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Getting through the grind: how to survive and thrive in the University’s law school



It’s mid-August, and University law students have hit the ground running.

Returning second- and third-year law students step back into the fray of a new year with a fresh, customized course load, excited for new heights of intellectual rigor.

First-years — “1Ls” as they’re known — eager to delve into a new world of torts, contracts and research, roam the Knight Law Center fresh-faced and overwhelmed with new peers, new professors and an entirely new atmosphere.

“It’s pretty much every feeling you can imagine,” says 1L Sarah Holloway, referring to the program’s volatile mix of enthusiasm, anxiety and anticipation. “One day I will feel really excited, and the next I am a ball of nerves.”

Holloway is one of 183 students entering the University School of Law this year. After last week’s orientation, Holloway reports feeling inspired and encouraged by professors, attorneys, judges, faculty and staff. She speaks well of her peers, commenting on how nice and welcoming everyone seems. With smaller class sizes than undergrads, Holloway hopes her first year of law school will mean a small, tight-knit group of motivated, supportive friends.

But fueling Holloway’s nervousness is the knowledge of what is to come: class rankings, heavily weighted exams, intensive research and seemingly endless pages of dense reading. And as excited as she is, at the end of the day Holloway just hopes to survive this year “without too many tears,” she says.

Such intimidation is common here, as returning law students — 2Ls and 3Ls — report experiencing similar first-year feelings.

“I was scared, but really anxious,” says 2L Adam Schulz. “I had a lot of second thoughts.”

Schulz, who currently specializes in tax law and estate planning, explains the discouragement he felt throughout the previous year, constantly struggling with depression and self-doubt.

At the other end of the notoriously tumultuous first year, Schulz and many other 2 and 3Ls easing into a new semester report being more confident from their experiences as 1Ls. Taking an introspective look at lessons learned, these upperclassmen share their advice on how 1Ls can best tackle their first year of law school.

Outline your courses early

It’s a forward-thinking approach, Schulz says, that everyone intends to do, but few actually see it through.

“I told myself I would and I didn’t, and I regretted it,” he says.

But with a 15-week semester, remembering cases from the first week of class is difficult. And the earlier 1Ls start outlining their courses, the more organized they will stay throughout the whole semester.

“It’s like a shopping list,” Schulz explains. “I know what I need, but a list makes my errands actually work.”

Be inquisitive

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, recommends 2L Kristen Thomas, whose focus is international law. And volunteer to answer questions as frequently as you can, she says.

Her reasoning is threefold: “You’ll probably get participation points, it makes the professor remember you and it decreases the risks of getting cold-called when you don’t know an answer,” Thomas says.

Avoid drama

Law school is a lot like high school, claims 3L Risa Perkins, “with even more drama and gossip than before.”

She, along with many of her peers, advises 1Ls to be careful not to “let it consume you,” Perkins says. “Otherwise, you’ll suffocate.”

Schulz, speaking specifically of romantic drama in the law school, recommends that 1Ls not get sexually acquainted with one another.

“People fare better when they don’t get too wrapped up in it,” he says.

Build your confidence

The father of the Socratic method said it best: “Know thyself.”

At least know enough to not second-guess yourself, as self-doubt attempts to break you at points, Schulz says.

Remember that law school is full of overachievers, Schulz explains, “so don’t kick yourself if you aren’t first in your class.”

As the first semester progresses, Schulz recommends 1Ls not share their exam scores, or even reflect much on past exams. Let it go, he says, and move on to the next one.

Balance work and fun

This is most important, and your sanity will depend on it, Thomas says. She recommends doing as much work as is needed to understand the concepts, then shutting the books and relaxing.

“The people who have the hardest time with law school are the ones who spend all their free time in the library,” she says.

3L Jessica Nance also emphasizes the need for 1Ls to keep their lives as well rounded as possible.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Nance says. “Don’t get burned out your first semester. Take study breaks. Have a life outside of school.”

Perkins, who had seriously considered dropping out after her first year, agreed. It’s important to have some perspective, she says, and to remember what’s really important.

“Law students talk about school all the time. But life, even during law school, is not solely about school,” Perkins says.

After all, she adds, there are more important things out there “than whether or not a valid contract has been formed.”@@names CC’[email protected]@


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