On My Own Terms: Another Perspective on Law School Success

I recently read a great post by Ms. JD writer in residence Jordan Carter on how to succeed in law school.  I kind of wish I’d read it 1L, because I might have a different story than this one.  But I didn’t.  So instead, I’d like to offer another perspective on how to succeed in law school – without (gasp!) the grades.  Jordan rightly noted that there are – or should be – many definitions of success in law school, and I have often wished that some of them would get a little more attention.  So here I go.

For context, you should know that I officially started my undergraduate degree as a transfer student at age 26, and my law degree immediately upon completion of my B.A.  I came to law school with a very specific vision of the type of law that I would practice (public interest, reproductive justice), bolstered by a previous career, many volunteer hours, a lot of soul searching, and some really off-the-wall stories for another time.  I charged in to law school with a sky-high GPA that included just two A-minus grades – from that one embarrassing quarter at UCLA when I had a fever of 102 during finals.  I picked law school because, among other reasons, I’m really smart and a big-time overachiever.  Surprise?  That’s pretty much how we all ended up here.  But it’s a bit of a blow when you realize that you aren’t such a special snowflake anymore, and that grading curve is tough.  I finished the first semester of 1L with a slate of grades far, far below what I was used to.  At first, I was panicked, believing that I would never be able to redeem myself, never stand out from the pack of desperate law grads at the other end.  It turns out, however, that this initial “failure” was one of the best things that could have happened to me.  Because in its wake, I gave myself permission to succeed on my own terms, to craft an experience that would both prepare me professionally and feel personally fulfilling.   For those of you who like the idea of defining your own successes, and being rewarded for them, here are my tips. 

1. Join student orgs early!

I disregarded a lot of the advice that I was given about starting law school, to various levels of detriment.  But one thing I’m glad I didn’t do was hold off on joining student organizations.  At that great big overwhelming student org fair during 1L orientation, I signed up for about 15 email distribution lists.  Once the semester started I picked just one, and dove right in.  Most student organizations thrive on the input of first year students, and many hold open positions on their governing boards.  My choice was the UC Hastings chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ); I ran unopposed, and was elected to serve as Treasurer in my first year.  Joining a student org connected me immediately with students who had similar interests, and helped me keep a little perspective on the outside work, even when I was deeply immersed in 1L study.  Even if you don’t have such a specific focus as I did, pick something you like and will stay connected to.  Political party?  Sports activity?  Identity affinity group?  Find one and budget an hour or so a week for it.  It will help keep you grounded.  It can also open up a lot of other opportunities.  I was president of the LSRJ chapter in my 2L year, and am now a 3L advisor.  I also applied and was selected to serve on the organization’s national Board of Directors (more on that below).  I organized networking events with other professional students, had reasons to speak with professors about issues that arose, and got connected to a lot of the student body.  (Sure, I was the weird one always trying to give them free condoms, but they haven’t forgotten me!)

2. Take the classes that you want to.

You can ask me to reevaluate this after I take the California Bar in July.  But for the time being, it’s been incredibly rewarding, and professionally useful, to take classes that I’m actually really interested in.  And it’s upped that sad GPA.  The first semester of 2L, when I could finally take classes of my own choosing, I was practically gluttonous for the classes on health law, gender, and sexuality.  And as it turns out, I get much better grades when I get to write a seminar paper on the criminalization of teen sexuality than I do when I have to take a 3 hour exam on contracts.  Prospective employers have also been more interested in my unique transcript listings of reproductive and genetic technologies, women's health and the law, or criminalization and social control.  The single most useful course I’ve taken is admin law, which has come up in every single internship – and the civ pro and evidence courses required to become a certified law student in California.  I also chose a concentration in Social Justice Lawyering, which has encouraged me to take classes like advanced con law and critical race theory, and well as facilitated connection with the larger social justice community.  Don’t be scared of or feel limited by the extensive listing of recommended bar courses.  They’re a great place to start, but also remember that you’ll learn more and be happier in classes that pique your interest and follow your substantive career goals.

3. Be the person who keeps showing up.

I hate the idea of “networking.”  If I hear of a networking event, I’ll run the other way.  At their worst, they can feel like you’re expected to sell yourself, without any real interest in the people you meet.  But the fact is, who you know in law school and the legal community really does matter.  How you meet those people matters even more.  Early on in law school, I realized that I would need to tap into our great local resources and community.  I didn’t want to attend mixers and make awkward small talk, because I just don’t excel in that setting.  But I did genuinely want to meet the people around me, and know their work.  So I made a deal with myself: I don’t have to force “networking” conversations, but I do have to show up.  I started attending conferences, panels, and symposia: anything that was free or offered a student rate, and fit into my schedule.  As a 1L, I would never stay for the reception afterwards because I was too scared to interact with the impressive presenters.  But I kept showing up.  I ended up learning a huge amount about my areas of interest, and by the time I got up the nerve to introduce myself to my idols in the field, I knew enough about their work to actually talk to them about it.  They all responded incredibly favorably, and many noted that they recognized my face.  I continue to be the person who keeps showing up – just last weekend, at a conference in Oklahoma, several people made friendly inquiries as to why I was there.  ‘Because I want to be,’ I responded!  I applied to my school for travel funding, and was awarded enough to cover my trip.  So make sure you know how your school’s travel and conference funding works – often, you can get your registration fees or even travel covered.  Become a student member of a local regional or affinity bar association, and sign up to receive their newsletters informing you of upcoming events.  Find things that interest you, and just keep showing up.

4. Apply, reapply, and apply again.

Similar to my “just show up” tactic is my “just apply” theory.  We law students are offered a plethora of great fellowships, scholarships, and other opportunities to apply to. (I’m not talking about jobs quite yet – that would be another post entirely.  These are just the extracurriculars.)  It can sometimes feel overwhelming if, like mine, your school sends out a huge weekly email of opportunities and deadlines.  But read those, and take advantage of the myriad ways to become involved in and outside of your school.  I initially hesitated to apply to a lot of things, because I didn’t think I was qualified.  Self-doubt is a beast, especially when you’re just scraping the bottom 25% of your highly competitive class rankings.  And frankly, applications take time, which law students never have enough of.  But I kept my resume up to date, and created a cover letter or personal statement outline that included most of my highlights.  When an interesting opportunity came to my attention, I was already ready to dig in to the substantive parts of the applications.  And I always reminded myself, the worst thing that could happen is they say no, which would leave me in just the same position as if I didn’t apply at all.  If you don’t apply, it will never happen.  So as a 1L, I applied to and was selected as a member of the LSRJ national board of directors.  I also did the write-on competition (of course, far more time-consuming) and joined the small, non-flagship journal I was most interested in (I am now the Editor-in-Chief!).  I was able to spend both of my summers doing public interest work because I applied for and was awarded grant funding.  As a 2L, I applied to and was selected for the Ms. JD fellowship program.  Put yourself out there, and you may be pleasantly surprised by a selection.  Even if they don’t pick you – which has of course happened for me many times – you never know who might remember your application materials or your interest and reach out to you later.  And I started taking those “rejections” as a nice reminder of how many other super qualified, motivated awesome students there are out there doing the same work, and felt further inspired to keep trying.  Don’t apply to things just to add lines to your resume, but do take a chance on those things you’re really excited about.   

After all that, how do I define myself as successful?  I have met amazing people, and become part of an incredibly broad network of lawyers, law students, and other activists.  I have had a series of summer internships and semester externships that were exactly what I wanted, doing the work that I dreamed of.  Now in the post-graduate fellowship application process, I have promising prospects.  And I have enjoyed myself along the way.  I have kept up a middling GPA, but I don’t define my success by that transcript anymore.  In sum, my primary advice is to get connected to as many people as possible, and take as many opportunities as you can.  If you’re not using your time to get those top grades, it may be even better used to make yourself an indispensable part of a community.  Every law school produces people with immaculate grades, but not all of them produce students with demonstrated background and interests like yours – whatever you decide them to be.

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