Of Law School and Troglodytes: A survival guide

Note: My apologies for the lateness of this third and last instalment on law school advice. A member of my family recently passed away, and therefore time and will were missing in action.

The beginning of law school is an exciting moment, as are many new experiences. You are now entering (or you have already entered for some time) the deep, damp, dark and cold underground labyrinth that is law school. You are now a troglodyte … I mean student at law. The comparison to a troglodyte may seem unflattering, but like those mythical creatures you will now dwell in your own world cut out from reality and you will be blind to anything that is not related to law. At first, this strange new world will appear bizarre and unfamiliar, but as you grow accustomed to it, it is the rest of the world that will become strange and distant. I may be exaggerating, but barely. It is not a negative thing per se and far from a uniquely law school phenomena (many professional schools create similar settings). Nevertheless, it can sometime be overwhelming and difficult to deal with since we have little frame of reference. Fear not brave new proto-troglodytes for I will try to help you on your quest with these tips and advice on how to survive (and maybe succeed) in law school.

The First Year

If there is one constant in law school experiences it is that your first year will be terrible. When the initial hype of novelty dissipates, the brutal reality of the first year mandatory courses will hit you like a train. Let us be honest, these classes are difficult, and involve obscene amount of reading, horrible 70 to 100% final exam and new form of reasoning. Everything is new from the method, to the substance, passing by the very way you think, write and read. It can be quite overwhelming. Furthermore, all the classes are mandatory; even though you will probably never practice in many of these areas of the law (the traditional mandatory courses are usually at least contract, torts, property, criminal law, constitutional law, and public law, in addition to some sort of writing and researching skill course).

To survive, firstly tell yourself that it is inevitable, you have to pass through it. The good news is that once the first year is done, the rest is a piece of cake. You should also drill in your mind that even though you might hate with a passion property law (guilty!) or another course, those basic courses are not just for the substantive or even procedural law, they are there to burn in your brain how to think about and work with the law. It is to make you into a good little troglodyte (a state that is irreversible once you graduate, trust me you will forever think like a jurist after law school whether you practice or not). Which leads me to an important point, you don’t learn to be a lawyer in law school: you learn about the law. You will learn how to practice by … suspense … practicing! Also, your grades probably won’t be as great as in undergrad or cégep so don’t beat yourself, it’s the way it goes: everyone accepted has amazing grades, but obviously not everyone in law school will have amazing grades. Plus, don’t despair as upper years course tend to result in better grades (for example I had an average of B+ for the first year, but A for the third). Lastly, don’t read everything. Learn to ID what you should read in its entirety, what you can substitute by a summary (especially SCC cases) and what you don’t have to read at all. I can’t tell you in advance how to do it as everyone works differently, but one thing is certain: you have too much to do already so don’t overburden yourself by doing all the reading since it rarely results in better learning (a little admission: I never read fully a case, from beginning to end, before I started my graduate studies – mostly because I always read the fact summary instead of the whole fact section, but also because I only read the summary or excerpt of cases in class that didn’t interest me; so basically all private law classes).

Balancing your life

Once you start feeling relatively comfortable in your new law school setting, the next step is to find a balance. Do not underestimate this point as finding a balance often makes the difference between success and failure, or between joy and deep depression. Law school is time consuming, but it should never take over your entire life. You will have to take time off, even if by force. Keep some hobbies and some social time (outside of law school that is). Continue the activities you liked before law school, even if at a less frequent rate. Most importantly, make time for yourself and try from time to time to do NOTHING AT ALL. Even troglodytes need to feel the sunlight once in a while. This will not only be beneficial for your health, but also for your motivation and mood, which in turns increase likelihood of success! Obviously you know yourself better than anyone else, so I cannot tell you how to achieve this balance. Furthermore, everyone is different and will thus need a different balance. One thing that usually helps, however, is to be really organised and have clear time when you work and clear time when you are “off”. Also, if your friends or family are concerned that law is the only thing you are doing, then you are probably failing at balancing; “sorry, please try again”.

Choosing courses and other involvement

The eternal question of what course I should take. My take on it is really simple. Take the courses you like. I don’t think the so called “bar courses” (courses you should take to help you pass the bar) are actually useful considering the very different approach bar exam and material have (mostly procedural in nature really). If you think you are going to practice criminal law, by all mean take all the criminal law courses you can. For the rest, take what you like even if you think there is minimal chance you’ll actually practice in that field (let say public international law). Most of my friends in private practice work in field unrelated to their law school passion. Firms often look more for personality than if you took the right courses. Anyway, they know that practicing is what will make you good and learned in your field. More importantly, taking courses you actually like will make your law school experience bearable or even enjoyable. Beside obviously the topic of a course, be on the lookout for prof you like and for teaching style you like. Clinical courses are a good way to get practical experience and to make connection. Plus if you intend to go into grad school, it gives you a taste of the practicing lawyer world. If you have a chance, considering the balancing point, you should think about involving yourself in different activities in the law school (law review, student groups, moot competition, etc.) as it gives good experience, looks good on a CV, and helps in making contact. It also often results in opportunity you wouldn’t get otherwise.

Studying and Learning

Everyone learns differently. Everyone studies differently. Knowing yourself, how you think and how you learn, is essential in being successful. If traditional Socratic style teaching doesn’t work for you, try to complement your class with other learning activities like discussion, making graphic out of your notes, doing practical exercises, etc. In that regard, don’t hesitate to ask questions, for help and for support to professors, staff, colleagues and friends. Law students are a million time less competitive than the urban myths make them look. Basically, find your style and keep to it even if it means making more efforts. It is also helpful to make the distinction between learning and studying. What you learn is usually general: how to think about the law, how to apply it, what you like, what you are good at, making connection, etc. What you study is what you will spit out on your exam hoping for a good grade. They are often not the same thing, but both are necessary: learning to function as a jurist; and studying to get your degree. They often involve different style and you should find which one works for each (discussion, listening and reading works for learning, while reading and repetition work for studying in my case). Don’t forget to learn in all your studying. Additionally, the law world is new, so it is normal that it takes some time to get familiar with the field. You may also have to reevaluate how you learn and study, to adapt to law. It’s a subject that in the end is not that hard. It’s just seems so foreign at first.

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There is obviously no miracle solution for your success, but hopefully these tips help a bit. Good luck and may you be a successful troglodyte!

NB: Someone asked that I include bar exam tips, but I won’t simply because I have none. I barely studied (by that I mean I read the material once) and passed both exams the first time, so I wouldn’t know what to say beside I hope you have my luck!

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