If you’ve started law school, you’ve probably (hopefully) had someone suggest that you do your best to “stay in your lane” especially as a 1L. I heard this phrase from about five different people, in five different contexts, at orientation alone, because it truly is that important. Initially, it sounds like something that will be an obvious no-brainer- of course you’ll just focus on doing the best you can, right? Why would you worry about anyone else? In reality, that may become far more difficult than you thought, and very quickly.
The law school pedagogy is likely to be vastly different from anything you’ve dealt with in the past, and figuring out how to approach it in a way that is effective for you (which may not necessarily be the same as the person sitting next to you) is more than half the battle. Add that to a looming curve, an intensely competitive job market and the fact that the person sitting next to you reads 3 different supplements. Now “staying in your lane” seems harder than you may have previously thought. Difficult as it may become as the semester goes on, it is vastly important that you identify and adhere to things that work for you to reach the best result that you can.
You can’t Control the Curve
The bottom line here is the hard but certain truth that you ultimately have no control over the curve, and where you wind up on it. Exams are graded anonymously, only a certain percentage of people can get A’s and your exam is probably going to be graded directly against the performance of your classmates. Of course, studying hard and preparing well may help you move up the curve, but you ultimately have no control over where you fall in relation to your classmates. The reality of this can be sobering and intimidating, but it should also be very freeing because you can focus on what is in your control: doing your best.
You can’t Develop Skills that Work for You if you’re Focusing on Other People
If you are constantly trying to emulate the people around you, you will never have the opportunity to develop the specific skills that work for you. There are countless ways to approach law school, and it is very important to figure out what will work for you as early as possible. For some people, more traditional methods like long, typed outlines and written case briefs may work best, but some people may learn better by focusing on alternative methods like making flowcharts or book briefing. There is no single right way to do law school, so don’t hesitate to use some non-traditional study methods if they help you learn!
Your End Result may be Surprisingly Unpredictable
Let me analogize: I was a competitive swimmer for a very long time. There were times where I could spend months or years preparing for a competition only to completely blow it when it came time for an actual race because I became focused on all the ways that my preparation differed from other people, assumed that I prepared “wrong” and panicked. That panic would cause me to abandon all of the things that I knew worked for me, no matter how well things were going along the way, and everything would just fall apart from there. Law school is similar in that you spend months preparing for final exams that will likely be most of your grade for your courses (at least in the first year). You have time to figure out what works for you, and when you do figure it out be sure to stick with it, no matter what anyone else is doing. This way, you can be confident in your preparation and you’ll be far more likely to perform closer to your expectations.
You may not Really Need to be at the Tippy-Top of your Class in the First Place
Now let me be clear that I do not mean to suggest that you should became complacent or not care how you end up doing (you still need to learn this stuff to pass the bar after all). However, in reality, unless you’re dead-set on a Big Law job or landing a really prestigious clerkship, you may not need to stress yourself out over being at the very top of your class. This can really circle back to the idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation- why did you want to go to law school in the first place? For example, if you know that you want to do public interest work, it may be more beneficial to focus your energy on networking and volunteering with people in your area of interest than agonizing over making law review. Be sure that you are focusing your energy on making decisions that are authentic to you and your goals.
The pressure of law school can become overwhelming, very quickly. Focusing on how you can best reach your goals (and not outshine your classmates) can help you have a more enjoyable and less stressful law school experience.
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