Tips for Surviving Your First Weeks of Law School

By the very nature of this article title, it is clear that law school is not for the faint of heart. Succeeding in the classroom as you work toward obtaining a law degree requires dedication and resilience in both the short-term and long-term.

Still, the first weeks of law school are arguably the most important. Your first semester grades go a long way toward determining whether you will get hired by a prestigious law firm offering substantially higher salaries than many smaller firms. Even if you are uninterested in these firms — commonly referred to as “Biglaw” — the fact remains that surviving the first weeks of law school and landing good grades is the best way to achieve your career goals.

Surviving is one thing, which these tips will help you achieve. On the other hand, thriving during the difficulty is another. Consider the tips that follow the go-to resource for being fully prepared to handle and excel at any challenge the first few weeks of law school throw your way.

Fight the Boredom!

Let me tell you something as a legal graduate who was listened to the same Socratic method questioning and sat through Civil Procedure. Law school can be boring. Strike that. Law school will be boring!

Let’s say you went to law school because you want to be a criminal defense lawyer who protects a defendant’s constitutional rights. Unfortunately, you can’t simply jump to the classes you know will apply to your career aspirations. Instead, a robust legal curriculum requires you to learn about civil procedure, property law and a whole host of other issues you likely never cared a wink about before starting law school.

Simply put, the boredom is inevitable. The best advice I ever received for fighting through the boredom was to stay disciplined, not passionate. I would never be passionate about Civil Procedure, this much is true. But, I knew that if I did not stay disciplined and focused on my career vision, one or two bad grades in classes I loathed could put my career aspirations in jeopardy.

I heard more than a few classmates who wanted Biglaw loathe the amount of Civil Procedure or Torts they skipped. Plenty of law students won’t be able to beat the boredom. You can do it by staying disciplined, and if you do, you are already setting yourself up for success by remaining more disciplined than plenty of your peers.

Stay Focused, But Stay Social

Always remain focused on grades, but never lose sight of how important it is to make some lifelong friends. This may sound trite, but it is essential for the legal world. The legal community is insular and small. If you hope to make a career in law, you are going to need some friends and a good network.

To this end, it is a nearly universal rule that people can’t stand “gunners”. If you have never heard this term, think of the gunner as the teacher’s pet who is constantly interjecting and wanting to show everyone how much they know about law. Now, contributing is one thing, which every law student understands and values. But if you frequently dominate class discussions or let your competitive nature prevent you from making friends, this becomes a huge problem.

If you need a career change down the road or a client referral to bring more business to your firm, your classmates could be the best people to help you with these needs years from now. Always do your best work, but never let that come at the expense of being a kind, friendly and respectful person to your classmates.

Take Care of Your Mind and Body

The long hours of study, short sleep and constant busyness of law school can come at a cost. Namely, if you are working relentlessly your body is going to bend under the pressure. Take care to get enough sleep and exercise, especially in the first few weeks.

Understand that the vast majority of your grade at almost any law school will hinge on the final exam at the end of the first semester. You aren’t taking that exam in the first few weeks. Absolutely study diligently and take good notes, but pace yourself. The first semester of law school is a marathon and not a sprint.

If I could change one thing about my 1L mistakes, this advice is it. I went to law school physically fit (I wanted to be a Marine Corps Judge Advocate, which was a military lawyer). Guess what? I didn’t pace myself and I gained weight due to the lack of sleep and exercise. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I was not selected for the officer candidate program after I interviewed with the Corps. Maybe you don’t need to be in Marine Corps shape as I needed to be, but the bottom line is you need to take care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising.

According to a recent study, a large segment of law school society is depressed. Well, you are also 75% more likely to develop depression if you don’t work out. Now, correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but the takeaway here is pretty clear. The best way to combat the possibility of law school depression in the first few weeks is to take care of yourself. If you listen to no other advice in this column, make it this advice.

Your long-term wellbeing depends on more than top grades at law school. A good network can help you land a quality job even if your grades weren’t the best (more on that in just a second), but fixing health ailments and depression is far more difficult.

Avoid Deadline Stress

I’ve been there with law school deadline stress. No matter how much I stressed, I managed to get the project or studying finished. You will too, so fight deadline stress by reminding yourself you are in control of your studying and preparedness.

Stay laser focused on the present moment at all times, and never worry about the looming exam in the first weeks. Deadlines that are far away do not concern you. Your attention will turn toward those deadlines/exams in due course. For now, make sure you stay current on your reading so you are always ready to participate in class discussions.

Be a Creature of Habit

In law school, I survived. I want you to do better than that by thriving. Establishing a routine is how you will achieve this. I was a “go with the flow” law school student. I studied randomly, went to lunch randomly and on it went. There was no routine to my process, which is not to say I did not work hard.

I worked hard but without structure. Work smarter by establishing a routine that works for you. Maybe you notice that the law school library is quiet in the early morning hours, and quiet is best for your study retention. Think about going for a morning run or hitting the gym early every other day and heading to the library early on your rest day from exercise.

Also, avoid a study group in the first few weeks. Study groups are useful around exam time, but everyone is just trying to figure out law school in the first few weeks. Now is not the time to exam cram. Stick to your routine and remain diligent.

This is just a hypothetical suggestion since you know yourself best. The bottom line is establishing a weekly routine makes law school itself routine, not random. When law school weeks pass like clockwork, you will be amazed at how the stress melts away because your routine makes the turbulent 1L atmosphere your homeostasis. Embrace that, and let the 1L who is “going with the flow” try to keep pace in an environment of randomness and chaos.

How Do You Learn Best?

Are you a notetaker by hand or do you learn with technology? If you are a tech person, make sure to avoid distractions on the Internet. Some professors ban laptops entirely for this reason, which may take your preference out of the equation.

If you have the choice, be honest with how you learn and take notes best. If you do use a laptop, however, make sure to back it up regularly. Your computer needs a good routine as well via automated backups. Why? If you have ever lost information on your hard drive, you know why.

If not, let’s just say losing a semester’s worth of notes because your laptop was not backed up is a unique way to harm all your hard work needlessly. This didn’t happen to me, personally, but I know a friend who had this happen. Keeping to the rule of being a good friend, I gave him my notes. That said, his brain is not the same as mine, so it’s a safe bet his original notes made more sense for his study needs than my own.

Use Law School Resources

Everyone heads to the library in law school. Some may visit career services and talk to their professors. You need to make use of every law school resource to help you succeed, which requires visiting professors, talking to career services and any other resource your law school can offer that will help you succeed now and when graduation nears.

Professors are some of the best legal minds in the entire world. If you want to be a lawyer, pick their brain. They want to pass down to you what they have learned or they wouldn’t be a professor. Don’t overthink it or shy away from paying them an office visit. The same goes for career services.

These people are here to help you succeed in law school, so why go it alone?

Save Money

Law school is expensive, but you can be clever about how you save. Consider living with a roommate instead of alone. Avoid buying textbooks at the overpriced law school book store (you can find the same books and editions you need for less on Amazon).

And, some law students may say this is heresy, but avoid commercial study guides. They are not your professor. They are a general study reference when you need to take a specific exam created by your professor. That said, if you are taking a course with a famous professor who has written the book your class is using, a commercial study guide may be unusually beneficial.

I am anti-commercial guide, but I took a Constitutional Law course with a highly regarded scholar whose book we used for the course. I must admit the students who used the commercial guide in this course succeeded in a way I did not. In all other courses, however, the commercial guides often harmed peers more than they helped.

Case Law Is Tough

Case law is a tough read when you are unfamiliar with legal reading. Stick with it, asking yourself why the professor is having you read this case. While the legal language is dry, try to get into the head of the professor assigning the case.

Once you start to understand why the cases are being assigned, you will be well positioned toward taking a more educated guess on what will be on the final exam. Simply put, case law gets much easier as you stick with it.

You’re Confused, and That Is Okay

Finally, I want to address something essential to navigating these first weeks. You need humility, and you need to be okay with not knowing everything or being confused.

To paraphrase the great Greek philosopher Socrates — yeah, the same guy we named law school’s infamous Socratic Method after — he was the wisest man alive because he was the one man who knew that he knew nothing. Always question, push yourself and aspire to learn as much as you can, but know that being confused is just fine. In fact, expect it. Part of the law school experience requires wrestling with complex cases or statutory law.

If you came in knowing everything, you would already be a professor instead of learning from them. Have grace for yourself and a sense of humor along the way if you say something stupid in class or feel slow on the uptake.

Just keep pushing forward and sticking to your routine, and I know you will get through the first few weeks as I did. From there, the rest truly is downhill as you work toward a fulfilling and promising legal career.

About the Author

David Farber is a 2015 law school graduate from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. He enjoys writing about the law and giving practical, actionable advice to prospective and current law school students.