If you’re starting law school this fall, here’s a little secret that might make your life both easier and more difficult. Ready? Here it is: No one in your class knows what they’re doing any more than you do! This might sound obvious, but let me explain.
First, the good news. When you start law school, you will probably meet a lot of people who sound very impressive at first blush. Maybe they’ve already worked for a judge or some prestigious organization. Perhaps they spout rhetoric and seem to have their whole career planned out already. Maybe they raise their hand in class and sound much more calm and collected than you feel. This is all fine and good. However, it’s not that easy.
Rest assured, they don’t know any more than you do and it takes a lot more than all of that to get good grades. Your chances are just as good as theirs. Don’t worry.
At the end of the day, there is nothing that can compare to law school. You will be asked to think in a completely different way. And (probably for the first time in your life), you can’t rely on good grades being doled out to those who “study the hardest.” That’s just not how it works. Working hard is definitely part of it, but it’s not the only required ingredient.
No amount of internships, experience as a paralegal, family connections, sheer confidence or a political science background is likely going to help you get a leg up.
No matter how bombastic the competition seems to be, just know, you can do very well in law school on your own terms, and you don’t have to change your personality, your background, or your definition of what it means to be successful in your own life. In fact, it’s almost funny sometimes how people’s perceptions and even personalities in the classroom can seem to shift once that first round of grades comes out. All of a sudden, Mr. High and Mighty Gunner in the first row might seem a little humbled and quieter, and the kid behind you who always seemed studious but quiet might get some more confidence.
That’s one of the scariest things about being a 1L. No one knows if what they’re doing is going to work. Don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty proven methods. There are definitely ways to get ahead, but unless you have someone to help you, or unless you are really working hard to figure out the law school game on your own, you can end up very lost. So many well-intentioned 1Ls work extremely hard but spend their time on the wrong things, and end up unhappy with their grades. Don’t be this person.
Long story short: Don’t let anyone or anything intimidate you.
If you got into law school, that’s proof you’re smart enough and capable enough to be there. If your classmates seem overly confident, recognize that while some people deal with insecurity by shirking or staying quiet, others cope by showing off to make themselves feel better. Some people will be great at law school, but in my experience, there usually not the ones telling everyone else how great they are at law school. In any case, there is no right way to handle the feelings of inadequacy, apprehension and doubt that will inevitably arise at some point during your first semester. You belong in law school and you have just as much potential as anyone else. You earned your seat at this table, and it’s up to you what you do with it.
Bottom line, if you need advice, ask people besides your classmates. Look to an upperclassman who has gotten good grades. Ask your professor or advisor or get a tutor. Find someone who will tell it like it is and give you the cold, honest truth about what you might be doing wrong and how to fix it.
Now, for the bad news. Like I said, no one in your class knows what their doing either. This can be precarious for several reasons. Case in point, study groups. As noted above, some people try to convince themselves they’re doing law school right by loudly proclaiming that they understand everything and trying to argue it out with others. This is fine, but it can waste a lot of time in a study group situation.
Bottom line, take everything any other 1L says with a grain of salt, and then go home and figure it out for yourself on your own. If you can’t, go to office hours or get guidance from an academic support program or tutor. I don’t think study groups are mandatory (I tried it both ways in law school). They work really well for some people and terribly for others. If you’re going to hash out your ideas and understandings of the cases you’re reading with classmates, that can be a fantastic way to learn, but make sure you have some checks in place. Don’t rely on groupthink, because it’s often wrong. And if you feel like your study group is a waste of time, it probably is. Get out early.
When you start law school, see what you can do to catch onto the game early. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that might feel silly. You don’t need to do this in class in front of everyone, and you should probably try your had at the old google first to see if you can figure it out on your own, but make sure you actually understand any advice you’re being given.
One of the things I enjoy the most about tutoring is helping to demystify the law school experience with students who aren’t afraid to say, “You know what, I have heard the phrase ‘practice writing’ being thrown around, but I honestly have no idea what that really means” or “What are these ‘supplements’ everyone is talking about? What does that even mean, I know they’re not vitamins, but what are they!?” No problem! You don’t know what “an outline” is or why there are different kinds of “outlines,” that’s okay, let’s talk about it. You have no idea what people mean when they say they want you to take out the “black letter law” from a case? Of course you don’t, because you’ve never been to law school before! This stuff isn’t intuitive.
At the end of the day, don’t let any newly-minted 1L confidence you might have get in the way of figuring out what exactly you’re responsible for in law school. If you’ve never seen a law school exam, go find some examples. It’s important to know what you’re going to be expected to produce during finals. Go locate some sample exam answers from students who have gone before you. It’s important to understand what a solid IRAC looks like on paper. Most of all, if you have questions about your study process, how you’re preparing for class, and whether it’s all working for you, ask someone who knows what they’re doing to help! There is nothing worse than a smart, motivated person doing poorly in law school because they took it upon themselves to reinvent the wheel, or thought they were beyond things like supplements, office hours, or asking questions. I’m not saying you can’t do law school on your own and do well, you can! But if you get stuck, reach out, don’t struggle in silence. There’s no time for that.
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Other helpful pre-1L posts:
- Pre-1L Summer Checklist
- The People You Will Meet in Law School
- Want to Get Good Law School Grades? Become a Self-Starter
- How to Think Like a Successful Law Student
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