Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ten tips for preparing for your 1L year

Throngs of eager 1L students are awaiting the fall semester to start law school.  Many of them want to take some constructive steps to prepare themselves to do well academically and personally.  Here is my advice on ten things that will pay off big time:

  1. Have fun with family and friends this summer.  Law school is a marathon that tends to consume one's time.  The carefree days are over come August.  Relax now.  Spend time with the people who are important to you.  Make sure your energy levels are high for the start of the semester.  You won't get a true break until December after your exams are over.
  2. Read voraciously.  The type of reading does not necessarily matter.  The main point is that you get used to reading large numbers of pages each week.  Also practice summarizing the main points of what you have read: the story line, the important events, the main points.  Mix it up: novels, biographies, history, philosophy, plays.  Whatever strikes your fancy is fine - it does not have to be about the law.  In fact, reading doctrinal law books may not be helpful because you will not have the classroom context for what you are reading.
  3. Read one or two books on academic success by academic support professionals or law professors.  There are lots of books on succeeding in law school.  The advantage of reading books by academic success and professor experts rather than by ex-law students or attorneys is that those who are currently involved with law students on a daily basis and have professional expertise in law school success are more likely to give you well-rounded advice rather than narrow "this worked for me advice."  For book suggestions, watch this blog for later postings.
  4. Visit a courtroom.  If you have never observed a court hearing, now would be a great time to sit in the public gallery and absorb the world of law.  Attend a variety of court proceedings if possible in your area: federal, state; traffic, civil, criminal, family; trial, appellate.  Too many law students come to law school with no clue about what happens in court.  The latest legal sitcom or movie is the closest they have ever been to the real thing.  Observing in court will provide you with context for your legal studies.
  5. Evaluate your motivation for going to law school.  Internal motivators are helpful when the deadlines pile up: planned to be an attorney for a long time, want a profession in which you can help others, interested in an area of law, relates to prior work experience, like reading about the law.  Try to expand your personal list if at all possible.  External motivators are less likely to sustain you when the workload seems huge: want to make lots of money, didn't know what else to do, your parents want you to be an attorney, you didn't get into a Ph.D. program. 
  6. Evaluate your readiness to study long hours.  Many 1L's have been able to get top grades with very little studying prior to law school.  Most law students tell me that they studied less than 20 hours per week in college.  For a law student to get grades commensurate with academic potential, it will be necessary to study consistently 50 - 55 hours per week in a full-time program.  (Cramming does not work in law school because there is an overwhelming amount of material, application of concepts is critical rather than mere regurgitation of material, and retaining material long-term is important for the bar exam).   
  7. Evaluate your time wasters.  Law students who get into academic difficulty often do not use their time wisely to complete the many tasks that are required.  The biggest time wasters for law students seem to be surfing the web, using social media, talking on the phone, playing video games, taking naps, and watching television.
  8. Have a realistic financial plan.  1L students are not allowed to work under the American Bar Association rules unless they are in part-time or evening programs.  (After the first year, law students are allowed to work 20 hours per week maximum under the ABA rules.)  Plan what you can realistically spend each month and stick to your budget.  You don't want your student loans to run out before the end of the semester because you did not allocate monies well.  You will not be able to focus on academics if you are fraught over bills. 
  9. Talk with your family and friends about the demands of your upcoming law school life.  Law school is not like your prior educational experiences.  You will have to study harder (and smarter) than ever before in your education.  You will be with classmates who have been the best and the brightest at their colleges and universities.  Most law schools have a grading curve with a C or C+ median for 1L students - A and B grades are not as easy to come by in law school.  You need to talk with your family and friends about your no longer being able to take every weekend off, going on a fun-filled vacation during Thanksgiving or Spring Break, or having lots of company come visit.  You need them to understand that you have to be very focused and diligent if you plan to get top grades. 
  10. Get on a regular 8-hour sleep schedule now.  Law school study demands that you be alert so you can be productive, focused, and retain material.  Research shows that you should go to bed and get up at a regular time each day (varying by only 2 hours on the weekend) if you want your brain cells to work optimally.  A minimum of 7 hours of sleep is needed for good brain function.  I suggest getting 8 hours because it is likely that you are already sleep-deprived (Americans and the Japanese are the most sleep-deprived nations in the world).  You can cut back to 7 1/2 or 7 hours if you need to once law school starts.

These ten tips are based on what has worked well for thousands of law students over the years.  Your 1L year will be exciting, challenging, exhausting, and demanding.  However, you can succeed easily if you do not misplace your commonsense.  (Amy Jarmon)  

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