If you are a first-generation law student, law school itself can seem like a completely different world—a world where you have very little navigational help. At least, that’s what it felt like for me. I had never even met a lawyer and assumed that I was the only one in this boat. I also assumed that no one had as many questions as I did. First and foremost, everyone is feeling overwhelmed, so you’re not alone. And because I felt so desperately lost when I started law school, I present to you the guidebook I wish I had!
First, let’s discuss some basics on what to expect. Remember that law school is a professional school, which alone makes it different. If you were like me, you don’t know anyone who had been to professional school, so you have no idea what it means. My goal is that by the end of this chapter you will understand more about what makes law school different, and what to expect.
I. Learning A Brand New Vocabulary
First, law school uses a brand-new language. I remember getting my schedule and thinking “What is a tort?” and feeling very much that I was in over my head. For the record, a tort is a “civil wrong,” such as stuff like slip and falls or car accidents. But I didn’t know that! I thought, “Is a torte a fancy chocolate cake?” So, I created a “Law School Glossary” for you in the appendix. It is by no means exhaustive, but it is a list of commonly used law school words that you may not know. In addition, I have written a CALI Lesson on vocabulary that can supplement this chapter. See the CALI Lesson .
I’m sure you are expecting the law to have a unique vocabulary when it comes to actually learning about the law, but law school itself even has its very own “lingo.” Even before orientation, you will hear words like “1L,” “hypos,” and “mock trial.” I’ve tried to cover all of the lingo that might come up, but some of it varies from law school to law school. For example, during my first semester at one school, someone mentioned students going on a “bar review.” Well, since “bar review” is part of my job title, I thought “I have to be involved in this.” Turns out, I did not need to be involved in this at all, as it was how the students referred to going out socially on Thursday nights.
Also, remember that like with any other new language, if you see or hear a word you don’t know or understand, look it up! Or ask. Either is acceptable. I would suggest that when looking words up, make sure you are using the legal definition. A good resource is “Black’s Law Dictionary.” If possible, buy a portable Black’s Law Dictionary and keep it with you as you read cases. Your library might also have online options available, which may be more cost effective and certainly easier to carry around. It’s important to make sure you are using a legal dictionary in lieu of a normal dictionary because often legal words have very specific definitions, whereas the same word might be used in a different way by non-lawyers. For example, my grandmother often used to say “hearsay” to refer to a rumor. If someone in the family was spreading gossip, for example, she’d call us out and say, “Oh that’s just hearsay, we don’t know that for sure.” When you take evidence, you will learn that hearsay has a very specific legal definition. Grandma was close in the way she used it, but legal definitions call for far more precision. In addition, if you search for “tort” but accidentally include an e, you’ll get a cake. While far more delicious than a civil wrong, it certainly won’t help you in your first-year classes.
You may often hear words that you think you know, but that you don’t quite understand in the law school context. For example, I’d often heard about “legal clerkships” while in law school. Now, my mother had been a secretary for years, and sometimes was called a “clerk,” so I thought “legal clerkships” were secretarial or administrative positions. While there is nothing wrong with that, I couldn’t understand why my classmates would want to be legal secretaries after graduation; that seemed odd. Little did I know that when a law student applies for a legal clerkship, they are working for a judge. And this doesn’t mean they are doing administrative work, but rather, legal research and writing. It’s actually fairly prestigious. I wish I had thought to ask someone, but I was embarrassed. With this book, I’m going to try to give you as much exposure to those kinds of terms as I can, but I cannot possibly cover everything. So please ask questions, don’t be embarrassed, and look things up.
Finally, law school often uses shorthand or abbreviations, and to the uninitiated, it may seem very odd. Some of these are also included in the glossary. For example, people will often use π to mean plaintiff, or K to mean contract. Or, things like “1L” to mean first year, or “hypo” to mean hypothetical. It can be very frustrating, especially if you feel like you haven’t been let in on the secret. I’ll be honest, after even a semester of law school, you will forget that there was a time when you had no idea what these abbreviations meant. This means that students who have been in law school for at least a year, as well as your professors, often forget that these are not words and abbreviations that everyone uses. So, when they use the abbreviations without explanation, they are not doing it to exclude you or as some kind of test; it’s mostly just a force of habit. When I train my tutors, who are second-year law students, I remind them that the incoming students will not know the shorthand they have grown accustomed to using. Despite this, I find myself still referring to things such as “hypos” instead of hypotheticals or “civ pro” instead of civil procedure during orientation. I don’t mean to, and I certainly don’t want to alienate my fellow first-generation students, but it is a habit. You will find yourself saying the same things out of habit very soon. This means that you should not feel any shame or hesitation in asking what a particular word means.
It is also helpful to remind yourself that so many others sitting with you in class are also learning this language for the first time. Even the students who are not first generation do not know it all. Sure, maybe they have at least heard the words in passing, but that doesn’t mean they know what everything means, or that they have accurate definitions.
II. Read Carefully
Law School, and the practice of law, rely heavily on your ability to read carefully. This will be one of the most important skills you can master, and reading things multiple times is recommended. This is so that you don’t miss important information.
First, you will receive folders and folders of information between admission and orientation, and again during orientation. Start a filing system, electronic or otherwise. Look carefully for emails that come from the admissions office or other administrators. Often those emails contain information about programs or other events, and these things can have deadlines. It might be tempting to think that you don’t have to pay attention to emails until you actually start classes, but you may miss great school programming. When reading these emails, pay careful attention to deadlines or other directions. I also realize that the amount of information you will be given during orientation is overwhelming. That’s normal. The best thing you can do is find a good place to organize it all, and have it as a reference for the first few weeks of classes, and beyond. You can use an online calendar, paper calendar, phone reminders, or whatever has worked for you in the past. Even though law school can feel like a completely new experience, some of what has worked for you in the past will continue to work for you moving forward. And law school, even as early as being admitted, is a good time to set up organization systems, calendar systems, and reminder systems to see what will work for you and serve you throughout your career.
In addition, there is an expectation that for most of your courses you will have read the syllabus before the first class. You may even have an assignment before the first class. The potential to have an assignment before classes even started came as a shock to me; in my undergraduate experience, it was normal for the professor to use the first class to go over the syllabus and end class early. In law school, there may never be a point where the professor reviews the syllabus with you, so it is up to you to make sure that you are following the directions and assignments contained within the syllabus.
Some syllabi are more detailed than others; they may include grading policies, attendance policies, how to turn in assignments, and/or course expectations. Essentially, they are a guide to your course, and you want to read them very carefully.
See below for a glimpse into my syllabus. The heading gives you basic information—what is the class, when is it, where is the classroom, where is my office, and so on. This seems fairly straightforward, but it’s all vital information!
Now, let’s skip ahead into my syllabus—what do you learn from this next section? Answer the questions that follow.
Part of law school is to train you to read directions very carefully, or just read carefully in general. Being an attorney is all about reading paperwork carefully. That being said, law school is the time to learn, and potentially mess up. It is far better to miss a deadline or mess up instructions during law school (even though there can still be severe consequences in law school) than it is to mess up during the practice of law. I tell my students that I have very specific instructions for a reason, so I do expect that they will be followed. For example, when my students turn in an essay, they are expected to save the document as “Name Subject” before uploading. This is clear in the syllabus. This is not arbitrary. Imagine 45 students turning in documents with the title “Contracts Essay” or “Essay on Contracts.” How would I ever keep them organized? This not only benefits me, the professor, as I try to give feedback, but benefits the student since I can double-check I’m returning the correct essays to the correct students. Also, it means that when they want to talk about feedback or go over an essay, it’s easy to find. Even if that essay is older, it’s going to be organized by their name so it will be easy to find. I do explain my reasoning to students, as I firmly believe that when you teach adult learners, it helps to be transparent about why certain rules are in place. However, not every professor is transparent in their reasoning. Even if they seem arbitrary, practice reading all directions and rules carefully.
I sometimes give my first-year students a “reading and briefing” assignment, and it’s really a “following directions” assignment. At the top, it says “Read all questions before you begin” and there are about 14 questions. Question 13 says not to answer anything above Question 13, and Question 14 says “What is your name?” I admit, it’s a bit sneaky, but it does two things: it tells me who is reading carefully, and it shows the students the importance of reading carefully. Mostly because they are given about 30 minutes to complete the assignment and the first 12 questions are very difficult. So those students who do follow the instructions are done very quickly and can have a bit of a break.
I don’t do this to be cruel; I do it so they can make mistakes with me. It’s better that they screw up or fall on their face with me, rather than in legal practice. I won’t penalize them. Sure, I want them to follow directions and read carefully, but I want that so that they learn the skill for practice. If someone names their document “Contracts Essay” I usually resave it with their name and remind them in their feedback to read directions. They still get points for their essay, and nothing has happened that they are not able to bounce back from or learn from. This is the same with the following directions assignment. No one who “messes up” is penalized. It’s meant to be a learning experience, and a reminder moving forward.
It is important to note that there are times in law school when you might be penalized for failure to follow instructions. I have seen students lose points on exams for not carefully reading instructions, and at times, they end up getting an answer wrong because they didn’t read carefully. So, there can be real consequences. However, it’s still better to learn this habit in law school and suffer the consequences now, instead of while in practice.
You want to be prepared for class. I’m here to be completely honest with you, so for honesty’s sake, I will admit that during my undergraduate years I was not always prepared for class. Much depended on the class and topic, but I often viewed class reading as more of a suggestion. This approach is unlikely to work in law school. You want to do the class reading and be prepared to participate.
In law school, most professors use “cold calling,” meaning they will ask questions of students randomly. This means you will be expected to answer questions about the reading even if you do not volunteer.
Many law professors use something called “The Socratic Method.” “Developed by the Greek philosopher, Socrates, the Socratic Method is a dialogue between teacher and students, instigated by the continual probing questions of the teacher, in a concerted effort to explore the underlying beliefs that shape the students’ views and opinions.”1
In short, this means that students are expected to participate in class and answer questions about cases and the law. This can feel very intimidating.
However, the point of class is to learn. The expectation is that you have done the reading and briefed the cases. (In later chapters, I’ll give you tips on how to do the reading more effectively as well as answer the question, “What on earth is briefing?”) The expectation is a good faith effort, not perfection. You might get called on and get an answer wrong. That’s okay! Despite how it feels on that day in class, it’s not the end of the world. It often feels like everyone is staring at you and judging you for getting the answer wrong. First, no one is staring at you; they are likely looking down taking a deep sigh of relief that they were not called on. And they certainly aren’t judging you, because it’s a good bet they didn’t know the right answer either. You will remember being called on, and not getting the answer right, and you might remember it for years. But no one else will.
I have met with many students who are a bit worried about “not getting it all” prior to class. Specifically, they feel prepared in the sense that they have read the cases and briefed those cases, but still feel a bit unprepared when students or professors ask the “what if” questions. The students that come to me feel worried that if they aren’t “getting” the “what if” questions, they didn’t fully prepare.
First, you might be thinking, “What is a ‘what if’ question?” This is often part of the Socratic Method: a professor might go over a case that you read and then say, “Well, what if this had happened instead?” or “What if I changed this one fact?” This is designed to help you learn to think like a lawyer, and no, you aren’t going to get it right away. Also, this is part of the process of learning. The “what if” questions help you learn to analyze a problem, which is what you’ll be doing on the exam. So you are meant to follow along in class, but it’s okay if you don’t have the answers before class or even during class. It’s a learning experience. Also, I promise you will get more comfortable with this process as you go.
It is important to remember that your time in class, even when being cold-called, is about learning the material. Yes, you must read before class and do your best to understand it, but if you are completely confused about what you just read, that is normal.
IV. Time Management
Time management and punctuality are great lawyering skills. Depending on the type of law you are practicing, deadlines are either incredibly important or they are absolutely critical. In addition, it’s not unusual to work on multiple cases at one time, juggling them all simultaneously.
You will be expected to hone your time management skills during law school. Because law school is a professional graduate program, attendance in class, and showing up to class on time, are both expected. It is also expected that you will turn in assignments in a timely fashion; some might not even be accepted past the deadlines. Again, this is not dissimilar to being a practicing attorney.
However, just as when you are practicing law, life will happen, and that is okay. You are human, so you will get sick or have other emergencies. And just like you must do in practice, you have to notify the relevant people. In law school, that is usually the professor, dean of students, or academic success director. Let them know of the emergency as soon as you are able (within reason) and they will generally be able to accommodate you.
In addition, since many classes only have one to two exams, you are responsible for holding yourself accountable. No one will check in to see if you are staying caught up on the reading or whether you’re briefing. This means that time management is essential. It’s easy to get behind with no “checking in,” so setting up study time for yourself, and sticking to it, can be vitally important.
The CALI Lesson on time management I’ve linked above has some excellent advice, but here are a few general tips to help:
- Create daily, weekly, monthly, and semester-based calendars. It might seem like a bit much, but you want to see the “big picture” of the semester, as well as what you need to accomplish in any given day or week.
- Create to-do lists that separate out the “must accomplish” today/this week/this month versus “would like to accomplish” today/this week/this month.
- Set reminders (electronic reminders on your calendar or phone can do wonders2) of important deadlines. Don’t just set the reminder to go off just before the deadline—set staggered reminders for larger projects.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique if you need help focusing. Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian, and was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s to help him focus on his studies. The basic idea is that you pick a task, set a timer for 25 minutes (Cirillo called this the Pomodoro Technique because he used a timer that was shaped like a tomato), and focus on just that task. Then, when the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break. If the task is something that takes longer than 25 minutes, do this multiple times, giving yourself a longer 15 to 20-minute break after 4 “Pomodoros.” Many lawyers swear by the Pomodoro Technique.3
V. Grading and Exams
One of the things that makes law school so different is that grading is typically focused on one final exam at the end of the semester. Some law schools and professors are now adding in midterm exams and quizzes, but that is not always the case. If there are no quizzes or midterms, it’s hard to determine if you are grasping the material and on the right track. This can be incredibly daunting, but again, remember, it’s normal to feel that way. This means developing a strong habit of self-direction will come in handy.
Grading is also often curved during law school, especially during the first year. This means that there has to be a certain percentage of the class that receives each grade, essentially meaning your performance is judged relative to others versus in an absolute way.4 This might be a new experience, as well. It’s tempting to feel like you are competing against your classmates, and while that is partially true, you can’t let it impact you too much. Peer support is vital to your success in law school, either through study groups, discussions with your classmates, or just the support you might get from one another.
Because there isn’t always a “right” answer in law school exams—there is often only the best answer, or the best-explained answer—and because you feel like you are competing against students who grew up listening to their parents discuss legal concepts at the dinner table, the curve can be daunting and distracting. It’s still important to be collegial and kind—you will likely be practicing law with these people someday. And competing against students who have grown up with lawyer parents in a class in which the professor grades on a curve doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, succeed. I will also let you in on a secret: lawyer parents don’t always give great advice! The practice of law in a given jurisdiction can be very different from what a professor expects to see on an exam, so having lawyer parents can actually be counter-productive.
I can’t lie, grades are important. They can be important for securing your first internship or summer job, and they can be important for allowing you into certain student activities. But they do not define you as a person, or a future attorney. A large part of my job is to work with students who don’t do well in their first semester, and while they aren’t jumping for joy with their grades, they do go on to become successful practicing attorneys! So work hard and do your best, but know that grades are not everything.
VI. Be Engaged
Like with many things, you get out of law school what you put in. This means that if you are engaged in class discussions, you will learn more. If you attend law school activities or join student groups, you will build a better community for yourself. When things come up, such as student social activities, go! Some of you may not be super social and I get that, but you are meeting your future colleagues. Not everyone has to be your best friend, but it is good to have a network and support system that you can lean on.
Also, even though it can be daunting at first, go see your professors. They will hold office hours, which are designated times you can just drop in and chat or ask questions. You should absolutely take advantage of the office hours. Not only is it a great opportunity to get to know your professors, and for them to get to know you, but who better to explain concepts you may have missed? I will discuss office hours in greater length in Chapter 4. I also have an entire chapter devoted to extracurricular activities, so feel free to dive into that chapter and find something that interests you.
Orientation is the official start of law school. Each school sets up orientation in a different way. Some are two days, some are an entire week.
Typically, though, all orientations are part administrative and part “learning how to be a law student”; it might just be that the focus is different depending on the law school.
For the administrative part, this is typically getting your student ID and log-ins, meeting faculty and administrators, being assigned lockers (if your school uses them), and generally getting the stuff you need to exist as a student. And the bonus is that most schools provide so much free food and law school swag!
Then, there is the other part of orientation: the part that teaches you. This is the start of your classes, and you want to pay attention. Typically, there will be a mock class and maybe sessions on reading and briefing, how to use the library, and so forth. It might be tempting to not take these things seriously, as classes haven’t officially begun, but I promise it is very much worth it to pay attention to these sessions. You will also feel exhausted—even a two-day orientation can feel incredibly long like you can’t possibly hold more information in your head. That’s normal!
This is the perfect time to start getting organized or to test out your organization systems. You should take notes during orientation and organize them well so you can reference them at a later date. For example, put in the contact information of various administrators you might meet and how they can help you or what they do, and put important dates in your calendar as soon as you can. Orientation is the start of your legal career, so in many respects, treat it like a job.
VIII. Remember, It’s a Professional School
You are attending law school to be a lawyer, presumably. This is likely obvious, but what is less obvious is that day one of orientation, or even earlier at meet and greets, is day one of your professional life. Yes, you are still in school, but when you go out into practice your classmates and professors will be your colleagues. This means that how you treat your fellow classmates will be remembered.
I do not say that to scare you, but to remind you that this is now a professional environment where your reputation matters. And, we only have one professional reputation.
Look around you at orientation and in class. If you look to your left and right, you’ll see your future colleagues. These are the people who will be working with you and referring clients to you, and they might be in a position to hire you or help you find a job. Don’t be a jerk. Be civil, be kind. Be civil to everyone in law school—because it will help you, but also because it’s the right thing to do.
It can be daunting to be a first-generation law student, but always remember you are not alone. Lots of people have been where you are now. Below are two stories, both demonstrating these feelings.
“While I don’t usually identify as a first-gen student because both of my parents had advanced degrees, I am the first and only lawyer in my entire extended family. This did, unfortunately, put me back a bit when I started law school since I was just totally unfamiliar with some of the basics. I remember sitting in a course about how to do law school—one of BarBri’s summer program offerings—and being so upset that students around me already knew what a tort was and understood how elements of negligence worked. It never occurred to me that there was a difference between civil and criminal proceedings. I was really blown away by the analysis of statutory components. Others seemed to intuitively know there was a difference between “may” and “shall,” and even though I was an English teacher before coming to law school it took a while for me to really understand that.”
-Jenna Silver, Class of 2017
Despite the fact that she felt a bit overwhelmed at first, I can tell you that Jenna did graduate, pass the bar, and now helps other students feel welcome at law school! Here is another story from a fellow professor.
“When I got to law school, I thought that I knew what to expect. I had done a lot of research—on different law schools, careers, student loans, what “cold calling” was, you name it—and I felt like I had a decent sense of what I was getting myself into.
In one sense, this turned out to be true. While 1L year was challenging, there was not much about the courses, exams, or professors that surprised me, thanks to the research I had done ahead of time. At the same time, though, there was a whole other layer to law school that I did not know how to navigate, and that I had not anticipated in the first place. In short, I experienced a culture shock related to my status as a first-generation law student.
To begin with, I was taken aback with how many of my classmates had parents who worked as lawyers or judges. A parent with decades of experience in the legal field is a truly invaluable resource; they can act as a permanent, on-demand mentor. By definition, of course, first-gen lawyers and law students do not have access to this resource. Relatedly, some of my friends had done law-related internships in college, or worked in a law firm or at a court prior to law school—opportunities they noted had been easy to line up through their family connections. I was not prepared for how insular the legal world is, or for how many people have access to that world even before they begin law school. Access, of course, means knowledge: many of my classmates seemed to already know things about the law, and about the legal profession, on day one of law school. I knew essentially nothing. For at least the first year of law school, I felt like an outsider.
That changed. I began to feel more at home as a law student once I reminded myself that I was there for a reason, and it was not because I did (or did not) have a specific background. Rather, it was because I had worked very hard to get to law school in the first place, I had a genuine interest in (and passion for) the law, and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.
While I realized that many of my classmates might be better connected than me, I resolved to not let that fact define my own professional journey, or to prevent me from forming meaningful friendships and professional relationships with lawyers with all types of backgrounds. In addition, seeking out opportunities—like internships or electives that I was enthusiastic about, for example—helped me define my law school experience on my own terms, not by how I perceived others’ relationship to the legal field. In essence, I realized, my background—my strengths, abilities, and unique life experiences—was also a massive asset, even if it differed from the more traditional (and connected) paths some of my colleagues had traveled. I still believe that each person’s background is one of their greatest strengths, provided they can recognize it as such. First-generation lawyers often bring varied, eclectic skill sets and experiences to their practice—which ultimately helps them connect with their clients. In turn, these lawyers are able to more effectively advocate for clients of all kinds.”
-Professor Conley Wolters
I share both of these stories because both of these people survived and thrived in law school, and so will you!
I hope that gives you a bit of an idea of what to expect in law school. Now you can dive into the rest of the chapters to learn things in more detail, and like law school itself, you will get more out of it if you participate!