Law Students Who Learn Differently: A Narrative Case Study of Three Law Students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Christensen, Leah M., Journal of Law and Health
I. INTRODUCTION II. LAW STUDENTS WITH ADD: A NEW REALITY IN LEGAL EDUCATION A. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) III. STUDY METHODOLOGY A. The Method For Collecting Data B. The Participants C. Data Analysis IV. THE LAW SCHOOL EXPERIENCE OF THOSE WHO LEARN DIFFERENTLY A. Isolation in Law School C. The Failure of the Traditional Socratic Method to Reach Law Students Who Learn Differently D. Concerns About the Future V. WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THESE STUDENTS? VI. CONCLUSION
Although law school pedagogy has not changed significantly over the years, the demographics of the students attending law schools have changed immensely. (1) More law students than ever before begin law school having been diagnosed with a learning disability. (2) Yet there has been little if any research on how law students with learning disabilities experience law school. (3) 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. (4) As legal educators, do we have an obligation to expand our teaching methodologies beyond the typical law student? What teaching methodologies work most effectively for law students with learning disabilities? How do these students approach learning the law?
The purpose of this study was to examine the perceptions of law students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) about their law school experience. I was particularly interested in the learning and studying strategies of these students and their opinions about the effectiveness of teaching methodologies used during the first and second year of law school. The study used a qualitative research methodology (5) and employed a narrative case study analysis. (6)
Part I of this article briefly examines the literature on law students with learning disabilities and explores the traits associated with ADD. Part II describes the study methodology and the students who participated in the study. Part III presents a narrative case study of three students with ADD. The case study yielded four themes relating to the social, learning and achievement domains of the students. First, all three participants experienced feelings of isolation in law school due to their learning disabilities. Second, the two successful law students with ADD seemed to understand and use their personal learning styles to their benefit whereas the less successful student did not. Third, all three students with ADD reported that an educator's reliance upon the Socratic Method as the predominant teaching methodology inhibited their learning in the classroom. Finally, despite each of the students' important accomplishments in law school, they all expressed feelings of uncertainly about their future careers as practicing lawyers with ADD. Part IV of this article explores the conclusions we might draw from the data and the ways in which we might alter law school pedagogy to better serve students who learn differently.
II. LAW STUDENTS WITH ADD: A NEW REALITY IN LEGAL EDUCATION
There are harsh critiques of the legal academy regarding how it approaches students who learn differently: (7) "Legal educators often suffer from disabling intellectual paralysis and lack of vision when it comes to teaching students with disabilities and nontraditional learners." (8) In addition, law professors may suffer from "lack of vision, stereotypes, and prejudices that prevent legal educators" from teaching those who learn differently effectively or appropriately. (9) 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. (10) 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 schools and legal educators to accommodate law students with diagnosed learning, physical or other disabilities. (11) It is difficult if not impossible to know how many students in law school have been diagnosed with learning disabilities. An actual number of law students with disabilities may never be known given that more and more law students with learning (and other) disabilities choose not to self-identify. (12)
Professor Robin Boyle asserts that the majority of law school classes are likely to include students with ADD, and that it is essential for legal educators to be equipped to teach ADD students. (13) Approximately five to eight percent of Americans have ADD, which means that more than 10 million Americans are affected by ADD. (14) Further, many people, including law students, may not be aware that they have ADD, which means that legal educators will not know this either. (15) Professor Boyle further notes that in higher education, the number of students reporting that they have ADD is substantial. (16) In a survey conducted in the United States, of the 16.5 million undergraduate students in the United States, 6.4 % of the students reported having ADD. (17) This suggests that there are over one million students who know they have ADD and report it to the institution. (18) Just as many students may have ADD without knowing it or are unaware that they are affected by the disability, and do not report it. (19)
Most law school disability-related decisions are based on a "case-by-case" analysis with the only guidance being the "elastic" statutory and regulatory standards of disability statutes and rules. (20) A direct treatment of disability-related statutes, regulations and cases is beyond the scope of this article and has been well-covered elsewhere. (21) Instead, this article seeks to explore the perceptions and experiences of law students with ADD, and how the legal academy might work towards providing its students with an environment of tolerance, humanity and inclusiveness. (22)
A. Attention Deficit Disorder
The three students in this study have been diagnosed with a learning disability, specifically ADD. (23) Generally, a student with a learning disability suffers from a "deficit in the processing of visual and/or auditory information." (24) Learning disabilities may encompass Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 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. (25)
ADD is a neurologically-based condition characterized by inappropriate levels of distractedness, inattentiveness, and impulsiveness. (26) Learning disabilities appear to be the most common form of disability identified by law students. (27) Specifically, ADD is a "trait rising to the level of a [disability] when it affects the person's world." (28) The three characteristics of ADD--hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity, (29) do not determine the diagnosis of the disorder; a diagnosis is based upon how these symptoms manifest themselves. (30)
The current research suggests that people who have ADD have impaired executive functions of the brain. (31) The executive functions pertain to how people learn as well as how they function in everyday life. (32) Impairments in executive functions can affect learning because "attention, organization, and application of effective learning strategies" are involved. (33) "Attentiveness and active engagement with the material are affected, meaning that ADD students [may] have difficulty with making connections between new information and prior knowledge and organizing this information in a useful way." (34)
What is it like subjectively to have ADD? Dr. Edward Hallowell, an expert on ADD, describes his own experience of having the syndrome of ADD as follows:
It's like driving in the rain with bad windshield wipers ... Or, it's like listening to a radio station with a lot of static and you have to strain to hear what's going on. Or, it's like trying to build a house of cards in a dust storm. You have to build a structure to protect yourself from the wind before you can even start on the cards.
In other ways it's like being super-charged all the time. You get one idea and you have to act on it, and then, what do you know, but you've got another idea before you've finished up with the first one, and so you go for that one, but of course a third idea intercepts the second, and you just have to follow that one, and pretty soon people are calling you disorganized and impulsive and all sorts of impolite words that miss the point completely. Because you're trying really hard. It's just that you have all these invisible vectors pulling you this way and that which makes it really hard to stay on task. (35)
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. (36) However, the "giftedness" of students with learning disabilities often can be overlooked or misunderstood by educators: "Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population and the community. Teachers, counselors, and others ... overlook signs of intellectual giftedness and ... focus attention on such deficits as poor spelling, reading, and writing." (37)
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, nontraditional learners, to "benefit our classrooms, our teaching, and the legal profession, with their diverse learning styles and unique potential." (38)
If we accept the current data that more law students are coming to us with ADD (and other learning disabilities) and that these students may not self-identify, then how should legal educators respond appropriately?
With our changing student populations, teaching law may involve more than simply producing legal scholarship and mastering the Socratic Method. (39) The most effective law teacher may need to develop new teaching styles that accommodate many different learning styles. This study seeks to add to the current research on how law students learn by exploring the experiences of three law students with ADD.
III. STUDY METHODOLOGY
A. The Method For Collecting Data
A qualitative case study methodology was used to investigate the perceptions of three law school students diagnosed with ADD prior to beginning law school. (40) An in-depth interview was used as the primary method of data collection. (41) Specifically, I employed an "individual face-to-face in-depth interview, which [sought] to foster learning about individual experiences and perspectives on a given set of issues." (42) Through the interview questions, I explored participants' perceptions regarding their law school experiences and, in particular, their intellectual, social and emotional experiences in law school.
B. The Participants
The participants were three law students admitted to a private, regional law school in the United States. (43) Two of the students were second year students; one student had just completed her first year of law school. All three students were diagnosed with ADD prior to law school. Only one of the students had requested accommodations for her learning disability in law school. (44)
The students had incoming LSAT scores between 148 and 155, and undergraduate GPA's between 2.89 to 3.64. (45) Once in law school, the students took the same classes during their first year curriculum. (46) The three students were selected from a group of six volunteers for the study after information about the study was released by the Office of Academic Achievement. None of the students who participated were paid. (47)
Two out of the three students in this study were very successful in law school, i.e., their law school GPA's were in the top 5% and 30% of their respective law school classes. (48) Alexa, a second-year law student with ADD was in the top 5% 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% 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% of his law school class.
At the time Alexa participated in this study, she had just completed her second year of law school. Alexa was ranked as one of the top 10 students in