As a current .5L, I’ve discovered that law school has a sister: swimming. While it may not turn your hair green or get you ripped abs, law school involves a lot of the same principles that swimming does: hard work, discipline, and patience. I believe I am qualified to make this comparison because I earned my time in the pool. I swam competitively for fifteen years. Around middle school, my coach decided to put my awkwardly long limbs to use as a backstroker.
For those who don’t know, backstroke is the loneliest stroke. Your practices and races consist of staring at the ceiling, listening to yourself breathe, and praying for the pain to be over. You can’t tell where you are compared to others in the race. You have to memorize the distance between the flags near the end of the pool and the wall to know when you must “flip-turn,” or do that little somersault to change direction. If you miscalculate, you risk missing the wall entirely to stop dead in the water. I recognized this “dead in the water” feeling during my first cold call, in which I temporarily left my body from fright and forgot every detail of the case I’d read. Luckily, years of being in this situation had taught me that the only thing you can do is keep going, so I basically read out of the textbook and wrote myself a note on my bathroom mirror to do better next time. You will mess up. What matters is that you keep on going.
Law school work compares easily to swimming. You’re working as hard as you can to achieve personal goals, whatever those may be, and at the end of the day it will be you at a desk or in a lane fighting to show the results of your hard work. Without some sort of goal setting, the work easily becomes tedious and overwhelming. It’s hard to motivate yourself as time goes on in both a semester and a swim season. When I swam, my biggest personal goal was to place in the top 8 in every event I swam at the season-ending conference meet; as I studied for law school exams, my goal was to make high enough grades to be considered for law review. You may not meet those personal goals, but they give you the drive to keep going when everything in you is begging for a break.
If you’re considering law school, here’s something you should know: you will work more than anyone could tell you or prepare you for. You will spend hours working on one assignment with four others to work on that day. It’s likely that if you didn’t have an addiction to caffeine before, you will rapidly develop one. Your eyeballs will seem likely to simply drop from their sockets by the end of the night. But you will become more and more invincible each day. The work gets easier. You learn how to efficiently read a case and brief one. If you put your head down and keep at it, the work becomes close to normal.
Swimming is unlike most other sports in that the work you put in the pool will show up at the end of the year. In soccer, for example, you might train all season and never actually get a goal. In swimming, if you work as hard as you can (or even medium hard, but I don’t recommend that) you will see results. Being a swimmer for such a long time taught me the value of hard work and its relationship to patience. It is easy to get discouraged when you’ve been working tirelessly for months and have seen no real reward. For most of the season, you will not exhibit great event times. Your body is too exhausted to perform at peak potential. As a result, you spend months not knowing what you’re truly capable of, until the day of the taper meet.
I found this to be true of law school as well. Apart from two midterm exams and two memos, there were not many opportunities to test how well I was doing in courses or if my study methods were paying off. Much like swimming, my fellow classmates discovered affinities in different subjects, as my teammates did in different strokes. We studied the same chapters, worked on similar memo problems, and often struggled with the same concepts. And as the semester wore on, much like the swim season, there were times when classmates broke down and insisted that they couldn’t do it, that it was too hard, that it was unfair, any number of excuses. I myself found the year to be much more challenging than I had anticipated and went through my fair share of doubtful moments. But just like my days of team sports, my classmates and I supported each other through those tough times. Whether this meant sending someone an encouraging text or bringing them a slice of cake, the 1L class was in this together.
In backstroke races, you swim alone surrounded by other people. You know they’re there. You might turn your head at the flipturn to see where you’re at relative to other swimmers, but there is really no way to be sure where you stand amongst the heat until your fingers slam into the touchpad and you get a glimpse of the clock. My coach would always tell me not to look for the other swimmers. “You should be racing yourself,” he’d tell me. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. You have to trust your training.” It was easy for him to say, as he didn’t turn into a lean mean swimming machine the minute his curled toes hit the water. But I found his advice to be especially relevant during exam season. If you have put in the work during the semester, when it comes time for those dreaded exams, you have to trust your training. It’s easy to become swept up in the anxiety and stress surrounding exam season. There was a palpable change at the law school in the weeks preceding exams; there seemed to be less group study.
Going into exams, I told myself to trust my training. Not to add spoilers to this blog post for my professors, but I actually wrote that phrase on each exam sheet before I began. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and psych yourself out. Before each race, I had a series of warm up movements and gestures I’d do to get me in the zone. Everyone knows the famous back slapping routine Michael Phelps did; mine was much cooler. While I didn’t stand on top of my chair or get up minutes before the exam to stretch my arms and legs, I tried to put myself in the same mindset that I’d have when racing.
At the end of the day, the basic tenet of both law school and swimming is hard work. Whether climbing out of a pool or exiting a classroom, if you’ve worked as hard as you can, you can achieve your personal goals. Luckily, in law school, you don’t need to get sopping wet to get there.