Today thousands of students across the country will begin their first day of law school. Most will be very nervous—and justifiably so. Most are unprepared for what is the intellectual equivalent of boot camp, with law professors as drill sergeants all too eager to show their intellectual prowess by humiliating frightened twenty-somethings.
I began law school ten years ago, and since I know a thing or two about the process (I was first in my class at the end of the all-important first year and graduated summa cum laude), I have some advice incoming students might want to heed.
First—adapting a letter to The Wall Street Journal regarding medical school—if you’re smart enough to get into law school you should be smart enough not to go to law school. There’s still plenty of time to back out and get your student loans cancelled.
Second, if you absolutely must go to law school, make sure you don’t go straight from undergrad. Get a job doing anything—and I do mean anything—before law school. Tending bar for two years will do more to prepare you for law school than your undergraduate education. If you don’t get to know how the world works you will have no frame of reference for your studies. I went to law school in my thirties, and I attribute my law school success to years of work experience.
But if you absolutely insist on going to law school, here are some practical tips and pointers.
1) The first semester of law school is a marathon, not a sprint. Your professors will try to goad you into believing it’s a sprint by piling on an impossible amount of work each class, but don’t fall for it. Do what you can and move on.
2) Never study after midnight. The volume of work before you will be so enormous that no human could digest it all—and that’s by design. Success in law school depends on two things; prioritizing and having your wits about you. A good night’s sleep is far more useful than trying to cram more information into an exhausted brain, and then showing up to class half-asleep.
3) Exercise. It is a good escape from the stress of law school and your improved physical condition will make you mentally sharper. I chose swimming, and was swimming a mile four times a week by the end of my first semester.
4) Accept that you may not do well in law school. Everyone there is smart, and if you do the math, half of you will finish in the bottom half of your class. Since I was near the bottom of my class in my admissions criteria, I presumed I would be a C-student. Consequently I felt relatively little stress when the exams came at the end of the semester, because I took an “I’ll do my best” attitude which was my metric when an exam was over. As long as I thought I had put together some decent essays, I was satisfied. (Imagine my shock when my first grade was posted—an A in Torts!)
5) Go to your professors’ office hours if they have them. The most intimidating professor of my first semester, the late John Gaubatz, was a heck of a nice guy. After I got to know him a little bit he wasn’t nearly as scary in the classroom, and the course was vastly more enjoyable and informative.
6) Avoid joining law societies and clubs your first year. They add nothing to your resume, and the time spent at an environmental law society meeting would be better spent studying, exercising, or hanging out with friends.
7) Be careful with study groups. While it is good to have other students to discuss the material of your class, they are very inefficient during a time when efficiency matters very much. I found that one hour of self-study was about the equivalent of three hours of group study. I’m not saying “don’t,” just be wise about how much and how often. (And if fellow students are consistently unprepared for a good discussion, either evict them from the group, or leave the group yourself.)
8) Don’t let professors “rattle” you. They’ve been in the business much longer than you, and are already familiar with the material. If you have a professor who seems to delight in torturing students, think of them as an educational experience. If you practice you will come across many lawyers who behave abominably, and you’re just going to have to get used to dealing with them.
And, of course, make a solemn vow never to behave like that as an attorney.
9) Never talk about an exam with other students when it’s over. There is a nearly perfect inverse relationship between a law student’s opinion of his or her performance on an exam and your professor’s. The exam is over, period, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
10) And finally, get to know Professor David Kopel’s formula, “Beer + Pizza = Success.” I’ll let him explain why…
So to the incoming Class of 2015, best of luck. It’s not too late to turn back, but if you decide to go through with it, stay calm. Your professors are going to try and get you off your game, and that, sadly, is half the point of your first semester.
This article is also posted at The Country Thinker.