chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Student Lawyer

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

First-Generation Law Students: How to Start Strong

Danielle J. Hall and David Jessup

First-Generation Law Students: How to Start Strong

Jump to:

Being the first at anything inspires both pride and, in many cases, trepidation. If you’re the first in your family to accomplish the law school admissions process, those emotions are probably competing for dominance in your head each morning you wake up.

We’ve got your back. We were also first-gen law students, and we’re both now practicing lawyers—and we’re here to help guide you through a successful law school career (for you non-first-gen students, we can help you, too!). Let’s start with five fresh tips for thriving as a first-gen law student.

1. Spend as little on books as possible.

After David spent more than $1,200 on books to prepare for his first semester of law school, Danielle let him know that a number of websites rent books to students for the semester at a fraction of the purchase price. And yes, you can highlight and take notes in the books. Just pay attention to any return fees before doing that.

There are also a number of third-party apps that offer promotional codes and other perks before the semester begins. Book prices fluctuate dramatically shortly before the start of the semester, so as soon as you know your schedule for winter, start shopping.

2. Manage your money.

Danielle is the ultimate planner, and one of her favorite suggestions ties in with our first tip: Remember to budget. You need to make sure you’re budgeting not only for the semester but also for summer, unanticipated expenses, and—if possible—interest on any student loans you’ve taken out.

Many students pursue judicial internships between academic years. While these opportunities offer invaluable learning experiences and powerful connections, they’re often unpaid. If you’re contemplating this route, seek out scholarship opportunities early in the semester. David received a stipend through the ABA’s Judicial Internship Opportunity Program, and Danielle received scholarship dollars from the Miami-Dade Florida Association for Women Lawyers.

If you can, also set aside funds for unanticipated costs, especially if you’re like us and don’t have a closet of professional attire for the various networking and community events you’ll be invited to attend. Pro tip: Consignment stores and outlet malls have affordable options. And some schools have clothing stipends or community closets.

Give yourself a financial cushion, even if it means taking out a bit of additional financial aid, so the stress of law school isn’t exacerbated by financial insecurities.

Remember, student loan interest often begins accruing from the time the loan is disbursed. Even if you’re not required to make loan payments while you’re in school, if you can swing it, it may be prudent to pay the interest as it accrues. Pay what you can, when you can so you can save money down the road.

3. Set expectations with your family and friends.

Especially for incoming 1Ls, it’s critical to prepare your family and friends for your law school workload. Fall break, winter break, and spring break have a nice ring to them, but these breaks—especially during your 1L year—may be busier than your vacation weeks in undergrad.

If your school offers a fall or spring break, take the opportunity to rest and begin outlining for your final exams. Many of your professors will be available during these breaks, so spend time identifying where you have gaps in your knowledge and schedule office hours or assemble a study group.

During the winter break, you’ll want to reflect on your first semester and refuel with your family and friends. You may find that winter break is the perfect time to begin researching summer opportunities. Consider spending a bit of time each week drafting, preparing, and submitting applications or participating in mock interviews.

Managing expectations and time are key to succeeding in law school and in life. During your first year, you’re adjusting to law school, reading hundreds of pages a week, and learning how to take a law school exam. To avoid misunderstandings when you have to send a last-minute message that you can’t make the family barbeque, we recommend having conversations with your friends and family about your limited schedule. If you’re able to perfect these skills early, you’ll also set yourself up for future success as a lawyer.

4. Get involved.

We’ve spent extended periods of time discussing this advice, and it requires law students to be very intentional with their time. During your first week of school, you’ll likely receive emails from dozens of student organizations inviting you to join their work. Throughout your law school experience, you’ll be invited to trainings with free lunches, morning and evening social events with esteemed legal professionals, and various other opportunities.

Get involved, build a network of trusted colleagues, and have fun. But don’t sacrifice your academic performance.

Your priority in law school needs to be your courses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also commit to other opportunities. In fact, you should. We participated in lunch sessions with the library where we got free lunch and legal skills training. Danielle held leadership positions within the Black Law Student Association, and David was a member of a student organization for LGBTQ+ students and allies. We identified opportunities that aligned with our interests, and we were intentional about joining organizations where we could meet like-minded individuals.

David waited a semester before getting involved. Danielle jumped right in. There’s no right way to get involved, but we hope you do because opportunities outside of class can be invaluable to both your personal and professional growth.

5. Read and brief every case.

We’re both pretty passionate about this. The secret is out: Professors know about the various free and pay-to-play tools that offer page-long briefs and animated videos. We both used these resources; in fact, we split a subscription our 1L year. However, these tools are valuable only if you’re trying to clarify your own understanding.

We all know, or you’ll soon meet, the student who has supposedly never read a case. There are multiple reasons this is a terrible idea, but here are two. First, professors are going to want you to know more than the issues, the rules, how the court analyzed the case, and the conclusion. As one professor put it to us during our 1L year: “If you didn’t read the footnotes, you didn’t read the case.”

Professors will ask questions to check for your understanding of the case, and you’ll be unlikely to answer their questions if you’ve only skimmed a one-page commercial brief. Professors will also ask you to analogize to prior cases and distinguish cases from others. You won’t get this from a two-minute video clip.

Second, and this is for those who intend to take the bar exam in a state where the Multistate Bar Exam is administered, you’ll have a leg up when you begin your studies. Many of the MBE questions—especially for constitutional law and civil procedure—are slight variations on cases most students read in their 1L year.

The key point: There are no shortcuts in law school. Put in the time, struggle with the material, and rely on supplemental materials only when you need clarification.