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Dennis J. Tonsing, the incoming Dean of Students & Director of Academic Support — a newly created position at Roger Williams University Law School in Bristol, R.I. — says that the biggest mistake law school students make is thinking of it as “big college.” “Law school is more like working at a law firm than it is like graduate school, with students needing to learn a new language and do things all lawyers do — spending long hours synthesizing and understanding information, learning time management, and discussing principles in search of the truth,” said Tonsing, who comes to Rhode Island from a similar post at Vermont Law School. “Students who do not approach law school that way usually find themselves in trouble.” Roger Williams University’s Law School interim Dean Bruce I. Kogan said that Tonsing was hired for this position as the ideal candidate to fulfill a need that both faculty and students have had for some time — for a full-time student advocate. In the past, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs had some student responsibility in the academic support area, but that office was also responsible for academic and course planning as well as faculty issues. The administration and faculty both agreed that academic affairs should be a full-time job, and there should also be a full-time person that should handle student needs. “Besides the homesick issues — Roger Williams students come from 39 states — the learning of a new language is perhaps the most unexpected issue, especially with first-year students. Learning to read, write, and discuss issues in ‘lawyer lingo’ is more difficult than most students expect,” said Tonsing. Although Kogan said the recent July test results from the Rhode Island bar exam did not influence the creation of the new position, he did say he hopes Tonsing’s presence would help improve the percentage of RWU students that pass the bar exam on the first try. Last year, only 54 percent of the RWU students taking the bar passed on the first try — down from the mid-to-upper 60 percent range in previous years. “Enrollment is way up, but we know that better students will do better on the exam. We know we need to attract a high caliber of student to admit to the school, and we also know we need to raise more funds for scholarships, but we think that bolstering our academic support will help as well,” said Kogan. ASK QUESTIONS FIRST Tonsing, who holds a law degree from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, as well as a master’s of English from Northern Arizona University and a B.A. in Classic Liberal Arts from St. Mary’s of California, will get student and faculty input for the first several weeks before he decides how to set up his operation. “If the students and faculty want it, I could set up a whole curriculum of how to take notes, study, manage time, take exams, take the bar exam, etc. Or I could give workshops. Or do one-on-one counseling. Or set up a network of student tutors. Or all of the above. I’m ready to market my services to faculty and staff with posters, e-mail, flyers, guest appearances in relevant classes, etc. I want to take the first month or two and talk to students and faculty to see which methods will work best, and then I want to get at it,” said Tonsing. Although Tonsing is a law school graduate and has worked as a trial lawyer, his focus has always been education and teaching. After leaving the profession to get his master’s, he taught at a prep school in Colorado and law and business communication at Northern Arizona before taking the position at Vermont Law School. “I’m exciting to dive into an arena which combines my law background with my education interests and academic support experience,” said Tonsing. Besides the low passage rate for the bar exam, Rogers Williams Law School has come under fire for accepting too large a percentage of its applicants — more than 50 percent. Top 50 law schools accept from 25 percent to 40 percent of their applicants, according to the American Bar Association Guide to Approved Law Schools, with 80 percent to 90 percent of their students passing the bar the first time around. “I realize the pressure that Roger Williams University Law School is under as Rhode Island’s only law school, and any performance problems fall directly on school administration from government, the law community and the media — so I think I can be of help right at the first line of defense, beefing up student academic support,” said Tonsing. “I can’t wait to get started.”

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