The Unexpected Challenges of Law School: The Emotional Roller Coaster

Editor's Note: This essay was submitted by a first year law student at the University of Michigan in response to Ms. JD's prompt, "What about law school presented an unexpected challenge? What have you done to successfully meet this challenge?"

I came to law school expecting to be busy. I knew what I was getting into: long hours pouring over cases, writing memos for Legal Practice, studying for finals worth 100% of my grade. I knew all of that, and I was ready for it. What I was not ready for was the emotional toll that would take on me.

Law school has been a roller coaster of emotions. There are days that I hate it. There are days when it’s just okay. And there are days when it is exhilarating. And, sometimes, that’s all just one week.

As admitted students have been pouring into the law school doors recently for Preview Days events, they ask with a certain trepidation, ‘how do you like it here?’ I take a deep breath and tell them, honestly, that I love it. The reason I can say that is because I have found a way to overcome the unexpected challenge of that emotional roller coaster.

Here’s how:

(1) Remember why you’re here.

Coming to law school was an arduous decision process that took me several years to make. I could have continued on to an advanced degree and become an academic, but there was something in the back of my mind telling me not to. Perhaps naively, I wanted what I ended up doing with my life to matter to more than five people working in that field (with the added sixth of my mother, but even that is questionable). Law school seemed like the right fit even though I had no idea which area of law I wanted to practice in.

Once I got to law school, none of those reasons seemed enough to justify my decision. By October, when I was buried under a pile of work, I could not even begin to remember when or why this seemed like a good idea. Which is why it is incredibly important to write it down. Have a mantra. Look back at it whenever you need to. Those reasons might not seem as good as the person’s sitting next to you, but, to tell you the truth, he’s thinking the exact same thing about you. Whether your reason is that your father is a lawyer and you’ve wanted to do nothing else your entire life or, like me, it just felt right, you will question it. And that’s okay. That’s healthy.

I hung a poster above my desk: Keep Calm and Carry On. And I did.

(2) Know where you’re going.

During orientation, I started meeting my future classmates. They are all accomplished, smart, talented people. I started to question whether they had let me in by mistake. Truthfully, other than knowing that law school would be a good fit, I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards. I had heard of on-campus interviewing, big firms, summer associate positions, and I knew that, even in a bad economy, having a law degree could be a real advantage. But I had no clue what that meant.

People say that law school pushes you towards the middle road. But what it really does, and all it really can do, is push you where you’re willing to go. One of the biggest pieces of advice people like to give incoming law students is not to over-commit or get too involved. Your grades are the most important thing, they say, and you don’t want anything standing in the way of that.

While there is a grain of truth to that statement, I think my sanity would have been at stake if I had followed that advice. Instead, I got involved with Law Students for Reproductive Justice, first on a committee, then as a board member, and, now, as the newly elected Co-Chair of the organization. My long-term goal is now to work in women’s rights, and while I cannot say for certain whether I would have figured that out without getting involved in the things I care about, I shudder to think about the consequences of not having done so.

If you feel like being involved in too many things will stretch you thin, then be careful when you do it. But do not, by any means, allow yourself to get sucked into a situation where law school exams are the only thing in your foreseeable future. Because that is a dark, dark world. Everyone needs something else, even something little. Friends of mine bought season tickets to the student symphony, had a weekly movie night, or played flag football in the park.

Do something, anything that is not just studying. Because that will drive you nuts, I promise.

(3) Find the people who will help you do both of those things.

During orientation, every student panel had the same theme: these will be your friends for life. While the sentiment was right (collegiality and all that goodness), the effect was that people scrambled to find their best friends ASAP, as if all the good ones would be snatched up if you waited too long. By November, these groups had all dissolved and the real friendships were starting to form.

These people will be your friends for life, so take time choosing them. Only associate with the ones who like you for who you are and who you want to become. Find the ones who will support and understand you, not break you down. They will become indispensable. Don’t be mean to the rest, but also don’t waste your time on people who are going to manufacture stress.

There’s enough real stress in law school. Every other week feels like the end of the world. You don’t need the people around you creating any more.

And though I realize that the incoming student I’m talking to is more worried about finding the right supplements for Torts or getting through her first cold call, I hope when it seems like coming to law school was the worst decision she’d ever made, this advice will somehow surface once again.

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