4 Rules to Manage First Year of Law School

The first year of law school challenges everything with, new people, new ways to think, write and research, all complicated by a lurch in the space-time continuum because time moves extremely quickly one minute and excruciatingly slowly the next. Here are five rules to help manage your first year.

1. Get to know your classmates. Some will be your friends for life.

Five things to know about these strangers:

  • Many have been the smartest kid in the class all of their lives and law school will be a shock because they will work on a level playing field;
  • Some have diligently researched and targeted specific career goals, which they may discard and then become slightly unhinged;
  • Some have absolutely no idea why they are in law school, and they may be hit by inspirational lightening or by a nightmare of debt;
  • Most have amazing skills, talents and experiences which are not immediately apparent. You will find inventors, entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, nurses, dancers, singers, actors, choreographers, world travelers, Olympic athletes, and some who speak seven languages. Meet and enjoy them; and
  • Some will be your friends for life, but everyone will remember you and your behavior (good or bad) forever.

2. Coursework: Legal Writing is the most important class you will ever take.

To the immense frustration of thousands of 1Ls, the required Legal Writing course often carries few credits or is pass/fail, and requires more time and energy than all other courses combined. Resist the temptation to whine or wallow in the two most typical complaints, and get on with doing this important work.

a. Complaint #1.  “I am a good writer. I have never ever gotten less than an A on a paper. They don’t appreciate me. My Legal Writing instructor is clueless.”

You have come to a new land with new rules, new styles, and a new framework which you should embrace with enthusiasm. Your new Best Friend, IRAC, is the basis of sound legal analysis and writing which is the core skill distinguishing lawyers from all other professionals. You can do this. Back in high school, you learned the differences among narrative, persuasive, and expository essays, the varied structures and techniques of poetry, and, if you were lucky, that technical writing has its own requirements.

Legal Writing is something altogether different. Resistance is futile, and ignoring the class and the skills that it represents will put you at a serious disadvantage in school and at work. No one will pay you for poetry about Promisory Estoppel.

b. Complaint #2. “They don’t teach anything in legal writing.”

Learning to become a skilled legal writer is like learning to make barbecue, which, unlike lightning-fast-ramen noodles, is a long and slow process. Just as you learned to play baseball by practicing, the only way to become a skilled at this is with enthusiastic and systematic repetition and ferocious editing. Expect criticism. Relish revision. Expecting to be an instant high achiever is as delusional as expecting to hit a home run on your first time at bat. Legal writing is a skill that can be developed over a lifetime. You have to work at it.

3. The Law Library and Legal Research: Harnessing a 17th century skill in a 21st century box.

Before the internet, the first thing that law students said to themselves when they walked into the law library was “All of these books look alike.” That you may spend fewer hours in a physical library than students did 10 years ago does not relieve you from learning all that you can to harness this research-rich-resource.

The words “legal research” are shorthand for “research and analysis.” What was had been done by hand in books for centuries, now uses a 21st century technology box that enhances your access to information, but requires sophisticated techniques in order to fashion an appropriate result. What does this mean to you?  For couch-potato fact-based questions, the search strategy <em>“Google to 10,000,000 hits, pick 3, and read 1” </em>works wonderfully. Using the Couch-Potato-Google-Technique to search statutes, cases and regulations to resolve legal issues is a straight line to failure because of what you can miss.

Take advantage of every training opportunity offered by legal writing instructors, law librarians (who are all JDs, fyi), and Lexis and Westlaw reps. Ignore this practice at your peril.

4. Career Services: Use your time wisely.

Because you need to learn the difference between a contract and a tort, the American Bar Association (ABA),  American Association of Law Schools (AALS), and The Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) wisely keep 1Ls away from career offices for individual counseling until November 1.

That said, wise 1Ls pay close attention first semester career services programming. You will be invited to most of it, and the more that you can learn about traditional and non-traditional public and private options for lawyers, the better prepared you will be to begin to apply for clerkships and fellowships. Pay attention to the speakers: they will talk about the importance of nuanced legal writing, in-person and on-line social networking, and meticulous interview preparation.

Three ways to manage your career services expectations:

a. Career Services Professionals cannot guarantee that you will get you a job.

While their collective goal is to see that students and alumni are employed, with a student-to-professional-ratio of 300-to-one, it is illogical to imagine that an office might act as Your Personal Employment Agency. The professionals are there to work as partners with you in your career development. You are responsible for active participation in the partnership.

b. Career Services Professionals do not operate by telepathy.

Unless you meet and communicate often, you cannot expect your advisor to know what you want and to be able to assist you in any way.

c. Career development work is your personal priority.

Unless you create and work your job search plan, nothing will happen. If you think about a job search once a semester, nothing will happen. Unless you do your part by engaging in self-assessment, making appropriate connections, and creating top-notch letter-perfect documents, nothing will happen.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/denverjeffrey/4865397883/)

  • Steven Appelget

    Rule # 5: No cleaning fish in the sinks!

  • http://eilerslawgroup.com William

    I would add to point number 1. At some point you have to succumb to notion that repetition is good. “Words” in legal writing have very distinct meaning. As an English/History major (dropped the English eventually), I had it drilled into my head to never use the same word multiple time in a paragraph. Synonyms and flowery language have no place in legal writing. That being said, don’t let them break you completely. Take time to read and write non-legal writings to keep your head from become too concise.

    • http://eilerslawgroup.com William

      And pay no mind to my grammatical, type to fast, language. ;)

  • Kim

    Where’s rule #5? This is a great list and I’m going to share it with my 1Ls (I’m a legal writing prof!).

    • Kim

      I see you’ve amended the list to be 4 rules–no 5th necessary. These 4 highlight key concerns of 1Ls.

  • http://www.coyelaw.com Wade Coye

    This is great advice – especially to remind students that they will no longer be “special” or “advanced” in their first year of law school. Additionally, the reminder that personal responsibility is essential applies not only to the Legal Writing class and job search, but to every class in general. No student can expect to learn by osmosis in law school, and every person who has aspirations as a future lawyer must be vigilent to proactively take responsibility for their own education. Thanks for providing these tips – I will pass them along to my interns who are applying to law school!