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Bartholomew, C P --- "Time: an empirical analysis of law student time management deficiencies" [2013] LegEdDig 10; (2013) 21(1) Legal Education Digest 36

Time: an empirical analysis of law student time management deficiencies

C P Bartholomew

Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Paper No. 2013-008, 2013, pp 2-53

The plea for practical skills training in law school is reaching a fever pitch. Hardly a week passes without a new article bemoaning the state of legal education. Learning to ‘think like a lawyer’ is no longer enough: students want better preparation for the tasks associated with practice. To ensure more than lip service to teaching practice-readiness, the push for skills is coupled with a push towards implementing outcome assessments aimed at evaluating how effectively law schools teach.

To some degree, legal education is taking this plea seriously and altering legal education accordingly. On July 6, 2012, the ABA issued an executive summary of its law school curricula. The survey noted law schools ‘are engaged in efforts to review and revise their curriculum to produce practice ready professionals’. Schools are expanding their clinical offerings, expanding their practical skills classes, and adding problem solving courses.

In determining what more is needed, the first step must be identifying the skills new attorneys most crave. Across the field, attorneys are complaining of time famine. Time famine, the feeling that there is never enough time for everything, is hardly a new problem.

Yet despite this clear need, the legal academy’s response to practitioners’ complaints of time famine has largely been silence.

Starting time management training early helps law students to survive and thrive both in school and after graduation. But only a handful of law schools specifically incorporate time management into their orientation programs.

The modern undergraduate already lacks time skills. Rather than learning how to handle the time pressures associated with challenging course loads and outside demands, many students instead learn how to simplify their academic life. Students elect to take the easiest classes possible, ‘controlling college by shaping [class] schedules, taming professors and limiting workload’.

For many law students, law school presents the first significant experience with time pressures. Law school is the first place these past high-performing students may face time management demands they cannot strategically avoid.

It doesn’t help that the overall quality of law school applicants has decreased. Students are coming into law school less prepared, particularly in terms of analytical, writing, and research skills.

This lack of foundational skills takes its toll in law school. Law students must learn to read with a deep level of comprehension – yet with a certain alacrity. While these reading skills can be taught, they are only truly developed with practice. This practice takes time, and during the first few months of law school, many students struggle to keep up with the reading.

Law schools have made some effort to address student stressors. The recent push for practical, skills-oriented training is, at least in part, responsive to the empirical research showing the toll of legal study and practice.

Skills classes often require students juggle this training with their doctrinal course requirements. For students who lack time management, the result is lesser quality work across the board. A mere band-aid, this approach does not fully address student problems. If students were taught how to manage this juggling act, they would be better prepared for practice, from both a skills and professional expectations perspective.

The time famine problems that start in law school continue to plague attorneys throughout their career. While a multitude of stressors exist in practice, attorneys’ main complaint is the amount of time they spend on work.

Lawyers’ schedules are conscripted by measures far outside their control. Hearing dates are set with little consideration to an attorney’s case load. The same is true with briefing schedules, which are formulaically set by procedural rules.

Part of the problem is practice emphasises the number of hours worked, not necessarily the value or quality of completed work. The use of billable hours became widespread in the 1950s, and as years passed, the number of hours rose exponentially. By 2007, large firms’ billable hour requirements were in the 2,000-2,200 range.

These billing demands make work cycles unpredictable. Less than fifty per cent of attorneys actually take up to two weeks off. Not surprisingly, the percentage of lawyers reporting they ‘frequently feel fatigued or worn out by the end of the day’ is on the rise.

In addition to physical and psychological tolls, this increase in weekly work hours hurts one’s efficiency, as well as the quality of the work performed.

Time famine is also adding to overall job dissatisfaction. In fact, lawyers identify time famine as a ‘significant cause’ of the diminishing quality of lawyers’ health and lives.

The problems of time famine go beyond harm to the attorneys themselves. Time is the most cited justification for attorneys failing to take pro bono cases. Poor time management is also one of the primary causes of malpractice.

Since time famine is practising lawyers’ number one complaint, it should also be the number one concern to remedy in legal education. To best address this problem, law schools first need a more sophisticated understanding of what time management actually means, so they can arm students with these skills prior to practice.

Prior to the late 1980s, time management was considered a uni-dimensional concept. Early researchers treated it as a skill itself: you either had the ability to manage time or you didn’t. The surge of empirical time management research in the late 1980s and early 1990s proved time management is a group of related aptitudes that can be broken down and quantified. Though psychologists disagree on the total number of subscales, the bulk of the research suggests there are at least nine separate subscales: Sense of Purpose, Structured Routine, Present Orientation, Effective Organisation, Persistence; Setting Goals and Priorities; Mechanics; Perceived Control of Time; and Preference for Organisation.

To date, no published studies on time management analysed law students. Hence, prior to the study presented in this article, it wasn’t even certain that all nine subscales apply to law students.

To evaluate law students, I selected two psychometric instruments and administered them to the Class of 2013 at SUNY Buffalo School of Law. The first, the Time Management Behaviour Scale (TMBS), is the most elaborately validated time management measurement. This test is often administrated with another measurement tool, the Time Structure Questionnaire (TSQ). When the tests are administered jointly, they provide a more well-rounded understanding of a specific population’s time management deficiencies. Together, the tests help quantify students’ time management aptitude using all nine subscales.

Most law students scored high on Persistence and Preference for Organisation. This means students have already developed some essential time skills. The data indicates the students will generally see assignments through to completion. Persistence is also related to Type A personalities who tend to be more purposeful individuals that schedule activities and are accountable to deadlines. Further, individuals with high Persistence numbers tend to believe hard work pays off, which is a key to maintaining motivation.

Also, the students’ high Preference for Organisation subscale is significant. This suggests the students are ripe for time management training. Individuals with high Preference for Organisation markers prefer a systematic, ordered approach to task completion.

Given the students’ strengths in Persistence and Preference for Organisation, any time management training on those scales would yield minimal potential gain. Instead, training should focus on the scales evidencing the most weakness: Present Orientation, Perceived Control, Goal Setting, Mechanics, and Routine. While addressing other subscales may help on the margins, these five offer the most potential for a jump in the quality of law students’ time management capabilities.

Students showed the greatest time management deficiencies in Present Orientation. Present Orientation evaluates a person’s time perspective, namely if the student focuses on the here and now.

Present Orientation aids satisfaction, goal formation, and achievement. Developing Present Orientation minimises the negative emotions associated with the past (e.g., remorse or grief) or the future (e.g., anxiety) and increases solution skills. Low Present Orientation numbers are related to anomie, depression, anxiety, and neuroticism, descriptors applicable to lawyers. Lack of Present Orientation also inhibits one’s ability to efficiently utilise a given period of time. The average law school class structure does little to help on this subscale. End of course exams force future-orientated thinking, with limited attention to what needs to be done on a given day to prepare for end-of-semester exams, let alone post-graduation success.

Perceived Control also came back as a problem area for the survey respondents. Perceived Control refers to a person’s perception of having enough time to finish work and meet deadlines. In addition, this subscale reflects the ability to keep schedules and plans in mind, avoid procrastinating, and experience a strong overall feeling that one has time in hand.

A lack of a Perceived Control is more troubling than it might appear on the surface. In some ways, it is the single most important aspect of time management. Academic stress is lower for students with high Perceived Control. Teaching time management skills positively impacts a person’s Perceived Control. Hence, addressing the problems with this subscale in conjunction with Goal Setting, Routine, and Mechanics should result in greater overall wellbeing.

The Setting Goals and Prioritising subscale evaluates whether an individual creates short and long term goals, then prioritises among them. Developing an increased awareness of one’s goals is an essential foundational requirement of time management training. Without this awareness, it is difficult to identify and plan how to reach those goals.

Goal Setting is linked with self-reported job performance, grade point average, job satisfaction and health. The higher an individual’s planning behaviour, the less likely that individual is to suffer from strain, somatic tension, and role ambiguity. Hence, the more work done developing this area of time management, the more gains for these other subscales. Individuals with low scores in Goal Setting are often procrastinators.

Notably, the law students had solid Persistence scores. Persistence and Goal Setting typically go hand in hand: those who set high goals persist longer than those with low goals. Yet, for law students, that relationship is missing. This suggests the students are working hard but without sufficiently identified incremental and end goals. This disconnect creates time management problems.

High quality goals also help with prioritising. The two concepts are linked: once a goal is set, an efficient person needs to prioritise tasks in terms of which are most essential to reaching that goal. Training with a focus on teaching participants how to prioritise using a decision-making schedule helps students differentiate between important and urgent tasks.

Once short term goals are identified, the next step is short term planning. Mechanics are the planning and scheduling skills needed to achieve one’s goals. This includes planning one’s activities. Unfortunately, students are also deficient in this area.

Strong Mechanics ensure the day to day mechanisms one uses to organise and utilise time are well-developed. This includes practices like using a calendar, keeping notes, and advance planning. Mechanics are essential to success, as they are significantly correlated to higher GPA, self-rated performance, and life satisfaction.

Surveying a few of the students’ responses to Mechanics questions highlights the problem. At least half the students do not plan out activities sufficiently in advance. In fact, for approximately 40 per cent of the class, scheduling one week out is a rarity.

Students also fail to use a daily activity log. For a future lawyer, this is a significant issue. For lawyers who bill their time spent to clients responsible for paying for that time, the inability to utilise a daily log transforms a time management issue into an ethical one.

Lastly, students fell short on Structured Routine. Structured Routine looks at whether an individual uses planning and routine activity to structure time. While a plan can vary based on circumstances, Routine focuses on a pattern of conduct in relation to a particular set of activities within a defined situation.

Individuals with high Structured Routine numbers tend to make plans, structure time to achieve those plans, and follow daily routines. These characteristics have significant benefits. These individuals are also more likely to report higher self-esteem and less depression. Given the pervasive depression and anxiety in law students and practitioners, developing Routine is a priority.

Though not as high, the numbers on estimating useful time spent in the last week are troubling. Over 47 per cent cannot frequently provide this type of estimate. Without reflection on how long it took to complete past tasks, attempts to allocate time to future tasks takes a hit.

The five subscales where students fell short relate to different aspects of time management – ranging from initially beginning a project (Present Orientation and Goal Setting) through task completion (Perceived Control, Mechanics, and Routine). Hence, to remediate these deficiencies, all five should be taught, not any single one in isolation. Providing tailored time management solutions during law school could help them respond to time famine in practice.

Some doctrinal professors may feel incorporating time management distracts from the intellectual focus of their teaching. To this group of scholars, teaching time management is simply not their problem.

Quite frankly, this argument misses the point. Until a law student or future attorney has extra time in the day, such legal thought goes wasted without an opportunity for application. First, focusing legal education on helping lawyers generate such great ideas is commendable, but only if it is tempered with providing the requisite skills to help attorneys implement them. Part of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ is generating solutions in the limited time a lawyer has for the task.

Second, teaching time management skills is far from time consuming for the educator.

Legal education could combat the time management issue on multiple fronts: through academic support programs like orientations, in doctrinal courses, and in skills classes. This multi-faceted approach would emphasise the importance of time management and allow constant reinforcement.

Teaching students how to break down assignments addresses three of students’ time management deficiencies – Present Orientation, Perceived Control, and Goal Setting. As a shorthand, this strategy can be called ‘chunking’. In this article, ‘chunking’ means dividing a project into smaller, more manageable units, which can be planned and controlled. Once a project is viewed as a set of short term goals to achieve a long term goal, an individual’s Perceived Control improves. A student can track her progress by using the short term goals as markers. These markers also help with Present Orientation.

By understanding the building blocks, students begin to set short term goals – which are exactly what is needed for time management. Professors can help students identify these blocks by improving syllabi, clarifying course objectives, and requiring outlines.

First, a strong syllabus can play a large part in breaking down a course. A syllabus provides an opportunity for the professor to show the relationship between parts and a whole.

Second, students need instruction on what the course objectives are, and there is no one better to define those objectives than the professor who designed the course. Then, using these objectives to generate long term goals, students should be encouraged to set individual short term goals aimed at achieving the larger objectives.

Though a bit more time consuming, another option is having professors identify short term goals at the start of each lecture. This allows students to track how larger concepts can be broken down, as well as giving students some markers to help pace themselves.

Third, incremental and attack outlines provide a strong teaching opportunity for Goal Setting and Perceived Control. Incremental outlines help ensure students generate short term learning goals regarding specific course concepts. Collecting outlines helps establish Routine in the first year.

Generating tasks requires students to convert goals into concrete tasks. While a goal is abstract, a task is more the ‘to-do’ list item that ensures the goal is achievable. Some students struggle with identifying what tasks are necessary to meet law school short term goals. Consequently, professors should help develop this essential skill by discussing potential tasks aimed at achieving learning goals.

Once these ‘to-do’ lists become part of students’ time management arsenal, instruction should focus on how to allocate time.

Students should be encouraged from the start of their legal education to view it as a job with set work hours each week. By creating this mind set, the quantity of allocable time remains constant, which in turn helps develop Routine.

Integrating this concept into the law classroom setting is straightforward. Professors can require students keep a mandatory task billing sheet or its equivalent for at least some assignments. To ensure its efficacy, students need to be told the total numbers of hours reported is irrelevant: this is not an exercise in padding time but rather an opportunity to reflect on how the student completes tasks.

Next, once tasks and time reflection skills are in place, the last piece of the time management training focuses on how to establish daily time organisation practices.

To help on this front, courses need to utilise calendars. On syllabi, readings and topics should be presented by date, not just by topic or lecture number. This will allow students to see how a calendar system can help to manage a series of deadlines, so students can model this behaviour in organising assignments in law school and later in practice.

In addition, since students are already preparing ‘to-do’ lists, these lists should be tied into calendars. Calendaring should include not only the date a task will be done, but also the time during that day.

In addition to calendaring, note taking helps ensure timely task completion. Note taking is a basic study and time management skill with application in law school and in practice. Yet, it is also an area where students need further instruction. This is particularly true in the computer age, where the tendency is for students to transcribe lectures rather than take notes. Traditional note taking skills require students to sort and prioritise information.

There are multiple different ways a professor can develop note-taking skills, all of which are fairly straightforward. First, professors should consider giving at least some assignments orally, even just readings or exercises. No written details for the assignment should be handed out: unless the student takes accurate notes, the assignment should be difficult to complete. Second, for each lecture, a professor should collect notes from a designated person or group of people depending on class size. Finally, the last part of teaching time management is encouraging students to cogitate on their personal time management techniques. Professors should encourage students to reflect on their time allocations, ‘to-do’ lists, and calendars to see what is working – and more importantly, what it isn’t. By having students observe and reflect on their time strategies, they are able to make adaptive inferences, meaning the type of inferences essential to improving time management.

Time restraints in practice are not going away. None of the suggestions proffered require great expenditures of time, money, or effort by law school faculties or administrators. Instead, these are just tweaks at the edges of the existing curriculum. But these tweaks are essential. Without them, law students will continue entering practice ill-prepared for the realities that await them.

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