Updated on June 5, 2015
Some secrets to law school success
It’s February of my 3L year, and I am flying high. Instead of reading for my one real class, I go to trivia night with my roommates. Instead of writing yet another draft of my Law Review note, I watch “The Bachelor” (#TeamWhitney). Instead of stressing out over Lawyering assignments, I plan weekend trips to visit the friends I can finally make a priority in my life again.
Man, I hate myself just reading that. I’m sorry.
Here’s the thing: Like anything else you’ve jumped into blindly, it gets better with time. Two years ago, I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even last year, I felt like I was sinking in a never-ending pit of stress, anxiety and competition. But I slogged through, and it got so much better. To some extent, this is just a natural product of time and experience. Shoot a thousand free throws and you get better at shooting free throws. Do a bunch of musicals and you get better at doing musicals. Take a dozen law school exams and, hey, guess what?! You get better at law school exams. (I am fairly certain this logic is true — I haven’t played sports in a decade, and the musical thing is but a lifelong dream).
That said, in the nostalgic and sentimental cruise down memory lane that inevitably accompanies every senior year I’ve ever done, I have been reflecting on the whole law school extravaganza and there are some things I wish I had known earlier. Here are a few of them, compiled from both my own thoughts and with some input from my fellow upperclass comrades who have also conquered this monster of a ride:
You have to network
I can’t count the number of times someone said, “You’ve got to network!” and the number of times I said “… but I don’t want to.” I hate networking. It makes me uncomfortable and weird, and all I want is to run away from meaningless small talk about the cold winter we’ve been having and how much work law school is. But, alas, it is so. so. important. It’s the only way to get a job — all the As in the world won’t cover up your extreme awkwardness when you are forced to chat with a dozen people in the span of a callback interview. But it doesn’t end there. Law school events, from summer internship parties to visiting speakers to random conversations with professors in the hallway pretty much begin and end with small talk. Most of us are interchangeable based on our resumes — good grades, involvement in frivolous college organizations that we bill as “leadership,” a study abroad experience that was really a nonstop party, a couple of unpaid internships — so you have to be a functioning human in person. With opinions. But not too many opinions. NEVER HAVE TOO MANY OPINIONS because you will anger someone, and that someone will be a law firm partner, and then you’re done. So I would tell 1Ls to network, but network wisely. Network with care.
All you have is your reputation
Perhaps a piggyback on the last point. [Side note: How many times have you heard, “I’m just going to piggyback off that idea…” in law school classes? More than a thousand? Definitely.] Anyway, I’m going to piggyback real quickly. I think all legal communities are relatively small, but that is definitely true in Kansas and the Kansas City area. It can be a great thing: one small connection, and you’re basically walking into a web of opportunities. But it can also be a not-so-great thing: one small connection, and you’re basically walking into a web of disaster. The legal community is small and news (and gossip) travels quickly. Watch what you do and watch what you say because it does follow you for the length of your career. Be nice to each other, and make friends wherever you can. You will need these connections because you will truly be around the same people for the rest of your life.
Anxiety is OK
I have always been fairly anxious, but I managed it fine until law school. This environment was completely new and demanding in a way I wasn’t ready for, and I went a wee crazy for a little bit. I wish someone had told me it was going to happen, or at least when it happened that I would be OK. I will forever be grateful for my best friend, Celina, who was one of my roommates at the time of my anxiety-induced brain fog situation (Google it: It’s real and it’s scary). One desperate night I tried to explain to her what was happening, and she told me in her best nursing student/calm friend voice, “It’s just stress. You will be OK.” And even though I probably freaked her out, that is what I needed to hear in that moment. Because it was just stress. And I was OK. But to have a semester’s worth of anxiety, fear, stress and self-doubt come crashing down on you in a flaming explosion where it seems like you are literally going insane was really not what I was anticipating when I started law school. So I would tell incoming law students or 1Ls or maybe even 2Ls who are facing a new batch of stressors: It’s just stress. You will be OK. And also: Go to the doctor, man! No one wants to talk about mental health because we are Strong People Who Don’t Need Help, but sometimes we need help. And that’s OK.
Ask for help to figure out the rules of the game ASAP
None of us know how to do law school. Starting day one, we have to read 20-30 pages a night for each class and are expected to be able to talk about every fact, every rule, every issue, every policy rationale, every dissent, and how everything fits together. OK … go! And then we are expected to condense it into a brief synopsis that you could memorize and apply to any set of facts. And then we are expected to eloquently articulate it on a three-hour exam and do it better than everyone else in the class can do it. I wish I had reached out to someone and asked him or her to go through a week’s worth of law school with me. Just sit next to me and guide me through it, like an older sibling teaching her little sister how to tie her shoes. I wish someone had explained how to be prepared for class without overstressing the night before. I wish someone had made me figure out time management. I wish someone had explained to me how to outline. I wish someone had shown me how to write a law school exam, one that just gives the professor what he or she wants instead of being a jumbled mess of rules and cases. I mean, I get that we all have to figure that out on our own, it’s all part of the “process” or whatever, but as long as we’re talking about things I wish I had known, I’ll add this to the list.
Nothing is a disaster
So simple to say, so hard to remember. These are not my words (thanks, Emily!) but they sum up the message perfectly. We are in law school, which is such a privilege. We get to spend our days talking about abstract theoretical concepts and hypotheticals. We are so lucky to have the chance to get graduate degrees in a country and a world where that’s not a reality for everyone. My worst days in law school are heavenly compared to so many people’s lives. The things that stress me out are inconveniences — a lot of reading, a lot of pressure, a lot of information crammed into my head — but they are not problems. I wish someone had made me remember that. I wouldn’t have listened, clearly, because I get too wrapped up in my head and lose perspective. But I wish I had done a better job of remembering that it would be fine, that I would pass my classes and graduate and be a lawyer and it would not matter how my final trial in Trial Ad went or if my Law Review paper was not superb. The little failures or the bad days just do not matter in the long run. It will be fine. Nothing is a disaster.
Keep on marching. Savor the good experiences, and do your best to move past the bad. Three years honestly flies by; one day you’re nervously sitting alone in the hallway in your OCI suit, wondering how you can be so sweaty in January, and the next thing you know, you’re booking hotels in the middle of Missouri for the bar exam and hoping your friends like you enough to be character references for your application. 3L year does arrive. And once it does, it’s glorious.
— Jordan Carter is a third-year law student and a KU Law Student Ambassador from Topeka, Kansas.