Doing this semester differently: How not to feel defeated by law school

A short time ago when you opened your fall semester marks, you were perhaps among the lucky few to have a smile break out from ear to ear. You saw a lineup of As, one or two nagging Bs, and then treated yourself to a glass of the finest cheap champagne the Lickbo had to offer while thinking to yourself, “Man, I am a legal rockstar.”

If this was you, congrats. Seriously, good work. Keep doing what you’re doing.

If, however, you checked your marks and the knots in your stomach intensified because you were positive you did well on that exam, or because you knew what was going on in that class, or because you’ve never been a good test taker anyway, or because oh god, no one will hire me with a transcript like that…take a deep breath and keep reading.

“Bad” marks happen. Sometimes you’ll get one. Sometimes you’ll get five.  And sometimes when these unfortunate marks happen, they infiltrate your conscience and dwell there, maybe even encouraging irrational thoughts like “I don’t belong in law school” and “I’ll never be a good lawyer.”

I actually belong to the camp of those who believe law school exams are a horrible barometer for measuring one’s competency with legal material.

I don’t think quickly on the spot, I prefer to have lots of time and space to plan my answers in detail and depth – a quality that doesn’t jive well with the typical 100 per cent law school exam. This makes me a mediocre exam writer, but it doesn’t make me stupid.

If you got one or more sub-par grades last semester and had any thoughts akin to “I shouldn’t be in law school” or “I’m never going to be good at this,” you need to stop and have a little heart-to-heart with yourself, and you need to do it now because soon you’re going to be up to your neck in schoolwork and won’t have adequate time for reflection.

If you’re remarkably unenthused about the start of the winter semester and are lacking the requisite motivation to stay conscious in your classes, there are two primary things you need: a confidence boost and a strategy for improvement.


Maintaining Perspective

The best way to keep your confidence in tact – or rebuild it, if you are really feeling down – is to keep a level head about what this all (read: law school) really means. This is a degree you have chosen to complete. That’s what it is.

Yet while you’re completing it you’re stuck in the Law School Bubble, and the Law School Bubble can sometimes be a total soul killer.

The Law School Bubble makes you doubt yourself because you’re surrounded by talented and intelligent people just like you, but among them you might start to feel anonymous and mediocre. You might start to believe that the legal profession is a zero-sum game and if you’re not getting X job at X firm now, that’s it, you’re done, your future is doomed!

It’s not and you’re wrong.

It’s a hard thing to grasp onto, this idea that you (yes, you!) are a bright and capable human being, but reminding yourself that you (yes, you!) wrote the LSAT, applied to law school, and got accepted is the first order of business when it comes to keeping your head on straight.

Here are some tips for maintaining perspective during the upcoming semester:

Write down why you went to law school in the first place. Read it aloud when you’re feeling discouraged.

This sounds silly, but it’s therapeutic. Really really. So, why are you here? Maybe you’ve wanted to be a lawyer since you were 12 and started watching full-    days of Law & Order reruns. Maybe you left a career you didn’t like and you want a new start. Or, maybe you’re like me and have no idea why you’re here, and law school is a way of masking the fact you’re kinda, sorta just fumbling through life until you find something you really want to do.

All of these reasons are valid, but you need to be honest with yourself about why you’ve opted to enter JD-land. If you can’t be honest with yourself about why you’re here, sooner or later you’ll start adopting others’ aspirations as your own all because you’ve lost focus of what you wanted on that first day you stepped through the doors of Fauteux.

Set goals that don’t involve letter grades.

Last semester I made a list of my courses and beside them wrote a letter grade that I thought I realistically could achieve in each class. That was pure folly on my part, friends, and not because I didn’t achieve those marks (some were spot on, others were wayyyyy off) but because grades are sometimes an arbitrary measure of accomplishment.

Sometimes you work your bee-hind off in a course you care a ton about and can at best pull off only an average mark. In another class you might screw around on Facebook 90 per cent of the time only to have your mark in that course shine like a ray of light on your transcript.

Instead of saying “I want an A in this class and a B in this class,” why not set some seemingly less-tangible objectives that get more to the heart of what a law school education should be about?

For instance, for each class write a goal that goes something akin to “After I take this course, I want to have a really good understanding of how _____________ works.” Or, “I want to do the assigned reading in full for every class,” or “I want to leave the exam feeling like I knew everything that was being asked of me and I answered the questions the best that I could.”


Building on Your Study Strategies

Having said all of the above, you still may want to tweak your study habits and adopt some new strategies for the upcoming semester. After all, when you feel organized and on top of your course work, you’re going to feel a lot less worried about your performance come exam time.

Here are some tips from the WLMP:

Start reading on Day One.

It’s the first week back – I get it – you still want to have some down time because things are going to get crazy busy in no time. But seriously…don’t wait forever to get your books, and don’t skip out on the first week’s worth of reading just because you think you can get away with it. Right now your profs are laying the groundwork for the rest of the course, and you need to absorb this introductory material in order to get a handle on what comes next.

Make sure you’re in courses that interest you.

Otherwise, switch. (Unless they’re mandatory, in which case…I send you well wishes and an evil eye to the administration). Really, though, don’t waste your law school career taking classes that bore you to death – take what you want and you’ll find yourself motivated to do the work.

Take notes while you read.

I always thought this was normal behaviour, but then it came to my attention I might be a deviant in this respect. If you’re reading cases, brief ‘em. Really. Always, always, all the time.

If you’re reading other materials, type up the main and supporting arguments of the author, along with any bits of information that stood out to you (could eventually make for some great essay points on an exam).

Colour code and tab!

I love colour coding and tabbing my notes, and not just because it gives me an excuse to spend a silly amount of time browsing my neighbourhood stationary store. It also makes me feel organized. Or at the very least, it makes me feel like I look organized. Folks, you can take or leave this piece of advice, but I know I find it utterly cathartic.

One WLMP-er suggests colour coding the different parts of the cases: pick one highlighter for facts, another for issues, another for ratios, etc.

Condense your notes after each class

This can be a very difficult ritual to stick to, so maybe you can cut yourself a bit of slack and summarize your notes at the end of each week. Ask yourself, what was today’s class about? Then restructure what you’ve typed/written so that you are clear about what it is you actually talked about in class.

Find people to study with.

Solidarity in the struggle!

Find time to do normal human things.

Who hasn’t told themselves they’ll live on KD for yet another day because I’m too darn busy to go to the grocery store? Go! Go buy yourself some veggies! And go light on the frozen pizza.

Then there’s the “I’ll work out tomorrow once X is finished.” And then X all of a sudden is Y the next day, and it’s Z after that and soon you realize that vision of a “healthier you” was a total pipe dream.

Oh, and go grab a drink or five every once in a while.

 Do your footnotes as you go

We’ve all been there – you finish your paper the night before it’s due at a decent hour and then all of a sudden it’s 3 am and you start hating the authors of the McGill Guide more than you’ve ever hated in your life. Save yourself the trouble of having to find that elusive source again and just do your citations as you write.

Prepare for essay questions on exams

Your prof tells you there’s a 30 per cent essay on your exam and you don’t bother to prep for it because how could I know what he/she is going to ask?  My life experience has thus far demonstrated that essay questions on exams are about entirely predictable topics. I advise you to do the following: make a list of any recurring themes you’ve talked about in class, or any major problems in the existing legal framework that your prof has brought to your attention (law school profs LOVE legal reform questions). Then do a simple outline for each item on your list, identifying what you could discuss if confronted with that particular question on an exam.

Study in two or three hour spurts. Take meaningful breaks in between.

Don’t do an eight-hour marathon study session and scarf down a salad during a 15 minute interval between hours three and four. Make yourself focus (turn your wifi off or download Self-Control, an app that bars your computer from accessing Facebook for any length of time you set) and work your butt off for a couple of hours. Then, actually take a break. Make a coffee run to Bridgehead, watch last night’s Daily Show, take a bubble bath.

If there’s a vital study strategy you don’t see here, feel free to give us some of your own advice! Thanks for reading!


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