From Us To You: What We Wished We Knew In First Year – Part I
We asked recent graduates what advice they would give to their 1L selves. If they had to go to Law School again, what would they do differently? What did they get right? Here is what they told us mixed in with some of our own tips.
1. Be there for the right reasons.
At the end of the day, law school entails sacrifice. Your time, your thoughts, your efforts: all will be poured into this one goal. Sometimes, this will be a difficult situation to accept. Everyone has a rough patches during law school: in first year, my apartment walls should have probably been padded for my own sake. The mix of fatigue and the overwhelming workload, in addition to non-law school pressures and general bad days, will entail the use of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, or some equivalent, to recuperate. Naturally, you might find yourself questioning whether you should just drop out; whether this insane life is worth it; whether you belong in this world or not. In those moments, you will find comfort in the reasons you went to law school in the first place, if they are valid ones. I know the question of what is a valid reason can be debated for hours, so I’m going to leave my role in this discussion at this: it’s not good enough to go for law school because you enjoy your parents bragging about it to everyone they meet. It’s not a good enough to go to law school because lawyers “make millions” (which many of us don’t, by the way). Having a good chat-up line for the bar is not a good enough reason to go to law school. Law school is a calling: you go because something in yourself tells you to; because it fits into the path you want to walk; because it feels right.
Finally, in my difficult moments, a friend advised me to keep the following very simple fact in mind: not everyone is accepted into law school. This is an unbelievable opportunity. In the name of all those who struggled to get in and did not, don’t waste it. She reminded me that we all have a reason for deciding to go to law school. It may not be the same polished reason we spew in cover letters and interviews. Maybe it was an epiphany, a copiously contemplated plan, or simply an option among many. Regardless, you walk through those doors every day for a reason: let that keep you going.
2. Have a support system and don’t be afraid to use it.
Going into Law school, you already know it’s not going to be a breeze (please refer to the Ben & Jerry’s story above). You will have to find a way to handle the stress that accompanies this field of study. I have a friend who talks to her cat when she is stressed. Another former classmate would lean on his boyfriend in tough times. I personally relied on my close friends, brave souls ready to listen to every complaint then firmly tell me to get over it and grow a pair (which was exactly what I needed). There is one universal truth that emerges from all these examples: at some point, you will need someone to talk to. Whether you choose your furry friend, your family, your significant other or your best friend, that is up to you. But have someone to call. There is a reason we turn around at graduation and applaud those supporting us in the audience: they were not only there for the success at the end, but through the whole gruelling process. And if you ever really feel like you cannot talk to anyone around you, use the services at your disposal within your university. Just don’t deal with it all alone.
Do not isolate yourself from the rest of the law students. I am fully aware that this seems like the most obvious thing I could ever be saying. However, I knew many people who entered law school determined to think only of classes, to lock themselves away in the library and have nothing to do with anyone around them. I even recall one classmate telling me, point blank, that she “was not here to make friends”. I understand where these people are coming from: they have worked so hard to get to this point that they want to focus entirely on the task at hand. This is an admirable, even a commendable approach to have going in. Yet, it is a simplistic way of looking at this experience. Indeed, getting through the next three years is much more of a team effort than you could ever imagine, encompassing everything from note-sharing to group studies and projects. You need the others and they need you.
Interaction with you colleagues has another up side: it is from this that some of the deepest friendships are forged. I can bare witness to this: an old law school classmate of mine just got engaged and asked me to be her bridesmaid. As a matter of fact, the majority of the people who will be standing next to her on that wonderful day are people she met in law school. Coincidence? I think not. Plus, you need someone to join you in yelling through the television at the writers of Suits when the fictional lawyer uses promissory estoppel as a sword and not a shield (first years: don’t worry, you will understand this joke soon enough, you poor creatures). Oh and side note for when this (or something similar) does happen to you: if any non-law people are around at that moment, they will look at you like you just bit off a chicken’s head.
3. Your Grades ARE NOT everything.
This was my biggest mistake in my first two years in law. I told myself, erroneously as it turns out, that if I had all As and Bs my future in this profession would be secure. I was wrong. In fact, believe it or not, I have seen people with horrible grades get better positions than people with As. This complemented what a colleague a year ahead of me once told me: The As work for the Bs in the C’s firm. I cannot prove the exactitude of this statement beyond a reasonable doubt, nor even on a balance of probabilities, but it seems to fit with what I have observed. A friend of mine knew this girl who worked in a law firm’s recruiting department. What she was told her blew my mind: many times when firms actually meet the straight A students they decided to interview, they are disappointed with the interpersonal skills these students possess (or the lack thereof). It seems that they had focused so much on their academic standing that they forgot to work on their communication and interpersonal skills. When a major part of practice is standing in front of a client trying to explain a legal principle or understanding their fundamental objective going forward, you’ll need people skills. You’ll need communications skills.
Your social skills matter. Your ability to sell yourself in an interview matters. Grades will not, I repeat WILL NOT, make up for all other faults in your resume. Conversely, although your grades do not define you, work as hard as you can to get the grades. I am not saying you should be aiming for a C in any way, shape or form. However, I don’t want any of you who do get a couple of disappointing grades, despite your best efforts, to think it’s the end of the world. Basically, just give it all you’ve got. If you fall a little short of absolute law student perfection, that’s ok. But always push to be better. I equally hope that those who achieve high marks (well done, by the way) don’t stop there: keep pushing to become more well-rounded candidates.
And in conjunction with the aforementioned …
4. Get as much practical experience under your belt as humanly possible.
Basically, there are four types of practical legal experience you should be looking to gain: 1) drafting; 2) research 3) communications 4) legal writing. Here are some options to accomplish this…
Moot competitions are a great option. If you are not sure whether you want to be a litigator, this is a prime opportunity to figure it out. If litigation is something you are sure you want to pursue during your articles, participating in a moot will demonstrate your interest to potential employers. In any case, it is all around amazing experience to have under your belt. It combines all four of the skills you are looking for. Indeed, since these competitions usually run like a fake legal case, you will get to research your topic, draft documents to expose your arguments (everything from a factum to pleadings) and demonstrate your public speaking and argumentation skills. Fair warning: moot competitions are lot of work so ensure to plan your classes (considering schedule and workload) accordingly.
Another practical experience of great value is to get involved in school clinic courses, usually offered for credit. This is especially true if you are contemplating a career in public interest law: you’ll be able to see first hand how such an organization runs and what good you can do with that hard-earned law degree. If you can land a spot at a clinic, you will gain experience dealing with real clients and real-life issues. You will also be honing your research and drafting skills. When you are searching for clinic courses, consider the alternative options: look into specialized clinics (such as environmental or francophone clinics). Others may not have thought of them, allowing you to get in and get that experience.
Pro Bono work will give you more than you could even imagine. Not only will you be able to practice your research or client relations skills, depending on the project you are assigned to, but you’ll feel like you are using your education to make a difference. Or at least, that is what happened to me. It’s nice to know that the power you gain from your knowledge of the law can be put to good use.
Law reviews can be a singular experience in your law school career. First, it will make you a footnote Yoda. Second, you might have the chance to be published, which is a really unique accomplishment to have. In a world where grammar is gone, proof that you can not only write, but write well is an undeniable asset when meeting potential future employers.
Consider every other practical option available: internships through school for credit, independently arranged internships, Coop (where available), clerking courses, volunteering with a law-related organization or even a part-time job in the field, namely as a research assistant (I would suggest you work your way up to this last one if possible: get your study method together then do this in second year).
This is what will make up for where your grades are lacking. A well–rounded resume and actual drafting, writing, research, client-interaction and communication experience will make your articling/job search incredibly easier.
5. Get your head out of the books.
Once again, this seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, it is easy to lose sight of this simple piece of advice. I know it’s not easy when you have two essays due and exams and readings to get through. I know that faced with so much to get done, taking a break seems ludicrous. But, sometimes, it is the right thing to do. You’ll be amazed how beneficial a walk around the block can be. Or a regular yoga session. Or a night out with friends. Whatever works for you, in the realm of the relatively rational, safe and legal, do it. Some set aside time every day to relax and others work like maniacs on weekdays to take a day off on the weekend. Honestly, however you want to plan your work schedule, just make sure you have some time for yourself.
You are going to hear the expression “work-life balance” thrown about a lot in law school: in classes, in mentoring sessions, in professional conferences and MULTIPLE times in interviews. Now, the expression itself is pretty self-explanatory. The real challenge is achieving it. This was, as a matter of fact, one of my biggest challenges in law school. However, I learned to be more productive so I could carve out time for myself, to see friends and read Jane Austen. My academic standing greatly improved and, simultaneously, I felt much better. Moral of the story: give yourself some space to breathe. The ability to manage stress, to practice and have a life, is a key component of this work. Employers know it and look for it in their candidates.
Click here for part II of this series.