Advice To An Incoming 1L: Humble Yourself Before The Law. Surrender.

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice

To my godson Ross, who has just been accepted to Villanova Law for next fall, I offer the following advice on starting law school.

There are lots of books out there with handy tips on doing well at law school:  how to brief cases, how to interact with your classmates, how to prepare for exams, and so on. Go out and buy one or two of these books.  See what you can take from them.

You can also find lots of helpful material on the Internet from people who are themselves grappling with the same issues. For incoming students with families, for example, Keith Lee suggests ways to balance the pressures of law school with your personal life.  There are also law school bloggers, such as Laura McWilliams, who detail the day-to-day challenges of law school.  Because misery loves company.

To the wealth of information already out there, I have nothing to add but this one piece of advice: Learn to love the law by humbling yourself before it.  Submit to it. Surrender.

Yes, law school involves a tremendous amount of reading. And you should do all of it. When you begin reading your first cases, you are going to be distracted by lots of things that are going on with the cases. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t figure out, for example, what the “standard of review” is.  That stuff will come. But don’t gloss over the material either.

I was inspired by a professor at law school who devoted an entire class to a single line from a rule of civil procedure. Take your time. Sit back and mull things over. Don’t hurry the reading. Enjoy it.  Think of the case as a poem that you need to dissect in order to fully understand and appreciate it. And keep at it not only until you can spout back both the facts and holding of a case but until you feel you really understand it.  Take the long view. If this doesn’t pay off at the next class or even at the next exam, you will be a much better lawyer for it over the long-term.

If I was inspired by my civil procedure professor on the benefits of taking your time, it was your father who inspired me with his system of studying for exams at graduate school. He would take the biggest piece of paper he could find and then map out with different colors everything he needed to know about a particular subject area. The process of figuring out what went where was in itself educational. And when it came around to actually taking the exam, he could figure out the answer to a question by conjuring up a mental image of the subject matter from his crib sheet.

I wish I had known about this system while I was still in law school, but I did use it in studying for the Pennsylvania and Virginia bar exams. To this day, I can’t think of a particular rule of evidence without pulling up a mental image of where the issue I am dealing with was laid out on my crib sheet.

Although I can even remember the colors I used on this crib sheet, I would advise you not to spend too much time worrying about the color of the highlighters used during the reading. I know that some of the how-to books suggest all sorts of different tactics, like using one colored marker for the holding of the case, another color for the analysis, and yet another color for the facts. I thought that some of my classmates – perhaps having read the same how-to books – spent too much time on implementing their clever strategies and not enough time simply thinking about the cases. Because there are no shortcuts in the law.  There is no magic bullet.

Likewise, some of my classmates spent weeks putting together fancy outlines for the final exam, with pretty fonts and everything laid out just right. Although some people swear by the outlines, and you may decide this is what works best for you, an outline would still work well in  conjunction with your father’s strategy for individual cases. If you map out the logic of the case on a piece of paper and you mark it up and you write down your questions and you draw arrows and circles, you are going to remember the specific case far better than if you try to think back on a quick blurb from an outline.

Going to law school can in fact be a humbling experience. Your fellow students are just as smart as you, and they work real hard. The amount of material you need to cover is also astounding. Things are always changing, and you can never know everything, even within a highly specialized area of the law. That thought would have intimidated me as a younger man. Today I find it reassuring to think that I can practice criminal law for the next thirty years without running out of new things to learn.

As a boy, I also suffered under the misconception that the business of lawyering involved memorizing a whole bunch of different statutes and cases and then finding the right time to spew these back at the judge or opposing counsel.  Aha, you would exclaim triumphantly to your adversary.  You clearly fail to realize that Section 12(b)(3) of such-and-such statute directly contradicts your argument.  And everyone in the courtroom would be amazed by your legal acumen and powers of recall.

It was only later that I found out that learning the law is really much more a way of thinking. It is a way of problem-solving. Although some law classes and preparation for the bar examination do involve some degree of memorization, the practice of law does not. It’s not that you need to know the answer to every legal problem. It’s that you learn how to figure it out. And the realization that once you have figured out how to do something in one area of the law, you can figure it out in any other area is truly empowering.

You should also cut yourself a break by realizing that it is always difficult to learn things in the abstract. You are exposed to lots of material in law school without any understanding of how these things can be applied in practice. Take heart in knowing that these very same concepts will become extremely interesting to you when they involve the real people you are representing. For example, although I spent a lot of time in law school and then in practice learning the rules of evidence, it was not until just the other day – when reading about a particular rule in connection with a specific case – that I felt I finally and truly understood the rule.  Because suddenly understanding this rule – and I mean really understanding it — mattered.

Starting to learn the law is a challenge. From the time you sit down to read your first case, you need to plug ahead with the understanding that, after a while, things are going to start falling into place and making sense. Take the leap of faith that the effort you put in now will pay dividends later, even if the extra time you put in at first will not pay off at the next class or even at the next exam. If you struggle with the law and resist it and if you resent all the time you spend reading cases, you are only going to make yourself miserable.  You are also going to become unproductive.

There is nothing satisfying about doing good enough or just squeaking through.  Accept that it is going to take some time. Come to terms with that. And then, yield to it.  Lay back, go with the flow, and allow it to wash over you.  And then enjoy it.

More like this:

On the True Value of a Law Degree

Law School After the Age of 40

On Becoming a Solo Criminal Defense Attorney Right Out of Law School

No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This

My Career As A County Prosecutor