“It’s not so shiny anymore”: 1Ls and the October slump

Unlike many law professors, I only teach 1Ls. It’s a role I relish, in part because I think the first year is a time when good teaching and mentoring can make a huge difference in the life of a law student, and in part because, as I’ve shared before (and again and again), 1L year was far from my finest hour. Between my experience teaching 1Ls and my experience being a 1L, I’ve learned that there are some pretty consistent messages that many first-year law students usually need to hear at about this time of year. That’s why, 1Ls, this post is for you.

So, it’s October. Soon it will be mid-October. Law school probably isn’t so shiny anymore. Maybe you’ve got midterms coming up. Maybe you’ve been talking to 2Ls and 3Ls about how to outline. Maybe you’ve been going to presentations about applying for summer jobs or how to prepare for exams, and, while helpful, they stressed you out because they made you think about The Curve and Everything You Have To Do and How Important Everything Is. Maybe, in anticipation of the end of the semester, some of your classmates aren’t being as friendly or as forthcoming with their work product as they were four weeks ago. Maybe you wrote your first memo and it was much harder than you expected, or the feedback you received wasn’t the kind of feedback you’re used to getting on your writing.

Either way, the newness is wearing off and your nerves may be wearing thin. Here are seven tips to get you through the rest of the semester. (Each of these could probably be their own post; I’ll get more specific about some of them as we get closer to December.)

Tip 1. Law school is a marathon, not a sprint. You hear this a lot, but that’s only because it’s verifiably and inescapably true. So if you feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends now—and it’s only October—you may want to consider scaling back a bit, because you’ve still got a long ways to go. Pace yourself, and leave something in the tank for the final push.

Tip 2. Relatedly, remember that hard work alone isn’t how you succeed. My own experience confirms this. I spent a lot of time—far too much—in the fall of my 1L year reading, re-reading, and extensively briefing every case, trying to learn all of the facts and painstakingly recording each step of the court’s reasoning. I then moved on to a quixotic pursuit of The Perfect (read: most comprehensive) Outline. All of this was exceptionally time-consuming and foolishly motivated, in part, by two fears: first, that everyone else was smarter than me, and second, that one day I’d get called on, not know the “right” answer, and be humiliated. Even worse, it was precious time that would have been far better spent elsewhere (as I learned upon receiving my lackluster first-semester grades).

Tip 3. You do you. This is generally true in law school, as in life, but here I’m specifically directing it to how you study. I promise, it doesn’t matter how your roommate briefs cases or when your best friend started outlining or whether your section’s gunner already has a 45-page outline with a table of contents (she does, and I did; I was a nut). Don’t waste your time getting wrapped up in or even more stressed out about what others are doing. Figure out what works for you and don’t look back.

Tip 4. If you do need to scale back your study time, spend your newly-reclaimed time wisely: on the activities that you, personally, will find the most restorative. For some of you, that may be exercise, which is objectively good for your body and your mind (endorphins are awesome and can help with anxiety). But perhaps you were passionate about baking before law school. So get out your whisk and go to town. Were you a hiking-in-the-woods kind of person? Find a walking trail near you. Does bad TV help you wind down? Watch an episode of a truly terrible show before bed. Do you find yourself renewed and energized after spending time with other people? Get a group of friends together for dinner (you have to eat, after all), or call your college roommate on the other side of the country. Either way, do something that increases your general level of happiness, whatever that looks like for you.   

Tip 5. Relatedly, if you haven’t done so yet, try to make at least one or two close friends within your law school. Friends who haven’t been through law school are crucial, too (and maintaining those relationships is an important part of retaining your own identity and not compromising what’s important to you). But making a friend in your class will help because it will make you feel like you have at least one close companion on what can otherwise feel like a lonely journey. And, on a practical level, someone in your class is most likely to both understand exactly what you’re going through—as you’re going through it—and have a schedule whose ebbs and flows are compatible with yours.   

Tip 6. As best as you’re able, tune out the noise and the expectations and the weight of all of the external motivators (grades, Law Review, clerkships, BigLaw), some of which you probably didn’t even know were a thing until you came to law school and they suddenly seemed to be what everyone was gunning for. Instead, try to remember why you came to law school. It probably wasn’t for the honor of being selected to cite-check footnotes for hours at a time, or of being the one who gets the highest grade in an area of law that you may never practice in. Whatever it was that brought you here, keeping those intrinsic motivations—intellectual and personal growth, helping others, public service—at the front of your consciousness will help you not lose sight of yourself amidst a sea of shiny markers of law school “success.”   

Tip 7. Finally, go and talk to your professors—both your writing professors, whom you probably have to talk to anyway, and your doctrinal professors. There are lots of reasons to do this, but here are just a few. First, and most obviously, you may want to ask them for clarification about the substance of their class. Or perhaps if you are superhuman and the class material is perfectly clear to you, you may be interested in delving deeper into a particular concept that the professor didn’t have time for in class. Use office hours as a time to explore that topic.   

But even if you don’t have a specific question about the material you’ve covered in class or a related subject, go talk to your professors anyway. Professors want to get to know their students, and many of us consider building strong mentoring relationships with students to be a central—and exceptionally rewarding—part of our job. (Pro tip: law professors love to talk about themselves, so leave some time for that—and use the opportunity to learn all you can about their practice experience, their clerkship, or their area of scholarly expertise.)

Finally, and most relevant to this post, if you’re struggling with something in law school, don’t hesitate to reach out to your professors for guidance and support. In some cases, an honest and open conversation with a professor might be enough. But in other cases, that conversation can be the first step to connecting you with valuable resources that you might not be aware of, including folks inside and outside of the law school community who are better qualified than a professor to help you work through a particular situation.

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We’ll have separate posts and #PracticeTuesday chats on outlining and preparing for exams early next month, so I won’t dive into those topics here. But for now, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • First, you may want to start outlining early. But even if you do that, be prepared to revisit and continuously revise (and condense) your outlines. Some things will only become clear after you have a longer view of the whole course. And other things that seemed important initially will turn out to be less so, and only in the fullness of the course will you realize what you really want to emphasize. Just remember that your outlines should always be geared towards what will be most useful on the day of the exam. Having what seems like The Perfect Contracts Outline in the abstract is neither necessary nor sufficient for good performance on your contracts exam.
  • Second, the single most valuable thing you can do to enhance your studying is to take practice exams—ideally, past exams offered by your actual professors in prior years—early and often. Take them for real, under test conditions, and discuss your answers with a group of engaged students. There is no substitute.

And remember: law school is supposed to be hard. It’s intentionally designed to be challenging and disorienting in specific ways. And it’s often overwhelming, and sometimes just a heck of a slog. Remember: you’re not alone.

Questions? Ask them in the comments or find me on Twitter (@RachelGurvich). For those of you who are too far away from Chapel Hill to have access to comfy seating and many boxes of tissues strategically placed around my office, my DMs are open. The same is true of my #PracticeTuesday partner-in-crime Sean Marotta (@smmarotta).

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