Law School: Five Things I Wish I Knew; Five Things You Should Know
Five Things I Wish I Knew
1. Get to know the forest
2. Outline early
3. Practice, practice, practice
4. Your library has E&Es
5. Plan ahead
Get to Know the Forest
Everyone talks about “seeing the forest” in law school, rather than focusing on the individual trees. It’s good advice. Each and every word coming out of the professor’s mouth or found in the opinions you read will seem to be comprised of the most important syllables known to man, but exercise some self-control. Your hand shouldn’t hurt from writing; your fingers shouldn’t hurt from typing; and, your casebooks shouldn’t bleed the colors of the highlighter rainbow. While all of that is indeed important to understand the overall concepts and ideas, it is those overall concepts and ideas you will need to know to grasp the law and perform well on your exams. Each tree is important to the forest because without all the trees there would be no forest, but don’t be a lumberjack: be the blimp operator.
Please do yourself a favor and outline early. If you don’t know what outlining is, ask someone. I was an adamant all-nighter-the-night-before type at my alma mater and I did fairly well, but this method might not work in law school. Three credits in law school are not the same as three credits of undergraduate work, especially your first year. Outlining is extraordinarily time-consuming, and the earlier you finish your outline, a.k.a. study guide, the sooner you will understand the course and shift your attention from what the law is to how to approach your exam.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The earlier you finish outlining, the earlier you can begin reviewing old exams. Understanding the material that you’ve been drowning in for three months is only half the battle; the other half is understanding how to take the exam and what your professor looks for in the exam. Old exams or practice exams are a great way to apply the material you’ve studied, which helps you understand what you’ve missed or should focus on when you’re studying, as well as provides comfort in the stressful examination atmosphere. If you’ve practiced with exams, then you’ll already know what to do on an exam, how to craft your answers, what the professor may be looking for, and there’s even a good chance the professor recycled that same problem from an old exam which you’ve already seen—bonus. Also, it can’t hurt to review exams you’ve already completed yourself with others.
Your Library Has E&Es
Yes, your law school library most likely carries the infamous Examples and Explanations, as well as Black Letter Outline, Nutshells, and various Hornbook series. Other supplements your school will probably not carry include Legal Lines Case Briefs books. The latter are inexpensive but may assist you in understanding the rules of law in each of the cases from your casebook. The former are expensive, and buying an E&E for each of your classes can really hurt your wallet. Some students feel like they need supplements for every class. Supplements may be very helpful, but you do not need to buy them if you’re deciding between owning the E&E and purchasing food for the week.
Whether it’s your job hunt, a social event, a night to yourself, or a weekend out of town, plan ahead. With particular regard to the job hunt, cover letters and resumes take time to write, print, and mail, so do not let these burdensome tasks backload your semester when you’re trying to prepare for exams.
Five Things You Should Know
1. Keep the balance: there’s life outside of law school
2. Law school is exactly like high school
3. Involve yourself
4. Do NOT post mortem.
5. Be nice and enjoy yourself
Keep the Balance: There’s Life Outside of Law School
Believe it or not, there is life outside of law school. You might think to yourself, “Well, yes, of course,” but when you’re in the trenches doing battle with your memo or brief, you might lose track of the obvious. Maintain a decent diet, spend some time outside, be social at the local watering hole with friends, and don’t be afraid to take a night off from your books and do absolutely nothing. Obviously you cannot and should not do the above the night(s) before an exam, but throughout the semester and while you’re outlining during the reading days, don’t forget that you’re not a robot. Go for a run, have a drink, go out to dinner, or watch a movie (not necessarily in that order). Sometimes you have to recharge the batteries, and taking a break from studies can make you more productive in the long run because you won’t be so burned out. Some people can go without any breaks, and God bless them, but with law school—like almost everything else in life—to each his or her own. Run the race at your pace.
Law School Is Exactly Like High School
Law school is exactly like high school. I attended an all boys high school, so the introduction of drama and gossip into the background of academia was new to me, but I understand it well now. Essentially: your business is the school’s business. Advice: be careful! This paragraph should not stop you from going out and having fun and hanging out with classmates, but keep in mind that anything you say, do, or think you’re about to do has a good chance of being spoken about by others. People might say good things about how funny or kind you are, but people might also say interesting things, such as so-and-so walked so-and-so home last night. You can imagine 250+ type-A personalities in your class flocking around this type of news. Have a good time, but be careful—anything you say or do will become public knowledge whether you like it or not.
As a first-year law student, attorneys are reluctant to let you touch anything because you have no clue what you’re doing—trust me, you don’t. So, how can you gain hands-on experience? You can earn this experience by getting involved. The main way to get your hands on legal docs is through pro bono work. There are lots of school programs that work with pro bono organizations, and you can search on your own. After the first year, consider involvement in an externship with a judge, or if you want to get involved in the criminal sector, find something with the DA’s office or the public defender. Landing a desk at a firm or practice after the first year is extremely difficult, especially right now when 3Ls and 2Ls cannot find anything, but get involved with any work you can during the year. It will give you the opportunity to apply the skills you’re learning to the work you’re doing—directly and indirectly. And it beefs up the old resume!
Do NOT Post Mortem
Whatever you do, do not talk about your exams after you take your exams. What’s done is done, and you’ll find out the results soon enough. The last thing you want to do is kick yourself from the exam’s end until you hear back from the registrar.
Be Nice and Enjoy Yourself
As a naïve and idealistic philosophy major, I found law school a rude awakening. Take anything negative with a grain of salt, and remember that everyone has his or her own point of view on a matter. If people aren’t super nice, don’t sweat it; however, be nice to other people because in this profession courtesy and respect go a long way. Finally, enjoy yourself! It doesn’t matter where you’re studying the law—you’re studying the law. Although it is extremely stressful, busy, and crazy, you have been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Being accepted into law school is a magnificent accomplishment, so pat yourself on the back, but don’t let it go to your head. Having the opportunity to study the law day in and day out imposes upon you opportunities that children and people in other parts of the world cannot even begin to fathom. Count your blessings, and good luck!
John C. Stellakis is a juris doctor candidate of the 2011 class at Villanova University School of Law. He is an active member of the Villanova Environmental Law Journal , an officer of the Villanova Law School Student Bar Association, and served as chairman of his law school’s Constitution Committee for 2010. John graduated with a B.A.H. from Villanova University in 2008.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.