How to Succeed in Law School
Treat it like a Job
This month, several thousand aspiring lawyers will enter law school. Unsolicited advice abounds. Does the internet need another blog post on the topic? Probably not. In my experience, however, “need” is not generally a prerequisite for advice. The following comes with two caveats. First, most advice is worth what you pay for it, and my advice comes free. Second, my thoughts are based on my experiences, which are particular to me. Take it or leave it. (Or, if you prefer, caveat emptor).
In August 2011, I moved to the colonial swampland of Williamsburg, Virginia. I’d spent the previous two years working as a high school teacher, and the year before that in graduate school. In other words, I was coming into law school as a putative grown up. At the same time, the excitement and anxiety of that first week in the law school made me feel like a high school freshman trying to figure out the combination to his new locker.
Early in the semester, I frequently heard that I should “treat law school like a job.” Luckily, before I entered the mind-altering experience of legal education, I had endured the life-altering experience of holding a full-time job after college. Still, I wasn’t quite sure what “treat it like a job” meant (Should I pull a 9-to-5 shift in the library every day? Do I need to schedule my lunches into a calendar? What about vacation time?). Looking back, I think I know what that advice means.
Specifically, the approach you would use to be good at a full-time job can be a useful way to make decisions about how to get through law school. I think people who are good at their jobs do five things. (Update: My personal attorney pointed out a vital sixth thing I foolishly overlooked!)
1. Show up.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Ninety-five percent of the work in law school is just showing up.” (Actually he didn’t. As it turns out, TJ didn’t say a lot of things. He did, however, play a vital role in the creation of the oldest law school in America. #TribePride). Simply put, if you don’t show up, you can’t succeed.
Being in “the room where it happens” is the most valuable thing you can do for yourself in law school — assuming that you’re also paying attention while you’re in there. In most classes, you want to learn to think like your professor. That requires you to be in class, go to office hours when you have a question, and attend review sessions when they are offered.
But what if you didn’t do the reading? You should still go to class. But what if you’re going to get cold-called and will look like an idiot? The potential for wounded pride is not a good reason to skip class. The same goes for dropping by office hours to clarify a confusing concept. Plus, most exams are graded anonymously, so your pre-exam shortcomings won’t count against you. Moreover, you’ll soon learn that just because you did the reading doesn’t mean you actually understood it.
2. Do the work.
Perhaps this is obvious, but you should do the work for each class. From time to time, you may end up making decisions about where to focus limited resources (time, energy, consciousness), and that might require skimming a dissent or skipping the notes. You will figure out the right balance. There’s not a creative way to say this, because doing the work is not a creative endeavor. It is what is expected of you if you want to do well.
3. Work hard.
If you think “do the work” is obvious, then “work hard” may also seem self-evident. But this isn’t August or September advice; it’s October and November advice. You’ll soon develop a routine and start to feel comfortable with the daily grind. Don’t let that comfort become complacency. To be clear, I’m not advising you to stay at the library until midnight every night or consider skipping Thanksgiving dinner so you can perfect your Torts outline.
The tough truth, however, is this: as a working adult, the moments when everything on your plate is perfectly balanced will be infrequent. Sorry. The upside is that you are fully capable of prioritizing and compartmentalizing your tasks to focus on what matters at that moment. The best I can say on the subject is the best I’ve been told: keep at it.
4. Do you.
The typical first-year law school experience unfortunately paints the picture that there is a single “right way” to learn the law. This is wrong. (Trust me, I have a graduate degree in teaching that I don’t use anymore). That misconception is furthered by the herd mentality of 1L. To put it politely, what other people do in law school should be white noise to you.
Although you may be taking the same exam as your classmates, and those exams will be graded on a curve, how you choose to prepare for that exam should be a product of who you are as a learner. So feel free to ignore the classmate who touts a meticulously tabbed outline. Don’t feel pressured to join a study group if that’s not your style. You will figure out what works best for you.
(That said, don’t reinvent the wheel for the sake of iconoclasm. Many study techniques persist because they work. Try a few and see what sticks for you. Just don’t follow the crowd for the sake of keeping up with the crowd).
5. Take some time off.
During my first fall in law school, a 2L said to me, “You 1Ls don’t understand how much free time you have right now.” I didn’t believe her, given that I felt like I needed to dedicate all my time to reading, eating, and sleeping, and I felt guilty if I did anything else. But then 2L rolled around, and I realized the truth of her observation. Now two years removed from law school, I look back wistfully at being a 1L, and I’m glad I also spent time making friends at law school dances, blowing off steam playing ping pong, and taking long lunches after a stretch of morning classes.
Anybody who is good at their job knows that it’s important to take time off. Moreover, as a law student, you have a flexible schedule. After you graduate, you probably won’t be able to go to the gym in the middle of the day, or take a mid-afternoon nap, or play intramural sports against undergraduates. So take advantage of your ability to do things away from the library. It will not only make you happier day-to-day, but also make it easier to focus on your studies. Recharging your batteries a little bit at a time is vital to making it through the long slog of each semester.
6. Seek Feedback.
After I first posted this article, my brilliant personal attorney (my wife) pointed out a vital sixth thing that people who are good at their jobs do: they seek feedback. Of course! It makes no sense to put your head down and plug away at a job, giving full effort, without checking to make sure that you are on the right track.
As a 1L, meeting with a professor (or even a teaching assistant) can be very intimidating. They’re an expert and you’re a novice. But that’s also the reason why they’re the professor and you’re the student. So go ahead and darken the professor’s doorway during office hours if you need a few minutes of their time to clarify a tricky subject. If your professor gives practice questions or a midterm, don’t be afraid to ask if they’d be willing to go over your answer with you. Such feedback can be invaluable to you as either reassurance that you’re doing the right things or a sign that a course correction is necessary.
All of this probably sounds simple. Good news: it is! But everyone has tough days when they want to quit their job, and law school will be no different. Prior experience navigating those kinds of days helps. Perhaps that’s why the majority of the students who finished at the top of my class had something in common: they held full-time jobs between college and law school.