If you’re anything like me, your first experiences in law school—whether it is a “summer start” program like the one in which I began or the more traditional 16-week semester—may well turn out to be a wakeup call of the worst kind, like a slept-through-your-flight kind of call from a hotel’s front desk. In short, the first months in law school have the power to make you feel not only like you’ve been left behind but that you’re all alone. It’s like Home Alone; only this time, you’re playing Kevin.
Perhaps that seems dramatic. And in one sense, I suppose it is. After all, plenty of students adjust to the rites and rigors of law school without so much as breaking a sweat. But for the rest of us, there’s an adjustment period, and a significant one at that. But now that I’m nearly halfway through my 3L year, I wanted to take some time to pass on what I’ve learned. In particular, let me simply say “I wish I’d known that” about these “Three Rs and a T” earlier than I did.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first thing to which I wish I had been privy during my first few months of law school were the school’s vast network of resources, of both the professional and personal variety. They are there, waiting to be consulted. But you’ve got to know who and what and where they are.
By professional resources, I mean both awareness of and access to the vast array of supplementary materials that line your library’s dusty shelves as well as your school’s version of the University of Oklahoma the College of Law’s 1L “Study Resources” splash page. Not to be dramatic, but my school’s supplementary materials were the sine qua non of my vast improvement between my first and subsequent semesters.
That said, the truth is that there are far more resources to peruse than there is time to peruse them. But don’t let the sheer volume of supplementary sources scare you away. Instead, find a few you like, and then apprentice yourself to them early on. It’ll make a world of difference come exam time. (Personally, I like to spend most of my time with conceptual outlines and digital recordings of famous law school lecturers. Others prefer multiple-choice compilations or flash cards.)
By personal resources, on the other hand, I mean the plethora of personnel who are at your service. Although my school’s director of academic support had yet to take the metaphorical field when I arrived, I have since had the pleasure of working with her while she called the tutorial plays. I don’t know about you, but I find that talking through concepts in one-on-one conversation is one of the best ways in which I learn. Whether those conversations are for you or not, get to know the administrators, the advisors, and the tutors. They’re there for you, and they want to see you succeed. And if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned professors in this section, it’s that my own experience has taught me that profs generally make for better conversation partners than tutors. So get your directed academic guidance elsewhere.
For most of you, this one’s probably a no-brainer. Like most things in life, law school is both easier and more enjoyable when you do it with others. No, don’t do others’ work or sign up for classes just because someone else does. But don’t forget to build relationships. And don’t start thinking about relationships exclusively through the lens of networking just because you’re in law school. People aren’t projects; they don’t want to be treated like means to ends. So “Yes,” get to know your classmates, mentors, and other friends of your school . . . but not because of what they can do for you but because of who they are.
More specifically, within the first few months of school make it a personal goal to deal with your own myopia by seeking out relationships with a few good men and women, especially men and women with different interests, skills, and backgrounds. You won’t believe how much of the “law” you miss simply because of your own background and biases. Plus, a few good men and women make for excellent study buddies come exam time. And everyone needs a few study buddies.
Even Lebron can’t win titles on his own. Of course, if those study buddies totally fail you, just get new ones. If you’re wondering how to do that, just call the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office. I’m sure team executives would be happy to tell you how they managed to trade away all Lebron’s teammates to places stretching from New Orleans to Timbuktu.
But, on a more serious note, other people often make all the difference in who we are and what we become. See generally John MacMurray, Persons in Relation (Humanity Books 1961). Most of your success in law school, as in life, in other words, will likely be byproduct of those around you. See id. This is categorically true—even for the “highest ranked” among us. So get out there and make a few friends. But remember to treat them like people, not projects.
This one’s probably a no-brainer too. But get ready to read, read, and then read some more. But be sure to learn how to read first. So you know, I wrestled with whether to make “Reading” the first ‘R’ in my list, primarily because it seems to be the foundational element of every (legal) education program in the world. But I’ve chosen to put it here because even though it is arguably the most important item in this list, chances are it’ll be easiest to “fix.”
If you don’t already know, the “best” readers among us read different genres differently. See, e.g., Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading 190-308 (Touchstone Books 1972). For example, the best readers approach academic journal articles on sub-atomic particles one way and New York Times opinion pieces another. To become a good reader, in other words, is to learn to take stock not only of what you’re reading but why you’re reading. Only then will you be able to understand how you ought to be reading. This is even more important when it comes to reading the law.
One quick illustration: I came to law school after spending three years working as a middle division American history teacher. My paramount objective was to introduce students to the “past” as well as the people, places, and events therein. One of the many ways I did that was by giving lectures. To prepare, I would often have to conduct research and hunt for facts. The most important facts were usually buried somewhere within hundreds or thousands of pages of journal entries, newspaper articles, or monographs. Sometimes the hunt was exhausting. But it was always worth it because it wasn’t until I had a decent grasp of the facts that I was able to present a story of the past through which students were prepared to identify and explain, or analyze and interpret, historical events.
Understanding the facts is an equally important part of the study and practice of law. But to treat cases only—or even primarily—as a hunt for hidden facts is to miss the point of reading case law. Yes, we must have a basic grasp of the facts in order to analyze cases intelligently, but the goal of reading case law is to learn to identify the relationships between the facts and the rules, not just to memorize facts. In some sense, that is the essence of the practice and interpretation of the law: What is the relationship between fact(s) X and rule(s) Y at time(s) Z, and what does that relationship permit, encourage, or bind the court to do?
It Just Takes Time.
The last thing about which I want to say “I wish I’d known that” is that, for most of us, adjusting to the rites and rigors of law school just takes time. I find it ironic that I didn’t see this coming. As an “older” student (I was 29 when I started), I suppose I should have expected that any measure of success in law school—like most good things in life—wasn’t going to come overnight. As convenient as they are, everyone knows microwave ovens ain’t got nothin’ on slow cookers. Wherever you are in the process, remember this. It’ll probably take some time to adjust.
Just exactly how much time it’ll take to adjust is different for everybody. It took me a semester. In fact, by the time I figured out what was going to be asked of me on my first set of exams, it seemed like I had less than a couple weeks to prepare properly. Others probably could’ve taken—and passed—their exams without preparing and all. Not me. And likely not you either. So take some time to reflect on how quickly (or slowly) you typically adjust to new environments, and then do the things I’ve recommended above.
Ultimately, the key to achieving a measure of success in law school is not about how quickly you adjust or how effectively you read; instead, achieving a measure of success in law school comes as you get to know who you are and what you need to do in order to accomplish your goals. If you’re 22 or 23, be willing to admit that you don’t know much about who you are or where you’re headed. And if you’re a little older, like I was, just remember that graduate school and mid-life career changes are never easy. In a word, don’t worry about whether you’re going to be a “success.” Success does not, after all, always look like graduating “number one” or landing a federal appellate clerkship. It might, but it might also look like cranking out public interest briefs for next to nothing.
Notwithstanding the fact that everyone’s personalities and professional goals are different, I have a sneaking suspicion that the sooner you learn how to consult resources, prioritize relationships, read effectively, and acknowledge that it takes time to adjust to the rites and rigors of law school, the less likely you’ll find yourself saying—like I did—“I wish I’d known that.”