Legal Education Digest
Law Students Who Learn Differently: A Narrative Case Study of Three Law Students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
L M Christensen
 LegEdDig 31; (2007) 15(2) Legal Education Digest 35
U St Thom Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07–26 & J Law & H, 2007, pp 1–28
More law students than ever before begin law school having been diagnosed with a learning disability. Yet there has been little if any research on how law students with learning disabilities experience law school. Although many students do request reasonable accommodations for their learning disability, equally as many students do not disclose their learning disability to the law school nor do they request disability accommodations. As legal educators, do we have an obligation to expand our teaching methodologies beyond the typical law students? What teaching methodologies work most effectively for law students with learning disabilities? How do these students approach learning the law?
There are harsh critiques of the legal academy regarding how it approaches students who learn differently. Legal educators often suffer from disabling intellectual paralysis and lack of vision when it comes to teaching students with disabilities and non-traditional learners. While this may be true of some traditionalists within the legal academy, there seems to be a growing trend among progressive legal educators to incorporate learning theory into their classrooms and to expand their teaching beyond the traditional Socratic Method. Yet even the most talented legal educators may not understand the subtleties of how law students with learning disabilities approach learning the law.
Much of the literature describing law students with learning disabilities deals with the legal requirements of law school and legal educators to accommodate law students with diagnosed learning, physical or other learning disabilities.
The three students in this study have been diagnosed with a learning disability, specifically Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The research suggests that students admitted to law school with a learning disability are usually very bright, yet their learning disability can sometimes result in a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement, despite their high level of intelligence.
The current research suggests that people who have ADD have impaired executive functions of the brain. Impairments in executive functions can affect learning because attention, organisation, and application of effective learning strategies are involved. Attentiveness and active engagement with the material are affected, meaning that ADD students may have difficulty with making connection between new information and prior knowledge and organising this information in a useful way.
ADD carries positive traits with it as well. Some students experience episodes of high energy or intense focus which actually may help them during law school. However, the giftedness of students with learning disabilities often can be overlooked or misunderstood by educators. Professor Jolly-Ryan asserts that legal educators (and members of the legal profession in general) need to overcome their prejudices and allow law students with disabilities and more generally, non-traditional learners, to ‘benefit our classrooms, our teaching, and the legal profession, with their diverse learning styles and unique potential’.
With our changing student populations, teaching law may involve more than simply producing legal scholarship and mastering the Socratic Method. The most effective law teacher may need to develop new teaching styles that accommodate many different learning styles.
A qualitative case study methodology was used to investigate the perceptions of three law students diagnosed with ADD prior to beginning law school. Through the interview questions, I explored participants’ perception regarding their law school experiences and, in particular, their intellectual, social and emotional experiences in law school. Only one of the students had requested accommodations for her learning disability in law school.
Alexa, a second-year law student with ADD was in the top 5 per cent of her law school class at the end of her second year. Kelsey, a first-year law student with ADD, was in the top 30 per cent of her law school class at the end of her first year of law school. In contrast, the third student, Baker, had just completed his second year of law school and was in the bottom 15 per cent of his law school class.
The students’ interviews were transcribed and analysed. I identified the following primary themes: isolation in law school; multiple learning styles; teaching methodologies; and concerns about the future.
Although there are many students who experience feelings of isolation in law school, the results of this study suggest that law students with learning disabilities may experience more feelings of isolation than their traditionally-learning peers. Learning-disabled law students have been characterised as a hidden minority because students with ADD and other learning disabilities are both underreporting their disability and the disability is hidden or unseen by the outside world.
A. Isolation in Law School:
Each of the participants in this study described a need to hide their learning disability. Neither Kelsey nor Baker disclosed their disabilities to anyone at the law school. Although Alexa did disclose her disability to the law school administration, she was very selective about which friends if any she chose to tell about her learning disability. The literature suggests there are personal and social consequences to having learning disabilities in law school that legal remedies, statutes and rules cannot address. It appears that the fears of Alexa, Kelsey and Baker may have generated from a desire to appear normal.
In legal education, how can we combat feelings of isolation for students who learn differently? Professor Sellers Diamond explains that our societal presumptions require that there must be that which is normal. Yet this presumption effectively limits the opportunities of learning disabled students. Professor Sellers Diamond opines that if we accept the majority discourse on that which is normal, there is no opportunity for any discussion or understanding of what it means to be different, unless the discourse consciously includes alternative conceptualisations.
In order to combat the majority discourse, we may need to consider a theory of inclusion in law school so that all voices and experiences are heard and respected. One important step toward inclusion of all those who learn differently is for law professors to adapt their teaching methodologies to serve multiple learning styles. However, in addition to teaching to a wide variety of learning styles, we also might consider altering the law school curriculum to value differences, not only differences in learning, but also differences in talent, skills and experience.
How we assess students has a great deal to do with their relative success in law school. If we are truly committed to creating an inclusive learning environment, then legal education cannot rely solely on the final exam as the only assessment of students’ learning.
In addition, we can value the multitude of skills and experiences our students bring to law school by allotting a certain percentage of points in any class towards these alternate skills. What about assessing students’ formative knowledge by asking students to create videos or oral presentations where you encourage the students to produce handouts, schemata and the like? Although some professors will undoubtedly object to the increased time these exercises take in a semester-long class, it seems arguable that students may in fact learn more about a particular subject using these approaches. We also need to decrease the level of hostility within the law school environment. Students in the classroom should be encouraged to try out new approaches, to think up tentative solutions to problems at hand, make wild guesses, hitchhike ideas, build on the ideas of others and point these ideas in new directions. A professor’s attitude in class has a direct relationship towards the intellectual risk of a student responding with a new idea.
This is not to suggest that our classes become less rigorous, only more humane. Perhaps the intellectual, critical analysis could be postponed until after the class has been allowed to express ideas and/or theories that may ultimately be incorrect. This would begin to transform our classrooms away from the hyper-competition that thrives on assessment and differences among students, to a more inclusive environment that values diversity. This sense of inclusion may be the most effective way to combat isolation in students who learn differently.
B. Multiple Learning Styles in Law School — What Works Best for Law Students with ADD?:
All three of the students in this study seemed to feel that they learned differently than their law peers who did not have ADD. Yet each student had their own of way approaching how to learn in law school. Both Alexa and Kelsey appeared to understand how they learned most effectively in law school. Knowing how they learned most effectively may have contributed to their success in law school. In contrast, Baker seemed less clear on how he learned or in what way he learned most effectively.
Why should law professors care about students’ learning styles? When we teach in ways that acknowledge and validate different styles of learning, students do better. All students in law do not learn the same way. However, when educators teach to multiple learning styles, they take advantage of students’ learning strengths, and students learn information more readily and permanently. Students are more likely to be successful if a professor considers learning styles when developing modes of instruction.
C. The Failure of the Traditional Socratic Method to Reach Law Students Who Learn Differently:
A third theme discussed by the students was the impact of the law professor’s teaching methodology on their learning. Alexa commented on the usefulness of visual aids in class. Kelsey was adamant that the use of fear and intimidation as motivators for learning were ineffective for her. For Kelsey, having ADD meant that if a professor created a classroom of intimidation, fear was the only emotion she could feel. Baker had a similar opinion. He was terrified to go to class and felt that he did not learn anything during his first year of law school.
There is an abundance of literature on the inherent weakness of the Socratic Method as the sole method of instruction in law school. Professor Jolly-Ryan describes that the Socratic Method has always been the litmus test for deciding who qualifies as the fittest in a competitive and rigorous law school environment.
In the present study, even Alexa and Kelsey, who were successful students by any measure, critiqued their professors’ use of the Socratic Method. Baker suffered as a result of his professors’ use of the Socratic Method. Quite simply, the Socratic Method as the primary or only teaching tool for educating these three law students with learning disabilities was ineffective.
The Socratic Method has been described as mystifying and patriarchal, persisting because of the large classes and professors too lazy to adopt new teaching methods. It has been found to be particularly ineffective for the teaching of women, minorities, and students who learn differently. Yet this teaching method persists. Some scholars argue that the status quo is preserved under the hiring, retention and promotion practices that value scholarship over teaching effectiveness. The pressure on most young faculty is on the production of scholarship such that the wise newer professor knows that the most direct path to tenure is to write law review articles.
In addition, professors who use creative teaching methods designed to reach the non-traditional learner and accommodate a variety of learning styles may be viewed as less rigorous by other faculty and by the students themselves. Unless we begin to recognise and promote professors who strive to teach more effectively, and to re-examine our perception of rigor in the classroom, it is our students who will be most severely affected.
Finally, each of the three study participants expressed concern over their future careers as a result of having a learning disability. Despite the fact that Alexa and Kelsey achieved significant success in law school, they were nonetheless worried about whether they could compensate for their learning disabilities as attorneys. Baker recognised that his struggles in law school may narrow what type of law he practices once he completes law school. The students’ concerns about their future careers suggest yet another difference between the way in which traditional and non-traditional learners experience law school.
There is every possibility that lawyers with learning and other disabilities can make important contributions to the practice of law. A practicing attorney with a learning disability may have more empathy and compassion for his or her clients. Perhaps the legal profession is in more need of lawyers with all types of disabilities than ever before. In addition, it is possible that once these law students graduate from law school and pass the Bar, many of the issues relating to their learning disabilities will disappear. Often lawyers in smaller law firms can make their own accommodations or learn how to practice flexibly.
Just like students in the present study, lawyers who learn how to work with their learning disabilities and understand their strengths and weaknesses can be successful.
The results of this case study suggest that legal educators can do a great deal to support students with learning disabilities. The literature provides excellent pedagogical suggestions about how legal educators can support law students who learn differently in the classroom and this section will not attempt to repeat those suggestions or provide a comprehensive analysis of them. Instead, this section lists ten practical suggestions as recommended by the students in this study as ways in which legal educators can facilitate classroom learning for law students with ADD. Be organised; Vary the format of your lectures; Teach to a multitude of learning styles; Model enthusiasm; Avoid the long lecture; Increase student feedback and assessment; Reduce competing stimuli in the classroom; Spend time at the beginning of the law school experience discussing learning styles and learning strategies; Give clear directions both orally and visually and; Be a mentor.
The new reality in legal education is that a certain percentage of our student population will have a learning disability, either disclosed or undisclosed. What advice did the law students in this study have for future law students with learning disabilities? Each agreed that the best advice they could give was: follow your own path.
Any legal educator can be one of those professors that are willing to help a student who learns differently. It is time for legal educators to welcome non-traditional learners into their classrooms. By seeking to create an environment of inclusion versus exclusion, by expanding our teaching methodologies and by recognising the multitude of talents and skills our students possess, we can humanise the law school experience for all students.