What No One Tells You Before You Go To Law School: They Really Are Speaking Greek (Okay, Latin)

Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language by immersion? I have, and I’m terrible at it!

A few summers ago, I had a meltdown in a Barcelona shoe store (after making myself understood) and ended up buying shoes that were too small, just to get out of the store before I started crying. And, yes, every time I try to wear these shoes I’m reminded of the event. It’s pretty annoying.

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Well, law school’s a lot like foreign language immersion. It’s totally normal to feel like you don’t understand much of anything, and always say the wrong thing (even when you’re actually doing fine).

What’s so disorienting about law school? 

  • You’re being exposed to a whole new language. Some of the intellectual frisson of the first months of law school is practical. Words you thought you knew take on whole new meanings (“consideration” now has nothing to do with begin nice to someone), and you have to learn a highly specialized legal vocabulary, much of which is (needlessly) in Latin. 
  • You’re being exposed to a whole new culture. Perhaps more critically, you’re being immersed in a distinct legal culture, which is at least as quirky as most foreign lands. Suddenly you’re expected to care about Supreme Court bobbleheads and cite-checking, things most normal people avoid like the plague. (Seriously, what is it with lawyers and bobblehead dolls? I never understood the appeal.)

To make it through the first months, it might help just to recognize the truth – you really have stepped through the looking glass, and nothing is quite as it was.

Ultimately, it’s up to you what you take from the law school culture. But for now, just let it wash over you. Look up the new words you don’t understand. Struggle through the reading. Try to follow the class discussion. Use your new vocabulary with classmates, even when it feels uncomfortable. Look for ways to practice being a lawyer.

If you immerse yourself in this new land, pretty soon you’ll be bilingual, and bicultural. It’s not that you’re entirely giving up your old identity and outlook – you’re gaining a new perspective. What you do with this new perspective is up to you. 

For now, just jump in. Stumble around lost, order chickpeas when you meant to order chicken. It’s normal, and it’s how we all learn!

And don’t beat yourself up over every mistake…the world won’t end if you take home too-small shoes.

Best of luck!

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox. Stay tuned for her monthly Ms. JD column debunking myths about law school and the legal profession. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS or on Facebook. Say hello!

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