When it comes to law school, I think Tolstoy’s got it wrong. The types of “unhappy” law students (or at least those who are unhappy when grades come out) are pretty easy to categorize.
Recognize yourself in any of these archetypes? It’s not too late to change course:
- The gunner. You know the type. He’s God’s gift to law school, every word out of his mouth is gold (at least to his ears). He spends so much time talking, or preparing to talk (I remember a 1L gunner universally referred to as “The Hand” for fairly obvious reasons) that he’s not really listening to anything that’s being discussed in class. Not that listening would lead to any greater understanding – he’s been on it from day one. Reading Law Review articles, going to office hours, talking the ear off of everyone who will listen about his pet theories of justice and his family friend who’s a judge and is sure to let him “clerk” this summer. The good news is that these types tend to calm down after grades come out, when it becomes apparent they should have spent more time taking practice exams, and less time reading obscure articles.
- The silently overconfident overachiever. You’d never be a gunner, no way! (Okay, maybe a “silent gunner,” my new favorite word.) You’re cooler than that. You’ll just sit back, absorb the scene, then do what you’ve always done in school – cram for exams and get straight As. Easy, right? Law school can’t be that hard! An exam is an exam. Well, this is kind of right (law school exams aren’t impossibly hard, if you know what you’re doing), but not entirely. Law school exams really are different, and cramming at the end is rarely a winning strategy. Being confident in your ability to master the material is great, but make sure you understand what you’ll be tested on, and start your exam prep early (as in now), so you don’t run out of time and end up unprepared.
- The bundle of nerves. Where the overconfident overachiever is calm and collected (maybe too calm and collected), you’re a walking disaster. The thought of being called on (even in Legal Writing) makes you hyperventilate. You can’t sleep at night because you’re worrying about whether your Torts outline should be longer (in week two). The mere thought of going to office hours and speaking to a professor gives you hives. You can’t focus in class because you’re so paranoid about saying something stupid. Okay, time to take a deep breath, and an afternoon off. Yes, law school can be stressful, but so is life as a lawyer. If you don’t develop the coping skills you need as a law student, how are you ever going to handle being a lawyer? Anxiety is manageable, but it’s up to you to look for resources.
- The Good Girl. You’ve always been the teacher’s pet. You diligently do every assignment and attend every class, recording every word (literally). You’re in three study groups, and have all of your study hours blocked out for the next two months (14 hours a day during the week, and 12 on the weekends). You believe your professor when she says you can get everything you need from the reading, and not to stress out about the exam. You refuse to look at any commercial supplements, and old outlines just seem somehow unsavory – kind of like cheating, in a way. Nope, not for you! If the professor says you don’t need them, well, you must not. She knows best, right? Um, no. Law professors are law professors for one primary reason – they were naturally very good at taking law school exams. Some people just are. Odds are you’re not one of them. Refusing to use all the resources available to you doesn’t make you a better person – it just makes you inefficient. Which, even studying 100 hours a week, you can’t afford to be. Think about how to work smarter, not harder. And for the love of God, borrow an E&E for a few days.
- The ideas guy. You have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and you love learning the law. You’ll happily spend the entire afternoon in the dark bowels of the law library, reading article after article on an obscure point that your professor mentioned in passing. You think through all the forks in the road of every doctrine, until you’re so confused you can’t see straight. Good confusion, you tell yourself! I’m learning! Kind of…but can you actually use all the information you’re taking in? If you’re an ideas type, you must force yourself to distill all of this knowledge into a usable set of materials, and then practice applying what you’ve learned. Why? Because otherwise you’re going to spin off on some random tangent on an exam, run out of time, and fail all your classes. (The good news is that you’ll make a great Law Review editor-in-chief, if you can make it through 1L year without flunking out.)
- The slacker. Every class has a few slackers (and some apparent slackers who are actually silent gunners). Instead of going to the law library, the slacker goes home to play video games and smoke up. His casebooks are in unmarked, pristine condition. He’s never briefed a case in his life, and isn’t going to start now. Reading? Over it. Commercial briefs are so much more efficient. Study groups? No thanks, conflicts with his kickball league. What happens when he gets called on? Nothing, he just passes and takes the hit to his class participation grade. The annoying thing about the slacker is that he’s going to do better than you expect. Why? Because it turns out reading a commercial outline and taking a few practice exams isn’t the worst way to study! He’s got so little information in his head that he’s less likely to get overwhelmed, and is more likely to actually answer the question. Sad, but true. (Although, keep in mind that our slacker friend isn’t actually developing the skills he’ll need as a lawyer. But that’s rarely a real issue, because he’s way too lazy to be a lawyer. He’ll start a business with an MBA from his kickball team and end up with a totally enviable lifestyle.)
So, what does the “happy” law student look like?
- First and foremost, the happy law student is strategic. Recognizing that law school is a new and different experience, you ask for help. You cultivate 2L and 3L friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) as soon as possible, and listen to their advice with an open mind. You go to office hours and talk to professors about points that are confusing. (Why? Because the professor is the one grading the exam – get your approach from the horse’s mouth.) You work efficiently, using all the resources available. And you pay attention to whether your approach is working – regularly testing yourself to see if you’re learning and retaining the material you need to know.
- You pay attention to what’s worked in the past. By the time you get to law school, you’ve done a lot of schooling. You probably know how you learn best. (If not, take a learning styles quiz.) Yes, the law school pedagogy is different, but it’s not like you’re on another planet. If you’re a visual learner who likes to see the connection between ideas, ditch the 100-page typed outlines everyone tells you to make and do some flowcharts. You’ll remember the information better and be able to apply it on an exam – because it will make sense to YOU.
- You’re reasonable about the demands you place on yourself. No one can work all the time. And you can’t possibly learn everything there is to know about an area of law in one semester. (A student noted the other day that there were entire Law Review articles written about every small topic he was studying in his 1L class, which is absolutely correct. You could spend a lifetime working on many of these questions if you wanted to.) The key to a happy result is deciding where to focus your efforts. Some things really help (taking practice exams early), and some don’t (spending eight hours preparing for class). Figuring out (before exams) which activities fall into which category is critical. (Almost) everyone in law school is working hard, but the best grades go to those who spent their time wisely.
Not sure which category you fall into? Check out the Law School Toolbox, which will help you get on the right path!
Got questions? Leave them in the comments.