Monday, August 14, 2006

Some Advice for Incoming Law Students

The first year of law school can be an incredibly stressful time for new law students. What kind of advice might I give to someone starting law school? After all, I myself was in law school in the early 1990s, and in many ways I am still getting over the experience of being a first-year law student (or "1L").

I could give a lot of advice from my own personal experience, such as "Don't eat a big piece of chocolate cake at bedtime every night and expect to stay thin," or "Yes, there really is a judge named Learned Hand" (what a great name). But a lot of what I might say has already been stated quite eloquently by Professor Barbara Glesner Fines of the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law. Several years ago she posted online a speech she gives in class about law school and stress, and it remains as relevant as ever today. You can link to her advice here. I highly recommend you read it.

I also have one other piece of advice: if you haven't read Scott Turow's law school memoir One L yet--DON'T. Wait until after you have finished your first year of law school, and then read it. I read it in the summer after my 1L year, and I am fully convinced that if I had read it before law school, I might well have never gone. For those of you who already have read it, well, too bad for you, I guess. Hang in there.


schrader said...

i am a recent graduate of the very school at which professor bowman changes the world one person at a time. i can remember my first week of law school three years ago like it was yesterday. at that time, i hadn't even heard of 1L, let alone read it before our first day of class. i eventually read it, but it lost its luster well before half way in my opinion.

as far as advice for incoming students, I would offer only two tips for survival.

Tip One: the most important thing to realize in the first week of school is that the absolutely worst a professor can do is make you look a bit foolish for not giving the perfect answer. (and there is little likelihood that any answer given will be considered perfect and left unchallenged by said professor)

Tip number two: the most effective form of damage control is simple phrase of three magic words..."i don't know".

With these two tips, i quickly absolved myself of all the anxiety i had built up from the first day of class until the first time i fell victim to professor jackson's merciless interrogations in my very first civil procedure course.

the question i was asked had dealt persoanl jurisdiction and with whether there were significant minimum cintacts in a case between a TX decedent and a CA insurance company. I had read the case several times over, but had not commited to memory the intricate details of the opinion. unfortunately, i got called out on it. with a class of at least 75 other greenhorns, i was nervous as hell and wished i could crawl under my seat until i decided not to fight the fact that i did not know the answer my professor apparently wanted so bad. once i realized that, and although i had read the assignment and could not recall the information about which i was asked, i calmly said, "I don't know".

At that point, a weight lifted from my shoulders and i could once again sit up straight and wallow in self-doubt. I knew that the information was in the text, and that i was expected to kow it, but i did not. and i was not ashamed of it. If the professor had unloaded with one more question or a dozen more questions, I was comforted by the fact that I could simply resond, "i dont know" and the worst that would happen would be that I would look foolish only for a brief moment until he went on to torment someone else.

if i have not adequtely expressed my sentiments, i would suggest watching " the paperchase" and pay attention to professor kingsfield. what is the worst that could happen to a student who told him " i dont know" instead of guessing or opening the door further for unwarranted ridicule and antagonism?

before losing your mind amid guesses and uncertainty, just allow yourself to grasp the fact that you will not know everything that is asked of you by your professors, and have the courage to say it like it is, "i don't know". you will sleep better, you will feel better, and dog gone it, people will like you.

besides, if you knew everything, whats the point in putting yourself through three years of misery?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Mr. Schrader, thanks for your comment and your nice remarks about me. Remember that you have graduated, so you no longer actually have to suck up to me anymore!

To further elaborate on Mr. Schrader's "I don't know" point, it is healthy to admit you don't know an answer. But it is not a good approach to not even try to suss things out. Mr. Schrader is not advocating that (I had him in class twice, so I can personally attest to that), but I thought I'd throw in my additional 2 cents just to make my position clear. Or perhaps to state it differently, as law students you have the right to get the answers WRONG in class (if not on the final exam). That's all part of the educational process.

Bear in mind that law school education focuses largely on critical thinking skills. So you will sometimes leave class with fewer answers than you had coming in. You might come to class one day thinking a particular issue or subject is easy, and leave class thinking it's really difficult. This is disconcerting, but it's part of the process. That, in fact, may be the hardest part of the 1L year for most law students. Or maybe not. I don't know.