Advice from the Trenches for Incoming 1Ls: On the Rigors of Law School

Advice for incoming 1Ls Part I - What I Wish I Had Known When Starting Law SchoolPlease welcome guest writer Kala Mueller, Director of Public Interest Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law. Kala is looking at what some of the students she works with wish they had known going into law school.

For incoming 1Ls, the weeks and months leading up to law school are usually filled with excitement, fear, anxiety, and a lot of questions. I could regale you with tales of my law school experience, but alas, it was more than ten years ago and the details are blurry. Lucky for you, I have the privilege of working closely with a lot of really exceptional law students who are much wiser than me. I asked a few of them to tell me what they wish they would have known as they prepared to enter law school or what advice they would give to new students.

Before I unleash their collective wisdom, let me provide one caveat. Your success in law school will depend largely on figuring out what works best for you, and as you might imagine, it’s not the same for everyone. For every student that tells you not to rely on supplemental study aids, you’ll find someone who found them to be incredibly helpful. My hope was that some larger, more universal themes would begin to emerge in the feedback I received, and indeed they did. I’ll be exploring these themes in a series of three posts, and hope you’ll find value in hearing about the experience of those who, not long ago, stood in your shoes.

It’s Going to be Uncomfortable

Spoiler alert: law school is hard for pretty much everyone and no one knows what they’re doing in the first year, even if it doesn’t always appear that way. A common response I received was some variation of, “I really didn’t expect to struggle as much as I did with the material and the testing.” This tends to be uncharted territory for new law students, most of whom have always excelled in school, and it was unsettling for many of the rising 2Ls I heard from, including Madison Huber:

In law school, you’re thrown into the deep end of the pool without a floatation device. It will be uncomfortable. The panic will set in. You will feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, and that’s because you don’t. Realize that is how you’re supposed to feel and embrace it.

Hilary Sayre likened the transformation that occurs in the first year of law school to the growing pains she experienced as a child.

The process of learning how to read a case, spot issues, grasp complex and abstract principles, and write effectively about those principles hurts. Your brain will ache as you learn how to handle the workload and the density of the material. But, when you look back you will see […] that you are transforming into an intelligent, dauntless, and formidable attorney. Take each day in stride, humbly accept each setback and triumph, ask for help when you need it, and don’t forget to mark your progress on the wall so you can see how much you grow.

The biggest lesson Ashley Hatfield learned in the first semester of 1L year was to stop comparing herself to those around her.

I remember feeling like I wasn’t doing law school right because I wouldn’t stay up until 11 p.m. studying, I wouldn’t lock myself in the library after class got out, and I didn’t have 17 highlighters and a coordinating sticky note system for reading cases. I remember questioning whether law school was the right choice for me because everyone seemed to be swimming while I was struggling to keep my head above water. I soon learned that my classmates and I were in the same boat, and I began to focus on myself. I decided to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and began to use the strategies that worked for me and let [other] people use what worked for them. Knowing that everyone was just as lost as I was really helped to calm my fear of failure. Know your truth, know yourself, and don’t give up!

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Do it early and often, from different people, on all matters great and small. Though it took on various forms, “ask for help” was the most oft-repeated piece of advice from the students I surveyed. I think it’s important to keep this in mind, because many of you probably sailed through high school and college without ever needing any outside assistance. Rising 3L Cady Troester stressed the importance of remembering that “[e]veryone is here to learn and there’s no shame in not knowing or understanding something.”

Many students come into law school having performed well in undergraduate writing classes and assume this will automatically translate into success in legal writing, only to find out that it’s a whole different animal. Rising 2L Kimberly Barton recounted her experience in this regard:

I got a low score on one of my legal writing papers despite stubbornly thinking I’m a good writer and how could they not understand my talent (kidding, sort of). I talked to my small group professor and he pointed out a few mistakes I was making that were easy to fix. I talked to my large group professor and she helped me see how legal writing is different from other styles with which I was familiar. I talked to the Dean of Students and he gave me a stack of legal writing books and encouraged me to keep at it. I scored higher on the next assignment and learned more in the process.

Your classmates can be an excellent source of support and advice. However, Kimberly noted that if she had only talked with fellow 1Ls about her struggles, she wouldn’t have benefited from these more experienced perspectives and might have just assumed she wasn’t capable of succeeding when that clearly wasn’t the case. There are a lot of resources at your fingertips and people in the law school community who want to see you succeed. Take advantage of them. The Start Law School Right course is another great way to reduce some of the anxiety and uncertainty you may be feeling and help set you up for success.

Be sure to check back for parts 2 and 3 of the series where we’ll tackle other important issues including self-care, scheduling, extracurricular involvement, and studying.


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About Kala Mueller

Kala Mueller is the Director of Public Interest Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She received her B.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she served as a senior editor for the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society. Before joining the law college, Kala worked as a prosecutor and with a civil litigation firm where she practiced primarily in the area of personal injury defense. She lives in Lincoln, NE with her husband and three sons.

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