What I Wish I Had Known When I Started Law School, Part II: (Dis)Orientation

I have to say, I found my first year of law school (at Duke — go Blue Devils!) like getting off the plane after a twenty-four trip to South Africa: profoundly disorienting.   Current 1Ls, I hope your orientation group was better than mine (I called my Mom and cried), I hope that you understand your reading somewhat, and I hope that you have gone out a least once with the one nice person in your orientation group.  So, now that stuff is over, what else do you need to know?

I divide this up into two sections:  How to Orient Yourself as a Human and How to Orient Yourself as a Law Student.

How to Orient Yourself as a Human

1.    It gets better.  Well, kind of better, in a relative sense of the word:  You will understand what your teachers are saying at some point.   You will know how to write a legal memorandum well.  You will be able to speak clearly when a judge is impatiently looking at you.   It may not happen your first year, but it will happen.   

2.    You need friends besides other law students.   I am not kidding on that.   I, by random chance, ended up living with bio-medical engineering students and that was awesome.  You need friends in the same city who care not one whit about law school or lawyers.  It was healthy for me to hang out with people who did not care about what “injury” was in Torts and so forth. 

3.    Milwaukee is a really nice city:  The other subsidiary benefit of Friends Who Are Not Lawyers is that they get you out.  In my first year, my friend Natalie dragged me out to all sorts of interesting parts of Durham, North Carolina.    And it turns out that Durham was really nice, and so was Raleigh, and I had lovely sweet tea and donuts at Krispy Kreme (before it blew up and went corporate).  I like Milwaukee and highly recommend The AV Club: Milwaukee ( http://www.avclub.com/milwaukee/channels/eatdrink/2) for good tips.

How to Orient Yourself as a Law Student 

Now that I have given you advice as a Human Being, let put on my Law Professor Hat:

1.    Learn your study style:  This is a lesson I learned as a professor.   Most students have no clue what their study style is and spend most of their first year wandering, clutching their outlines, like lemmings.   You might want to spend some time thinking about the best way you study, and how that might change in law school.  I have found that VARK test on study styles is very helpful: http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp.  Take the test.  It might turn out that clutching your outline like a security blanket is not helpful to you.  For instance, you might be a visual learner who needs to break down different analytical elements of a rule spatially, rather than in words. 

2.    Practice the exam:  If you have the opportunity in law school to practice the exam, practice the exam.    And by practice, I do not mean casually read previous exams.   No, I mean practice the exam in relevant exam conditions, and if feedback is possible (through your ASP, your professor, or your study group), get it.  One question for all of you is: have you taken a law school exam, before? So, how do you know what you are doing?  The last thing you want on the day of your exam is to be taking the test for the first time, while your classmate next to you is taking the exam for the second or third time. 

3.   I am always learning everyday: This is the best lesson from my first year in the law.  I am always learning everyday.  I learn from my colleagues, I learn from my students, I learn from our alumni, I learn from cases and statutes.    So, this feeling that you don’t know anything — that you are disoriented — it stays with you every day of your career as an attorney (but it gets better — see above).  But somewhere along the line, this reality — I am always learning everyday — becomes less scary and more like a grand adventure.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Michael M. O'Hear

    I especially like the last point. For my money, the really great thing about being a lawyer (or a law professor) is that you get to learn new things all the time, and someone will often pay you to do it. When I was a commercial litigator, I got to learn every few months about some new industry that I had never thought much about before. Just as often, I got to learn about some new area of the law.

    Much of what makes a good lawyer valuable to his or her clients is an ability to assimilate a lot of information both quickly and thoroughly, and then to help others (say, a jury or judge or client) learn what the lawyer knows. Law students might do well to think about their life in the law not as three years of learning followed by a career of doing, but as three years of learning about how to learn followed by a career of more learning.

  2. Stacie Rosenzweig

    I like points #2-3 and communicated similar points to my ASP groups when I was a leader. One reason that law school feels all-consuming is that, when you’re dependent on the school and its students for your entire academic, professional, spiritual, and social life, it *is* all-consuming. You never leave. If you came to Milwaukee specifically to attend law school, it’s even more difficult. Those of us who already lived here and presumably had family, friends, and activities unrelated to law school, had a psychological advantage.

    Finding a pursuit outside of law school–be it a kickball league, an off-campus house of worship, a non-law-related volunteer opportunity, whatever–is vital to mental health.

  3. Andrew Spillane

    Great points all. Not too long ago, I was one of the law students that felt measurable anxiety over how little I knew about the field and the doctrine we were covering in class. Thoughts like “How do I know what’s reasonable?” and “How many factors must line up before I can establish X or Y?” and “Cardozo, can you speak in plain English please?” frequently crossed my mind. Certainty is comforting in one’s first year when so much is on the line, including grades, class placement, and grading on to the law review. It’s as if I was grasping for some way to predict how I could have done on my first battery of exams.

    Now a third-year student, and perhaps this is the wannabe-litigator in me speaking, I have learned that those uncertainties and gray areas are things to embrace rather than run away from. It means that the law is more of an art rather than a series of mathematical proofs (except for the “easy ones” Dean Kearney urges us to win!). It means, as Prof. Murray and Dean O’Hear have pointed out, there are always new opportunities to better yourself as a thinker and expand your life experiences. And, a more practical point, it means that there is ambiguity that attorneys can make hay out of for their clients’ benefit.

  4. Trent Kubasiak

    Just finished my VARK questionnaire and found it both entertaining and enlightening. I would highly recommend, beyond the more qualified recommendation from the author, a visit to the website. I saw that the way I study jibes with my learning style, so at a bare minimum it was good reinforcement.

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