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Advice to First-Year Law Students

Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005

Fifteen years ago, I was a first-year law student - and I was not at all prepared for the experience.

In writing this essay, I hope to do my part in preventing current and future first-years from having an experience as difficult as my own.

The Shock of the First Semester: Realizing the Law Is Like a New Language

I thought I was prepared for law school: After all, I'd taken a constitutional law class in college, and done well, and I'd even written my senior thesis on the work of legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. I hadn't majored in political science - which seemed the best major for law school -- but my combined major in philosophy and English seemed close enough. So in theory, I should have hit the ground running, when law school began.

Why, then, did I find my first semester so overwhelming that I rapidly gained twenty pounds in the space of only three months, wept in my room after one of my interviews for a summer job, and stopped showing up for one of my classes entirely?

I think what I did not understand was that, in some sense, I was learning a new language in law school. I'd always been terrible with languages: I'd even studied Latin because I could figure out what the Latin words meant by looking to their English counterparts, rather than actually having to learn new, foreign words.

If I had realized that the law was going to be a new language for me, I think I would have been much more patient with myself. Knowing and accepting the great difficulty involved in learning this new language, the considerable amount of time required to master it, and the steep learning curve confronting new students, can be very helpful.

For a while, I felt as if every day was an exercise in enduring a torrent of freezing water filled with sharp-edged ice cubes: Law school was, at best, unpleasant and occasionally painful; at worst, it was disorienting, confusing, and on rare occasions, even debilitating. These feelings, fortunately, went away.

Defeating the Game of Hide-the-Ball: Law Review Articles Are Your Friends

Even worse, it seemed that some of my professors had little interest in teaching me the grammar of this new language. One of them taught by the case method - meaning we just read case after case, with the expectation that we would derive consistent principles that came from the succession of cases.

In retrospect, this approach makes about as much sense to me as trying to derive consistent principles from a series of novels: It can't really be done; the inconsistencies are too great. Maybe that was the point, but trying to do the impossible, without any warning that it was, indeed, impossible, threw me into a sort of mental panic, and drove me to the ice-cream store.

The same professor who taught by the case method included a set of law review articles in the readings, to be read at the end of the semester. When I did read them, it was a revelation, and I wished I'd read them on day one, rather than being kept in the dark all semester.

If you're visiting a new country where you don't know the language, wouldn't you love to have a guide who does? That's just what law review articles provide.

If you're a first year, and you're not understanding the material, definitely try to find a law review article that explains it. It's not cheating. It's not geeky. It's just the most efficient way to learn what you need to know.

Don't be fooled into using commercial outlines - they'll give you the rules, but not the in-depth reasons for the rules, and may only increase your disorientation and confusion. Memorization won't get you through; analysis will. Outlines from second-year and third-year students who've taken the course before can, however, be very helpful - typically, they include the explanations, as well as the rules.

While it is very common for first-year students to have dozens of questions about what they're learning, you'll likely find that you have to carefully choose which questions you will actually ask. The truth is that even the most devoted law professor has many other students - especially in a large class - and limited time to devote to your questions.

So raise your most important questions with the professor, and for the others, look for the answers in law review articles, or in your notes, the reading, or other students' outlines. Not only will you get your answers, but you'll begin the process of being immersed in the law's language, getting used to legal argument and its conventions.

Questioning the Law: It's Not Set in Stone

I had a terrific constitutional law professor, but some of his teaching was wasted on me because, at the time, I had a difficult time imagining other alternatives to the Constitution's provisions.

I remember that, on the first day of class, my professor went around the room, asking us each to focus on, and comment on, a provision of the Constitution that particularly struck us. Unfortunately, he was met with some blank stares.

Because the Constitution is such a cultural fixture, I think it was hard for my classmates and me to focus on particular provisions because for us, they just existed - the way the White House and the Capitol Building exist.

But the exciting thing about looking at the Constitution, is to look at the choices implicit in it - to look at the others ways it might have been, and the way it actually is. What if the country had continued on under the much looser Articles of Confederation? What if there had never been a Bill of Rights? What if the Constitution had treated slaves very differently, prior to emancipation?

Looking at alternatives can help the reader of the Constitution critique and assess the choices that were actually made. And that's not just true for the Constitution - it's true for any statute or judicial decision you look at, too. What if the judge had opted for a different legal remedy - issuing an order or injunction to a party to stop some activity, rather than awarding money damages? What if the legislature had defined the cause of action it created much more broadly, or narrowly?

These days, I have a great deal to say about the Constitution: What I love, what I don't like, what I think ought to be changed - such as the way we interpret the Fifth Amendment, as I argued in a prior column, and many ways that we interpret the First Amendment, which I have considered in my columns for this site.

Losing some of my inhibitions about critiquing the law, and looking at alternatives, came with time. But a lot of it came from simply giving myself permission, and embarking on the effort of imagination to ask how the world might have been, if the law had been different. As soon as you enter your first law school hallway, give yourself that permission. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, rather than see the law as it is, and simply ask "why," try imagining the law in ways it has never been, and ask "why not?"

Speak In Class: It (Probably) Won't Kill You

One of law students' great fears is being grilled in front of the whole class. This is a fear I really didn't have - I had debated many weekends in college, and was as comfortable as I could get with public speaking.

For those who still have this fear, I advise that you discard it along with your college graduation robe. From moot court to real court, to negotiation, to just being on the phone with your adversary, speaking clearly and well is a big part of being a lawyer. Even if you feel you're "better on paper," you've got to improve your skill at speaking up.

I think there are several fears behind the fear of speaking up in class: The first is, What if I say something stupid?

Yes, you might say something stupid. It's okay: No earthquake will occur, and no building will fall in. If it's a blind-graded class, you get a free pass for any stupid comments you might make. And even if it's not, I bet your professor will favor (and remember) those students who are vocally stupid, but then learn and improve, over those students who sit there mute, or mumble when called upon. Someone you might have thought was an airhead from in-class questions and comments, may actually end up testing at the top of her class.

The second issue is, oddly, a more genuine one: What if my classmates hate me for speaking up?

In my law school, games of Bingo were sometimes played - with the squares representing the students who spoke up in class. I heard once that my own name was in the center of a board. That can hurt - but on reflection, not so much. Silent detractors are kind of pathetic. And speaking up - like being on the debate team in college - did, I think, help me: I ended up being one of only two second-year students in the Moot Court semifinals.

There's one caveat, however. If you are going to speak up or raise your hand in class, be careful not to do so during the last few minutes of class. When a last-minute question results in a professor lecturing minutes beyond the end of class, you may find yourself facing resentful glares, or worse, especially if it happens more than once.

A third, and similar fear may be: What if I somehow fulfill my classmates' stereotypes? What if I really sound like what they might think I am - a ditzy blonde, an emotional woman, a conservative Southerner, or someone who is "only here because of affirmative action"?

Guess what: Stereotypes based on your looks get dispelled when you speak - not furthered. Particularity is the great foe of bias - when classmates are talking about your particular comment, even if they're scoffing at it, they have already moved beyond any general, stereotypical view of you.

Sure, they hear your unusual accent, or the emotion in your voice. But they also hear what you said - and speaking is a way to exert power and change the world.

Remembering Your Passion: Why Did You Come Here, Anyway?

A friend of mine had a much better experience than I did as a first-year law student, because he took the perspective that law school was a tool for him to achieve what he wanted to achieve. He wanted to preserve the environment: Law school was going to help him do that. And it did: He now works for a major environmentalist group.

Even if you are not seeking out a public interest job, you can still benefit from my friend's approach - because it makes you see everything differently. You are a boss who has hired these professors to help you achieve your goal; you're not a little kid whining about getting too much homework, and always trying to escape to have fun.

If you adopt this mind-set, and you get a low grade in a course that isn't close to your focus, it's easy to live with: That requirement is now dispensed with; on to your real goal.

And if you aren't excelling in the courses that will serve your passion, your motivation to improve is that much more intense: After all, your dream is at risk.

In your "passion" courses, you can and should follow the example of successful students by taking extra steps to get to know the professor, to do extra reading, and so on. Meanwhile, in non-passion courses, you may do less, to afford more time to do more where, for you, it really counts. Law students are not robots; at some point, you've got to decide what you really care about, and make it your first priority.

But what if you don't have a passion - and that's precisely why you ended up in law school? You still have likes and dislikes, and you've got to pay attention to them, if you don't want to end up miserable.

Alternatively, a very good piece of advice for those without a particular passion is to take professors, not courses: a great professor can make even the most tedious topic exciting. (In contrast, a professor with mediocre teaching skills - and unfortunately, there are bound to be a few at any school, and second- and third-year students will likely identify them for you - can make even the most fascinating legal topic excruciatingly unpleasant.)

In the end, I think the reason I wept after that job interview was three-fold: I saw myself in a suit in a faraway mirror, and took a moment to even recognize myself; I met with a very nice attorney, with a resume much like mine, who was a tax lawyer; and that attorney seemed mostly interested in making improvements to her palatial summer house. I just didn't want to become that person, but it seemed like that was what I was on track to be.

Guess what: I still hate wearing suits and would favor any firm that didn't require it; I decided to focus on criminal and First Amendment law, not tax or business law; and I realized I don't want to make sacrifices to have a palatial summer house - even though, being human, I would enjoy having one. So those humiliating tears were actually telling me a lot. They were telling me to follow my passions, and not to simply conform to the life my resume might have predicted for me.

Hang On To Your Friends

My final word of advice is to work to keep the real friends you already have - don't just disappear for the year -- and seek out other real friends within your law school, and outside it. (Anyone who's competitive with you in an unhealthy way - a way that makes you feel bad, instead of gently pushing you to do better -- is poison.)

I was greatly helped by knowing a few college seniors on the campus where I started law school: Unlike me, they were old hands at what they were doing, and having coffee with them meant I was more grounded; they also were kind enough to show me around. Grad students also were the proverbial breath of fresh air.

Find some people who aren't "drinking the Kool-Aid" - meaning, they don't blindly accept professors' instructions on how to succeed in school, or the temptation to strive for material gain in your career without considering your reason for entering law school to begin with -- and you'll realize that law school, however consuming, is Kool-Aid-optional. And if there's any Kool-Aid you do drink, make it your own: A concoction of your own dreams, passions, and hopes for the future.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, graduated from Yale Law School in 1992. She practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden's first novel, 3, was published recently. In reviewing 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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