Law school is one of the most demanding academic challenges that a student can face. Reading dozens of pages to prepare for class, learning a new way of critically thinking and carefully writing, searching for valuable work experience, and establishing relationships with fellow students and professors require lots of time and attention. When thinking about my own law school experience, as well as my experiences with students to date, there are a few key themes that seem crucial to success:
Spend some time reflecting on the type of student you have been in the past and the type of student that you’d like to be in law school. Which habits made you successful during other academic endeavors, and which held you back? How did you study? When? With anyone else?
Critically assess your strengths and weaknesses as a student so that you head into law school prepared to adjust to new challenges and expectations. Knowing what kind of student you are, how you learn, and what helps you to perform the best can help you tackle your assignments, get the most out of class time, and establish constructive relationships with your professors and peers inside and outside of the classroom.
Keeping Your Balance
Law school places a lot of demands on students, whether they are 1Ls or seasoned 3Ls. If it occurred in a vacuum, with no other demands on our time or attention, it might not be so difficult. But life does not work that way. It is easy to become lost or overwhelmed, especially when other aspects of your life are not on pause.
It is also crucial to not lose sight of the fact that there are components of your life that, while unrelated to the content of your law school courses, are actually crucial to your long-term success as a student and lawyer. For example, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, relationships with family and friends, and your health are vital. Make sure to allocate time to take care of yourself (doctor’s appointments, sleep, exercise) and to invest in your relationships with family and friends, who will remain your support network throughout the ups and downs of the academic experience and during your entire legal career.
Practical Tip: get sleep!
Your law school courses are going to challenge you in ways that you never anticipated. Learning through the Socratic method, experientially, or through simulations might be new for you. Additionally, any litigation lawyer can tell you that preparation allows lawyers to remain nimble and flexible in the event that surprises happen. A willingness to be flexible, and preparation for the unknown, can help limit stress in the short and long-term.
Responding to Adversity
Nobody goes through law school without facing some adversity. It can come in a variety of forms: losing your train of thought while being cold-called, forgetting the opening to your oral argument, receiving more red ink on a draft of your first memo than you expected, or missing out on an internship that you thought was perfect for your ten-year plan. Part of becoming a lawyer is realizing that what may initially appear to be a failure is really an opportunity for self-assessment, creativity, and to improve.
Learning from Others
The legal profession is a collaborative endeavor. The realities of legal practice will present you with countless opportunities to bounce ideas off of your colleagues; start building those habits within the law school so they are second nature when you practice law.
Be open to working with your peers when allowed. Study groups can be especially helpful in the first year, as long as they are focused and the members hold each other accountable. Studying alone is important too, as the focus that comes with solitude can reap countless fruits. Visit your professors during their office hours—they want to help you learn the material. Find a mentor that can help you make decisions about your career and course planning.
Being Efficient With Your Time
We’ve all heard the refrain that there are not enough hours in the day to complete all of the tasks required of us. I remember feeling the same way during the first semester of law school, and started down a path of spending hours in the library because everyone else seemed to and I thought that would force me to work. The problem was that it was not very efficient and I was spending a lot of time engaging in distractions (surfing the Internet, reading the news, catching up on college football and basketball scores). I constantly felt like I was on a treadmill, and the hours at the law school didn’t seem to be paying off with comprehension.
After the first semester, I critically assessed what I did and did not like about my first semester experience. I realized that with some careful planning, flexibility, and diligence, it was possible to maintain a healthy work-life balance and to efficiently learn. Spend some time thinking about how much time you need to allot for non-law school activities in order to be at your best. More importantly, commit to focusing, without distraction, when you allot time for your studies. In an age of distraction, consider taking preemptive measures, like turning off your phone, Wi-Fi on your laptop, or other devices that might eat up time or breed anxiety. It might be hard at first, but developing the habit of being efficient with your time (even in 20-30 minute increments) can go a long way towards learning well.
Throughout law school, take some time to remember why you came here. Whether you were inspired by a mentor, family member, friend, or somebody else, committed to public service, or attracted to the nuances and arguments that permeate the practice of law, mindfulness of your place within a big picture can help to rejuvenate your day to day efforts. Allocate some time every few weeks to assess how what you have been working on relates to that goal and to remind yourself that you are more than capable of the task at hand. Remember, at the very least, that you are part of a tradition and noble profession. What you learn today can help you be a force for good tomorrow.
Embracing Diligence and the Details
Law school will demand your attention in countless ways. One of the most important keys to success is recognizing that a commitment to seemingly small tasks can involve way more than anticipated. This might manifest when briefing what seems to be a simple case in preparation for class, researching for a memo, or proofreading the citations in your written work. Strive to develop the habit of being diligent with the details. Train your eyes and ears for nuance now, so that it is second nature when you are a practicing lawyer. Devotion to your craft is the object, which is different from aiming for the best score in your class.
Also, remember that law school is a marathon, and not a sprint. Cramming rarely works. Devote time to outlining in addition to reading for class, which will allow you to see both the big and little pictures at the same time. Being able to navigate deftly from the abstract to the practical will be crucial to your success on exams and later as a practicing lawyer.
Finally, know that there are countless resources here at Seton Hall Law to help you become the successful law student (and lawyer) you aspire to become.