The Story of My (Almost Disastrous) Second Semester of Law School

LibrarySome of you might be laboring under the misconception that I was a model law student. Let me assure you that was NOT the case!

If you’re in the middle of a massive flip out about your impending exams, trust me, I’ve been there.

Let me tell you about my second semester of law school…

First, I Have a Life Meltdown

I won’t dwell on this part too much, since I’ve already written about it and it just sets the stage.

In a nutshell, I had insomnia for the entirety of first semester exams, which made me a nervous wreck by Winter Break. I ended up breaking up with my long-distance boyfriend, coming back to NYC for the coldest winter in recorded history, and falling into a pretty serious funk. Truth be told, it was more than that. I was too depressed to get out of bed and go to class most days, and I frankly didn’t care that much about the possibility of failing all of my classes.

Second, I Realize I Might Actually Bomb All My Classes

Luckily, I found a great therapist, who eventually convinced me maybe flunking out of law school to prove a point wasn’t the best plan. This took most of the semester, unfortunately, so by the time I agreed to try not to flunk out, there wasn’t a lot of time left.

It didn’t help matters that I had several of the most awful classes and professors you could possibly imagine. (If you think going to a fancy law school guarantees adequate instruction, think again.)

They were:

  • Con Law: The one class I was actually excited to take, which unfortunately was taught by a very, very, very old man. Although extremely nice, and a lovely person, under no circumstances should he have been teaching 1Ls. It was a disaster (and not just because he reused exam questions that half the class already had sample answers for). He also liked to assign 50+ pages of reading a day, and when we went to class, we’d all “flip the pages together.” Suffice it to say I did maybe 10% of the reading, and learned nothing.
  • Foundations of the Regulatory State: This was, without question, the stupidest class I’ve ever taken in my entire life. It was one of those made-up classes, unique to Columbia, with an absolutely awful professor who was consistently unprepared and showed up 20-30 minutes late, looking like he’d just woken up from a nap on the floor of his office. Because it was made up, there were no commercial supplements. This was a serious problem, obviously! (They’ve since gotten rid of this class, so I wasn’t alone in thinking it was pointless.)
  • Crim Law: This could have been okay, since it’s one of those topics people like to ask you about in real life, except that Columbia didn’t have enough Crim professors (being that it’s way too practical for ivory tower types), so they had to import someone from one of the other law schools in NYC. This guy HATED Columbia students, and made sure we all knew it, daily. Oh, he was also completely misogynistic, which really added to the experience.
  • Some class about legal philosophy: To be honest, I can’t remember the name of this class, just as I can’t remember anything we studied. To be fair, this was one of the most enjoyable classes I had in law school, because it was the only lecture. The professor, a genius who was also a great teacher, knew no one was going to do the reading he assigned, so he just told us what it said. Novel concept, no? Although I retained nothing, I have pretty good notes somewhere I can consult if I ever want to. Actual books? Never opened them.
Third, I Evaluate the Situation and Grow Concerned

So, by the time April rolled around, I was mostly out of my funk, and had agreed to study for exams.

As will be clear to the astute reader, however, I was facing an uphill battle.

I had, at that point, done most of the reading for Crim, maybe half for Reg State, 10% for Con Law, and nothing for the legal philosophy class. Reg State and the philosophy class had no available supplements, and the visiting Crim prof refused to provide any old outlines (and I think gave us maybe one sample exam, if that).

So, I didn’t have a lot to work with.

After hyperventilating for a few days, I decided I had to somehow pull it together. Here’s what I did:

  1. I got every old exam and student outline I could get my hands on.
  2. I bought a commercial outline for the classes where it was possible (Crim and Con Law).
  3. I read through a bunch of old exams for each class, and started looking for patterns of what was tested.
  4. I convinced friends to form a study group and share notes and strategies (admittedly, this did involve making various people feel bad about my breakdown, so they’d give me their class notes for days I missed).
  5. I found hidden spaces in various libraries where I could hide out, in a pleasant environment, without anyone finding me. (Notably, none of these were anywhere near the law library. At that point, I might’ve actually lost it if I’d set foot in the law library.)
  6. I started using the Circles technique every single day, to make sure I was staying on track.
  7. I demanded, and got, a prescription for sleeping pills, and started sleeping eight hours every night.
Fourth, I Learn the Bare Minimum

Once this stuff was in place, I divided up the remaining time and realized I had something like 5 days per class to study. OMFG. Yeah, less than a week.

It was time to focus on the basics. I got out some paper and colored pencils and started outlining Crim by hand. With a commercial outline, I managed to learn the basics in a few days, then spent the remaining time making detailed flow charts, asking really simple questions of the type that might be triggered on an exam.

Here’s one:
Crim law flowchart

I made a few of these, then had to move on and hope for the best.

For the other classes, I didn’t even attempt a real outline. I just read through my class notes and several old outlines repeatedly, until most of it was stuck in my head. I took notes on the most important points, but mostly these were just references to the existing outlines, so I could look things up if I had to (thankfully, all of my exams were open-book).

With a few days to spare, I started working through old exams, using my materials. Any time something came up that wasn’t in my study materials, I added it. By doing this, I generated a list of the most commonly tested topics, with answers.

Fifth, I End Up Doing Okay

By the time the first exam day rolled around, I was resigned to my fate.

I just went into each exam well-rested, and tried to make a good-faith effort to answer the questions.

Shockingly enough, this actually worked pretty well. I knew so little that I couldn’t get distracted and go off on interesting, but not particularly relevant tangents.

When I read a question, I’d think about what basic topic area it was in, consult my study materials, and look at the marked up old outlines if necessary. I’d make a detailed outline of my answer, then start writing.

Because I wasn’t going into as much detail, I focused on making my answers clear, easy to follow, and logical, using headers and formatting to highlight important points.

I tried to keep them light, even making the occasional joke. The way I saw it, if I could make the grader’s job a little easier, he’d probably be more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt!

In the end, this worked out okay. My grades weren’t awesome, but they were frankly better than I deserved, given how much of a f**k up I’d been.

Moral of the story: It’s not too late! There’s still a chance to turn things around, however bleak the situation looks right now.

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Comments

  1. Awesome story, Alison! Kind of reminds me of my last semester of law school, when I realized at the end of April that I had skipped the entire month of March in Admin Law, which I loathed because the professor was into banking law. I would have been grateful for a better rescue than I had, which was to work through all the old exams like a fiend and pray. It worked out OK, thank goodness.

    • Well, it’s not even as if I fully learned my lesson. There were other near-misses, like the EU law class I was on the way to bombing, when a friend from another school found me a great outline. Saved that grade!

      Luckily we can look back and laugh now, but it’s pretty stressful as it’s happening…

  2. Columbia Student says:

    This was really nice to read, considering I’m a second semester 1L with looming exams. Also just wanted to add that Foundations of the Regulatory State is indeed being offered again as a 1L elective this year, and is taught by Peter Strauss. I’m not in it though, so I’ve got no idea if it’s improved from what you’re describing!

    • Interesting! Well, Prof. Strauss is great (he taught my section of that pre-semester course and I like him even though he failed me on the exam), so I’m sure he’s doing a much better job. Also better that it’s an elective, so people with some inherent interest in the subject can sign up! In theory, it didn’t have to be that terrible, but it definitely was in practice.

      Good luck on exams, and remember to get some sleep! I’m convinced that’s the key.

      • Columbia Student says:

        I also had Strauss for Legal Methods (and heard tales of him failing people, which basically terrified all of us!) I had no idea Reg State used to be required–that sounds completely brutal to me actually.

        And thanks! This is actually my first time commenting but I’ve been reading for a while and your posts are really really helpful (it’s especially nice knowing that you went to the same school I’m at now!) I didn’t sleep much at all during finals last semester, and I think that probably showed, so I will definitely change that this time around.

  3. Such a good read! Going to work through old exams all day. Finals are Mon, Wed, Fri… WIsh me luck!

    • Good luck! I have to admit I’m really glad I don’t have to take law school exams any more…so stressful!

  4. Wow! I actually love this article. This was me in second year but it wasn’t almost disastrous. It was disastrous. looking back now, I could have achieved so much more if I took hold of my nerves and made good use of the time left..
    We live and learn..
    Thanks for sharing.. 🙂

    • Alison says:

      Thanks, I appreciate the kind words! Sorry things didn’t turn out great for you — it’s really tough when you’re in a bad place and can’t see a path out. But, all we can do is improve going forward, no?

  5. saralee says:

    Hi Allison,

    I’m also suffering from my second semester in my 1st year of law school. I was just curious how you developed and overcame your insomnia? I developed insomnia in my first semester and right now I barely get 3-4 hours of sleep….I don’t want to be prescribed pills because I’m scared that i’ll rely on it and not be able to sleep without it..anyways thank you for your wonderful post!

    • To be honest, the only solution that worked for me was prescription sleeping pills. I was careful about not overusing them (and that’s definitely a temptation), but nothing else got me any sleep in the worst of it. I think the worst stretch was when I took sleeping pills for three weeks straight. At that point, I figured it was becoming a potential problem, so I stopped for awhile and only used them when I had to sleep (during exams usually). But even knowing I had the ability to knock myself out, if I needed to, helped me get to sleep naturally at times.

      As for how it developed, it was really during first semester exams. I’d allocate eight hours in my schedule for sleep, and just lay awake for 3 or 4 hours. After several weeks of this, I was a nervous wreck! After that, my sleep schedule just never normalized again, and none of the “sleep hygiene” stuff ever worked.

      Best of luck. I know how frustrating insomnia in law school can be!

  6. Hi Alison,

    This is exactly what was occurring to me. It is nice to hear that I was not the only one. I was scared to take any sleeping pills, but i knew a lot of people who were. Do you suggest anything in particular?

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