Law School: What to Expect When You're Waiting on 1L

I remember the first day of law school like it was yesterday. I had found the classroom on time and made my way into a seat without drawing too much attention to myself, which felt like a good start. Making sure my cell phone was silenced for the third time, I gripped my pen and stared at a blank notebook and thought to myself oh my god I’m in law school, what have I done?

Slowly, the rest of the class filed in and my first lecture began. I hadn’t been doodling a caricature of the professor for long when I heard it – Katharine Gilman. I looked up to find the professor (I really had captured his likeness) scanning the auditorium. Katharine Gilman? Slowly, it began to register that this was, in fact, my name. And that the professor was, in fact, addressing me. Shit.

I raised my hand in admittance that the name was mine. Admitted it like I was guilty of something. At that moment I would have traded my name for any other. What’s so important about a name anyway? I could start over, move to Mexico, finally get my handmade doll business off the ground – things could be different! The professor nodded and proceeded to ask me a question about the material we were required to read in preparation for our first day. I crinkled my forehead and tried my best to look thoughtful rather than constipated but the truth was, I did not hear a single word he said. With two hundred eyes on me, I brushed the sweat from my brow and felt a brain freeze worse than the childhood afternoon I chugged a Big Gulp slurpee because my stupid brother dared me. I asked to have the question repeated. I took a deep breath, thought it over, almost vomited and informed the professor of what I remembered from the reading and what my instincts were regarding what he had asked. We worked through it out loud together, the professor using our two-person discussion to steer the thought process of the class. And as quickly as it began, it was over: he moved on to his next victim, I passed out. Law school had officially begun. 

This memory is just a first snapshot in what turned out to be a dynamic and challenging three years for me. A harrowing first year, a demanding second year, a reflective third year, graduation and seemingly endless bar exam studies and, finally, stepping into a legal career – all of these unique chapters had within them a multitude of ebbs and flows, of enthusiasm and frustration, of failure and success. Each demanded in-the-weeds concentration in order to thrive. There was little energy or capacity for perspective at the time; I could only hope that once I graduated, I might finally be able to put my experiences in their proper context. I can tell you a few months after turning my tassel, however, that it is still difficult to easily sum up the last few years, to give them their appropriate place and value. 

I know this evolution of memory and historicization is only natural but as a result when asked what law school is like, it feels more honest to say only a few words (or else a great many) to try to capture the experience for others. The long and the short of it though, is that legal education will be unlike anything you have experienced in the classroom before. I was amazed by the pace, the material, the subjects I liked and didn’t like and frankly, the blow to the ego. With massive amounts of reading, unique teaching methods, blind grading, and peers of varied years and life experience, law school will feel less like learning and more like a remolding of your mind. And much like learning a new language, sometimes the painfully slow beginning means un-learning as much as learning. You will try to lose your old diction, your old mental framework, your old assumptions. You will leave behind earlier ways of thinking and speaking and writing and (for better or worse, your personal life) you will learn to stand not on emotion but on reason. You will learn to do all of this while remaining as much outside of yourself and your personal perspective as possible … ready to drop out yet? 

This is because law school does not aim to teach you information so much as it aims to teach you a new way of thinking; what are the right questions and what is the right way to go about answering those questions. This requires inquisitive minds, diligent analysis and above all, it requires participation. Even though many times you will leave class more confused than when you entered it, through the process of talking, asking, wondering aloud amongst peers, you’ll learn to think like a lawyer. 

As law school progresses beyond first year, the fear fades and soon you will be speaking freely in class, even raising your hand to disagree. Somehow you will find yourself even busier, becoming a part of your institution, joining clubs and meeting friends (normal people go to law school too, promise). Eventually you will develop intellectual interests and specialties within the law. All of this happens faster than you can imagine, weeks and months flying off the calendar leaving you in one finals period or another, interviewing for one job or another, graduating and moving to one state or another. 

So as all of that begins for you, I offer some small but helpful advice. Legal education is meant to unfold slowly, so over achievers slow your roll. There is absolutely no way to skip ahead, if you do you will miss the depth that is required to really learn. Put yourself in a law school that prizes balance and fosters collegiality amongst its students (like UVA, go Hoos!). And don’t be too tough on yourself; law school is hard and everyone feels lost sometimes. Just keep an open mind, be patient, find people you connect with and immerse yourself in the experience. 

There is no way around the hard work in law school but it can be as balanced and as enjoyable as you allow it to be. And if all else fails you can always start a handmade doll enterprise, I know a girl looking for a business partner.

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