Letter to a Young Law Student
Writing law school exams for the first time can be intimidating. People will become a little secretive and competitive. Rest assured, most of this will pass and you'll come back from Christmas break to a group of civil individuals.
My first week of law school now seems like a foggy blur. There were so many new faces, and places, and concepts to learn. I only remember snapshots of it now.
On the first day, I walked into a new building and met my new colleagues, friends, and professors. I also unknowingly made small talk with my future husband and laughed with my matron-of-honour to be.
Over the course of the week, I picked up stacks of heavy books filled with incomprehensible laws, Latin, and more sections, subsections, and sub-subsections than I knew existed. I looked in awe at upperclassmen (and women), wondering how they had survived that very first difficult year. The same upperclassmen took pleasure in sharing stories and law school lore, alternating between the encouraging and the downright terrifying. I attended law school frosh week activities, which included pub nights, dances, boat cruises, and receptions with judges and faculty members.
My three years in law school were filled with great moments, but also with some of the most challenging days of my life. Can you expect a similar experience? While the law school experience is unique to each person, there are a few general tips and thoughts I can offer you.
1. You're smart. So is everyone else. Congratulations! You've made it into law school. You've worked hard for years to earn top grades. You've experienced the blissful joy of having written the LSAT. You've spent hours thinking and writing about your wonderful self as you prepared your personal statement and application package. If you're in a Common Law program, you've been carefully selected and welcomed to the faculty. You will likely graduate with nearly every person that you sit with in that first day assembly. You're smart and sharp. So is the guy on your left, as is the girl on your right. And now, you'll be graded on a curve. Everyone wants an A. You're all used to being at the top of your class. It may get ugly. You'll likely start out the year forming a small study group, which is wise—do so carefully. You'll all work collaboratively while you try to find your footing. However, in December, most smart, sharp people become a bit nervous and insecure. Writing law school exams for the first time can be intimidating. People will become a little secretive and competitive. Rest assured, most of this will pass and you'll come back from Christmas break to a group of civil individuals.
2. Make friends with upperclassmen. Upperclassmen will be one of your greatest resources. They know the professors, the courses, and the exams. Their laptops are full of notes and indexes from previous years, and they are often more than happy to pass the resources along.
3. Mix it up. Don't just sign up for classes that you think you need—though it is wise to take the classes reflected on your state or province's bar exam. Take a few classes out of sheer interest. My favourite course in law school was Wrongful Convictions, a class unrelated to my career aspirations. I found every class riveting and part of the final mark was based on a mini-documentary I created. It was a great break from the black letter law courses.
4. To know thy self, intern. Law school is not well structured to prepare you for day-to-day life as a lawyer in a non-academic setting. Unless you grew up with a friend or family member who was a lawyer, you'll likely start school without really knowing what the practice of law looks like—and if you'll even like it. Billable hours, rainmaking and client retention practices, networking events, and procedural processes can be time-consuming and integral parts of your practice. You can only really learn about them on the ground. Sign up for or create your own internship in a firm or a government agency, or at a non-profit. You can often arrange for accreditation from your faculty for the experience. You'll get a glimpse of the practice of law, while gaining some great experience for your resume and building relationships with future contacts and potential mentors. I participated in four internships in law school, and through them I discovered which settings and areas of law I liked. Fortunately, this meant that I started my career in a field that I loved, rather than having to spend the first few years of my practice trying to determine what field that was.
5. Press palms. Want a great internship, job, or mentor? Get out there and network. Volunteer, attend conferences, and join associations that are of interest to you—who you know matters. Create your own opportunities.
6. Maintain your non-law school friendships and interests. Legal studies are incredibly time-consuming and taxing. You'll spend an incredible amount of time at the law faculty. Other law students will become life-long friends. It may become very insular. So be sure to maintain your non-law school friendships and interests. Law school may seem all-consuming during this season of your life, but it's not, and it won't feel like it forever. Those friends and interests will keep you grounded, balanced, and well-rounded.
7. No, you are not Ally McBeal or Denny Crane. You probably know that the practice of law bears little resemblance to American legal dramas. You won't be Ally McBeal or Denny Crane. You will not have their ability to settle complicated legal matters in 43 minutes. You will never know everything about every area of law. There is more to a trial than a sexy fact introduced in the eleventh hour. Prepare yourself to explain this kindly, simply, and repeatedly.
8. Eat, pray, love, and do laundry. You'll likely be overwhelmed and under-rested. Carve out time to make healthy meals, to rest, to spend time in prayer and with loved ones. Guard this time jealously. If you don't make a commitment to yourself to stay healthy and balanced, there is a good chance that you won't—especially during that first year. Don't forget to make time for other important matters, such as reading a good (non-law-related) book, running through a park, showering, and doing laundry. Your professors will thank you.