So I survived the first year of law school! Was it challenging? Yes. Did I hate myself/my life? At times. The overwhelming urge that drives the law student’s thinking is conformity, because your peers are who you’re competing against for those coveted good grades. The first semester no one knows what they’re doing (those that say they do are making themselves feel better with their false bravado) and the second semester the students that did well ramp it up because they feel the stakes are higher and everyone slogs through trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t so they can do as well as they hope to do without losing their sanity along the way.
For what it’s worth, I am very glad that I had some work experience under my belt (even though being out of school as long as I’d been made me doubt whether I had the capacity to still learn – the old dogs & new tricks adage) as it enabled me to better approach law school as a job. A person can only work so long at something successfully, straining for a long stretch of time leads to people burning out. As a reminder for myself come next semester, and hopefully as a sane guide for anyone stumbling across this in need of helpful advice on how to tackle the first year of law school, I present the following five lessons:
- Treat law school as a job. You’ll get a class schedule, so structure your days as much as you can so that you’re doing law school related tasks (reading, outlining, visiting professors during office hours) for roughly eight hours a day, planning to give yourself one day where you just don’t think about it at all. For me, that wound up being Sundays (church and family made it easy to decide it’d be my “off” day) and the break from the grind allowed me to come back to it with a renewed sense of vigor. It wasn’t always possible, I know I wound up spending more time focused on my studies during midterms and exams, but I did better than others because by the time they rolled around, I hadn’t burned out.
- Outline early and often. You’ll have the chance to get outlines from 2Ls and 3Ls, but making your own really helps you figure out what it is you’re learning and what you may need to make sense of still. The most straightforward way to outline is to follow the syllabus for the class, but I found I’d reorganize it to make concepts that fit together better for me. Your outline is how you see the information fits together so you can optimize how to use it to help you answer an exam question. While I pulled my share of allnighters in college, there’s no way to do this for law school. Your goal’s to get the information as your professor is teaching it to stick in your long-term memory. The only way this will happen is if you interact with it regularly throughout the semester.
- In your outline, page numbers will help you out. Some professors allow open book exams, it makes obvious sense to have page numbers included since you’ll want to be able to jump to the right page in your course’s book for citation reasons. For exams where it’s closed book, it’s still useful to have page numbers for personal reference. When you’re studying as a group, inevitably you’ll wind up in a controversy over a topic and being able to jump to the right page in the book will resolve those disputes quickly.
- Frontload your reading, when possible. If you can manage to get a course syllabus with the reading for the entirety of the semester on it, you can tackle the reading early and get it out of the way by finals time. This should go without saying, but you really don’t want to fall behind with the reading. Some professors love cold-calling, but it’s too easy to slack off on reading when the professor gives students an assigned date to be on call. My second semester, I was so glad I’d read ahead as often as I did because it allowed me to spend more time before finals were underway to outline and make sure I was really comfortable with the material.
- The simple way to do legal analysis is make sure you’re connecting facts with law. On an exam, you’re going to get a scenario where it won’t really matter how you come out with your final conclusion. What your professors are looking for is the reasoning behind your answer, and in this way law school’s a lot like math classes: you’re not going to get credit for the right answer unless you can show your work. The word “because” should be your new bff, because if you can’t connect the relevant facts from the exam with the relevant law discussed in the course, you just cannot do well.
PS – you’ll hear a lot about supplements and hornbooks. Some people are crazy about them, and worship them because it manages to make more sense than whatever the professor happened to say about a topic. I didn’t really use them, because they weren’t ever required for any of my courses and in general, I found them to be too general. Before investing in them, you should be able to look at them in your law school’s library to determine if you would find it useful. What worked for me was circling back with the professor (who you should remember will be the person grading your exam – not necessarily the author of the supplement/hornbook you’re using) and asking questions when I was confused. Your professor’s going to test you on topics they teach you, so I feel like it’s better to stick with your source and ask them for clarification.