“First Year They Scare You To Death:” Manage Fear and Protect Your Time In Law School



(As embodied by the weirdo White Walker/Gandalf snowman guy above.  Or this guy.)

Fear is the dominant emotion for many law students before and during your first year in law school.

Law school is at least a bit scary.  Maybe a lot.

Maybe you don’t want to admit it to others, but at least admit it to yourself.

Fear isn’t so bad — it is an evolutionary response to perceived danger.

But in law school, fear can hurt you.  You will waste time if you do not manage your fear and channel it properly.

But you can. And you will.  I will give you the tools — specific tips — to help you manage your fear and protect your time in law school.

Because protecting your time is so, so incredibly important.

Your time and focus are incredibly limited resources.  Every moment you spend on the wrong thing is a moment you are not working towards your goal of getting good grades (so you can get a dream job, which is why you went to law school in the first place, right?)

But before I give you those very specific tactical tips, we need to talk about the psychology of the first year law student and how fear can lead you down the wrong path.

You really need to understand this before the tips I offer will be useful to you.  (In fact, if you don’t understand the psychology of law school, you might reject the tips that I offer you as incredibly stupid.).

So, let’s do it.

*  *  *

1. Why is 1L year scary?

Let’s look at this. What precisely is scary about your first year?

Well, when I talk to law students I have tutored, they mention two big fears:

1. Getting bad grades.

2.  Being humiliated in class like this (or check out video below)

It is the law school equivalent to the “I’m in class naked” dream.

Neither nightmare is fun.

But only one of these nightmares is permanent.

Bad grades can follow you for a long time, stop you from getting work, leave you unable to pay your law school debt… and on and on and on. I don’t want to repeat what others have said better, but this is serious stuff.

A bad day in class, on the other hand, may feel terrible for a day or two. Or if you are like me and would do almost anything to avoid being called out in public, you might obsess for weeks about sounding stupid in front of your classmates. Your feelings of embarrassment might come back at any time in your head for years.

Unlike bad grades, a bad day in class will pass.

Do you agree with me on this? Say it aloud:

“Bad grades are a million times worse than a bad day in class.”

So here is my question: Why do so many law students seem to organize their law school lives to avoid #2 (a bad day in class) rather than to avoid #1 (bad grades)?

This question is less judgmental than it sounds. It is, honestly, kind of a mystery.  But this is what I’ve learned:

Let’s take the typical law student, you.

You are smart. You work hard. Maybe you are a perfectionist. (And maybe you feel incredibly imperfect).

So you wouldn’t pick a study plan that would lead to bad grades, right?

Not if you knew it would lead to bad grades, right?

But many people do.

So what is going on?  A combination of factors:

1. Most law students get mediocre grades because law school grades are on a vicious curve. At many law schools, only the top 3-7% of the class gets an A, and maybe the next 5-10% of the class gets an A-. And Cs are rare now in law school, so it means everyone else basically gets a B+, B or B-.

2. Law school pedagogy is totally messed up. Your grade in a class depends entirely on your performance on a final exam. But your final exam performance depends on a skill (issue spotting) that your time in class does not teach.

3. But — hugely important point here — law school as a whole is set up to appear like a test of legal knowledge rather than the reality:  law school exams test a single, specific legal skill called “issue spotting.”

4. Consider: You are assigned tons of reading in class; some estimates say you read between 20-30 hours a week. You will spend your 12-15 classroom hours per week discussing these cases. Those two activities are already a full time job. This full time job does not help you with issue-spotting, the skill upon which your entire legal future is based.

5. Indeed, all the social pressure in law school focuses on making sure you read and are prepared for class. If you are not prepared to discuss these cases, a professor is standing by to make sure you feel like an idiot. Thanks, Professor Brewster “Angry Asshole” Kingman. And other scared law students reinforce this pressure. They will keep talking about understanding cases and preparing for class and briefing cases.

6. No one else will notice if you are learning how to do issue spotting, if you are really preparing for final exams, if you are really looking out for your own best interest. No student or professor will say, “Hey, dude, you are an idiot for not knowing issue spotting!”

7. Indeed, professors will tell you that all you have to do is read the cases, come to class prepared, pay attention, do a little outlining and practice exams (which they give you absolutely no guidance on ), and you should do fine. According to professors, there is no difference between what you need to do to avoid classroom embarrassment, and what you need to do to avoid bad grades. They don’t think so, and I think most professors truly believe this. (More on this in a future post).

8. You must be thinking: Your professors would not possibly pull the old bait-and-switch (see also: switcheroo, switcherooney, the switch-meister, switchy-switch-switch-switch), right?

They would not tell and make you learn a bunch of things while testing you on something almost completely different, right? You are spending a giant crap-load of (probably borrowed) money to go to law school.

There are beautiful buildings, smart professors from prestigious law schools and immaculate resumes. They are nice, honest-seeming people. They are neatly dressed. These people wouldn’t be tricking you, right? Right?

9. You haven’t heard of any clear alternative to doing what the professor says to do to get good grades AND avoid social embarrassment, other than what you have heard from professors. You have heard from other law students, but what do they know? Everyone has a competing and maybe compelling theory on how to dominate in law school. Also, they are competing with you. Maybe other students are telling you one thing so they can go off and do another thing they know will lead to success?

10. In this confusion, you think about your college success. In college you got good grades by being smart, working hard, and doing exactly what the professor asked you to do. Why wouldn’t that work now? So you start

So how do you, a typical and rational law student, react?

You are scared. You fall back on your old habits.  You do what the professor says.  You do what others are doing.  Everyone else is furiously doing the reading. Everyone else seems incredibly prepared for class. Everyone else is briefing cases, putting a ton of work into legal writing assignments, doing moot court, etc.

So you do the same.  You read and re-read and read cases again. You brief cases — partly because some law schools tell you that you must (but they’re not checking if you do them).  You work until late on legal writing.  You join moot court, APALSA, Amnesty, Federalist Society, whatever.

And you don’t want to be that girl or that guy in class.

So you Work. Really. Hard.

That is your strategy.

Day to day, you still fear being called on in class, but you are prepared.

It feels good to get through lots of material and master those cases and feel like you have really gotten into the details of a case. You know it cold by the time you get to class.

That professor won’t make a fool of you. You’ll look good in class! You’ll look smart!

But — and I am speaking from experience, from students who had this happen — before you know it, a semester has flown by, and finals are coming up.

Everyone else is outlining and taking practices exams.

So you are on the same schedule as everyone else.

You have to prepare for exams.  But you still have to keep reading, keep briefing cases, AND do legal research papers AND extracurriculars you signed up for (because you want to look well-rounded and others pushed you into joining moot court, and you want to get real skills…).

So you get to your exams. You didn’t outline everything, you took a practice exam or two, and you didn’t sleep well before exams.

You are nervous, maybe more nervous than you have ever been.

You start taking the exam and it feels . . . awkward and foreign. You studied the law, you think, but this exam is different.

You aren’t seeing the issues right away.

Other people around you are typing away furiously. They seem to know what they’re doing.

You stare at your screen (or paper). You can’t think of anything.

You see the time. Only 2 hours left. You start writing something. It seems stupid, but you have to write something. You keep writing. You remember some things. It seems easier.

Time. You turn in (or submit) your exam. You have a gnawing feeling that you did terribly, but you still have a little hope. Your classmates also seem shellshocked (some seem cocky, but you ignore them), and so you are hopeful.

How well do you think this story turns out?

Do you think, under this scenario, you end up being pleasantly surprised by your grades?

With a grading curve, if everyone is pretty smart, and everyone else works hard, and everyone else does the same kind of work, what is the chance that you will get the A?

Maybe you are The Special (watch The Lego Movie sometime, it’s on HBONow) and you just get law school in a way that others don’t.  You’ll get the A.

And maybe not.

You get your grades back: definitely not special.

If you think I am making this up, I am not.

This is just what I have seen with students I tutored.

This precise series of things happened to many of the law students who came to me for tutoring after their very trying first semester.

And I can tell you that most of the law students who came to me for advice before law school, heeded this cautionary tale, followed my advice below, and avoided this fate.

* * *

2. 4 Specific Tips to Protect Your Time And Kick Ass In Law School

Let’s be clear: You do not need to be “the special.”

Just assume — as is frankly the truth — that you are no smarter than your already smart classmates.

If you follow these tips, you will be on a different path from most of your classmates.

You will be clearing up your time to avoid time-wasting activities.

You will be able to protect your time.

Of course these tips are just a start. I am not suggesting you clear up your schedule you so you can just party. (Don’t avoid parties, by the way, in my view. The valedictorian from my law school class went out a lot.)

You are clearing your schedule so you can channel your fear and your hard work towards those activities that will actively help you get good grades.

(Such as:  mastering the law, mastering issue spotting, and mastering your professor.)

Also: these tips are simple and easy to implement. Mostly, I am telling you things NOT to do.

But they may be hard to keep doing (or not doing).

These tips seem simple. But initially they may involve you having a struggle in your own head with your fear, with peer pressure, and between intense short term pressures and long term goals that are more important but exert less pressure on you day to day.

That is, it is easy for me to give you these tips. It is hard — because of psychological reasons I mentioned above — to follow them.

Here they are.

Protect Your Time 1:  AVOID BRIEFING CASES

This video, that I made, tells you what you need to know about briefing cases. Basically, do not do it. At some law schools, (ahem, Wash U Law School), the dean (I am reliably told) tells students that they must brief cases. Even so, don’t do it.

Protect Your Time 2: Don’t overprepare for class in any other way

This is a corollary to Point 1. That is, maybe while you might not brief cases, you might be doing other things to prepare for class. Maybe you are frantically re-read cases 4-5 times to memorize the details. Maybe you read way ahead.

Do not do it. Now notice, I am not telling you NOT to do the reading. Do the reading. But do not over do it.

My recommendation is: read the cases the night before class. Scribble notes in the book or type a couple of key lines. You will never be tested on the teeny-tiny obscure details of the case. You may be ASKED about them, but so what?

Also, as I mention elsewhere, class time should never be the first time you learn about a part of the law. If you pre-study the law, you won’t be frantically reviewing cases to understand what is going on. (But more on that later).

I gave you my recommendation, but do what works for you. Just make sure that thing is consistent with strictly limiting how much time you spend reading cases.

And remember that if you are over preparing for class, you are forgetting that (1) classroom performance does not matter for your final grade (and is not even a sign of how well you get the material); and (2) every minute you over-prepare for class you are not preparing for your exams.


Watch the video below, but in short: Extracurriculars — with only 2 exceptions — will not help you in law school. Focus on going out and bonding with law students socially.

In short: DO NOT add work to your life. Do NOT add work-like obligations to your already cluttered life. Maybe you managed it in college, but this is your first year in law school.

Don’t give yourself work when you don’t yet know what it takes to succeed in law school.

Protect Your Time 4: Do as little work as possible in your legal writing.

I will say more on this later, but your legal writing (sometimes “legal research & writing” or LRW”) class is another potential time suck.

LRW is a class that is not focused on a single subject, but teaches you the mechanics of practicing law. Things like drafting legal briefs, researching cases, writing client memos, etc.

Sounds important and super practice, right? Except you do it for a bit your first year and never come back to it.

Also, unfortunately, law school is not where you get real training for work. (I am not saying this is a good thing. But it is more or less the truth.)

So my advice is different than the other 3 points above and depends on whether LRW is pass/fail or a graded class for you.

If LRW is pass/fail, do the minimum possible to pass. Trust me, if you at least hand in something semi-coherent, no one will fail you. But getting a “pass” in LRW is not going to help you get a job. So don’t over do it. You will feel some pressure for your instructor because, unlike with other professors, he or she will give you feedback. And if you put in only the minimum amount of effort, that feedback will not generally be friendly. DO NOT give into temptation and put more energy into LRW. It will not help you with your grade.

If LRW is a fully graded class, my advice is a little different. Sit down and spend time calculating how much LRW factors into your grades. Then figure out how much time you actually have to study.

Be realistic. Start from 168 hours, and subtract 8 hours of night for sleep — don’t skim on sleep! — class time, meals, exercise and maybe going out. Then multiply by percentage . Let’s say LRW is 3 credits and you have 15. Don’t spend more than 20% of your available study time on it.

Because even if LRW is graded, you should not treat it as if it were more important than other classes.

This sounds like common sense, but I have watched students plow a disproportionate amount of time — like 30-40% of their available study time — into LRW. It is tempting, because you want some kind of A. LRW seems like a good way to get that A.

Legal writing is different from your other main classes in that you get graded on multiple papers and so this is an A you can control, so you work REALLY HARD.

But this is a dangerous illusion.

First, if there is a curve for LRW, remember that your classmates have the same incentives. They will also plow a ton of work into LRW. So your chances of getting an A may not be higher.

Second, even if there is no curve for LRW, you can lose critical study time for your other classes — the “real” classes that most employers and judges and other law schools (if you are thinking of transferring) look at.

Many employers, judges and others do not value LRW highly.

That is, if you get an A in LRW but no other As, you will not stand out. You might not get your foot in the door for an interview.

They can, however, accept the converse: If you get A’s in torts and contracts and crim, but you get a B in LRW, you will get the interview. You may be asked “what the hell happened in LRW” but that is a much easier problem to deal with (“I was too busy kicking ass in my other classes and had to make choices about what to work on, so I am showing you I can prioritize well and excel where it matters.”) than NOT GETTING THE INTERVIEW.

And, in the end, isn’t that what law school is about?

You are not trying to kick ass in law school for its own sake.

You are going to law school to make a difference in the world, to help your family, to better your situation.

All of these things are more closely within your reach if you can manage your fear and protect your time.

How To Ace A Law School Exam . . . While Drunk?

Can you really ace a law school exam while drunk?

Don’t be silly.

Does this make sense:  “Drunk person + law school exam = A”?

No, of course not.  THAT DOES NOT COMPUTE.

But maybe an A-?

Well…  that, at least, is possible.

I know . . . because I did it.

I got an A- on a constitutional law exam, a 72-hour take home exam.

This despite the fact that I was drunk for basically the first 24 hours of the test, and horribly hung over the remaining 48 hours.

How was this possible?

I am not saying this to brag. Well, kind of, but not really.  It was really stupid.

I am telling you this story so you know a couple of things:

  • Law school is not fair.
  • If you want to get As, you need to focus on certain skills (because EVERYONE in law school is smart and hard-working).
  • If you have those skills, you will get As, even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: I am not a smart man, but I know what law school exams were.

If you know what works — and just as importantly, what does not work — in law school to get you good grades, those skills stay with you.

(Just like, this one time when I was at Starbucks, and someone dropped an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie — wtf, oatmeal and chocolate chips? — and my ninja training took over, and I nearly caught the cookie before it shattered into a million sad little pieces.)

The right training — that builds muscle memory, or what feel like automatic reflexes — lets you perform well, even when you take exams under conditions that are not ideal.

But you have to develop these skills in your first year of law school.

The wrong training will mean that you will spend years frustrated — no matter how hard you work at the WRONG THINGS.

(Like, without ninja training like mine, you would have had no chance to catch that oatmeal chocolate chip cookie at Starbucks that I almost caught but didn’t, but either way, my non-catching was more full of ninja-like reflexes than your hypothetical… but I digress.)

In fact, that whole semester — spring of my 2L year — was not ideal for me.

I had what I felt were overwhelming responsibilities on law review.

I was the designer and writer of the horrible law review write-on competition, in addition to editing each and every student-written note.

I was a teaching assistant.

I was a research assistant.

And — not having been terribly cool in college, or high school for that matter — I liked going out a lot.

Waaaay too much non-law school stuff.

In short: I had totally violated my own advice not to do too many extracurriculars in law school (law review is a huge exception).

But I survived — and got good grades — because of the skills I learned my first year.

(And what I want to do with Larry Law Law is to pass on these skills to you.)

Before I tell you what happened, or why I got an A- (and why I am disappointed I got an A-), let me take a step back.

You might be asking yourself, what is so special about getting an A-?

Well, most people who go to law school got excellent grades in college.

But there is a forced curve in law school.

Not just some, but MOST people who were A-students in college end up becoming B-students in law school.

That is by design. Law school is sort of harsh that way. Only 10-15 percent of people are supposed to get an A or A- of any sort in any given class.

Yet weirdly, to the victor go the spoils.

Many smart, hard working people never get As at all.

Law students who in theory should have been at the top of my class — they got into Harvard and Yale law schools but came to my only somewhat less prestigious law school because they got full ride scholarships.

These students were consistent B-students. (Don’t worry, they are all fine now.).

Meanwhile, some other group of students were grabbing all the As like teenagers grabbing candy from toddlers trick-or-treating.

Now, if you haven’t gone off to law school, or are super confident about repeating your awesome college academic performance, you might be thinking “Pfffffshaw! I got As all the time! Drinking, asleep, whatevs. I am awwweeessome!”

OK, so what I am going to say is not you. The other guys or gals are going to eat the Bs, not you.

But read on if you are a little worried about law school.  (Also feel free to read on if you are not the kind of person who say things like “whatevs” and “I am awessooomme!”)

What Happened

I wouldn’t call what happened a miracle — it was basically a lot of panicking while drunk and hungover.

Basic problem was that I picked up my 72-hour take home exam at 3pm on a Friday and went to the Law Review office to work on it, just as a dozen or so 3Ls had just finished their last exams of any kind, ever.

They kindly invited me to have a beer or two with them, then a margarita or five, and suddenly I woke up the next day, still drunk, face down on the couch in the Law Review office instead of my bed.

I had vague memories of dancing badly in a really dark, but colorfully decorated Mexican place in Turtle Bay.

And then almost screamed when i woke up and realize that I’d slept though much of the exam.

(Looking back, I wish I’d had less to drink in law school. My dear first-year roommate — who had lived above a beer factory during his Mormon (Latter-Day Saints) mission in Germany — was incredibly kind and tolerant of my behavior, but he did say I would be a cautionary tale to his future children. He managed never to lose his cool even when I peed on his bedroom door one night.)

Two frantic days and nights (I didn’t sleep the last 24 hours), and the exam got done.  (During that sleepless 24 hours, a friend — who I went on a food run with — sighted Alicia Silverstone, and I did not, at 4am on our way to a Korean bodega to get potato chips).

Why did I STILL get an A- despite being drunk?

Okay, slight cliff-hanger here.  I won’t be able to articulate it all at once.  I will post more on this point in coming days.

For now, I leave it to a video to give you an overview of the skills I focused on way, way before getting drunk before my con law exam.

In short, there are three basic pillars of law school that I focused on.  As the video will tell you.  And subsequent blog posts (or emails if you are getting this by email).

Why was I disappointed that I got an A-?

Basically, because under any other circumstances — had I not gotten so drunk — I would have gotten a flat A in.

One advanced tactic — once you have mastered the basic skills of learning the law itself and issue spotting — is to get inside your professor’s head.

My con law professor was the same guy I had for first-year criminal law, a class I got a flat A in.  I became his teaching assistant for criminal law the year after.

I was Patton and he was Rommel.  That magnificent bastard, I read his damned book!

I knew him — I really knew him, how to write for him, what he liked, what he didn’t like.  His exams were famously difficult — this was no easy A — but there was a curve, and I had the benefit of knowing his mind very, very well (compared to other students, anyway).

But in one respect, law school is fair — exams are graded blind.

My exam got the treatment it deserved.  I wrote a good, but not outstanding exam, even though I had every means of writing one of the best.  This happened because I drank away 33% of my allotted time on my exam (and marred the remaining 67% of my time with a horrendous hangover and — how you say? — and upset stomach.).

Thanks 3Ls:  You helped me level the playing field to my disadvantage.

Who am I kidding?  I did that to me.

Thankfully the inner law school ninja kicked in.

NEXT TIME:  More on the three pillars of law school, and how buy yourself time by avoiding time-sucks.

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