Thursday, September 1, 2011

Advice for New Law Students

With the start of the Fall Semester mostly upon us I thought it might be a good idea to take a moment to follow up and add to some of the recent posts that focus on the large amount of incoming first year law students. For many students, the start of law school can be an overwhelming experience. Many articles have been written that focus on what law students can do to make the first year as successful as possible.  Likewise, I think it's  important that as educators and legal practitioners we also think about what role we have to play in contributing to a meaningful first-year experience. The following three points reflect a combination of suggestions made by other practioners  in various articles and blogs, as well as my own experience as both a once-upon-a-time law student and a current lawyer and legal educator. Essentially, these three things are what I wish I had been told on my first day of law school and are directed at both legal educators and students.

1. Law school is a sprint, but the practice of law is a marathon- It is clear that the first year of law school has an out-sized importance . Doing well is important as it opens up initial job interviews and can help create significant opportunities such as membership on various law reviews and journals. However, once you enter the world of practicing real law, not one judge and not one juror cares what grade you got in first-year contracts or that you were the comment editor of your law school's law review. Students should be reminded that while the first year is important,  at the end of a 30 or 40 year or sometimes 50 year legal career if you're smart, creative, hard working and honest, the cream will rise to the top. Students who do well in the first year should not think they are the next Learned Hand, nor should those who do less well feel  that they don't belong in law school . Your first year law school GPA is not a referendum on what kind of lawyer you are going to be. As an educator, I feel it's important to remind first year law students of this fact.

2. Don't worry about what other students say in class or other peoples study habits- Not all law students did well academically before coming to law school, but most did. However, the study of law poses challenges for first-year law students because it requires a new way of thinking and a new language to learn. During the first year and, in particular, the first semester, law students are constantly looking at their fellow students to see how they are adapting to this new thought process and language. What happens, however,  is that students become concerned that they are falling behind. An example, which in some form repeats itself about 100 times an hour in a first-year law class, is something along the lines of the following:

Student A has decided to take notes using 4 different highlighters, one color for holding, one for issue, one for past precedent, and so forth and so on. Student A also takes notes using a lap top. Student B uses only one color highlighter and takes notes by hand. The professor calls on Student A to talk about a particular case. Student A gets the answer right and the correctly indicates the type of claim an injured party is entitled to for the botched operation  that  resulted in the creation of an overly hairy hand. Student B thinks to themselves, " I would have never got that answer. I must be taking notes wrong, and clearly I need to do something different with how I'm understanding the reading. I need to start using 5 different color highlighters."

Before you know it, Student B has changed her study style because of her lack of confidence in herself. However, it is important to keep in mind that Student B was in all likilhood a very good student before she got to law school. Now she has adopted a study style that doesn't work for her. Students can learn from each other, for sure. However, students should stay focused on making sure they continue to learn material in a way that is natural to them and not change how they learn because of what other students are doing. 

3. Treat law school like a job- Some students start law school after having a full career in another profession. Often times these students understand what hard work and discipline are all about. However, many law students come to law school right from college. Law school is not like college. In many colleges you have a core of very hard working students and  many other students whose principle accomplishment  in college is never missing a night of quarter pitchers of beer. Studying for an exam in college can require several hours. Studying for an exam in law school requires several months. Unless you are truly gifted, you can't put in half the effort and get a good result. Law students should always go to class, always do the reading, and begin outlining and studying for exams as early as possible. Unlike college, everyone is working extremely hard and if you don't respect the difficulty of the material you will learn a lesson, only it won't be about the law and you will learn it the hard way ! 


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