“The good news is you’re all so smart and so capable. The bad news is you’re all so smart and so capable.”
Professor Rachael Andersen-Watts of Vanderbilt Law School shares this with her first-year legal writing law students each year. She does so to emphasize how the breath of student talent creates both an exciting and intimidating learning environment in law school.
As a school year unlike any other kicks off, I wanted to share some tried and true tips for having a successful law school experience, be it remote or in person.
Tip 1: Be Ready
Law students must have a plan and be consistent in following it. The keys to success in secondary education equally apply to law school: 1) read your assignments, 2) attend your classes, and 3) get to know your professors. Easy, right? Not without managing your most valuable yet limited resource: time.
Plot your week out on paper (seriously, go get some paper and do it). First, list all of the activities you must do, from briefing cases to sleeping to meals. By planning your time, you can meet the demands of law school and still have time for personal activities. Be realistic, and don’t forget to account for breaks.
As the semester progresses, adjust your schedule as needed. Consider the best times of day for specific activities. For example, is exercising first thing in the morning or in the afternoon more realistic for you? Do your reading at times of the day when you’re most alert.
Taking shortcuts will not make you more efficient, just less prepared. For example, canned briefs and commercial outlines, if used, should only be supplemental, not replacements. If used otherwise, your knowledge and understanding of the course materials and lectures will suffer.
The same goes for a study group. Your peers can be great catalysts to your learning experience if you keep them more academic than social. Don’t use them as a tool to lessen the workload. Study groups should be secondary to your learning, helping you understand and retain the materials.
Lastly, be ready with a career plan. Your professional development should not be limited to caselaw and legal writing. Find mentors inside and outside of school who can provide the vision and guidance to help build your competency in all areas (e.g., the Delta Model Lawyer consists of three competency areas crucial to the success of today’s legal professionals: the law, business & operations, and personal effectiveness skills). This will maximize your prospects for future success.
Tip 2: Be Present
Hit silence or DND on your phone. Close your internet browser. No social media. No sports tracking. Give your undivided attention to the present. This is especially important when engaged in virtual learning where temptations and distractions can be plentiful. Practice mindfulness, in which your mind strives to be fully present in the moment; the only moment is the present one.
Monotask instead of multitasking. The practice of “task switching” causes more errors, greatly reduces productivity, and lessens the retention and understanding of the learner. For law students, your concentrated activity blocks (as mapped by you above) along with frequent breaks will serve you best.
Tip 3: Be Engaged
Law students have some amazing professors, so seek them out. As I’ve said before, pushing harder the same old way rarely opens the door to genuine learning. The real leverage comes from creating the pull. In other words, don’t wait for your professor (or advisor or mentor) to give you feedback, proactively request it from them.
Even in a virtual learning space, your educators should be holding office hours. And if they aren’t, reach out and make an appointment to chat over Zoom. Ask questions inside and outside of class to utilize your learning resources to their fullest.
Consider ways to stand out from your peers while discovering new avenues to explore the class materials. For example, search for your professors’ writings, blogs, or social media platforms to discover their particular interests and work in an area of law. Does a recent legal opinion or news event add context? Be sincere in your interest and discussion.
Be sure to engage beyond your law books, through clubs, events, panels, symposiums, and more. Your professors and law school administrators are people too, with fascinating work and life experiences. Can you find time each week to have a one-on-one with someone (even by Zoom) to learn something new? “I’d like to learn more about that” is a great way to start.
Tip 4: Be Well
Managing your mental health and well-being is critical, especially in the intense learning environment that is law school. While some law schools include health-focused programming and maintain a strong engagement with the Lawyer’s Assistance Program, there is much to be done in addressing the needs of law students and the profession itself.
Building strong relationships will help sustain you throughout law school and in your career as a lawyer. Sure, in a virtual environment that may seem more difficult. However, we’re all in the same boat. Get creative in how you socialize with your fellow law students, professors, and peers.
And while you’re taking care of yourself, be there for others who may be struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. You’re not alone – there are professionals ready to help.
By being ready, present, engaged, and well, you’ll make the most of your law school experience and even improve your law school community. Lawyers often recall the life-long friendships developed during law school, as your journey into the profession is one you take together. I hope yours is rewarding and invite you to engage with the Commission on Professionalism along the way.
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