Innovative Student Development Program Takes a Holistic Approach


Law school can be a frightening place.

"I heard horrible things about law school before I started," 1L Shayna Bryan says. "I heard that it was miserable and people were extremely competitive. I also heard that it was stressful, and a lot of people never felt that they were good enough."

These sentiments echo throughout the law school blogosphere, from melancholy Facebook status updates to popular online journals hosted by law students. At a time when the cost of an average legal education is at an all-time high, many are asking whether they can mentally, as well as financially, afford the costs of pursuing a legal career.

Upon accepting the position to lead the law school in 2009, Dean Patricia White had her new students' well-being in mind when she invited Michael Bossone to join her in the journey to Miami to become Special Advisor to the Dean. As Dean White's Assistant Dean at ASU Law, Bossone created the Student Development Initiative, an innovative solution that has a received national attention as a new model for student engagement. He now leads this important effort at Miami Law, where it is quickly becoming an integral part of the law school culture.

The Student Development Initiative provides law students with one-on-one support through advice and a professional level of attention to the individuality of each student. In order to provide each and every student with this personalized experience, Bossone recruited two incredibly talented attorneys to work one-on-one with students as Student Development Directors: Sarah Klein and Joanna Sackel.

"Sarah and Joanna are remarkable people whose intelligence and intuition are matched by their compassion and genuine, heartfelt concern for what their students are experiencing," Bossone says. "They are dedicating their vast talents and energies to helping our students succeed in all aspects of their lives."

While forming real relationships with students based on trust, the Student Development Directors ensure that each student's unique needs are being met with compassionate care, realistic advice, and respect for the whole student.

"When I first entered Miami Law, I had a meeting with my Student Development Director," Bryan says. "That, coupled with my participation in the James Weldon Johnson/Robert H. Waters Summer Institute, alleviated a lot of the anxiety I had about starting law school."

"Law school can be a very stressful and isolating experience that often times drives students to begin questioning themselves and where they fit into the world; who they are and what they are going to contribute," Sarah Klein says. "It is during this process of growth and development that we seek to provide a point of connection, to act as guides."

Upon entering Miami Law, each 1L is paired with a Student Development Director. After an initial icebreaker meeting, all of the Directors maintain an open door policy at all times, including weekends and holidays, to ensure students receive support when it is needed.

"I think this is something that is missing in the typical law school model," Joanna Sackel says. "Many law schools don't focus on the whole student. This program is a way to personalize and humanize law school."

The Student Development team takes note of the unique circumstances surrounding every individual's journey to law school and advises the student based on this personal connection. Many students who feel a sense of isolation or a lack of encouragement can turn to the directors for guidance – a key ingredient to a successful law school experience.

Every semester, the Directors advise law students on everything from personal issues to academic fears. Law students face unique struggles with high levels of competition, which some say is driven to the extreme by the use of the traditional Socratic method. This is exacerbated by pressures from the natural desire to succeed and do well.

"At the beginning of the year, our work is in helping our students to learn the language of the law," Sarah Klein shares. "The first few months are about overcoming the fear of being called on in class, preparing for their first set of law school exams, and adjusting to new people and a new pace of life. Second semester brings concern about grades, summer jobs, and we come back full-circle to bigger picture questions of where they see themselves fitting in to the profession now that they know a little bit more about it."

With today's tough job market, such guidance is well-received by law students who need individualized attention and realistic advice.

Besides the traditional one-on-one methods of communication, the Student Development Directors are available via Facebook, Skype, Gchat, and text messaging. The easy access to guidance is a testament to Miami Law's long-standing commitment to students' academic, emotional, and professional well-being.

"This is a recognition that students are the lifeblood of a law school, and that each and every one of them deserves to be heard, to be respected, and to be invested in as they strive to develop themselves professionally, personally, and emotionally," Michael Bossone says. "Miami Law is the only law school in the country that invests in its students in this robust way, and we should all be very proud about what this says about us as an institution."