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

Part Two – Mental Preparation

In Part One of my “mis en place” post (see September 14 post), I discussed physical preparation for law school success.

Mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation in creating your “mise en place” system for law school success. Law school, particularly the first year, is a steep transition to a new discourse community  — you are actually being trained to think in a new way. This, together with the significant amount of time needed to do your course assignments, can make the experience quite stressful. But there are things you can do to maintain normalcy and balance in your life and keep the stress to a minimum.

1)     Perhaps most importantly, you need to approach law school from a “project management” perspective. The first year of law school requires a sustained period of putting in long hours of work. But careful planning and maintenance of a schedule can make this manageable. Create a detailed schedule for yourself. Write it down and put it on your bulletin board or view it electronically at the start of each week and each day. Schedule specific times for the academic pursuits of each day – class time, study time, working on long term projects like writing assignments, outlining, attending study groups or student events – but also formally schedule the times you will eat, sleep, exercise, socialize, fulfill family commitments or chores, and take time for yourself. Having a scheduled time for activities other than studying will legitimize those activities in your mind so that you actually do them, and knowing that you have scheduled exercise or a social event to look forward to will help you focus on studying when it is your scheduled study time. That is, you won’t waste time worrying about some other activity you should be doing (or not doing), because you will know that there is a scheduled time for that activity coming up.

2)     Jettison the time-waster activities. You should make time for important  leisure activities like exercise, family, and your favorite hobby. But don’t waste your leisure time on “time suck” activities that you don’t really care much about, like watching television reruns or aimlessly surfing the net. Understand that law school is demanding of your time and that some things will have to go. Make sure that the things you cut out are the things that are least important to your happiness and health.

3)     In addition to having a good schedule, the most important advice I can give you is to form a study group with some of your classmates. You are being exposed to a lot of unfamiliar and difficult material at a very fast pace in law school. The Socratic method means that much of this material is presented in disjointed ways – you read individual cases about many different legal topics and are expected to figure out how the pieces relate to each other and form a coherent whole. This is the American law school approach. It’s useful, but sometimes frustrating. But finding a small group of like-minded classmates whom you can sit down with every few days and puzzle out what you are supposed to be deriving from class can be very intellectually helpful. It’s also emotionally empowering, because you share your frustrations with each other and derive the satisfaction of reasoning through questions and figuring out the answers together. I formed a “study group” within my first few days of law school quite by accident: three other students and I started chatting after class one day about how confused we were, decided to grab lunch together to continue the conversation, and then did that again every day after our morning classes — until one day we decided to formalize that activity into a “study group.” We met once or twice a week from then on, and eventually worked on our outlines together and got together to take practice exams together and comment on each other’s exams. We taught each other the material all semester, and we all found it extremely helpful.

4)     I also strongly recommend that law students commit to participate in at least one weekly social event at a consistently scheduled time. In my first year of law school, by Friday nights I was exhausted and burned out from a week of getting up early for class, reading cases, and doing the hard mental work of trying to understand them. Early on I made a conscious choice that even if I took no other time off from studying during the week, Friday nights would be my “time off.” (My brain had stopped working by Friday night anyway, so this made sense). Every Friday night my boyfriend and I would get take-out Chinese food from a really great place in Ann Arbor and eat it in front of the TV while watching sports or a movie. I can’t tell you how much the simple act of taking those few hours off guilt-free recharged my brain and helped me to return refreshed to my studying the next day. And having my Friday nights off to look forward to all week really motivated me to study all week, since I knew a break was coming, and thus I was more motivated to “earn” it by focusing during the week.

5)     It will also help you maintain your emotional balance if you give your brain a small mental vacation from thinking about law each day. Take a few minutes each morning or evening to wind down by reading a little of a novel or other book that has nothing to do with law, to focus on listening to music, or to otherwise give your brain something else to think about besides law and law school. You will find that even this short time away from thinking about the law is mentally rejuvenating.

6)     Find a relaxation technique that works for you. Law school can be stressful. Getting called on in class – or just anticipating it – can be stressful. Trying to keep up with your reading can be stressful. Worrying about the job market. Worrying about what time you can get to bed tonight. You get the picture. The point is, you need to find ways to combat that stress. So find some relaxation techniques (no, drinking is not a “relaxation technique”) that you can incorporate into your life. Northwestern Law, like many law schools, offers regular stress management seminars. Other good techniques include massage, acupuncture, deep breathing, meditation, biofeedback, singing loudly in the shower (my personal favorite), repetitive meditative activities like knitting or painting, and group primal screaming. Try out a few techniques, find your zen, and practice it regularly. Relaxation is actually a skill that you can practice and improve, and a relaxed law student is a more productive law student. (Not to mention happier!).

7)     Finally, it’s also very important to maintain your relationships outside of law school. Visiting or talking regularly to your family and friends is crucial to maintaining your core identity – the “you” who you were before coming to law school. Make time to keep in touch with your loved ones often, even if that just means sending a quick text message each morning and having a longer conversation once a week. It’s also important to talk regularly with people who are not immersed in the same all-encompassing law school experience that you are. Maintaining these emotional connections to “the outside world” will help you keep an objective perspective on the challenging situation you are going through.

8)     Finally, please know that the first semester is the hardest because in addition to learning the material, you are also learning how to learn the material. I promise you that it will get easier – so maintain perspective and a sense of humor!

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