By Andrew Cohen
Kristen Holmquist has hit the ground running as the new director of Berkeley Law’s Academic Support Program (ASP), which provides academic advising and skills training for law students during their first and most rigorous academic year.
In addition to bolstering core aspects of the program she inherited, Holmquist is working full tilt to add new courses and teaching techniques designed to strengthen the confidence and skills of 1Ls and upperclassmen.
“My job is helping students figure out how to succeed in law school,” she says. “Traditional law school teaching assumes a set of threshold skills, like knowing how to read a case and how to argue from precedent. Schools don’t expect students to have those skills coming in, yet they don’t actively teach them. Instead, they expect them to somehow pick it all up along the way.”
Law school academic support programs emerged in the 1980s, but have received more attention in recent years amid the legal practice’s renewed emphasis on practical skills training. A UC Berkeley graduate, Holmquist returned this summer from UCLA’s School of Law— where she spent six years leading its academic support initiatives.
“As a law student at UCLA, I was an academic tutor for two semesters,” she says. “It was without a doubt the most rewarding and interesting experience I had there, and that piqued my interest in the field.”
Berkeley Law’s ASP offers a tutor program in which first-year students receive instruction from upperclassmen on how to read a case, how to extract a rule, and related legal analysis skills. During the fall semester, 1Ls can attend a weekly small group tutorial taught by second- and third-year students.
While tied to a specific course subject, these one-hour tutorials introduce the fundamentals needed to succeed in all classes, emphasizing transferable skills such as case briefing, rule analysis and synthesis, and exam outlining. Spring semester sessions review the substantive law of given courses and continue to teach exam-related skills.
Expanding the Program
Holmquist is also teaching and developing courses that hone writing techniques and analysis favored on law school exams and bar exam essays. This includes a new exam preparation workshop, during which she meets with more than 50 students and dissects specific questions and answers from past exams. This spring, she will teach a Constitutional Law course for roughly 30 first-year students.
“They’ll learn Con Law first and foremost, but I’m willing to sacrifice coverage for depth,” Holmquist says. “I teach them how best to organize the material and once they know how to get there, it will help with the rest of their classes. Con Law is hardly an easy class. If students can feel comfortable there, they can almost certainly do so elsewhere.”
Next fall, Holmquist will use a similar approach in teaching a larger Wills & Trusts class for 2Ls and 3Ls, with breakout sections for those who want extra time for academic support. This summer, she plans to launch a pre-first-year orientation program—by application for somewhere between 30 and 50 students—that will provide a week-long introduction to law school.
Holmquist wants to empower students not merely to write a strong answer, but to display deeper knowledge by confidently explaining how they reached that answer. Working with professors, legal writing instructors, and professional skills program interim director Donna Petrine, she hopes to integrate this pragmatic approach into the overall curriculum.
“Research shows that students acquire skills more effectively in the context of a substantive area they’re trying learn,” Holmquist says. “Most law students can benefit from that kind explicitly combined instruction. Fortunately, and contrary to the beliefs of some, the analytical process that we call ‘thinking like a lawyer’ is eminently teachable and learnable.”