When I tell students that I took almost every Saturday off during my first semester of law school and still did well, their incredulity is palpable. It’s not because this is some huge, amazing accomplishment on my part, because it’s not. It’s one day off! I think it’s because, as law students, we are indoctrinated to believe that we need to study all the time. A minute off is a minute wasted. It’s one more opportunity for our classmates to lunge ahead in the great race.
In other grad school programs, doing something like taking a day off each week (gasp!) would not be considered teetering on the brink of insanity. For some reason, though, the minute we get those crisp acceptance letters, buy those books that cost half our rent money, and buckle down to get A’s at all costs, our common sense tends to go out the window.
When you look at 1Ls (most of whom are driven overachievers to begin with), it’s no wonder that—after you add in three years of class that can be terrifying at worst and mind-numbingly dry at best, plus crushing debt, exponential cortisol levels, and one of the most difficult licensing exams in the world—our profession ends up ranking among the highest for utter dissatisfaction (both personally and professionally), rampant substance abuse, and crippling depression.
Not surprisingly, we sow these seeds early. This is why I tell my 1L students that as they are absorbing all that black letter law and training themselves to sit at a desk for hours on end, that they should also be striving toward forming some positive life habits and continuing to behave as a functional human.
Don’t get me wrong. The first year of law school is scary. The subject matter can be dense, archaic, and difficult (I remember having to translate some of my older Civ. Pro. cases line by line into “regular English” before I could even make sense of the general narrative!).
The workload can be intense. More than that, though, the unaccountability (i.e. zero actual graded assignments before your one final exam in each class) can make even the most confident students feel like they are building a bridge without blueprints—which can be really disconcerting (especially for people who are used to being at the top).
So what do you do? If you’re in danger of inadvertently coaching yourself to become an unhappy automaton, consider the following:
Work incredibly hard, but don’t kill yourself.
Doing well in your first semester takes a lot of time and effort. You will probably need to work harder than you ever have before! At times, your brain may actually hurt! In my first semester I read and briefed every single case. I attended every lecture, made all of my own outlines and wrote practice essays. I used supplements, went to office hours and asked for feedback from TAs and tutors.
The path to success may be different for you, but regardless, doing well will take a tremendous amount of effort. Work hard, but not so much that you compromise your health, sanity or well-being. You have probably heard people say to treat law school like a job. Well, let me tell you, it was unlike any job I had ever had! But, I did try to cut myself off from the books at a reasonable hour every night, take Saturdays off until crunch time rolled around, and enjoy other areas of my life by making sure I set aside time for the things and people I cared about.
Take charge of managing your own time.
The lack of external accountability in law school can be anxiety-provoking. There are elusive terms, such as “outline” and “hypo” and “practice,” that everyone seems to be comparing notes on, but no one actually tells you what these things are or how to do them. Also, no one but you will know or care how you approach your studies. And, no one but you will reap the benefits or regret garnered by your first semester grades. As with working at a firm, in law school, there also usually won’t be anyone there to take you by the shoulders, shake you and tell you reign in the crazy.
Rather, hard work and long hours at the expense of a personal life are actually bragged about and rewarded. Long story short, it will never be easier to carve out your own idea of happiness than it is right now, while you are still in school. Take control of your schedule and make sure you are blocking out time for the things that give your life meaning and make you feel fulfilled—whether this is baking cookies, taking in the occasional weekend matinée, or spending time with people in your life who are fortunate enough not to know or care about the difference between impleader and interpleader.
Study smarter, not longer.
What you should aim for is making your work more efficient so it doesn’t steam-roll your life. For example, in school, if I knew that I would be taking all day Saturday off, I would work twice as hard during the week to make sure I was in a position to do that. There’s a time management technique called the circles method that we use with students that I wish I knew about in law school! I think a strategy like this probably would have helped me be even more efficient.
It’s amazing how much time law students spend spinning their wheels and accomplishing virtually nothing. This is not to be confused with the kind of struggling with the material that is necessary to fully comprehend it. What I’m talking about here is wasting time reinventing the wheel or letting study time bleed into play time so neither one is fulfilling (see below).
Don’t reinvent the wheel.
My Contracts professor was notoriously old-school and harsh and told us that supplements were a waste of time. He is a brilliant and accomplished legal mind so a lot of people figured he knew what he was talking about. Did I listen to his advice, though? No. This same professor would often assign cases that we never ended up discussing in class, or we would discuss them only to learn that they didn’t matter and wouldn’t be tested. Sometimes it was hard to see the ball (probably because he was actively hiding it!).
Supplements which explained why each case was important and how it fit into the larger structure of Contracts law and told me the difference between the UCC and common law on various points saved me in this class. If I had tried to learn all of this from scratch using the crumbs my Professor tossed out, I probably wouldn’t have done very well. Conversely, my Torts professor, also a brilliant legal mind, wanted to see her specific language in our rule statements on the exam and required that topics be analyzed in a very particularized way. She gave us a lot more guidance, which made seeing the ball much easier, but I still used supplements for her class as well! And I’m glad I did.
Keep work time and play time completely separate.
In law school, I tried hard to dedicate work time to work and free time to actually being free. Building a wall between the two can force you to be more productive with studying and more fulfilled by your other activities. Would you check your e-mail during yoga? No—You will throw off your pose and your breathing and forfeit the benefits of the practice. The e-mail you write probably won’t be very cogent either. Same idea here.
Don’t insist on talking about law school material to your non-law school spouse, partner, or friends. Take a break from all of it! Don’t bring flash cards to the dinner table or check social media while you’re reading, and leave your books at your desk.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- A New Time Management Technique I’m Trying
- Dealing with Law School “Time Regret”
- How to Get Stuff Done in Law School
- Need More Time? Study Smart Before Your Law School Class
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