Thursday, March 25, 2010

What is the First Year of Law School Really Like?

 I decided to have a roundtable interview with four current law students to find out. Frequently prospective law students are intimidated and feel unprepared for what lies ahead, especially during the first year ("1L year"). Our four guests talked about their definition of academic success, how to study and prepare for exams, the transferring process, and how the current legal market has affected summer hiring.

Our four esteemed guests consist of three 2L’s, two of which are transfer students, and a 1L. They are:

Michelle Tellock is currently a 2L at Yale Law School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University where she double majored in Cognitive Science and Sociology. Before attending law school, Michelle worked for a year as a management consultant.

Tinu Awoyomi is currently a 2L at Columbia Law School. Her 1L year was spent at the University at Buffalo School of Law on a full-tuition scholarship. Tinu graduated summa cum laude from Long Island University where she majored in Social Work. Upon graduation from college, she was awarded an Honors Program Scholarship.


Katy Preston is currently a 1L at Harvard Law School and graduated from Rice University with honors where she majored in English. Prior to law school she worked as an LSAT tutor with Kaplan.


Danielle Church is currently a 2L at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. Her 1L year was spent at the University of Richmond Law School where she was in the top 12% of her class. Danielle also studied for her bachelor's at the University of Texas at Austin, and double majored in German and Government.

Policy Diary: Welcome! Thank you all for participating. I believe that 1L year is probably one of the most misunderstood components of legal education. My hope is to shed some light on the process and increase the clarity.
Michelle Tellock: Thanks for having me!
Tinu Awoyomi: Thanks for inviting me.
Katy Preston: I’m very happy to participate.
Danielle Church: Thanks, John. Glad to chat.

Defining Success
PD: I think a good place to start is: What is your barometer of success? Are you motivated by the same things you were during your undergraduate career? If not, how is it different?
MT: In college, measures of success were definitely a bit more clearly defined for us: take a relatively prescribed set of courses, get high grades, and be active on campus. There was generally always a “next step” to keep you motivated. Now – at least at a law school with a curriculum as flexible and a community as nurturing of individual interests as Yale’s – there is a lot more room for an individual student to set his or her own goals. To some extent, that is very freeing, but it can also be a little scary. You have to know what you want before you go out to get it. I try to set specific goals for each semester: I want to learn about this new area of law, I want to do substantial writing, I want to build a connection with a professor, etc. That way, even if I later discover something new that captures my attention, I can point to real, concrete things that I’ve accomplished.
TA: For me, nothing changed between my undergraduate years and law school. In college, I was that student that studied all the time and was always in the library. I simply continued with my regular practices in law school. I know how rewarding success is in the long run. In college, it was about getting an award or hoping to get into law school or even getting a scholarship. In law school, it’s the hope of doing what I want to do; I am motivated by my career goals.
KP: I had many different goals going into 1L year. I wanted to get good grades, but on top of that, I wanted to really be present in my classes. Although I’d worked in a law firm between law school and undergrad, I’d been exposed to only a tiny area of a specific field of law, so I wanted to find out what areas of law I actually liked. Similarly, I wanted to get involved in a wider range of extracurricular activities – I think this is particularly important for 1Ls because the 1L curriculum doesn’t always focus on recent developments in the law, or application of the law, whereas activities like journals and student practice organizations usually do. Finally, I wanted to enjoy life and being a student! That can be a big struggle during 1L year, so I wanted to make it an explicit priority so that I didn’t neglect it.
DC: I feel that my barometer of success changed during law school.  I found that the short-term and long-term goals of law school seemed more apparent. From a short-term perspective, it was important for me to do well in order to transfer, and in order to have a wider range of job opportunities. From a long-term perspective, I wanted to take a variety of courses in areas that I’m interested in order to be a successful attorney. Of course, the short-term perspective is mostly relevant your first year. I found myself much more motivated in law school because of the more proximate and identifiable goals. 

PD: Heading into 1L year, what were your expectations? Did you exceed them? If so, to what do you attribute the accomplishment?

MT: I’m not sure I knew what to expect! I had lots of friends who had gone to law school, but of course, it’s hard to really describe the experience to someone else who hasn’t been there. I stayed away from all the fictional accounts (“One L,” “The Paper Chase,” etc.) because I didn’t want to have preconceived notions of what 1L would be like, and I think that served me well in the end. I decided that I wanted to immerse myself in all parts of school: not just class work, but also getting involved in clinics and clubs and journals. Having a variety of things on which to focus my energies helped me avoid the common “I hate this part of the law! Should I even be in law school?!?” freak out that I think lots of people experience during their required 1L courses.
TA: When I began my legal education, my goal was to excel. But excellence means different things to different people. I wanted to do my best as much as possible. I worked very hard my first year and I did well. Besides hard work, I attribute my success to God’s grace, a strong network of family members and friends, and luck.
KP: I expected to hate 1L year! I too stayed away from the fictional accounts (with the noteworthy exception of Legally Blonde), but I’d heard from so many lawyers and law students that 1L year was terrible. To my surprise, I found it much less painful than I’d anticipated, and sometimes downright enjoyable. I attribute this to many things: some great professors, an amazing 1L section, my involvement in the law school’s parody show, living with my wonderful boyfriend and some equally wonderful cats, watching lots of reality TV,  and my ability to cook increasingly edible food, just to name a few. Most of all I was happy to feel that I didn’t make the wrong choice by going to law school in the first place – I actually enjoy learning about the law, though perhaps not every kind of law.
DC: Based on past conversations with law students, I expected my IL year to be awful.  This mindset, though, helped me exceed my expectations because I was less focused on the social aspects of law school. I fully anticipated to have to study hard and to devote myself to my classes my first year. As far as what I expected of myself, I was honestly surprised by how well I performed. There are so many talented and intelligent people in law school. However, I think that law school is so different than any other type of education that it is often difficult to predict how well people will perform. I credit my success in finding out early on what type of studying works for me. Some students do well without outlining, some students learn better by flash cards, and others by briefing cases. I think I excelled simply by figuring out how I learned best, and for me that was outlining early on in the semester, and then strenuously taking practice tests before finals.

PD: What separates those students who succeed their 1L yr from those who do not?

MT: In some ways, this is a hard question to answer for someone who goes to a school that doesn’t offer many traditional measures of success to its students in the way of grades [Yale has essentially an uncurved honors/pass/fail grading system]. That said, I think those people who had the most meaningful 1L experience were those who didn’t write-off 1L as simply a “learning experience.” They did the reading for class not just to memorize the facts but also to understand how they fit into the larger themes of the course.  They started doing research with professors, they went to lectures and conferences, and they thought about their own academic interests and how to improve their writing. They also took time to enjoy 1L – going out with their new friends, exploring the university and the city, and not becoming one-dimensional law students without other interests and hobbies.
TA: I always tell 1L students this even though it has not been proven: you must know yourself and your professors if you want to do well in law school. I think some people do not know what they are capable of, their limits, their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think anyone should dabble into law school without being sure of whom they are. If you know yourself, it will influence your study habits, your stress level, and your general time management plans. For example, some students need to study for longer periods of hours while others do not. Some are better writers than others. Yet, some are even better at memorizing. Some students must study difficult material for a long and sustained period, while others simply need to do so in a few days. A student cannot study for too little when she knows she needs to study for a long time to master the information.
Know your professors: This simply means going to class and “learning” what your professors consider important. I think that at the end of the day, everyone knows the rules. What separates the A student from the B student in my opinion is how they write their exams. You should let your professor know that you were listening to them all semester. If they emphasize policy, then make sure you put that in your exam. What do they care about? A student should exhibit them on exams.
KP: It’s hard for me to say, because as I think we’ve seen, there are different ways to define “success,” and furthermore, it’s not always evident who has “succeeded” and who hasn’t. But I think that to echo what Tinu is saying, it’s important to know yourself – know your strengths, know your weaknesses, know what works for you, and know what doesn’t. I am someone who is really sensitive to quality of study time over quantity. If I start to feel like I’m not being productive, I tend to take a break and come back to what I’m doing later; for me, I think it would have been a terrible strategy to try to spend as many hours as possible in the library. I am also more productive in the morning and early afternoon than in the evening, so I tend to get up early and go to the library before class rather than staying up late to finish homework the night before. These strategies both work really well for me, but they would be completely awful for many other people. I think that beyond some basic, common-sense practices like being prepared for class and studying from past exams, there is no one strategy that guarantees you success.
DC: This is a very difficult question to answer because success has so many different definitions.  In my experience, though, the successful students were: (1) Those students who quickly were able to find out how they learn best; (2) The students that kept their head down and worked hard; and (3) The students that were able to tailor their studying towards the unique form of law school exams.  This is perhaps the most difficult, because every professor grades and tests differently.

Studying and Persevering

PD: What study skills do you feel were vital in assisting you to grasp and retain information? In addition, what best prepared you for exams? How much of your 1L success is natural smarts vs. hard work?

MT: Coming into law school, I thought I had a pretty good memory, but clearly the amount of information in four or five courses is enough to overwhelm even the most well-trained mind! I have never really done the traditional multiple-color highlighting – that just doesn’t help me focus on the important parts of a reading. Instead, I focus a lot on the Lexis or Westlaw headnotes/keycites and similar case summaries; I go back to them after reading a case to make sure that I – on my own – was able to pick out the important parts.
I’m certainly not the most conscientious student out there, and sometimes I fail to meet my own goal in this respect, but I think committing yourself to doing all the reading before class is immensely helpful – it’s basically common sense, but it’s impossible to really engage in the conversation if you don’t know the background.
For exams, I think hornbooks/commercial outlines can be helpful to learn the doctrine and establish clear frameworks, but group outlines with classmates are generally more on-point with regard to what the specific professor is likely to ask on a test.
TA: As [I] stated [before], I didn’t change my study habits in law school because I worked hard in college. So, I generally do what most people do: prepare for class which includes briefing cases, go to class, and create my outlines. I probably defer from most students in that I do not wait until finals to create my outlines; I do so throughout the semester, but that is because I know how best I grasp information. I think most of it for me was hard work. I think you need some intelligence but if you persevere, you will likely do well.
KP: I think the most important things for me were the basics: being prepared for class every day, paying attention during class, and taking good notes. I never really briefed cases, but I do think it’s helpful to have a short summary of each case to trigger your memory – whether that’s something you write yourself or something from Westlaw or a hornbook.
I did a couple of things more specifically to prepare for exams. I didn’t take the time to make long outlines for my classes – instead, I downloaded long outlines from an online outline bank set up by one of the student organizations on campus. But I did spend a lot of time making mini-outlines (8-10 pages) and checklists (1-2 pages). This process really helped me synthesize what I learned in each course over the entire semester, and I think a shorter outline is also much more useful during an exam. The other useful thing I did to prepare was to go through old exams for each of my professors and work through them (usually writing an outline of an answer rather than a full answer just for the sake of saving time). Then I would either compare them to model answers or go through my answers with a friend. This is so important because professors tend to test on similar things from year to year. For example, my criminal law professor always has you apply the Model Penal Code plus Pinkerton liability. So even though we spent a lot of time learning about the common law during class, I knew I should spend much more time reviewing the Model Penal Code.
As far as hornbooks are concerned, I think it depends. If you have access to a (good) past outline of a specific professor’s class, that can sometimes be infinitely more helpful than a hornbook, because it will reflect exactly what the professor is interested in (and thus, what she’s most likely to test you on). On the other hand, some classes (especially Civil Procedure) tend to reflect what’s in a hornbook more closely. I’ve found things to vary a lot by professor, so it’s helpful if you can ask past students of that professor, or even the professor himself, what they recommend.
Also, I don’t know about natural smarts, but being a strong (and quick!) test-taker definitely helps. Even though, I was a mess of nerves before my first exam, I know I’m a strong test-taker, so I focused less on that aspect of preparation. I imagine that if you have serious trouble with nerves or timing, you might want to structure your preparation differently, and try to simulate exam conditions before test day.
DC: For me, I found outlining to be incredibly important to helping me learn and memorize information. The key for me was not just to outline, but to edit my outline. I incorporated information from study aids, and from other students’ old outlines. This constant review and editing made me familiar with the material and helped me navigate my outline for the exams.
As far as preparing for the exam, the best advice I ever received was to take as many practice tests as possible. In reality, there are only so many ways you can be tested on material. This also helped me learn how to formulate exam answers within a short time limit (I would time myself as if I were taking the exam). I would first try to access the professor’s old tests, because many times they are remarkably similar to their current tests. After taking these tests several times, I would use the questions in supplements.  It was always my goal to spend the last two weeks before finals just taking tests. I found this particularly helpful because the memorization process of learning is quite different from applying it to actual fact patterns.

PD: If you were to name three things no one ever seems to tell a 1L - but that a 1L needs to know - what would they be and why?

MT:  (1) Outlining cases is a waste of time if it means you’re obsessing over minor details – focus on the big picture of what the case means for the class as a whole. Ask yourself: why did my professor put this case on the reading list? What rule or theory does it stand for? In general, much of your outline is likely noise, distracting from the important parts.
(2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from your Lexis/Westlaw reps and your librarians – learning how to efficiently do legal research will save you tons of time and frustration. The help lines are free, and librarians are usually overjoyed that someone is recognizing them as a useful resource.
(3) Choose your 1L summer job with an eye to two things: finding a good mentor (recommender, too!), and getting a good writing sample – both of these things will be immensely helpful as you search for 2L summer and permanent after-graduation employment. Sometimes, a “less prestigious” 1L summer job can be more beneficial if it gives you closer supervision and a chance to do meaningful writing.
TA: I would say:
(1)You should know yourself, as I mentioned earlier, know what works for you and what does not.
(2) Know your professors and build relationships with them. Included in this would be utilizing the resources your law school provides. I know of a great too many individuals who pass through law school but fail to make the best use of the experience. You are in law school for only three years, once you are out in the working world, you cannot go back.
(3) As much as possible, you want to build your intellectual skills so that you can develop those skills when you begin working. I know law school is tough and you will be busy all the time but try to develop relationships with your professors, get to know your colleagues, participate in activities, join organizations and network. 
KP: I’m actually going to list three things that I was told that were very helpful, if that’s okay:
(1) With regard to getting called on: everyone gets embarrassed at some point during the year. When it happens to you, you’ll remember it, but probably no one else will. And it is completely separate from your performance on the exam, so don’t worry about it.
(2) Exam questions are supposed to be hard – that is, that they’re not supposed to be a simple application of the rule to a straightforward set of facts. Don’t get freaked out when that happens on the exam!
(3) Don’t get too wrapped up in school. Remember to have fun. Make new friends, and take time to maintain existing relationships as well. Sometimes it can feel like other parts of life are a time drain, taking away valuable hours you could be spending getting work done. But the truth is that friends, family, and significant others are what get you through 1L year. Taking 30 minutes to call your mom or a couple of hours to hang out with your boyfriend/spouse/roommate/dog does wonders for your sanity in the long run, even though it might mean making some adjustments to your sleep schedule/coffee intake in the short run.
DC: Here is the advice that helped me during law school:
(1) I would repeat what Katy stated about being called on in class. Everyone does get embarrassed! It’s simply part of the 1L experience.
(2) I would definitely encourage people to apply to transfer. It is difficult to contemplate before starting law school, because it is really hard to predict how well you will do in law school before you start. However, in my experience, it has had enormous benefits. It can be a strenuous process, but it is definitely worth it.
(3) If you work hard your 1L year it will definitely pay off. If there’s one year in law school that’s the most important, it’s the first year. It’s important for transferring, for the job application process, and for journal applications.

PD: Did either of you consider pursuing a joint degree in law school?

MT: I’ve definitely considered it (probably a Masters in education), but I’ve basically been so caught up in enjoying law school that for now it’s on the back burner. Yale makes it really easy to get a joint degree, but for now I’m happy with taking some education-related law courses.
TA: Yes, but I changed my mind a few weeks into law school because I realized that my law degree is sufficient for my career pursuits.
KP: I didn’t consider it because none of my potential career goals really require it. I would consider going back to school in the future if that changes.
DC: I didn’t consider it because it didn’t coincide with my career goals.  I admire those who do, though, because law school is difficult enough as it is!

Relationships with Professors and Peers

PD: I think a good number of prospective law students make a concerted effort to build lasting relationships with their undergraduate professors (in part) to obtain recommendations. However, once in law school students may be “too busy” studying or what have you to build relationships with their law professors. Do you feel that is accurate in your case? Or do you view professors as career/lifelong mentors and resources?

MT: I’m blessed to be at a school that naturally lends itself to closer faculty-student interaction, just based on its size. I think professors can be a great resource, and I think lots of law students probably don’t take advantage of professors’ willingness to serve as mentors. You can’t go into their office and say, “Mentor me!” You have to put in some work, too, to ask specific questions and show them how they can help you…but some office hour visits can pay great dividends, both personally and professional.
TA: It really depends on so many factors: you, the [the professor], the law school, whether you transferred or not etc. I will say be open to [those] relationships.
KP: I think professors can be great resources, but a lot of the time, you have to take the first step. That can mean a variety of different things: stopping by their office hours, setting up a meeting with them, doing research for them. Once you take that step, though, I think most professors are very receptive, and can be great resources.
DC: I think a lot of it depends what different people want out of law school.  If you are applying for clerkships in particular, it is important to have those close faculty relationships, in part for the letters of recommendation. I know many students, though, that know the type of law that they want to practice and find little need to develop relationships with certain professors. It is important to develop a professional network early on, whether that be with professors, practicing attorneys, or others. Aside from developing relationships for letters of recommendation, my advice is this: If you know that a professor is an expert on the type of law you want to practice—build that relationship! It will greatly help you in your career. However, if you don’t want to practice in that area of law, you may be better off developing a relationship with another professor or with practicing attorneys in that field.
PD: The amount of competitiveness in law school is legion. How do you navigate relationships with peers? On one hand they are and will be an incredible resource. And on the other, they may be hiding books behind obscure library stacks.
MT: Here, again, I’m lucky – our lack of traditional grades and our small size mean that most Yale graduates don’t find themselves competing with each other for all but the most selective jobs. I’ve found my classmates to be incredibly supportive: we have a school-wide bank of class outlines, and people refer each other for summer jobs.
TA: I have not had many problems with this issue; I am yet to encounter a student that is out to make others fail. I think you could make long-lasting friendships in law school. [And those times are great because] sometimes you need close friends who understand how stressful law school really is.
KP: Despite the fact that we’re graded on a (pretty generous) curve, I haven’t found students to be too competitive. Or maybe I just gravitated toward the least competitive people in my section, because I’m not terribly competitive! Well, I personally have found the atmosphere to be very collegial, though from what I’ve heard, it does vary from section to section. Certainly I haven’t heard of anyone hiding books or anything like that. In my experience, if you ask someone for missed notes or a copy of their outlines, they will readily give it to you.
DC: In my experience law school can be incredibly competitive. Although it can be overwhelming, it can also be a motivation to excel. With close friends, I found it helpful not to talk about grades or exams too much. I found ILs tend to increase each others’ anxiety, so at times it was helpful for me to study outside of the law school as much as possible.

PD: Tinu and Danielle, both of you transferred successfully. When did you make the decision to transfer and why?

TA: I began seriously considering transferring only after I received my first semester grades, but I thought about it sometime during my first semester. I had a great legal education in my first year at Buffalo. I was lucky to have some of the best professors I’ve had in law school. I decided to transfer because I wanted to be closer to New York city because I believe that it would be much easier for me to eventually work in the area if I graduate from a great school like Columbia.
DC: I knew I wanted to transfer before starting law school, but I was uncertain whether this would be a possibility depending on how well I performed my 1L year. I had a friend who had transferred law schools, and he had greatly encouraged me to apply to transfer. I feel that he gave me an accurate depiction of the benefits and the difficulties of applying to transfer.

PD: How did the decision to transfer affect how you approached 1L year? What resources did you use to assist you in the process, and how supportive were the faculty and the administration?

TA: I think my decision to transfer did not affect my approach to 1L year in any way. I would have done the same things whether I planned to transfer or not. But by the end of my second semester, when I had begun working on my transfer applications, I knew how important it was for me to duplicate my first semester grades so as to be able to transfer to the schools I applied to. Therefore, I took my second semester exams very seriously because I knew a lot depended on them.
DC: My decision to transfer didn’t change how I approached my IL year either. It did, however, change how I interacted with the faculty and students at my law school.  When asking for letters of recommendation, I received a very negative response from the faculty at the school.  Because of this reaction and other advice I had been given, I decided not to tell other students about my decision to apply to transfer. I think it helped me stay focused on my 1L classes.

Summer Hiring
PD: Even those without an interest in attending law school have heard of the enormous amount of layoffs in the legal sector. Sites such as leak law firm deferment plans and layoffs at a rapid clip. The ABA Journal reports that summer associate hiring was at its lowest in 17 years. How has the legal market changed your 2010 summer job/internship hunt? Did you learn any lessons from last summer?
MT: Certainly, people didn’t have as many opportunities as they may have had in previous years; that was evident in this year’s 2L hiring. Firms asked tougher questions in interviews and wanted to know whether you really wanted to work for them long-term or whether you were just testing the waters of “biglaw,” and students paid attention to the fiscal realities of the firms they were considering, not just their Vault ranking, practice area specialties, or office culture. I’m extremely happy to be going to my first-choice firm this summer; I think one of the big lessons of this year is that “fit” is something that runs both ways, and both parties are looking for a relationship that will weather short-term blips and prove long-term value. Summer associates have to prove that they’re willing to listen, learn, and work hard.
TA: The market is tough, you hear this constantly. I’m lucky that I have a summer position that I want.
KP: I chose not to apply for a firm job this summer because I want to gain some public interest experience, and I plan to work at a firm next year. But competition outside of the private sector is becoming tougher also – I find myself competing against lots of 2Ls who probably would have been going to firms in different years. It’s definitely tough for everyone.

DC: The job market has definitely been difficult. I’ve found an added complication to be that I transferred law schools. However, once I received my Fall 2L grades, I had a much better response. I learned through the application process that it was necessary to effectively articulate the reasons why I transferred law schools.

PD: Has the market made you adapt your outlook, in the sense that you are somewhat more open to working outside of the legal sector, or in public interest perhaps?

MT: As I said, I’m very pleased to be going to the firm I’ve chosen: it does the type of work I’m interested in, it’s in the city where I see myself staying for the foreseeable future, I like the people there, and in fact, the firm promotes movement between private practice and government work. I think the market realities made some people think about how to be flexible within the legal profession: going to secondary markets or smaller, specialized firms. Certainly, if big firms’ economic situations limit the salary differential between big firm work and other work, then recent graduates will be able to [or forced to] choose jobs based not just on salary but the content of the work. In some ways, I think that’s a positive unintended consequence of the economic downturn for people who otherwise might have felt coerced by the lure of a big paycheck to battle student loans.
TA: My outlook has stayed consistent.
KP: It hasn’t changed my outlook in that way, as I’ve always been interested in a wider range of legal jobs. But the tougher competition definitely requires all of us to manage expectations and be more flexible and creative.
DC: I am happy with my positions this summer, but I have noticed friends of mine having to be more flexible with their job outlooks, particularly those graduating this May.

PD: Thank you all again for participating. After the summer it would be great to hear about your summer work experiences. Lastly, was there anything either one of you wanted to add?

MT: Thanks for inviting me to participate!
TA: Thank you, John.
KP: Thanks, John!
DC: Thanks, I appreciate the opportunity!

Other relevant info: (our sister site) - Roundtable interview on joint degrees with four attorneys who have dual degrees in medicine, business, and public health

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