We all know the feeling. That first day of school – new books, new computers, new clothes. A fresh sense of optimism that we all know will quickly dissipate after the first week of schoolwork.
And then the Dean of the Law School sits you all down for orientation. Look to your left, he says. Then look to your right. “Statistically speaking, one of you will not pass the Bar when you take it at the end of your time here.”
Um, what? Why is this guy trying to scare us away on our first day? What are we taking out these ridiculous student loans for?! I mean sure, we all know it’s competitive and we all know it’s going to be way worse than college. I too heard the rumblings about people tearing pages out of books in the library – I think it’s safe to say that with the introduction of Lexis Nexis and Westlaw, we can drop the Paper Chase-esque law school plot twists. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just gone digital!
Let’s get one thing straight – law school is terribly competitive. The curve is there for a reason – the weak must be distinguished from the strong. Because being an attorney is all about winning. It is not about justice. And in any fight, you need to weed out the weaker warriors. Those who received the lowest grades amongst us likely were not welcomed back, or they were banished to the unspeakable “Critical Analysis” or Academic Support classes, that no one wants to admit being enrolled in. But you will quickly find that most people in law school are just like you – they just want to survive. They too want to pass the bar. They too want to get a good job out of law school.
Law school is unlike anything you have ever done before – you are overworked, exhausted, and always wondering when the next exam, paper, bar review will be. You need someone to lean on during law school that understands and is in the same situation as you are. Your friends, family, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, may have a hard time coping with your new law school stress and long study hours. They have always viewed you as an outstanding student, smart, and hard working—an academic star. They won’t understand — why the academic angst now? It’s hard to explain that you are competing against fellow classmates who were all academic superstars in undergrad.
So what should you expect exactly?
You Will Find Your Best Friends in Law School
Most law schools are divided into sections. You take your basic, general education classes together. You are all terrified, together. I would suggest looking within this section to find your core. The Core is, for all intents and purposes, a study group, however, you will find that it goes deeper than that.
Soon after classes begin, you will start to align with certain law school classmates or they with you. Classmates will try and ferret out, within the first few weeks of law school, who the best study partners will be. Who seems the smartest from class comments and participation, who is always in the library, who is always at office hours. Survival requires law students to group with top students in an effort to raise the whole group. Law students will follow the strongest classmates and ask them to join study groups. Some less competitive students will partner with more relaxed study partners. Like attracts like. Don’t try to go out of your “study habit comfort zone” when you are already going through something as uncomfortable as law school.
My experience in law school was that it was often the quietest students who got the best grades and not the ones who always had their hands up in class. You will find the right study group and right study partners for you. Be smart about it. This is an important relationship. Sit back and observe your classmates before jumping into the wrong study group. Don’t be afraid to change study groups if the fit isn’t right, but do so quickly as once groups and partners form, they are unlikely to add a new member. The good news is that your study group and study partners could be the start of lifelong friendships. In BarWinners California Bar Review, I assigned study partners and questions for review in study groups for California bar exam preparation. I want students to have support, to have a person (or people) who would understand exactly what they are experiencing and work as a team to reach their goal—Passing the California Bar Exam. I found that some study partners became law partners after passing the Bar with BarWinners, while other students found their soul mate or best friend. I always laughed when two of my married Bar takers would refer to their study partner as their “Bar Husband,” or “Bar Wife.” The same is true for law school study groups and study partners. The people you meet and partner with to study together in law school can end up being your best friends for life.
You Will Be Cold Called In Class
Cold calling is, as the name reflects, a cold, heartless process. You won’t know when you are next. The first semester, 1L professors know that they are setting the pace for the next two and a half years. Everyone is cold-called, not everyone is prepared. Please, be prepared. I promise you, they know if you are guessing the issue of the case based on what is in the first paragraph that you just skimmed when you heard your last name. Sure, you can take it easy after you have been called on, at least for a couple weeks, but stay prepared! Remember, law school is based almost entirely on one or two exam grades. If you aren’t reading because you know you were just called on in class, you will be setting yourself up for one heck of an all-nighter when you are outlining during finals week.
Add to this the often appearing “irrational” Socratic teaching method used in most law schools, straight out of the film The Paper Chase- “Mr. Hart, you’re still not speaking loud enough. Will you stand? Speak louder, Mr. Hart! Fill the room with your intelligence!” allegedly designed to teach you to be logical and “think like an attorney.” This is an important part of cold calling. You are put on the spot in front of your professors and classmates. The justification is that as a practicing attorney you will be cold called in front of judges, other attorneys and in legal proceedings. Better to get you comfortable being put on the spot in law school, than stuttering and stammering, beet red, as you represent your first clients. Because the Socratic method teaches by an endless line of questioning, law students bemoan the fact that professors in 1L don’t teach you the law or the content as they do in other professional schools. Why all this cat and mouse? Your classmates can provide more appropriate insight, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions or bounce ideas off of them.
You Will Be “Scared to Death” But You Will Survive and Thrive
As you may or may not have heard from more seasoned attorneys, your years at law school will be very different. Many people like to refer to your time at law school as the “scare you to death, work you to death,” and “bore you to death” years. And as you would expect, 1L year is absolutely the “scare you to death” year. You will get ridiculous amounts of reading, and since you are just starting out, you won’t know what you’re reading or why you are reading it. You will take a kind of exam you have never taken before – most exams first year are racehorse exams – the professor deliberately plans their exam so that their students are writing until time is up. If you think you covered all the issues in that exam, and you have an hour left, sit back down. You’re not done. (More on exam writing will come later in this Series).
Finally, you will be learning an entirely new writing style. Legal brief and motion writing is very concise and to the point, and utilizes headings and subheadings like you have never seen before. In college, we are taught to write with lots of flourish (or as other people like to call it, “BS”), but do your best to leave this behind. When you are practicing law, judges and law clerks will resent you, and might not even read your entire motion, if you ramble on for too long. Just remember, if you see a word that doesn’t need to be there, take it out. If you follow this rule, you will adjust very quickly to this kind of writing.
Even though everything I just mentioned is supposed to scare you to death, please, stick it out! Remember as you trudge through these next few months that you can do this if you put in the effort. I won’t suggest to you, as my Dean did, that you should throw your television away. This is simply unrealistic, and also could lead to burn out. Do take some time for yourself. Do schedule time for a show or two to take your mind of the materials. If you find a good balance for yourself, the scare factor will slowly subside, and soon enough, you will be walking down the aisle to collect your much-deserved diploma.
This is the first installment in blog series what to Expect When You Are Expecting. We’d love to hear from you about your first year experience in law school.
Professor Shari Karney, Esq. has been a prominent force in the world of legal education and California Bar Review for the past 30 years. Whether you’re just starting law school, about to take the bar, or an out-of-state attorney taking the California Bar Exam, BarWinners California Bar Review is here to help. She is the Owner and Creator of BarWinners and the author of The Approach Book, “Bar Bible”. She writes a weekly column-blog Legal Ease with Leah M. Kaufman, Esq., the Founder at LMK Strategy & Research. Visit BarWinners at barwinners.com. Visit the Barwinners page on Facebook, and the BarWinners page on Google+ or email Shari via firstname.lastname@example.org.