Monday, May 11, 2009

The Five Things I Learned About My First Year

Well, Gentle Readers, it's over. A significant milestone in the eponymous journey. First year ended with an unexpected form of subtlety, but began as openly and notoriously as a bull fight. To borrow a legal metaphor - it adversely possessed my life. Law School started with a two day, mandatory orientation that many tended to skip out on (the sign in sheet and most of the important material appeared in the morning, anyway. The trick was to wait for the free lunch, pick up a basket, then bolt). The casual, summer-campy atmosphere seemed to mask the bubbling unease and excitement of starting the slow, painful transformation into a lawyer. And then, before you knew it, they threw you head first into the ensuing torrent of law and equity. You learn as you go, picking up the bones and clues of your professors in how to break down the law, read cases, and generally survive the maelstrom that is being a "1L." Below are the five basic rules I learned through out the course of the year - mostly through experience - that helped me make it across the river. Although I can't say I couldn't make it without them, it definitely helps a person to understand what's coming down the way. So I'll lay them out here, should someone stumble across them and find these guidelines helpful.

1. Law is Not an Intuitive Subject
My hardest and earliest lesson was detailed out during the first half of my first semester. My torts professor laid it out rather flatly - that most (i.e. all) of us were not the caliber of student capable of walking in and succeeding based off of our own intellect. These were not skills most people, even with previous experience in similar fields, could just "get" and wing it. That isn't to say there are people who can't; simply, that the exceptional few people able to turn in a legal memo without drafting or contend with a teacher by simply skimming a case and nothing else are incredibly rare. Chosen one born every generation or so, lucky should you even work with one rare. And, that we were going to struggle because of this fact. 

For many of us, there was a certain luxury in undergrad of knowing that, when walking into a class room, you could very well be one of the smartest people in the room. That you were exceptional or special or possessed some inherent knowledge achieved through life experience and passion for the subjects you chose to study. Or maybe you developed a unique method of breaking down and digesting all forms of information simply because you were just that bright. In law school, that's taken away from pretty much everyone and all you're left with is your drive. You don't have to be an idiot to fail. Being brilliant does help a little, but the process itself is a metamorphosis, mind you. Your goal is to become an entirely different animal, so take comfort that most will start off on a fairly even playing field. Expect to be frustrated and to have your confidence shaken severely.

2. Keep Your Head Above the Water
The amount of work you'll have to put in is daunting. You're looking at a 9 am - 5 pm, 40 - 60 hour a week commitment, so take the time accordingly. As I've said before, your performance will, mostly, be indicative of the amount of work you choose to put in. However, that does not mean that just because you do a lot of work that you're going to do well. Understand that law school is set up to be competitive in order to a) make your school (and therefore you) more marketable and respectable b) weed out those who don't take the material seriously so that they don't waste their money and time on future classes and c) rectify the amount of imbecilic litigators that seem to squeeze out from the challenging standards most law schools hold. So, in doing so, many law schools set in place mandatory curving requirements. There can be only one or two solid A's and at least 7% will be required to fail. The average will fall around B-/C+ and a C- means retaking the class again.

The best course of action is to make sure you keep with the material and read what you're supposed to read when you're supposed to read it. You don't have to (and sometimes just straight up won't) have every little detail figured out before you make it to class - the professors really don't expect you to do so. They will usually guide you to the right answer with the socratic method. There's something to reading ahead, but it really isn't necessary unless you have a string of assignments coming up. And, if you do fall a little behind, just take the time to catch up the next opportunity you can. It's going to be a little frustrating - in fact, I can guarantee it. The goal, simply, is to tread water and not drown. Get all the important stuff out of the way before you move on to something with which you know you have a few liberties. Get a schedule going and just keep with it.  Don't get discouraged because you're not doing it perfectly - the longer you keep with it, the faster and better you'll become.

3. Pace Yourself
To say law school is stressful and mentally taxing is a bit of an understatement. Despite the amount of time it will consume, it's important to take breaks and not give up the little things that help you get through the day. Go to the gym, see your friends, watch a t.v. show, play on a sports team, do a blog, or get involved with something. Yes, you've signed on to a rigorous and arduous academic curriculum and not falling behind is a priority. But, it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you push it as hard as you can right when you come off the block and cut everything out of your life that isn't law related, you're going to hate everything about your education and you're going to burn out. And failing because you burned out can be way worse than failing because you fell behind a little bit. Because, at least, if you've fallen behind, you'll understand why you failed. Burn out tends to leave you confused, bewildered, and overly spiteful. Not pleasant.

Do things that remind you that the world exists beyond the library, briefs, and case books. Slow down and keep yourself connected - it makes it a lot easier to keep your head above the water.

4. Keep Your Hands Clean
Keep healthy and keep with the honor code. Law school is a lot like kindergarten. Your section is about 30 people deep and you spend pretty much everyday, all day together. So, if one person gets sick it tends to spread. If you're not careful you'll catch and that's really the last thing you need before you're about to head into a midterm or a 3-hour final that's 100% of your grade. Because that's when they'll happen.

In November of 2008, a rampant case of pink-eye nearly crippled the student population at UB. Yours truly was nearly affected by this ghastly, gooey epidemic, but he kept his eyes peeled and his hands washed. When he noticed a red streak creeping across his eye he jumped into action and took the proper precautionary measures. Crisis averted. Luckily it wasn't something worse. But, next time, he'll be ready.

As per the honor code, just follow it. Our teachers freaked out because someone signed in another person who didn't attend class that day. They take that kind of thing very seriously. Don't cheat, kids.

5. Roll With It
Things rarely go to plan. Events are going to happen that you don't expect and, sometimes, you just have to roll with it. Be proactive and embrace the change. Go with the flow. Adapt and evolve.

Law school definitely attracts a certain personality and those who exist outside this norm will notice themselves conforming more to that standard. You have to a little - as you spend exuberant amounts of time over the course of a 9 month period forsaking friends, family, and social events for reading, briefing and outlining, with many people spending unbelievable amounts of money to do this to themselves, all the while the concept of success/having it all be for nothing is completely contingent on the outcome of your first year grades. No one wants to waste a year of their life like this, so you get a little meticulous and regimented about your work. Protective, even. Throwing something into the loop that disrupts what is typically foreseeable amps the stress up for most, as per what happened with this year's finals.

Typically, finals stretch out across a two week period. First year, it'll usually work out so exams come twice a week with a few days in between for studying. During second semester we were put on an abbreviated schedule - first exam two days after the last day of classes (Thursday) and then then next three exams coming Monday-Wednesday-Friday of the following week. Needless to say it stressed people out a little - it's a lot like taking about a weeks worth of study time away (and some 2 or 3L's would have exams back to back). The prevailing feel was articulated best by a friend who said, "It's a lot like being a part of a set of dominoes. One falls down,  and then the next, and then the next..." I agreed with the statement initially, but, after the test was over I realized she was wrong. It's way, way too passive - like you're waiting around for bombs to hit. Of course, if you view it like the approaching of a series of inevitable cataclysms, you're going to be as stressed as you possibly can be. A better metaphor was something like this:

Imagine you're a matador in a bullfight with no cape, a rubber sword that you're not going to be able to use, and your bare hands. When the bull charges you grab it by the horns, swing around, and ride it rodeo-style. And, in the course of doing so, you drive the bull off a cliff, steering it so you crash into whatever you can to slow your decent so that you MIGHT survive when you hit the bottom


Odd metaphor, yes. But, it's also oddly perfect - it combines a similar feeling of approaching doom, but you acknowledge that you're at least doing something about it. And, that if you're successful, you could come out somewhat alright. Recoverable, at least. The bottom line is to take solace in what action you can take. Because it just might be enough to make you welcome to come back to class in the fall.

That concludes my 5 lessons. I hope those who stumble upon our humble blog find this helpful. And, if not helpful, at least pleasurable. As always, feel free to comment below.


B.Graham said...

Very nice. Considering a Five Things I Learned About Freelance. What do you think?

Ozkirbas said...

I say do it to it. In fact, now I am in want for it. WANT.

Chris Evans said...

All I can say is....holy shit.

Meg said...

I feel like I might have a different five things. But mine would be at least 6 long, with 6 being" "You can do anything if you sit next to John Ozkirbas."