By Alison Monahan • March 15, 2012•Writers in Residence, Law School, Pre-Law
When I look back on my law school "career," I realize I made things a lot harder than they needed to be. Sure, I did some stuff right, but I did a lot of stuff wrong!
To help you avoid such a fate, I offer 10 suggestions for making law school easier:
- Worry less about class. Do I think you should go to class regularly? Sure – it’s a useful way to figure out what your professor is thinking. But try to stress out less about it! If you’ve done the reading, and are generally prepared, that’s enough. You’re not going to get every question right when you’re called on (no one will). It’s normal to get nervous and think you’ve said stupid things when you’re on the spot. Odds are, no one’s listening anyway. They’re too busy on Pinterest.
- Focus on what matters to you. There are two separate, but related, things that matter for most people in law school: learning something useful, and getting solid grades. In an ideal world, these would go together, but they don’t always. If you’re making a choice about how to spend your time, it’s useful to be clear about what game you’re playing. Do what makes sense for you, and your target career, not what makes sense for some theoretical ideal law student.
- Study efficiently. There’s a lot to do in law school, and it’s critical to use your time wisely. But that doesn’t mean studying all the time! You’ll be more efficient, and a lot happier, if you take time for the stuff you like to do: watching movies, going to a museum, hanging out with friends, exercising, whatever. It KILLS me now that I had free access to almost every museum in NYC for three years, and I hardly went. Stupid, stupid! Don’t make this mistake.
- Think about the exam from day one. Combining all three prior concepts, you can study less, leaving you more time to spend on things you like, if you focus more on the exam, and less on class. (How’s that for a juxtaposition!) The key is to focus on organizing the material you’re learning from day one, rather than waiting until the end of the semester to “outline.” Create a template for your class notes, which highlights two things: black-letter law and ambiguity. You have to know the black-letter law, but ambiguity is the key to a great exam answer. When you extract this information every day – as you read cases and go to class – it makes your final exam prep a lot easier! (Leaving you more time for other more interesting things.)
- Hang out with nice people. Sure, you’re in law school and people aren’t necessarily that nice. But I’m sure you can find at least a few cool people! These are the people you want to spend time with. Trying to be friends with jerks will just confuse you and make you miserable. If someone’s not nice to you, avoid them. (Maybe your law school is totally great, and everyone’s lovely to each other. I hope that’s true, but I tend to doubt it. Pick your friends wisely!)
- Give really serious thought to whether you want to join the Law Review. In retrospect, I think joining my school’s Law Review was probably a mistake. It’s a nice credential, but it’s mindnumbingly boring and extremely time consuming. I know people with fantastic grades who didn’t join, and they still got excellent clerkships and jobs. Why? Because they had fantastic grades. Maybe being on the Law Review helps on the margins, but – if your grades are strong enough that you’re pretty much guaranteed a spot – you might not really need to do it. Which would free up tons of time for more productive pursuits! (Seriously, deciding not to run for the board was the best decision I made 3L year. It gave me time to do lots of other things, including some of the research that eventually became The Girl’s Guide to Law School. Funny how that works.)
- Traffic in possibility, not in fear. There’s an odd thing that happens when people start law school. Suddenly, instead of being competent, intelligent, hard-working people with the whole world at their fingertips, they morph into frightened, anxious, worried people who fear one or more of the following: getting called on in class, saying something stupid, getting a bad grade, or not getting a job. It’s normal to be afraid, but it’s not okay to let the fear take over and prevent you from doing what you came to law school to do. Try to preserve the sense of possibility – of what brought you to law school in the first place – and let that drive you to keep moving forward, even when it seems scary. (And I can guarantee you it WILL feel scary.)
- Ask for help. Connected to the fear idea is one of the worst things you can do as a law student: Refusing to ask for help. No one wants to look stupid, or admit they don’t know something, so no one asks for help. The result? No one learns anything! I saw an amazing panel at South by Southwest recently, with a bunch of female tech entrepreneurs talking about their formative experiences. One of them said something really fantastic. She’d been tentative about asking questions her entire life, until one of her mentors asked her this: “Is there any reason you’d be expected to know this?” If the answer was no (as it almost always is), there’s no shame in asking. Why would you be expected to know something you’d never been exposed to? No one is born knowing how to read a case or prepare for a law school exam. The fastest way to learn? Ask for help!
- Take care of yourself. It’s cliché, but eating right and getting enough sleep really help. If there’s only one thing you take away from this list, let it be this: Go to bed earlier than you think you need to! I’m the worst about staying up late, but I would have been a lot less of a law school basket case if I’d slept an extra hour a night.
- Pay attention to what wakes you up. I was going to say, “Pay attention to what you find interesting,” but I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Interesting is too cerebral, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of enjoying legal questions because they’re interesting logic puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying that aspect of the law (certainly I did!) but at some point, an intellectual interest in an area of law isn’t going to get you out of bed in the morning. Pay attention, instead, to what makes you want to get up and start working. If you can figure out a way to make that thing your career, odds are you’ll be pretty content. And law school will be a lot easier!
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the recently launched Law School Toolbox, a website and online course giving you the tools you need to succeed in law school. Check it out!