Category Archives: Advice for Preparing for Law School

“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!

“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!

How Students From Different College Majors Should Approach Legal Writing

The law is a discipline and a discourse community, and legal writing is a very specific type of disciplinary writing with its own unique set of rhetorical rules. Law students come to law school from a very disparate set of undergraduate and professional backgrounds, and therefore they come to their legal writing courses from a disparate set of perspectives. These different perspectives mean that different students are differently situated in how quickly and easily they are able to transition into understanding the discipline of law — which is new to them.

A new book arrived in my mailbox today that may help students from various educational and professional backgrounds begin to understand legal reasoning and legal writing more quickly and easily.

The book, by Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb, a professor at Mercer University’s law school, is entitled Legal Writing in the Disciplines. The summary of the book describes the book’s purpose as follows:

“Legal writing is disciplinary writing, not just another form of technical writing. . . .  Legal Writing in the Disciplines reconceptualizes law in its disciplinary context. The text is designed to effectively communicate legal analysis and writing skills to pre-law and new law students using the language of their undergraduate and graduate majors.”

The book contains chapters geared toward explaining legal writing to law students who come from backgrounds in five categories: science, social sciences, arts, humanities, and business.

I have a copy of the book in my office if anyone would like to borrow it. Our library may also have a copy (or be willing to obtain one). And of course, you can purchase it on Amazon.com and elsewhere.

What to Read the Summer Before Law School

When I meet people who are about to enter law school, they often ask me if there are things they could read to help them be better prepared for law school. I think there are. In the summer before entering law school, I would recommend that you primarily focus on relaxing and on mentally adjusting yourself to the fact that you are about to enter upon a course of hard work. But in addition to relaxation and mental preparation, there are some types of reading that you can do to orient yourself to the world of the law and the world of law school.

I’d recommend that you consider doing some reading in each of three categories (focusing on the areas in which you feel least prepared):

1)      Readings to ensure that you have a good background understanding of United States history and the basic structure of U.S. government and the legal system;

2)      Readings that will help prepare you for the law school experience itself, and will help you begin to build your identity as an attorney;

3)      Readings that will help you prepare for your legal writing and research class, the class that (unsurprisingly) I consider your most important course in law school.

Readings for Category 1:

*You will spend much of your first year learning about U.S. law by reading individual cases decided by U.S. courts. This incremental building block approach is quite different from the overview lectures that may have made up much of your undergraduate education. To understand what you are reading in the individual cases you read (and how the cases relate to each other), you need a solid understanding of the U.S. system of government, particularly how the three branches of government make law and how they interact with each other. To understand this, in turn, you need a good basic understanding of U.S. history.  You should have gained this knowledge in high school and college.  But….. if you did not…. the summer before law school is a good time to remedy this gap in your education. A few good, relatively concise sources on U.S. history are:

  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
  • Paul Johnson, A History of the American People
  • The Federalist Papers
  • O’Connor, Sabato, and Yanus, American Government: Roots and Reform (11th ed. 2011) or a similar U.S. government textbook.

A few good sources for understanding the structure of the U.S. legal system include:

  • Toni M. Fine, American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide. This book will give you an overview of American legal institutions and sources of law, and presents a guide to the interrelationships between and among those institutions and legal authorities. It’s very short and concisely written in an outline format that makes it helpful as a quick reference guide.
  • Brian L. Porto, May it Please the Court: Judicial Processes and Politics in America (2d ed.). In this book I recommend reading Chapter 2, “American Courts – Structures and Procedures.”
  • Steven J. Burton, Introduction to Law and Legal Reasoning.This book will introduce you to the reasoning processes by which legal actors (such as attorneys and judges) create the law and apply it to real-world problems.

Readings for Category 2:

Law school is an experience different from any other experience you’ve had. It’s exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also highly challenging, arduous, and at times, stressful. Your 1L year, in particular, is like intellectual boot camp, designed to transition you into a member of the community of lawyers. Learning the law is also like learning a foreign language. The 1L year is all about teaching you to “think like a lawyer,” so you will probably find it helpful to read a book or two that will introduce you to how lawyers think and the process by which law school will teach you to think that way.

  • Scott Turow, 1L – though written several decades ago, this is still the best account by a law students of what it’s like to go through (and survive) the first year of law school.
  • Karl N. Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush. This book is a thoughtful examination of the common law legal reasoning process – the main skill that every U.S. lawyer must build over time. It also gives law students valuable advice about how to read cases and prepare for class.
  • Ruth Ann McKinney, Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert. This book will introduce you to the arduous process of reading individual court cases in the depth that lawyers need to read cases.
  • There are also a number of books about how to succeed as a law student. One good example is Herbert N. Ramy, Succeeding in Law School. Lots of similar books are listed on Amazon.com. They all give good basic advice about study habits, time management, and dealing with stress.

Readings for Category 3:

*As I said, I consider legal writing the most important course you will take in law school. This course is crucial for preparing you to practice law, because it teaches you how to apply the law you are learning in your subject-matter classes to a client’s real-world legal problem. Excellent analytic legal writing is indispensable to advising clients and persuading judges, and written legal analysis is different from other types of writing you have done in the past. One important difference is that it is crucial to understand the needs of your legal audience and how they differ from the needs of other types of readers. The following articles will help you begin to understand your legal audience.

  • Anne Enquist, Talking to Students About the Differences Between Undergraduate Writing and Legal Writing, 13 Perspectives 104 (Winter 2005), available at http://store.westlaw.com/pdf/perspec/Winter%202005/Wint058.pdf. This short article will introduce you to the important realization that legal writing differs significantly from the type of writing you likely did as an undergraduate.

 

  • Michael Higdon, The Legal Reader: An Expose, University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 183 (March 9, 2012), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2019728. This article will help you start developing the crucial lawyering skill of identifying the particular audience for whom you are writing your particular legal document, and writing to meet the specific needs of that audience.

A blog of advice for law students and law graduates

I just came across an interesting blog by Wolters Kluwer, a law and business publisher that publishes materials for attorneys and for law students, including law school case books, study aids, and more. The blog, aimed at an audience of law students and young lawyers, is called “Becoming a Lawyer,” and can be found at http://bal.wolterskluwerlb.com/category/pre-law/

The blog categorizes its posts under a number of topics including: “Pre-law,” “1L,” “2L and 3L,” “Bar Review,” and “Job Advice.”