With second semester underway, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my first semester and discuss some of the important things I learned and some of the things I will be doing differently this time around.
Law school is hard.
This is both true and false. First semester of first year is hard. Definitely. It’s hard not because there’s hundreds of pages of reading per week, not because the material is insanely complex – although it can get tricky at times- not because there’s Latin involved. Law school is hard at first because no one tells you how to do law school. By the time we get into law, most of us have been deeply lulled into the usual and familiar routines of a degree we chose and are good at. For me, it was psychology. By 4th year I was a pro at doing multiple choice. I knew what I had to read (everything) and how much (until I knew the theories and people by heart). I knew that psych consisted of a lot of memorisation and memorisation takes time. I knew that there was a strong correlation between skipping out on events and parties to get an extra evening of studying and getting those A’s; so while my volunteer activities were many and vast, my work-life (im)balance always favoured the work side.
Law school does not follow that formula.
Coming into law school I was definitely tempted by all the clubs, the parties, the lunch time events. And I did allow myself to indulge on more than one occasion. However, not knowing how to navigate this new field, I relied on my old study/learning methods and went hard. I had never had more than 5 classes in undergrad — I now had 7. I knew that if I was going to read every case and textbook chapter (and I was going to, because that’s how it was done in undergrad), I couldn’t take on too many other things. There would be time for all that, I reasoned, and learning the law was my priority now. At first, it was great. I was even ahead. But as the judgments got longer and more complicated, as the number of assigned readings increased, I started to fall behind and get stressed. I remember November rolling around and blinking in shock as 10 page papers were assigned to us – due in two weeks – for which we were expected to (you guessed it!) do more readings ON TOP OF the usual pile of readings. End of semester couldn’t come any faster. It was brutal. And even though you have all the support in the world, and even though all the upper year students are telling you to relax and take it easy, you couldn’t. Well, at least I couldn’t, and I know a bunch of my colleagues couldn’t either. You can’t just throw a bunch of Type A’s into the fire and expect them not to try and extinguish it.
So here’s what I learned.
First semester is hard because you don’t know what you’re doing. Learning about a subject is hard when you’re not told how to learn it (in the most effective way possible). Coming into law school with a degree or two under your belt, there is this false sense of “I’ve done this before, I’ll know what I’m doing, I’ll be fine”. And while study habits like persistence, diligence, organisation etc do carry over from your previous degree(s), the truth of the matter is : you have never done this before. You won’t know what you’re doing, you won’t know how to do law school, and the learning curve is steep and bumpy. Even I can’t tell you how to do law school because it’s different for every person. I got a lot of amazing advice from big buddies, peer tutors and friends and I still struggled. First semester is tough and it simply has to be because you learn how to do law school your way through the struggle. It’s part of the learning process (something said to us over and over again, but it didn’t make sense until now) so embrace it and roll with it. Your December exams are fail proof for this reason. You’re not expected to do well, honestly. The only person expecting you to do well is you because that’s what you’re used to. Go easy on yourself.
However, there are some universal truths.
For example, using a CAN as a supplement to notes and readings will save you a ton of time. In my first semester I read every case. It didn’t matter if it was 2 page torts case or a 25 page Dickson judgement for Con Law, I read my cases and I read all of them. I read them on my own, using only my reading and comprehension skills while trying to convince myself that this is what that LSAT section had been trying to prepare me for all long. Did I always understand them? No. One time I spent 6 hours reading a Constitutional case, thought I finally had a handle on it, went to class and realised that I had understood it all wrong. I was shocked, confused and really worried especially when the rest of my class seemed to be getting it right on the mark. Then I discovered the CAN database and realised what the rest of my classmates had known for weeks: a good CAN will help you immensely. Did I suddenly stop doing readings and only rely on CANs? No. But did I cut my note-taking time down in half because someone had already taken thorough notes on the background stuff of the subject matter that I could read through, make sense of, and copy-paste? Yes. I had a really strong aversion to cutting corners in first semester and I’m glad I did. Learning to read cases and get through them are important skills to learn and master. Once the papers came around and we have to read cases as part of our research, many classmates struggled because there were no CANs for those cases and no case-briefs. You had to read the judgement to have an opinion on it. Learning to do that over the course of two months was invaluable.
law school is not like my undergrad. Law school is not about memorisation; in law school, you bring all of your notes and cheat sheets with you. Because of this, skipping out on weekends simply to study your head off does not give you the reward-return you’re expecting. At least, it didn’t for me. Law school is about knowing the law and knowing how to apply it to various situations and fact patterns. It really frustrated me how little of what was in my head could be put onto my crim law exam, for example, simply because what I was being tested on and what I had spent hours poring over did not match up. First semester taught me to study smart, first and foremost, not to just study long and hard. It taught me not to cut corners but to be efficient and weary of how I use my time and how much of it. This semester, I am much more involved in school events and am feeling much happier and balanced. While I still prepare before each class, I don’t read every case and I don’t take a million notes. I avoid re-inventing the wheel by using good CANs that someone else has put effort and time into, and then I supplement them with my own notes, hypotheticals and useful bits. I learn differently, I ask different questions, and I focus my energy on the important stuff. As a result, I have more time for myself and I use it to do yoga once a week at the school. I also work out twice a week on my own time, see my boyfriend and best friends much more frequently, and am much more likely to agree to a coffee or a lunch date. I am more active with the Women’s Caucus and will be spearheading an event with the other 1L representative, have signed myself up for LSLAP and the UBC Law Ambassadorship Program. I was in the UBC Law LipDub and on the Law Faculty team at the Faculty Cup event and have made an effort to attend as many law firm events as I am interested in.
I already feel much better about my law school experience, and I think many of my classmates do too. It’s not easy, but with persistence and the willingness to adapt you come out much stronger, self confident, and ready for whatever law school throws a you.