Member – We are here for you!
While we know there are other stressors in law school, you have made it this far, so enjoy one of the best stress relievers ever devised for law school, Legally Blonde (the Musical)!