By Jordan Carter • February 05, 2015•Writers in Residence
When I started law school, many years ago (2.5), I decided that my one and only focus was my grades. To me, that was success. That was how I was going to win this game -- and law school is a game, don't let them tell you otherwise. It's a game where nobody knows the rules upon entering, a game in which you have to fend for yourself in a desolate world where the A's are few and the hungry are many.
A brief disclaimer, or explanation, or something: I'll admit that I hesitated in writing this post because in hindsight, I know now that there are multiple ways to win. I think there are so many important skills -- people skills! compassion! creativity! teamwork! -- that are not rewarded like A's are rewarded. There are interests that are not highly favored -- those who want to work for nonprofit, or juveniles, or criminal defense -- because the money and the power is with Big Law. There are lifestyles -- like those with kids, or with outside responsibilities, or even those who just don't really want to kill themselves competing with their classmates -- that are not rewarded. And I think that screws over a lot of people. If I had kids, or a husband, had to stay in one city upon graduation, or had a past career influencing my interest, or a mortgage, or any number of other variables, I'm confident that my goals would have been different. I entered law school as a 22-year-old single woman with no kids, no obligations, no debts, endless energy, and no idea what I wanted to do ("change the world," "work with people," "help the underprivileged" were all things I said at one point or another... so that gives you a sense of how focused I was). I was the perfect candidate to be cray-cray about my grades.
So crazy I went. I decided grades were everything, and nothing else mattered during these three years. And although it has not come without costs (a blog for another day, or you can read about my trials here, here, and here), I probably don't regret it because it has gotten me some amazing opportunities. And ultimately I think a lot of us have these same goals and want these same opportunities. I want to give a little practical advice on how to achieve those goals, lest you think I am only good for ranking fictional TV lawyers. I remember coming to Ms. JD as a pre-law student and early on in 1L year and wanting someone to just TELL ME WHAT TO DO TO GET AN A. Just lay it out. Like day by day, bullet by bullet, how can I be successful? So for those of you who are early in the game or haven't yet started law school, here are some tips that have helped me:
1. Handwrite your notes. Hands down, this is my number one tip for classes, for two reasons. First, 1Ls are so panicked about getting all the right notes down and that generally means trying to write down every single thing the professor says because he is brilliant and I know nothing and if I just transcribe it, I too can clerk for SCOTUS, right?! Wrong. Taking your own notes forces you to pick out what's actually important and write it in your own words, instead of leaving you with dozens upon dozens of typed pages of meaningless words you'll just have to condense later. Second, and perhaps more importantly, when you use a laptop, you get distracted. Every. Single. Time. The internet is too tempting despite even our noblest intentions. I have never seen someone on a laptop who didn't get on the internet at least one during class. Myself included. Which is fine. But are you really paying thousands of dollars to sit in a classroom and cruise F-book? Once you're an upperclassman, I get that you're too cool for school so do what you want. But as a 1L, I say stay away.
2. Make your own outline. I remember starting law school and not understanding what an outline was. It seemed like a mythical and holy prize, expertly curated, encrusted in diamonds, and available only to those who had the Secret. Um, no. It is literally exactly what it sounds like: an outline. Of main points and important rules. Made in a Word doc. By mere commoners. So that kind of shattered the illusion for me, but in a good way. Because that meant I could do it, too. One mistake I see is believing that someone else's outline is going to make you do well on the test. I do not think you can get an A on a test wholly relying on someone else's outline (although I'm sure someone has evidence to the contrary). So even though the illustrious goddess of outlines -- every school has one -- may have CALI'd every exam with this bolded, italicized, chart-laden masterpiece, that's because SHE MADE IT. She pored over every detail. She went to every class and took notes every day and read every page and made an outline that reflected her knowledge. Reading it five times, even reading it *realllyyyy thoroughly* just ain't gonna cut it. Do it yourself. That is where, I'd argue, 70% of exam prep comes from.
3. Ask every single question you have and then some. Every class is unfamiliar to the vast majority of us when we begin. Did I know anything about filing a lawsuit? No. Negligence? No. LLCs? No. Hearsay? No. You get the point. Sometimes I think our professors forget that we are tiny cubs who haven't been absorbed in the law for decades. But they are nearly always happy to answer your question. You just have to ask it. I won't say there is no such thing as a stupid question, because there is, and I have asked some, but if you don't get something, better to get it cleared up now than have it hit you mid-exam that you really should have clarified what the Fourth Amendment is talking about. My biggest 1L source of comfort was my Legal Writing professor, who answered every question I had -- does this sentence make sense? is this rule correct? is this formatting okay? do I need another case? who I am? what am I doing? can you help me figure my life out? -- with patience and motherly wisdom. The same rule applies for summer jobs, career services, upperclassmen who are involved in activities you're interested in, etc. Ask all the questions. I guarantee you no one will get annoyed if you ask a ton of questions. People like to think they are knowledgeable and useful. Use them.
4. Do a bunch of practice exams, and do them with people who are smarter than you. You don't think Beyonce goes on a world tour without practicing every single step and every single note over and over again until it is her part of her being, do you? I mean, she could because she is Beyonce, but she is a notorious perfectionist (viewing her documentaries makes me feel like I can say this about her) and I know she practices. You can't do your very best on the real exam without doing a dress rehearsal or two, if even just to calm your nerves and see (or remember) what taking an exam feels like. On a related note, when you're doing the practice exams, go over your answers with people who are smarter than you. It is easy to just take the test and feel like that's enough preparation without reviewing the answers with other people. But like they say about sports, you gotta play with people who are better than you so you get better. It does not feel good, of course, to feel like everyone understands the material better than you do, but you will learn it so much better by tackling the issue while studying, getting the right answer, and being prepared for it to come up on the exam. I guarantee you my grade has gone up at least half a letter on every exam because concepts have clicked the day or two before when someone else explained it to me while doing practice questions.
5. Treat yo self. Some people say that to feel better and manage stress, you should focus only on "healthy habits." Eat more greens, exercise more, cut out pop, blah blah. I say, do whatever makes you feel happy. Pick the things that actually make you feel better and embrace them wholeheartedly. For me, that is TV, sleep, and ice cream. Honestly, I know in my brain that a sweaty workout would make me feel strong and balanced and clear my mind after the fact, but my heart just says no, Jordan, we're not doing that. That's just another thing to add to a neverending to-do list. If I feel anxious, stressed, sad, overwhelmed, tired, annoyed, etc., I kick on the 'Flix, take a nice long nap, or get a milkshake. Or all of the above. And I don't feel guilty about it. Because those are the things that make me feel happier and closer to my best self, and that is what will make me ready to take on the next day or the next exam. Of course, I also do these things when I feel relieved, calm, happy, and celebratory because they really are my favorite things. That's why I do them as much as possible. There are many responsibilities you have to face during law school that will seem like obstacles or unnecessary burdens -- don't make your stress relievers feel like that, too. Treat yo self, and law school becomes a whole lot more manageable.