What No One Tells You Before You Got to Law School: It Might Be All In Your Head!

I’m afraid what I’m about to say might offend some of you, but bear with me. The truth is that you’re probably making law school harder than it needs to be!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying law school’s easy. But…it’s not THAT hard, if you can figure out how to keep your s**t together, and spend your time and energy on learning the material. (Rather than wasting it trying to pull yourself out of the pit of despair you fell into a week ago when you were cold-called and your answer wasn’t perfect.)  

It’s Okay if You’re Not Perfect

Everyone in law school is under a lot of pressure, but I’d argue that pressure is particularly intense for women, given that we don’t tend to do as well grade-wise and face a much more intense examination of our physical appearance when it’s time to look for jobs.

So, what can you do?

Five Tips for Keeping it Together

If you’re reading this article, you’ve already got a leg up! One of the most useful things you can do is formulate a plan in advance. Given that you’re going to face a ton of pressure in law school, what strategies can you employ (or learn more about, if necessary) to handle the pressure?

Obviously you know yourself best, but here are a few things I found helpful:

  1. Take time off. You’re always going to be under massive time pressure in law school. That’s just the way things work. But that’s the case once you become a lawyer, too. When are there not going to be demands on your time? It’s far better to learn how to handle these demands while you’re still in school, so you’ll be well practiced by the time you’re a lawyer. It’s not easy, but taking time to relax is critical. Just schedule it, and do it. You’ll be more productive in the long run, and a lot happier. 
  2. Pay attention. When I was in law school, I read (and re-read, and re-read) a super useful book called The Places That Scare You. It’s about a lot of things, but one thing I learned was to “drop the storyline” and pay attention to the physical sensations I was experiencing in the moment. This runs very counter to the average law student mindset, which is hyperverbal and aims to avoid any kind of feeling, particularly a potentially negative one, but it’s actually very calming. Call it mindfulness, or meditation, or yoga, or whatever, but being able to just chill out in the present moment, irrespective of what’s going on around you, is a valuable skill set for lawyers, and law students, to develop. (Learn more in Katherine Larkin-Wong’s excellent article: A Newbie's Impression: One Student's Mindfulness Lessons.) 
  3. Notice when you’re self-sabotaging. Most law students do it at some point. Things aren’t going so well, so you get upset and slack off on your reading. Or you say something in class that isn’t exactly right, and decide never to speak again. Or you think that all of your classmates are brilliant, and you’re just too stupid to be in law school. None of these things are helpful, so it’s important to take note when you’re starting off down this path! Ideally, you’ll nip it in the bud sooner than I did. (Here’s the story of my almost disastrous second semester.) It’s fine to feel upset (see #2), but telling yourself a horrible story about how stupid you are really isn’t going to help. 
  4. Try to get some outside perspective. As a law student, it’s very easy to get caught up in the stresses of your daily life and lose sight of the big picture: You’re actually very lucky to be where you are! I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, but really, think of all the people who are struggling with serious problems. This is why I think pro bono work is so valuable. It’s a lot harder to flip out about your Torts reading after talking to a client who’s about to be evicted in the middle of a blizzard. 
  5. Remember that this too shall pass. A friend wrote a great piece recently about how to cope when your significant other is preparing for the bar exam. In it, she shared the advice from her parents (both attorneys): “This too shall pass.” It doesn’t matter how awful your law school experience seems at the moment – one day you’ll look back on it at least somewhat fondly. And even if you never do, it’ll be over! However stressed out and anxious you feel at the thought of another law school exam, they’ll be over in the blink of an eye. Time marches on. New challenges emerge. The only constant is change. You may as well make the best of it, while it’s happening!

Law school survivors, what tips do you have for law students on how to cope? Students, what’s worked for you? What would you like advice on?

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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 the legal profession. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS or on Facebook. Say hello!

 And, if you’re starting law school this fall, don’t miss Start Law School Right – a free ten-part course from the Law School Toolbox.

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