The University of Tennessee College of Law is preparing to welcome the Class of 2020 this month. Here’s what some of our faculty and alumni have to say about how to work through the transition and find success in law school.
Do not lose sight of your personal priorities in law school. If, for example, your marriage or church or exercise was a priority before law school, then you should continue to give time and effort to these things while in school. It is a myth that law school is more consuming than practice; your life will only speed up and not slow down. If you cannot maintain your priorities while in law school, there is almost no chance you will be able to do so upon completing school and entering practice. Law school is important, but I would exhort you to keep the main things the main things.
Be proactive in your approach to learning and take advantage of resources, including faculty and staff. Create a plan that balances your school work and life. Avoid comparing yourself to your peers by focusing on goals you set for the first semester and your law school career. Embrace the challenges you are likely to initially face as you transition to a new learning environment. When you encounter setbacks, remain positive and learn from each experience. And, have fun! Yes, law school can be fun.
First, clear the decks. Law School is challenging and you need time and space to focus. So finish those last errands, set up your apartment and get the rest of your life as organized as you can before you start. Second, make a plan for self-care and stick to it. Plan to walk, run, play, swim, meditate, do yoga, eat well – whatever keeps you healthy and balanced – and follow that plan even when it seems impossible. Finally, take charge of your learning. You’ll get lots of support and ideas for how to read, study and prepare, but this is your law school journey, so figure out what you have to do to be ready every day and then do it. We are so happy you are joining us. We’ll be here to support you and we look forward to seeing the amazing things you will accomplish.
I have some counter-intuitive advice. Take a minute right now, before the levee breaks, to sit in a quiet place with a pen and a piece of paper. I do this sort of thinking at a coffee shop (and Old City Java is the best in Knoxville, just in case you were wondering!), but any place quiet is fine. Start by thinking to yourself why you are going to law school. What is it that you hope to accomplish? What sort of work do you hope to do when you graduate? What sort of life do you want to live? How does law school fit into that picture? This is the visioning part of the exercise. You may say “Hey Ben Barton, I have no idea! That’s why I’m going to law school, dummy.” OK, fine, but STILL try to answer these questions. It’s impossible to measure progress if you don’t have some sort of goal in mind. And keep in mind that “I want to do meaningful work helping people for a decent wage in a town/city I like” is a fair enough vision! the main opt is to start this experience with a clear intentionality.
Now the counterintuitive part. Take a second to visualize struggling in law school. What if the classes do not come naturally? What if your grades are fine but not amazing? What if the law school part of the journey is a disappointment? This part of the process is to set your expectations NOW before school even starts. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Then look back at your vision. I bet that you will be able to accomplish much, if not all, of your pre-law school goals regardless of how you do in school.
This is not to tell you not to try hard or that school does not matter. To the contrary, this exercise should help free your mind so you can pour all of your efforts into school! I hope you can put all of this in fair perspective from the very outset. First year of law school can be an all-encompassing experience, so use your quiet time now to get right with yourself. You are coming to law school for the right reasons. You have a good grip on what you want out of the experience.
And now, take a deep breath and get ready to kick ass, because when you have your intentions and plans in order you drop the self-doubt and put yourself in the very best position to succeed.
Spend your last few days before classes getting to know your way around the campus and the city and planning a schedule that carefully allocates your time. Be sure to build in sufficient time to rest and for non-law activities, like calling family, exercising, dining out, or other cultural and social engagements. Protect that time. But also, work hard. Read all of your assignments. Reserve time to think and reflect on what you’re reading. And don’t take Fridays off. After a few months, continue to spend lots of time reading, outlining, and preparing for the day-to-day rigors of law school classes, but also begin to focus on execution. Start practicing midterms or final examinations. Test yourself, first without time constraints, and then subject to the stress of the clock. Because at the end of the semester, you’re tested on how well you can execute, not how much you’ve memorized.
It’s about the people.
Create opportunities to talk to your professors and the staff (especially the Career Center!). Getting to know them on an individual basis will help you in class, in the job search, in your personal wellness, in the enjoyment of these three years, and in forging lifelong relationships. In addition to being friends, your classmates may someday soon be colleagues, clients, referral sources, or even your boss. Building good relationships now will pay off for years to come. Take every opportunity you can to speak with attorneys and others with a JD. Learn about their lives and career paths, get their advice, and stay in touch.
Beth Ford, Federal Community Defender of East Tennessee, Class of 1977
- Put family relationships first
- Take field trips to court and watch what lawyers do
- Get to know practicing lawyers through internships, externships, and as a student member of the Knoxville Bar Association or the Federal Bar Association or the American Constitution Society or similar organizations
- Start thinking about who would make a good mentor (Get to know Brad Morgan.)
- Make friends who are not law students or lawyers
- Take care of your health- mental, physical, spiritual
- Take cleansing breaths at the beginning and at the end of the day
- Give away time and do nice things for others
- Have a hobby
Two things: (1) keep your eyes on the prize, and (2) open your heart and mind to new experiences.
My biggest challenges as a 1L were those that made me question the very reasons why I went to law school. I started law school desiring to focus on international law (after concentrating my undergraduate work in international relations and history). But my first private law firm job, which I started in the second semester of my first year, introduced me to corporate finance work. I soon was hooked.
So what about that focus on international law? I never lost the fire in my belly for that kind of work. I came back to it both by practicing private international law (in the form of foreign and cross-border financings, mergers, and acquisitions) and by providing pro bono legal advice to asylum applicants from Somalia, Zaire (now, the Republic of Congo), Haiti, Burma, Ethiopia, and other countries. Surviving those bumps in the first year of law school was definitely worth the joy I got from my fifteen years of law practice—and the joy I now get from my teaching, research, and service. All in; no regrets.
When reading, understand how your brain works. If you find yourself reading the same sentence over and over again but not comprehending it, then something is wrong. Reading for law school is incredibly intense. Think about what you need to focus. Some students can read with music on, others need complete silence. To avoid distraction by the latest news and social media updates, consider powering down the smartphone while you read. It can also help to have a pen and highlighter handy, to mark up and annotate the material, so that you actively engage with the text.
Be sure to save time for non-law activities that you love. Outdoor activities, exercise, cooking, socializing, television/movies, or even shopping can all help keep you sane as you start this amazing but challenging journey toward becoming a lawyer.
Law school is hard. That makes it very important for students keep perspective and quickly employ good time management skills. Each semester is 14 weeks long and includes writing assignments and then the exam period. There is lots of reading and, if you are doing this right, lots of discussion using the new terminology and concepts you are learning. Chart your schedule on the semester as a whole and make a point of reviewing where you are within each week and within each semester. Plot your deadlines and schedule your work sessions and then execute that plan. Especially for first semester 1Ls, it is not that the work is that hard or the concepts that complex, it is the sheer volume of new material that can be overwhelming. And remember to schedule some time off and time for exercise and recreation!
Constantly seek balance and perspective. Law school is stressful for a host of reasons. Find ways to control the anxiety, stress, and disappointment that come from trying to measure up. The role of adequate sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet cannot be underestimated. Motivate yourself with things that are within your control. Maybe that is training for a race or going to the gym X number of times a week or playing your guitar. Challenge yourself to do your very best. Enjoy the process of learning, and make friends with fellow law students. Many of these friendships will last a lifetime.
Take ownership of your education. Don’t be on your heels throughout law school, waiting to receive information. Create a schedule for yourself, force yourself to volunteer in class, do some review problems outside of class from time to time, talk to professors and upper-level students about their experiences. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to start putting together your course outlines. Review as you go along during the semester. Find time for the things that make you happy.
Do challenging crossword puzzles or Sudoku puzzles every day. This will help you get in the practice of thinking ahead and visualizing where an argument, a theory, or your opponent is going before you can actually see it on paper.
Take up a game such as chess, checkers, or Go: an abstract strategy board game where you need to map out territory against an opponent. You can play with a real person or online/an app on your phone/whatever works for you – but this type of game builds critical analytical and strategy skills you will need.
Read a high quality newspaper, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Journal Constitution or Christian Science Monitor, every day. You will absorb lessons of excellent writing and storytelling, with the bonus of becoming/staying educated about what is going on in the world around you. Clients and employers will expect this kind of knowledge and engagement. PS reading a selection of articles from Google News or an aggregating service does not count.
Beth Moore, Attorney, Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison, Class of 1988
Don’t be afraid to use Examples & Explanations and other supplements. These resources are more like traditional textbooks and can help you transition from college reading to casebooks.
Try to understand your professor’s perspective and voice. What issues are particularly important to her? Which themes does she repeatedly emphasize in class? How does she structure arguments? Keep that in mind when writing the final exam.
Always take timed practice exams and compare your response to the model answer.
Become meaningfully involved in at least one extra-curricular activity at the law school.
Make sure you rest! It’s okay to take breaks.
Will Perry, Senior Associate, Butler Snow LLP, Class of 2011
Develop your study routine. Stay two weekdays ahead on your daily readings and other assignments. Most professors post the first set of assignments before the semester begins, and once classes begin you will receive a syllabus. Accordingly, if classes begin on a Monday, complete those assignments the previous Thursday; complete Tuesday’s assignments on Friday, etc. Review the week’s material on Saturday. Prepare your outlines, begin your notecards, or do whatever it is that you do to review. But do it each week. Then when exams arrive, you will be in better shape than most of your peers. Take Sunday off.
Try not to view the readings for a course as a series of unrelated, separate assignments. It will feel that way sometimes, but I encourage you to spend some time regularly trying to figure out how the readings assigned in a course relate to one another and then articulating those connections in writing or verbally to a classmate. To help with this, I suggest asking yourself some questions every day after you’ve finished your reading:
Why did the professor assign each case?
What is the case supposed to teach you?
How does each case relate to the case that you read immediately prior to it and to the case that you read next?
Does this reading assignment help me understand anything new about the previous reading assignment?(I’ve referred to cases, but this applies to statutes and anything else you may be assigned to read.)
Try to do this exercise with larger sections of the course as well. For this, the table of contents in your casebook can come in handy. As you finish up a section or chapter in the casebook, try to figure out how it relates to the sections or chapters that come before and after it. Good Luck!
Take care of each other . . . this is your community. Here at UT we support each other: we celebrate each others’ accomplishments, and we lift each other up and encourage each other when we experience disappointments. Although many know that the symbol of UT is a Torchbearer, not all know that the official creed of the University is: “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.” Here at UT Law we truly strive to follow that creed, both in our profession and in our conduct to each other.
Take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, and do what you need to ensure that you are ready, mentally and physically, for the commitment that is law school. Often this includes ensuring that you have a non-law school activity. How about joining a choir in town? Or setting up “FaceTime Thursdays” with that nephew or family member that you love? Or starting a local baseball team? It’s all about finding a balance that allows you to develop professionally, while mainlining the “you” in you.
Make connections while at law school. Reach out to law professors, lawyers in the community through networking events, and other law students. Check in on your progress, reach out for advice, or simply say hello. Speak to someone in the Career Center about creating mentoring relationships with individuals in fields that you want to work in. You will have unparalleled opportunities while in law school here at UT to build a foundation of people who support you in your educational, professional, and personal lives for years to come.
Participate in class. Answer questions, ask questions, and engage intellectually, both with your professors and with your fellow students. The most exciting classes are those where the entire class is engaged in learning (rather than having to hear only me speak the whole time . . .gasp!). This is your chance to practice active analysis of legal issues, just as you will as a lawyer. Class time is, in part, meant to get students to learn to think on their toes without a client, a judge, or a boss present. You get nothing out of law school by hiding in the back row. If you aren’t sure how to engage in class, or aren’t comfortable with the idea, go talk to your professor.
Stay current with your work. Always. It won’t take you any longer to read the cases now than it will later, and you will be ready for class, be ready in case your professor calls on you, and be able to start putting all the material together. Law school is not that hard, but it is a lot of work that takes a lot of time. Do not miss classes.
But don’t just do your course work. Meet your classmates. You will help each other through school, and they will be your friends and your professional peers for the rest of your life. Most of my closest friends from law school were in my small first-year section (and they all have last names that start with “S”!). And meet your professors. Lawyers work with other people, so try not to hibernate with all those big, heavy, expensive books. And however much pressure you are under, maintain your professional reputation. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
My advice is this: embrace this unique opportunity to study and learn in a community where we all are working toward very similar goals. Embrace the opportunity, but also respect the opportunity. Recognize that most everyone around you is working toward accomplishing their own personal best. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Respect their efforts and expect them to respect yours.
Take advantage of the fact that you are entering a unique community of individuals with shared goals. If you feel confused, are struggling, or simply are experiencing anxiety or frustration know that around the corner, across the hall, or up the stairs is a colleague, a member of the faculty, or a member of the staff who likely understands and who can share with you some of what has worked for others who have experienced those same feelings at other times. My advice in a nutshell is to become a part of the community – the family – that is UT Law. We welcome you.