It might happen when you sit down to read your first case at home or when you take a seat in your first class on the first day of school. Or maybe it won’t happen until you get called on in class for the first time. But trust us — at some point during those first few weeks of law school, the panic will set in, you won’t remember why in the world you did this to yourself, and you’ll start scanning the room for an exit.
Hey — snap out of it. We know starting law school can be pretty intimidating, so keep a few things in mind to keep your cool:
- Law school is new for everyone. Expectations will seem really high at first—because they are. The workload is intense and professors are often intimidating. You don’t know all the ropes yet, but neither does anyone else.
- Don’t let other students get in your head. You’ve probably heard of gunners, and if you haven’t, you’ll know what they are soon enough. Do your best to ignore them (and also maybe try not to BE one).
- Lots of people survive law school. You will too. Whether you’re the sort of student who treats law school like a 9 to 5 job or one who studies at all hours of the day and night, it gets easier once you figure out what sort of study habits work for you. Plus, you will likely look back in 3 years and think it was a great experience.
That said, not everyone starts law school from the same place.
Heading straight to law school from undergrad
Undergrad is as much about growing up as it is about earning a degree. By the time you get to law school, you’re expected to be a grown up. Professors in law school have much less tolerance for class absences, not being prepared for lecture, and (in the rare instance that you have an actual assignment) incomplete or late assignments. Your classmates who have work experience will be used to this kind of thing already. If you aren’t, you’ll need to work harder to avoid coming across as immature.
While you won’t have the life experience that your older classmates possess, you will have the advantage of having remained in a continuous academic setting. The simple fact is that most law schools still field a great majority of their students straight from undergraduate institutions. Students that “go straight through” can tend to be more fearful of law school but fear can be a great motivator. Instead of turning to video games, alcohol, or Game of Thrones to deal with your anxiety, try putting in a couple extra hours of studying per night. Trust us, it pays off.
Be careful of treating law school like undergrad. Quite simply: law school is a whole new ballgame. Partying every night will just put you way behind when it’s time for finals—a position you don’t want to be in (see law school grading section below). Just think of it as undergrad with 10 times more work, pressure, responsibility, academic rigor, and expectations. Plus you’re with people that are all as smart as (or smarter than) you.
See what we mean? It’s nothing like undergrad.
Working full time before law school
It seems like more and more students are spending at least a couple of years working between undergrad and law school. For many students who choose this route, this decision can be a source of anxiety; they become convinced that they’ve been out of school too long and have forgotten how to be a student.
The truth is, as with any professional school, it’s to your benefit to already BE a professional. Not only are you likely to have a more developed sense of what’s appropriate, but you’re also in a great position to treat law school how it should be treated: like a job. After all, a big part of being a successful law student comes down to time management and discipline—skills you likely honed while working in the real world.
You are also likely a more confident version of yourself than you were at 22. You might even have picked up some surprisingly pertinent experience, say as a CPA, real estate agent, gadabout, etc. Indeed, if you have been out in the workforce for 5 or more years, law school can seem like a vacation from the rigors of corporate life—your only responsibilities are for yourself instead of needy employees, demanding clients, and overbearing managers. So don’t worry too much; it may take a couple weeks to shake off the academic cobwebs, but once you get into the swing of things, you will likely be more confident, more relaxed, and happier than your younger classmates.
Starting law school: the first month
For most students, the first-term of law school is highly structured. Most schools put students through an orientation period that lasts about 3 to 5 days. During this time, students will be introduced to their professors, section, and classmates;learn about the law school; and, hopefully, learn how to handle their daily assignments. Here are a few basics:
Sections. Most law schools break up the 1L class into 2 to 6 sections, with most sections comprised of 30 to 80 students. Get to know your section-mates, as most (if not all) of your classes will be with your section. Your section will be in the same classrooms, share the same professors, and be assessed on the same curve throughout your first term.
Classes. As a 1L, you will probably be taking some combination of the following doctrinal law classes:
- Civil Procedure
- Criminal Law
- Constitutional Law
These courses will primarily be case-driven, and the main method of learning will be through reading and analyzing legal decisions. You will also take a legal writing course that will teach you how to research case law and draft a legal brief.
Assignments. The bulk of your coursework will be reading assignments. While there will be nothing to turn in, you should prepare for every class. As you probably know, the daily reading workload is significant. Don’t be surprised to be assigned 100 pages of reading in one day for one class. Moreover, reading cases can be a bit of a slog; the material can be both dense and difficult to digest, particularly when you haven’t read cases before. One night of reading can easily take anywhere from 2 to 8 hours. On top of that, briefing your cases, can add an additional 1 to 3 hours per night. (That’s where LearnLeo’s case briefing tools can help; we make it easy to read and highlight your cases online, then create your case briefs with the click of a button saving at least 1/3 of your time.)
The handful of regular assignments you do have will come from your legal writing class. Depending on the structure of your class, you might have weekly or monthly assignments. Lawyers need to learn legal writing, so even if your writing class is ungraded, don’t blow it off. In fact, your legal writing skills are one of the few things from law school that will directly translate to practice.
In Class. Why are you doing all this reading? To prepare for the in-class experience. Law school is generally taught using the Socratic Method, so it’s vital that you come to class prepared (ideally having read the full assignment with your cases briefed, but at least having skimmed the cases).
Law school grading
The grade situation is pretty much the worst thing about law school. Unlike undergrad—where your grade was likely determined by how you did on a combination of homework, papers, and exams—law school grades are almost always determined by a single final exam.
Sounds like a lot of pressure? It is. And did we mention that most first-year classes are curved? That means that professors can only give out so many As per class, which means most students will get Bs or lower. Thus the reason for all that competition at most law schools. For most top schools, the curve is centered at a B+, so if your GPA is below a 3.3, you will likely be in the bottom half of your class.
On top of that, many employers look first to your GPA. Even though none of us like to be boiled down to a single number, in law school, your GPA is the single most important factor for getting a job offer at most big firms. Your grades, especially your 1L grades, determine how employers evaluate you.
Good grades in undergrad do not translate to good grades in law school. While you might have been in the top of your class in undergrad, your grades will now be determined based on how you do compared to other people who were also in the top of their undergraduate class. In other words: it’s a mistake to think that because you are smart and did well in undergrad that you can easily replicate that success in law school. So stay sharp, and make sure to brief and outline for every class.
Anything I can read before law school to prep?
There are tons of resources out there for would-be law students, but many are outdated, most are boring, and classes can cost thousands of dollars. So you may want to poke around LearnLeo. The whole point of our site is to help law students succeed. And it’s free for students. We’ve got a case briefing interface that will save you loads of time.
As always, don’t hesitate to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. We’ve all been exactly where you are right now and want to help you any way we can.