“Mise en Place”: Thriving in the First Weeks and Months of Law School (Part One)

Experienced chefs live by the concept of “mise en place” (French for “set in place”), meaning that they get their work station completely ready before beginning to cook. A chef does this by gathering all necessary cooking implements and chopping or otherwise preparing all ingredients so that they will be close to hand and ready when needed. Voila– no frustrations or unnecessary interruptions during the creative and high-pressure process of gourmet cooking.

The mise en place concept can be applied equally well (By analogy! Voila! A tie-in to the 1L experience!) to navigating the first few weeks and months of law school. Once law school revs up, it is a high-pressure process that seems to move at breakneck speed. But having your “work station” prepared can lessen the pressure you feel and allow you to completely immerse yourself in learning the law.

Mise en place of your law school work station includes both physical preparation and mental preparation.

This post will cover physical preparation. I’ll write about mental preparation in a separate post.

Physical Preparation:

The physical preparation aspect of mise en place means that as the school year launches, you gather around you all the physical “implements” that will make your study process as comfortable, and therefore, as effective as possible. You want all of this prepared ahead of time so that you don’t need to go searching for it once you are in the thick of the semester. First, find or create a good study space that allows you to focus without distractions. You should have a place that you can count on returning to every day, so that you can store all your supplies there, and so you know what the seating and lighting will be like. Try to get a reserved carrel or table in the law library. If you can’t reserve one, then create a space at home. Your study space should include the following furniture and supplies:

1)      A comfortable desk and chair.

2)      Good lighting and extra light bulbs.

3)      A reliable late-model computer with sufficient memory and a back-up method such as an extra external hard drive or electronic Cloud space. (I promise you that your computer will crash, erasing your entire hard drive, sometime during law school – it happens to one of my students almost every year. So back up all files at least weekly, or preferably nightly! I can’t emphasize this enough!).

4)      A good printer and extra ink cartridges – this is crucial if any of your classes (such as your legal research and writing class) require you to print out your assignments. You don’t want to have to rely on law school printers when all the other 1Ls are lining up to use them.

5)      Sufficient printer paper.

6)      Pillows, a light blanket or sweater, ambient music, and whatever else will make you more physically comfortable at your desk.

7)      A large supply of the office supplies you will use. Law students are typically intense consumers of highlighter pens (my boyfriend bought me a giant sized box as a holiday gift after he saw how many I used in my first semester). Other important office supplies include good pens (especially if you take notes by hand), and lots of post-its of various kinds. Law students love to tab their books and write notes on the tabs, so that they can flip to the important pages.

8)      A good legal dictionary (either hard copy or online). Get in the habit of looking up unfamiliar legal terms as soon as you encounter them during your reading for class. Knowing those words will help you understand the reading as a whole and help avoid frustration.

9)      Commercial outlines and hornbooks for overview purposes. There are many commercial law study aids. Law students should not rely heavily on commercial study aids, since reading them is a type of passive learning that is no substitute for the active learning of closely reading the case book and creating your own outline. However, commercial study aids are useful to provide the “30,000 feet” overview of a legal topic. Consider having a commercial outline, hornbook, or treatise about each of your 1L courses (contracts, torts, etc.) near at hand to give you a deeper understanding of a particular sub-topic that you’re struggling with on a certain day, or to help you understand how a detailed sub-topic fits into the larger context of the course topic as a whole. (Note: I’ll be doing a later post about my detailed thoughts on the utility of each type of commercial study aid).

10)  A large supply of healthy snacks and drinks near your work station – perhaps in a mini-fridge.  It is very important to keep yourself hydrated. You will be spending a lot of time inside dry, perhaps old, buildings, and handling a lot of paper. All of this is dehydrating. Dehydration leads to headaches and tiredness, which interfere with mental focus. It’s also important not to let yourself get too hungry, and to eat sufficient protein and vitamins (e.g. from lean meats and dairy, beans, nuts, and fruits and vegetables). Protein and vitamins are brain food. Foods full of sugar, fats, and chemicals will agitate you and then lead to an energy crash, and they don’t provide the protein your brain needs to function at its best. Eating healthy snacks will also help you avoid over-reliance on caffeine. Lay in a large supply early in the semester. When you are busy studying, if you run out of healthy snacks you may be tempted to live on candy bars from the corner convenience store. Avoid this pattern.

10) Access to regular exercise. Regular exercise is as important as healthy food in helping you avoid the ubiquitous law school cold and stay feeling well, so you can concentrate. Find a way to work exercise into your schedule, whether that means biking or walking to school each day, taking a run after your last class, or joining a gym near the law school where you can go every day or so. Your school may even have free or cheap athletic facilities.

Coming soon: Part Two: Mental Preparation!

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One response to ““Mise en Place”: Thriving in the First Weeks and Months of Law School (Part One)

  1. Thanks for the blog post, Prof. Inglehart! These tips are really thoughtful and I’ll take them to heart.

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