Back in January, my friend R.J., who works for our alma mater, Cornell College, asked for my reflections on life as a first-year law student. I submitted my essay in early February, and he published it in the Midwest Association of Pre-Law Advisors newsletter, the MAPLA Briefs, for consumption by perspective law students and their mentors. Here it is, in full. I'd write more, but I really should be studying.
Contrary to stereotypes perpetrated by movies like The Paper Chase, the first year of law school will not eat you alive. Other students will probably not raid your locker for study guides, tear important pages from your textbooks or force you to produce notes for them before final exams. While it’s certainly true that law school is more competitive than most colleges, rest assured that it is not life-threatening, and can be quite enjoyable.
Your law school experience will depend a great deal on which school you choose — not only the type of education you will get, but also your job prospects after graduation. After applying to 11 schools and visiting three, I chose to attend the William & Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia. I could not be happier with my choice.
One of the first things I noticed about law school is that unlike high school or college, everyone wants to be here. Law students tend to be more focused, more ambitious and, yes, more competitive than most everyone I encountered as an undergraduate at Cornell College. Because most law school classes are graded on a curve and because so much material is covered each day, missing a day of class is rarely, if ever, a good idea. It’s more likely for a law student to miss class for the death of a parent or the birth of a child than to skip class because of a hangover.
Second, it is critically important to know why you are attending law school because shortly after Thanksgiving of your first year, while studying for your first round of final exams, you will wonder what you have gotten yourself into. At most law schools, including this one, final exams are worth 100 percent of your semester grade — there are no points for class participation, no papers to write and midterms, if you have them, are only for practice. I have taken hundreds of tests in my academic career, including tough college finals, the GRE and the LSAT. Yet I spent more time and effort preparing for each of my three first-semester law school exams than I spent on any previous test I had ever taken.
I quit a comfortable job, gave up my cat and moved 1,000 miles from family and friends in Iowa to attend William & Mary. I did it because I believe that our federal government has lost sight of the rule of law and because I want to play a role, however small, in fixing the government. In stark contrast, many of my friends came here to get jobs at big law firms, where they will have starting annual salaries of $150,000 or more. While that path has obvious perks, it is not the path for me. Like many others, I made sacrifices to come here and I owe it to myself to stick to my goal. Being away from family for months at a time is difficult, but my goal is what keeps me motivated. Know your goal and stay true to it. If you do not know why you are attending law school, I urge you to think long and hard before sending your first application.
Here are a few things that have surprised me about law school, and that might surprise you, too.
If you attended a small liberal arts college and enjoyed lively class discussions, law school classes will be different and not nearly as fun. Class sizes are larger and professors call on students mostly at random. Students who frequently raise their hands in class are called “gunners,” and are almost universally despised by other students. It is in your best interest, most of the time, to shut up — unless, of course, the professor calls on you, in which case it is in your best interest to know everything.
Once you get to law school, you will be inundated with incredible amounts of work. After working for four years in the newspaper business, I can honestly say that law school is the equivalent of a full-time job and another half-time job on top of that. On a typical day, I spend six to eight hours reading and typing notes, two or three hours in class, two hours working for my fellowship supervisor, an hour or two at student group meetings and another hour or two working on my future plans, such as finding a summer job. That is 12 to 16 hours of day of strictly law school-related activities. If I am lucky, I can find an hour to get to the gym or an hour to cook myself a decent meal. Maybe once a week, I find an hour or two to call family and friends.
Still, every law student endures this same rigorous pace, and most live to tell about it. If able to put it all aside for half a day, I can do wonderful, meaningful things like attend a lecture by a visiting Supreme Court justice, engage in volunteer work at a legal aid clinic or spend a glorious night drinking wine, watching movies and laughing with a dozen magnificent friends.
In at least one respect, law school is more like high school than college: relationships. Far from being immune to personal drama, law students show a particular flair for it. Gossip runs rampant; I suppose we have to keep ourselves entertained somehow. On the serious side, statistics show that while about 10 percent of students enter law school clinically depressed, the number increases to 40 percent after completion of the first year. As I’ve said, the first year of law school is hard and unless you’re superhuman — I most certainly am not — it will be hard on you.
Two pieces of parting advice: first, read the book Law School Confidential. Second, know who you are and what you want to achieve. If you know that, you will not disappoint anyone — including, most importantly, yourself. And law school will not eat you alive.