One L Deconstructed: Ten Things Worth Knowing Before Stepping Foot Into Law School

Vol. 1, No. 7

David Bender is a J.D. Candidate (2014) at The Pennsylvania State University—Dickinson School of Law.


  • Learn whether to adopt new strategies or to keep time-tested practices.
  • Learn what to focus on and what to ignore.


One L. A term, a myth, a horror, and an accomplishment all rolled into a mere number appearing alongside a letter. For many, its recollection sparks an involuntary physical groan—a caffeine-filled memory of an intellectual and emotional whirlwind that at once has come to represent our best and our worst, our most enlightened and confused, our deepest rut, but yet our tallest triumph. Yet, just as a mountain climber stands atop the mountaintop, reflecting back on his path upward with greater clarity than ever before, those who have successfully navigated the 1L terrain can look back on it with at least a morsel of wisdom worth passing on to the next generation of legal scholars prepared to tackle its challenges. The following ten pieces of advice represent my own personal blueprint for one’s success in law school. Armed with this knowledge, law school will be both enriching and highly navigable.


1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel!

Although the first year of law school is highly unique, no matter what anyone says, it is still school. Common to all law students is a tremendous history of academic success and competence. There is no reason for one to enter law school and subsequently deviate from the very scholastic approach that has been so dependable in the past. Though law school may require a calculated tweaking of one’s study approach, a wholesale change is unnecessary and likely to result in diminished academic returns. Further, final exams are challenging enough based on their content alone. There is no reason to add to the anxiety by implementing foreign study practices come exam time. Rely on your instincts—they are both tried and tested.


2. Create a Job-Search Strategy Early

Although the American Bar Association mandates that law students refrain from contacting law firms prior to December 1, 1Ls are best served to set aside an hour a day devoted to game planning to put them in the best possible position to implement an efficient job search strategy once December rolls around. Students should refine their resumes, draft cover letters, and compile a database of contact information and deadlines pertaining to the jobs they covet most. Come December 1, most of the hard work will be done, which allows students the opportunity to focus on acing finals.


3. Steer Clear of the Drama

In some ways, law school is like high school. From the cliques, to the lockers, to the Barrister’s Ball, law school is filled with opportunities for 1Ls to become immersed in petty drama. Partly the result of small class sizes and time spent at the law building, the law school community is rife with social pettiness. Remember that law school is a training ground for the professional world—treat it as such. Make friends and be social, but be mindful of the drama that can detract from one’s personal and professional goals.


4. “Supplement” Your Knowledge

Although many professors discourage their use (because their own class lectures are enough), supplements can be a tremendous help to students in a wide variety of first-year classes. Supplements often provide the black-letter law of a particular legal field, while adding insight to its nuances through the parsing of further examples. However, supplements must be used as supplementary to one’s textbook and in-class lectures. They are not substitutes for the professor’s assigned texts, but rather complementary to them.


5. Don’t Forget the Forest!

The law does not exist in a vacuum. So often during the first year of law school, students become too focused on the specific facts of a particular case, which in the larger scheme of the course, have little to do with the intended lesson(s) the case is meant to illuminate. Try not to forget the forest when examining the trees. Remember to identify the large lesson the case is meant to demonstrate and assess the facts as the necessary rungs of a ladder leading to an ultimate conclusion. In addition, remember that certain sets of rules, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence, are written as self-contained, self-referencing guidelines that work in tandem with each other to form a structured unit. When confused about a rule, try analyzing it within its larger context or discuss it with others in your class to make sure you have gotten the import of what your professor intended.


6. Study Groups

Given the sheer volume of material covered in the first-year law curriculum, study groups can be a useful tool for students to hash out legal concepts and discoveries. However, it is unadvisable to delegate large blocks of material to other group members at the expense of briefing or outlining the material oneself. Most experienced law students will tell you that the processes of legal briefing and outlining act as the best study aids available. Using the group study forum as an arena for bouncing legal ideas off each other, but not as a substitute for initially addressing the material oneself, can be a wasteful exercise.


7. Practice, Practice, Practice

Beyond outlining, practicing past exams provides perhaps the second-most useful method of efficient exam preparation. Although many law professors use similar test formats, one should inquire as to whether the professor offers an exam-bank of previous tests. Though the questions will almost certainly change from year to year, establishing a proper mental expectation for the exam’s format will help to ease anxiety on exam day and provide insights into the major lessons the professor hopes students will master during the course of the semester.


8. Cast a Broad Exam Net

There is no doubt that most law school professors award significant points for deep critical thinking on exam questions. With that being said, don’t get too bogged down on one particular aspect of a question or section of an exam at the expense of another. Grading rubrics often award points for key insights spanning a broad spectrum of angles. Students should be sure to give each part of a prompt its due attention, illuminating the range with which one comprehends a particular legal field or topic. Although details are necessary for maximum exam scoring, don’t belabor an established point at the expense of a new one.


9. Get Some Sleep!

Just as world-class athletes emphasize physical and mental rest as integral components of performance, law students should maintain a steady sleep schedule throughout the course of the semester and during finals season. Rigorous legal analysis requires sharp cognitive thinking made possible only by proper rest. Don’t be discouraged by fellow students continually burning the midnight oil. The first year of law school is a marathon—not a sprint. Train throughout the semester so as to peak both mentally and physically during finals season.


10. Confidence

Law school can be intimidating, but law students would not be enrolled in law school if they were unsuccessful in their previous academic ventures. It is important for law students to have confidence in their abilities and trust their aptitudes. Though the road to becoming a lawyer may be bumpy, it is paved each year by a new crop of thousands of law school graduates that only three years earlier began their journey as one thing: 1Ls.


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