Monday, August 21, 2006

19 pieces of "advice" for entering 1Ls.

Peer mentoring season is upon us, and like opinionated 2Ls everywhere (I think upward of 40% of my class has signed up to be peer mentors--this may be some kind of record), I have my list of things I did, things I wish I'd done, and ways I thought about the whole experience to keep myself sane.

So in no particular order...

1. Oh good lord, you do not need to brief every case and highlight in 4 colors. I briefed the first four cases in Torts and that's it. I underlined in mechanical pencil, because I have a fetish for those. I flagged the issue, rationale, test, holding, etc. (wow, I can't even remember that damn acronym anymore) by scribbling "Issue" or "Holding 1" or "Lookee, yet another 4-factor balancing test" in the margin. The tools who write those "how to succeed in law school" books

2. You do need to pay attention in class. Maybe. Wireless = huge distraction. Try to avoid getting sucked into instant-messaging and reading blogs and whatnot during class. Especially if you learn well from listening, paying attention in class can save you a lot of time and confusion later. And frankly, half-distracted web surfing is not good recreation. Work when you're working, play when you're playing. Multitasking is bullshit.

3. Experiment with your study techniques and pay attention to what works for you. Half of the game of 1L is learning what you need to do to learn this crap. If you can use your first set of finals to do that, you'll be in great shape. Try different things. Buy different study guides. Learn what works for you. Also, understand the purpose and limits of commerical study guides. Basically, if you don't use study guides, you'll probably have difficulty extracting the doctrine from the cases you read. (Or difficulty managing and internalizing the vast amount of it.) But if you rely entirely on study guides, your reasoning will lack suppleness and beauty. Yes, they grade on this.

4. "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Some dumbass entitled hippie types think this means that when you're ready, the Universe will bring you a really fantastic teacher. No. What it means is: if you want to learn, you can learn from anything. As I recall, this proverb arises in Buddhism in association with some story about a frustrated enlightenment-seeker who's been trying this guru and trying that guru and no guru is perfect enough, whine whine whine. Eventually the guy despairs and just sits on a rock and meditates. After several years of this, a crazy abusive homeless person (allegedly a mendicant monk) comes along and hits the guy on the head with a shoe, at which point the guy suddenly achieves enlightenment.* Law school pedagogy is a lot like this.

5. An outline should not be 65 pages long. Nor do you need to start it before late November. For me, an outline needs to be a boiled-down, scannable version of the course. If your exams are open book, it's a waste of time to flip through some massive, wordy outline. If your exams are closed book, you will never fully internalize a massive, wordy outline. The LONG version of my Contracts outline was 14 pages (it included references to the UCC and Restatement). The short version was 5. My Torts outline was 32 pages, with a big font and lots of white space. Also, it's a waste of time to start your outlines earlier than late November. You don't know what you know, you don't know what you don't know, and you definitely don't know what's important. You'll just spew out a bunch of crap that's useless later.

6. Buy Chemerinsky's treatise for Con Law. It's a model of clarity, fairly well-indexed, and actually makes the subject more meaningful, rather than sucking the meaning out of it like many study guides do.

7. Stress is like a computer virus in your brain. Stress consumes processor speed. It's like you've got some loop running in the background, chewing up RAM. I have been amazed at how much easier and more pleasant it is to get things done when I don’t stress about them. Trust me. I've lived this from both sides. In high school I was an overachieving valedictorian stress monkey who lived on No-Doz and slept 4 hours a night. Not stressing out is like having superpowers. It's like having some kind of hyperdrive at your fingertips. Really. Manage your stress. (Which brings us to the next topic...)

8. Stress is physical. Stress is biochemical. Respect the organism. For me, managing stress is largely about the physical, biochemical cycle. Lack of exercise, crappy diet, and lack of sleep = stress. If you have an exercise routine, keep it up, even during finals. If you don’t have an exercise routine, get one. I suggest yoga.

9. Embrace confusion. It's OK to be a complete fucking idiot. (And a waste of energy to pretend you're not.) I feel like this was one part of 1L that was easy for me, because in my prior job I basically had to learn a new client’s business every 4 to 6 weeks, so I had already learned to be pretty comfortable with my own unavoidable idiocy. The worst thing you can do when you feel stupid and confused is get stressed out about it—it saps your energy and makes your thinking less flexible.

10. Law students are great. Be kind to each other. OK, that’s not entirely true. Some law students are complete fucking tools, and you must learn to avoid them and their bizarro ego games and assorted other bullshit. But honestly, 90% of the people you will meet are fantastic, humane, fascinating people. Also, try to avoid obsessively talking smack about the freaks in your class. It's uncompassionate, and you'll feel shitty about it later.

11. Form a study group with people you like. Yeah yeah, sure, you don’t want to form a study group with idiots, but revisit #9 above: it’s unavoidable. You are all idiots. So focus on grouping up with likeable folks. What I found most important about my study group was that the people were simpatico (in my case, basically a bunch of old farts), we were persistent, and we communicated well. Also, don’t be afraid to change the study group lineup as the year progresses. In my experience, 3 is the minimum functional size for a study group, 6 or 7 might be workable if you get along well, and 8 is probably too big. What should you do in your study group? Whatever you want to. Mine made shared outlines and did a lot of practice tests.

12. Cultivate at least 1 or 2 friends you can be totally, freakishly honest with. The stupidest thing people do in law school is keep their problems to themselves as if everyone else isn’t going through the same fucking thing.

13. If you have buttons, law school will push them. Although law school is basically just school, you are learning a bunch of difficult new things, you are pressed for time, it is stressful, it is competitive, and the instructional style is not…how shall we say…always particularly compassionate. This means that your shit will come up. Depression? Anxiety? Perfectionism? Fear of failure? Fear of success? Pathological self-deprecation? Overweening egotism as a transparent compensation for feeling like shit? Flashbacks to your emotionally abusive family of origin? Yes, all of this stuff was on parade this year among me and my friends. (Well, not so much the overweening egotism thing, but I chose my friends carefully.) Stuff you thought you got over a long time ago may suddenly float up out of your memory and hurt like hell. If this happens to you, rest assured that it’s normal. But don’t go through it alone.

14. Limit your study time. There is a point of diminishing returns. Figure out where it is for you. For me, it’s between 40 and 48 hours/week. More than that and I’m learning less the more I work. I basically worked 8 hours each weekday, one solid day on the weekend, and that’s it. I didn’t work at night. I didn’t work all weekend. Also, do something non-law every day, even if it’s just exercising, reading a book, or watching TV. This all goes out the window about two weeks before finals, but before them, maintain some balance.

15. Do something fun over Thanksgiving. Maybe you'll be feeling stressed and have some kind of desperate overachiever plan to hole up in the library, but don't do that. Cook dinner with friends and drink way too much wine. Go see stupid movies. Go to an island somewhere. Take a fucking break. A guy in my class borrowed a car, took a week off, and drove to Mexico three weeks before finals one term. Our professors were mystified, but he's on Moot Court Honor Board and a journal now.

16. Be irreverent. OK, these last few pieces of advice are about power. There is, in law school and I suspect in the legal profession as a whole, a disappointing tendency to adopt a stick-up-the-ass attitude and severely punish minor transgressions and any manifestation of joie de vivre. Resist this. As far as I can tell, that crap primarily works to maintain power hierarchies by making you afraid to rock the boat. (And by depriving you of your own perspective, your own judgment, and your own sources of joy.) Don't succumb. Law deserves no reverence. Law is just a human creation. It was made up by guys (mostly guys) no smarter than you or I. (Except maybe Karl Llewellyn, who was a genius and a hottie to boot.)

17. (I can't believe I'm saying this, but...) Be entitled. Again, it's about power. Maybe it's different at very highly ranked schools, but at my tops-in-the-region Tier 1, you're sometimes encouraged to sell yourself short. In particular, you get a lot of "realistic" advice about the job market that primarily makes you feel like you should be pathetically grateful to get a job, any job, never mind the hours, never mind the working conditions, never mind whether it's meaningful work. This is bullshit. Would it be good to enter the legal job market not knowing what's what? No. But it's also a terrible mistake to downgrade your expectations before you understand what your real options are. And it's also important not to take the screwed up shit as a given. I honestly believe it will be up to our generation of lawyers to change the legal workplace, because the current model is unsustainable. We won't be able to do that if we're convinced it's a privilege to be chewed up and spat out. It's not.

18. Don't trust people who try to scare you. There's usually something in it for them. They're trying to freak you out or lower your expectations or sell you something or make themselves feel better. Even if your school has moved beyond the old-school Socratic method, you will likely have at least one prof who takes great joy in fucked up chain-yankery. Ignore him. Likewise for any administrators, mentors, and peers who do the same.

19. It's not that hard. It's just school.


20. Getting to Maybe is worth reading. But not before the 5th or 6th week of the term.

* I could be remembering the Buddhist fable wrong. Do you think?


At 6:35 PM, September 09, 2006, Blogger Karenza said...

BRAVO! Excellent advice. Especially the part about feeling entitled. Our generation will change the way law firms work.

At 12:40 AM, November 16, 2006, Anonymous J. Hall said...

Okay...that was entertaining! That's exactly the advice I needed. I'm a first year law student (36 yrs. old, mother of 3 and work full-time - I should point out I'm going crazy!) and feel as if I'm having to re-program my thought process just to make sense of it all. So, thank you for pointing out that it's JUST SCHOOL and that we're not alone...

At 2:41 PM, October 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:41 AM, February 14, 2009, Blogger Leslie said...

I know this is a couple years old, but I just found it and I'm grateful. I'm starting as a 1L this fall the week I turn 39. I've found advice online written to my demo but not nearly as frank and honest as yours. You speak my language and this post is still appreciated.

At 5:26 PM, February 14, 2009, Blogger ohplease said...

Aw, thanks! It's an oldie but a goodie, I guess. Like us.


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