“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.
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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.
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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.
Protect Your Time 3: AVOID EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
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.