You’ve taken the LSAT, registered with the LSDAS, applied to several law schools and you have just received your acceptance to one of them. Come this fall, you will be a first-year law student. Celebrate! You have every right to be happy, excited, thrilled and beside yourself with joy. You’re also entitled to be scared to death, you should be anyway. Everything up to now has been preliminary, a cakewalk. Now that you’re in law school, the real fun begins.
First, you have to pay for law school. Start early with the financial end of the equation. Ideally, you will have been working on this issue from about the time you began the application process, maybe you even have a scholarship. Apply for financial aid and borrow the money for your education. Ideally, you should have your finances worked out well prior to the start of classes. Once you get the finances worked through, do a budget for yourself.
When the financial aspect is done, visit the school if you haven’t done so yet and get a feel for the place. Familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. The more you know in advance, the better it will be when classes start, particularly if you already know your way around. Most law school admissions offices have a peer program that will put you in touch with upperclassmen to help you acclimate yourself to your new surroundings. Take advantage of this! You will also want to take some time and locate a convenient place to live so you can plan to move in advance of the start of classes. Look for a place close enough to the school to allow you to get there easily, but not so close as to be tempted to spend all your time at the school.
The curriculum for first-year law students is near identical at most schools. Well prior to the start of classes you can purchase your textbooks and you should do so as soon as you can. Don’t worry about reading them all, but familiarize yourself with them. Buy new books. Law students are notorious for marking up their textbooks and you want to avoid the temptation to take their notations as the gospel and learn the material incorrectly. Law school is not like undergraduate school. You hit the ground running.
As I said, the curriculum for all first-year programs is strikingly similar from school to school. Core courses are taught to first-year students. These classes are Contracts, Torts, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law and Criminal Law. While some schools break up the course load and require more, teaching them over as many as 4 semesters, the first year curriculum will include largely, if not all, of these courses. As well, count on a legal writing and research course and perhaps a course on jurisprudence, basic lawyering skills, or a professionalism course. The course load will be substantial, the reading requirements large, preparation mandatory and the stress high. Free time will be a commodity.
Part of the problem of surviving and excelling in your first year of law school is being able to navigate the stress created by the other students around you. There will be a number of students that are quite vocal, thinking themselves to be the teacher’s pet or the rare student that just “gets” what the professor is talking about. Some of these students will even announce their mastery of the subject matter to the rest of the student body. As well, it is quite common for groups of students, cliques if you will, to develop rather quickly. Each clique will generally wonder what the others are doing, rumors will start and spread and a general panic will set in over the progress that is being made by one group or even as to rumors unrelated to the law. There will be the occasional loner that shuns everyone that everyone else starts to worry about, thinking that this person actually does “get” it and this will do nothing but further feed into everyone’s stress. Expect all of this as it will happen. The sooner you know that this is coming, the better you will be able to handle it.
At the end of the semester when the stress has reached a breaking point and the exams have been administered, you will go home to enjoy your Christmas holiday, all the time worrying that you just took several exams that effectively ended your law school career and ruined your future. But this will pass and you will return for spring semester classes and the results of your first semester exams. The exams will have been graded and the results ranked. Someone will be ranked number one in the class all the way down to the final person in the class. Your class rank will be used to determine admission to the school’s law review, hiring for summer jobs and, at the end of your law school career, to determine where you will be going to work. However, you still shouldn’t worry; they still call the person who was last in their graduating class an attorney.
The recipe for success in law school is time management and proper preparation. Look at law school as you would a job. Devote adequate time to study and preparation, but don’t make law school your life. Reward yourself every week for the time spent in class and the work you do outside of class. If you have questions or are not understanding a point of law, discuss it with your study group or approach your professor. Do additional research. Though it will be difficult, do not fall victim to the rumor mill. Focus on your performance and your performance alone. The better you do, the better your class rank will be. When the results from the first year exams are released, you will see that those that spent their time banging their own gong didn’t do that well.
In the end, success at law school is about time management, stress management, and understanding that to succeed it doesn’t matter what the other person is doing, only how well you do. Start early and don’t let up!