Five Students Weigh in on the Daunting Challenge That Is 1L

If my Academic Support Program (ASP) orientation meeting was any indicator, new law students have a lot of questions, especially for rising second and third year law students, about what the first year will be like and what they can do to make it successful.

This summer, I have had the opportunity to work alongside five very bright, hardworking student interns and was able to ask them about their first year experience.  What is great about this group is that they come from a varied set of backgrounds, ages, sociopolitical views, and attend a variety of law schools—one at Franklin Pierce, one at University of Michigan, one at Harvard, and two at Chicago-Kent.  I asked that they share their answers to a number of questions that I recalled were asked in my ASP orientation session.  Those questions and a selection of their answers are below:

1) At any point in your first year, did you ever question your choice to go to law school?  Please explain.

  • “All the time. I questioned my choice on the first day of class, when everyone seemed to have a secret book with all the answers and I felt like an idiot. I questioned my choice when I seemed to be the only one who wanted to take a break from studying to eat dinner outside the library. I questioned my choice when I bombed my very first law school exam, spending the full three hours of essay time establishing that the court had jurisdiction but never getting to the case itself. Finally, and by far the hardest for me to deal with, I questioned my choice whenever my friends back home got engaged, or got married, or had kids.”
  • “I did not. I was frustrated with some of my grades, but I always remembered why I wanted to go to law school.”
  • “Um, yes, right after finals I always think, ‘I failed.’”

2) The commonly held belief tends to be that (some) law students are brutally competitive and sometimes cutthroat in their interactions with other law students.  Has this been your experience?

  • “No, if anything, I experienced the opposite.  The students in my section were collegial and quick to assist a comrade if he/she was having difficulty during a cold-call.  To my knowledge, there were no incidents of book stealing/hiding/vandalism, no ‘gunners’ looking to gain standing in the professor’s eyes by harming the status of a fellow student, and upper class students were quick to give all sorts of advice.  By far, the most rewarding aspect of law school thus far has been the intellectual debates I engaged in with relative strangers before and after class.  Although we didn’t know each other at the time, some of my closest friendships have been formed with people with whom I engaged in a friendly, respectful debate.”
  • “They are pretty competitive, but never cutthroat. I think everyone knew that they needed each other to survive.”
  • “My experience is totally on the opposite ends.  Maybe because I’m in the evening section, the students are more mature and more willing to help, because about 1/3 of the students work full time and another 1/3 work part-time during the first year of law school.  I’ve actually made quite a number of friends in law school and there are a couple of people that I’ll stay friends with for the rest of my lifetime.”

3) What was/were your favorite or most useful study guide(s)?

  • “I didn’t use any, but I think that will change next year. There’s no way I’m teaching myself the federal tax code. If you’re willing to do the assigned reading (do it!), I think they’re only helpful in classes where the underlying law is especially dense, like Property. Otherwise, reading summaries of cases that you already read probably won’t give you any magical insight.”
  • “Examples and Explanations!!!!!!”
  • “The Understanding Series.”

4) Did you create outlines for classes? Did you find them useful?  What advice might you give an incoming 1L about outlining?

  • “Yes.  There are a few general principles that shouldn’t be ignored.

1)      Don’t start outlining too soon.  Law school drastically changes the way you think.  Thus, even after a few weeks of class, your note taking and reading styles will change significantly.  Outlining at this time (October, generally) is just too soon in your first semester, and any time spent outlining will be wasted.  Trust me…I tried it, and all that resulted was a wasted 4-day weekend.

2)      Don’t start outlining too late.  My biggest regret from 1L year is that I didn’t start outlining just a little bit sooner (maybe 3-4 weeks before classes end).  At this point in the semester, your professors expect the concepts to start coming together and they expect you to see how the pieces (doctrine) fit together.  Beginning outlining at this point can help that process immensely, while allowing you to save valuable study days for practice exams.  However, a word for caution is that just about the time you should probably start outlining, is just about the time that law school becomes an untenable beast that can’t be controlled.  With memo deadlines, 1L summer job-hunting, escalation in nightly meetings, as well as other insanities of the law school experience, it can be really easy to forget to start outlining.  I know I did.

3)      Avoid commercial outlines and other people’s outlines (this includes outline groups).  These can be useful to help you when you get stuck or when you can’t see the bigger picture, but other people’s outlines just deprive you of the valuable learning that is the outlining process.  Ideally, when you create an outline, the concepts should be refreshed and bouncing around your head again.  This renews the learning process and cements concepts and allows you to review material with more knowledgeable eyes.  The point is to see how the pieces fit together, not just to see what someone else thought about the case.

4)      Plan an outline before you make it.  I cannot begin to imagine how much time I wasted outlining before realizing that I needed some sort of cohesive formatting.  Back-up organizational headings with font distinctions that you will remember. ”

5) Every law student becomes familiar with the infamous “gunner” label.  How do you define a “gunner” and what are your feelings about the label?

  • “We had major debates about what makes a ‘gunner’ over lunch my first few weeks, and I think it gets misapplied to everyone who studies hard or answers questions confidently in class. My personal definition is someone who goes the extra mile to impress people without a corresponding tangible benefit: the girl who pushes others out of the way to open the door for the professor every day, or the boy who asks an esoteric, ‘but what about this complicated fact pattern?’ question one minute before lecture is supposed to end so that they professor will think he is especially engaged with the material, or the girl who makes an obscure connection from the case we’re discussing to a case we read three months earlier in a different class, who sits proudly while we all flip through our notebooks trying to figure out what the heck she’s talking about. These actions do nothing to improve your grades in an exam-based system, but they all scream ‘Look at me! Look how smart I am!’ to your classmates.  Nobody likes these people.”
  • “I liked the ‘gunners’ for the most part in that I liked people who had the courage to talk in class, if they were nice.  I do not like the gunners who talk in class just to be controversial.  It’s like, Dude, I get it I know you love the Tea Party and hate Obama but can we PLEASE get through contracts?”
  • “A gunner to me is someone who feels compelled to show his or her classmates how smart they are by constantly talking about themselves and never shutting their yapper in class.  To my mind, this type of behavior indicates a lack of self-confidence.  Gunners probably didn’t get a lot of affirmation in their childhood.”

6) Finally, what piece of advice would you like to give to an incoming 1L that you wish you had been given?

  • “Take time to keep doing whatever you like to do so that you mind can focus on something other than law school.  There is a life besides law school.  Tell your good friends to pull you away from studying to have a nice relaxing dinner at least once a month.  In terms of getting a job, think about working for the government too.  It is a great first job especially students who hasn’t work prior to law school.”
  • “Well, I have a lot of friends who are lawyers, in law school or recently completed law school, so there isn’t much advice that I wasn’t given.  However, I will repeat the most important advice I received:

1)      BREATHE.  Panicking won’t help you.  Do what you have to do to get through it.  Even the A-students freak out from time to time.

2)      Be good to each other.  Having a healthy and friendly section can be the key to surviving 1L.

3)      1L is like hazing.  Your professors will torture you because they were once tortured.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like or respect you.

4)      That uncertainty and self-doubt you’re feeling…yeah, EVERYONE GETS THAT.

5)      Sleep and take personal time to relax.  If you can’t figure out a way to get enough work done in like 18 hours in a day, you’re probably doing something wrong, or doing too much of something.”

It’s clear from these answers that there are a variety of ways to approach one’s first year at law school, and everyone’s experience will be different. Definitions of “gunner” vary from the negative archtype to the more benign overachiever. Some students find commercial study aids beneficial while others rely only on their personal touch. However, there are some common truths about the first year—the importance of down time, the likelihood that self-doubt will creep in on occasion, and the surprisingly supportive community that will develop among students.  I have found these experiences match my own at Marquette University Law School and I hope some of these shared experiences are helpful to incoming students.  More importantly, though, welcome Class of 2013!

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