I am a 2L at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. I intend for this to be a brief, perhaps blunt, and to-the-point list of advice for 1L’s entering law school or students thinking about law school. You will soon learn very few things in law school are brief and to-the-point. The answer to every question in law school is “it depends.” That being said, this advice is only reflective of my first year experience at one particular school. Other law schools might be completely different. As a general rule, a lot of this is common sense, and thus most people in law school will overthink things or pay too much attention to detail to realize the obvious things right in front of their face. So, here it goes…
You don’t know anything. I still don’t know anything. Everyone will remind you that you do not know anything! In law school, you will literally have to learn an entire new vocabulary. Unless you can tell me the elements of false imprisonment, the Pinkerton rule, the difference between MI, MII, and manslaughter (which I totally forgot), what a 12(b)(6) motion means, The RAP, or the difference between Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process, then just keep your mouth shut, listen, and absorb everything you can. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, just accept the fact that for possibly the first time in your life your natural wit and charm will not suffice. I don’t care if your dads a lawyer, if your great great second uncle twice removed signed the Constitution, or if you’re the mock trial champion of the universe; be humble. You have A LOT to learn.
READ. Read what the teacher assigns. Yes, there might be certain days when you know you won’t get cold called. Read anyways, you’re in school to learn. It will help when finals come around, AND more importantly when you become a lawyer and are actually expected to know things.
Everyone is smart. If you found your way into law school you’re probably pretty darn smart. You probably had a good undergrad GPA and did well on the LSAT. Now you’re in a room with several hundred other people who all had their straight “A” report cards hanging on mommy’s fridge. You can’t coast through life anymore. You’re in the big leagues now. Everyone was there hometown MVP. Get used to being on an All Star team. Will you be in the starting line-up?
Make friends. If I were on a reality show, I would be the “I didn’t come here to make friends, I am only here to make a fool of myself for some amount of money that really isn’t that much after taxes” person. A lot of really smart people are used to only relying on themselves. In law school you will need to make friends.
First, they will help keep you sane. Sometimes you need to vent to people who are going through the same nonsense as you. Furthermore, law school is a lot like high school. It’s nice to have a table to eat lunch at, even if you’re wearing track pants and your hair is in a ponytail (it’s a Mean Girls reference). There are some very nice people in law school, and some plastics too so beware (Mean Girls reference continued).
Second, if you go into a finals with only your perspective on an issue you’re destined to fail. Professors want to see analysis and different ways of thinking. If your law school did a good job then you will have a diverse 1L class. If you do a good job, your friend circle and study group will also be diverse. Surround yourself with people of different cultures, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, and sexual orientations. You will probably gain a lot more insight on “The Battle of the Forms” from the 40-year-old former business exec in your class with a wife and two kids than your fellow frat-tastic twenty-somethings. Professors want students to think outside of the box. The best way to think outside of the box is to share what’s in your box with your friends. Then you will be armed with numerous boxes/ways of thinking about an issue when you go into an exam. The recipe for success!
Gunners suck. If you don’t know what a gunner is think about Hermione Granger. If you don’t know who Hermione is, you should not be allowed to apply to law school (or procreate). If you have a hypothetical question involving aliens, flying monkeys, or the apocalypse, don’t ask it. If someone two rows down gets cold called and doesn’t know the answer, don’t shoot your hand into the air like a rocket to make them look like a buffoon. Everyone, for the most part, is trying really hard. Don’t inflate your ego at the expense of others. Even the professors will get sick of you.
Also, don’t freak out if you say or ask something stupid. Everyone won’t hate you…immediately. In fact, most people will forget any minor foibles you make. There are bigger things for your fellow classmates to focus on, like the impending due date of your first brief.
Gunners earn themselves world famous disdain because they monopolize professors’ time and prevent them from teaching. This can be very annoying when you’re paying hundreds of dollars per class for your professors’ expertise and you’re only hearing the voice of some know-it-all who can’t grow a beard. At the same time, while gunners might be annoying, they’re not all terrible people. Some of them are just abnormally curious individuals who are unaware of their innate desire to constantly seek positive reinforcement.
Use supplements…sparingly. They are very helpful. At the same time your professor probably won’t cover ALL of torts in a semester. In fact, usually professors get really behind and then it’s nice because you already did the next weeks reading. Anyways, if you use a supplement only use it to help clarify material you were taught. Don’t learn things your professor never mentioned. It will only confuse you and waste your time. If your professor recommends a supplement use that one. If not, pick a supplemental with the most hypos so you can practice for finals.
Make your own outline. It’s great that your brother’s best friend’s girlfriend went to your law school and sent you the outline from the person who booked Civ Pro in 2009, but seriously, MAKE YOUR OWN OUTLINE. The process of making an outline helps you learn. There will always be an older student who promises that you will get an “A” if you study from some magical outline. If law school were as easy as reading over some notes before a test than it would be just like undergrad. It’s not. Making an outline should be a painstakingly annoying but helpful process. Don’t skip over this very important step in your quest for greatness.
Nobody knows the type of law they want to practice. If you do, you’re wrong. Probably. You will most likely practice whatever the firm that hires you wants you to practice. So don’t stress out about it. You (and I) will figure it out eventually. I hope.
Get used to cold calling. Most professors don’t do it to be mean or cruel. They do it because the fear of cold calling will most likely motivate you to read. Also, you need to get comfortable with public speaking and explaining your ideas verbally. I don’t care if you’re going to be a transactional attorney. You will have to talk to clients at some point and be able to explain things in layman’s terms. Get used to public speaking now, before your financial security depends on it.
You don’t have to try that hard. There will be students who only rely on old outlines, supplements, and case briefs they find in a Google search right before class. They will never read the assigned material. They will never take class notes. They will definitely be on Facebook during class, and some of them will even watch TV or entertain you with their skills at beating levels of some random computer game no one has played since seventh grade. You can be that person.
If you go to a school with a mandatory 3.2 curve (like UF), you can most likely do all of those things and earn a B average*. You can drink, party, and get a tan whenever you want. You can tell everyone “you work smart, not hard.” Then on graduation day you can proudly hold up your J.D. degree and say you earned it without breaking a sweat, stressing out a wrinkling, or sprouting a gray hair.
I don’t want to be that person. As a basketball player, I was taught, “you practice how you play.” Law school is practice for being a lawyer. If you want to be a great lawyer, you first have to practice being a great law student. If you want to be a lazy bum…than you probably already stopped reading this.
* Find out if your school has a mandatory 1L curve. If it’s a 2.5 you’re screwed. Expect to get the first C of your life, but know it will be okay because everyone is in the same boat.
Sit in the front. Get to class early the first day in order to do this. Once the seating chart goes around you will be stuck in your selected seat for cold calling. If you sit in the back you will be distracted by all of the nonsense people do on their laptops. I have literally almost burst out laughing from reading something on Buzzfeed that a classmate was reading on her computer in front of me. Then of course I proceeded to go on Buzzfeed, do some online shopping, check Facebook, see what new things my good friend Jenny is learning, check my email, and look up to realize I just missed the difference between actual and proximate cause. Whoops.
Don’t be distracted by the sea of laptop screens in front of you. Sit in the front. The professor won’t be more likely to call on you. They usually use a spreadsheet to select names for cold calling or if you’re lucky a bingo ball machine with your lucky number whirling around inside. Professors generally call on students with the last names that are the easiest to pronounce. If you’re a Smith, Johnson, or Schwartz, consider a name change. If you have a wonderful ethnic name people have been pronouncing wrong your whole life, the tides have finally turned my friend.
Some people will where suits everyday. It’s fine. I personally live in Nike running shorts and as a proud Floridian only wear Jeans if it gets below 70 degrees. You have plenty of time in the future to be strangled by a tie and handcuffed by cuff links. When I am in the library I want to be able to breath and not worry about tripping down the stairs while I am carrying my ten-ton books because I decided to wear wedges. Just be comfortable.
Write out your class notes. This trick really works for me. If you love technology and just pirated the coolest noting taking software around then stick with it. I am, however, not a computer Geek. I don’t know what a byte is. The people at Apple think I am a moron when I take my Mac in for a six-month check up at the Genius Bar like it’s getting an oil change. Parting with my laptop for a few hours is not difficult for me.
First, if you write out your class notes you won’t be distracted by the never-ending entertainment spewing from world-wide-web. Yes, g-chatting with your undergrad friends is often much more entertaining than learning about the UCC. Therefore, remove the temptation completely.
Second, if you handwrite your class notes, at some point, preferably at the end of the week, you will need to type them up. In your lonesome cubicle on a Friday afternoon, you will be forced to go over everything you learned that week. If you don’t understand something you can go to office hours the upcoming week or check a supplement. This way, you’re not having a “crap, I never learned this stuff” moment at the end of the semester when everyone else is realizing the same thing. Learn and review as you go and everything will be much more manageable.
Go to office hours. Duh. You’re paying your professors like $100k a year to sit in an office. Have them do some work to earn it. Make your debt worthwhile. Plus, most professors are really nice and have great stories about crazy clients or what it was like when they were in law school (and typewriters were probably not invented yet, yikes). It helps to have a professor you can turn to when you have questions. They will give you career advice and maybe even write you a recommendation letter. Seriously though, a lot of them are really cool.
You’re not THAT smart, but someone else IS. There will be the guy who can goof off, pop keg stands, max out his bench press, date some dumb sophomore, and book a class without taking the cellophane off of his Contracts book. There will also be the girl who can curl her hair every morning, do an hour of cardio each day, cook a balanced meal of quinoa and kale, go to happy hour, maintain her well organized Pinterest boards, and get straight “A’s” without looking like she lifted a finger. I am not that person. You are most likely not that person. Just because a select few individuals (probably 3-5 in your whole 1L class) got an extra infusion of brilliance at birth, does not mean everyone can live such a glorious life in law school. Don’t let the habits of others influence your work ethic. I worked hard, even made law review, but I’ve never accepted the delusion that I can live a fairy tale in law school. It’s supposed to be hard, expect to it to be hard, and it should be hard if you’re doing it right.
It’s not that bad. Maybe this is because I’m the type of person who runs a half marathon and thinks, “Oh, I should do another one,” but in reality as hard as law school is, you can find a way to make it not be the most dreadful experience of your life. A lot of things will seem terrible in the moment but after it’s over you’re motivated to take on the next challenge. You’re more resilient than you think and a few punches won’t be a knock out.
Exercise, cook, watch a movie. You will need to do something other than study to stay sane. If you’re in the library all of the time you’re doing it wrong. Right before finals living in the library is understandable. Other than that you need to create some type of work/life balance.
Don’t tell people your grades. If you did well they will hate you. If you did bad they will think you are dumb and not want to study with you, but most likely still be your friend. Think of it as practice for attorney-client confidentiality. It takes character to not brag about your grades if you do well. People will respect you for it.
Thank you letters. Write them. This way it is less likely you will be forgotten. You are not the top priority to professors, lawyers, and judges. If you want them to remember you, take the time to let them know that you appreciate their help. It will pay dividends in the end. Plus, it’s the nice thing to do.
You have to like writing. You will be primarily graded through your written work. Law school might be the first time in your life where you complain about having a page limit. Every word, footnote, and accidentally italicized comma (ahh!) will matter. If you don’t like to write, don’t go to law school.
If, however, you have a degree in a hard science, don’t mind writing, and are unsatisfied by the plethora of job offers for those with biology and engineering degrees, take a crack at law school and become a patent attorney. The rest of us liberal arts majors can’t sit for the patent bar or probably do any type of basic math in general. Thus, you can carve out a really nice lucrative niche for yourself in the realm of intellectual property.
REPUTATION. The first piece of advice I ever received in law school was to make sure I had a good reputation. I thought this was dumb, especially since I have the kind of wonderful Jewish mother always reminding me “it doesn’t matter what other people think (just follow what’s in your heart, or something like that).” WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF YOU MATTERS IN LAW SCHOOL!
By the time I returned for my spring semester of law school I could answer the question of whether I would refer a client to a fellow classmate in a split second. While you might not be a unethical person just because you cheated on your long distance girlfriend, showed up to class hung-over, and forgot to bring a pencil to the multiple choice exam, you also might not be the first person on my list when I need to refer a future client. If, however, you’re the quiet girl with the bright pink pencil case who downs a grande Starbucks-iatto in the first 30 minutes of class, is always in the library, and told me about free Publix cake in the cafeteria, I might be a lot more likely to send a client your way.
Trust me, at first you won’t think of your fellow 1L’s like this, but before you know it you will have a very strong impression of your classmates. You’re trapped in class for hours everyday with approximately 100 people with no time for TV or fun. Thus, who’s hooking up with whom and who got in a bar fight is often the little ray of sunlight/entertainment in everyone else’s cloudy storm. If you do something dumb people will find out. The legal community is smaller than you think. Bad news travels fast and your J.D. won’t mean anything if everyone thinks you’re a barbaric misogynist in a Brooke’s Brothers suit.
Sorry this is not that brief. I guess that’s why I am in law school. Good luck in your future endeavors in the legal profession! I personally do not regret deciding to go to law school and really do enjoy it most of the time. Hopefully you will feel the same way if you decide to take the plunge.
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