Vol. 39 No. 4
By Robert J. Derocher
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, NY-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to StudentLawyer and other American Bar Association publications.
It’s not unusual for law students to lose friends the way they lose sleep, to take a week or two to return Mom’s call, or to rattle on about Constitutional Law at Thanksgiving dinner. Many students, professors, and administrators agree that social interactions often drop down the priority ladder in the first year—and beyond.
“You probably need to have some conversations with family and friends and explain to them why you’re not going to call as much, why you’re not going to be around as much, and why you’re not going to constantly keep commenting on what’s posted on Facebook,” says Malone, director of student academic affairs at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia. “What worked in undergrad is not likely to work in law school.”
But that’s not to say that students should sequester themselves in law libraries and classrooms. Finding even a small bit of time to step away from the crush of law school is critical to avoiding burnout, developing new friendships, holding onto treasured old ones, and realizing that there is more to life than torts and contracts.
The key for many students is developing the discipline to know when to throttle back, have dinner with a spouse, return an old friend’s e-mail, or talk to relatives about anything but the law. Creating a schedule; relying on trusted family and friends; and cultivating a network of students, professors, and administrators can go a long way toward bringing balance to the often unbalanced world of the law student.
UNDERSTAND THINGS CHANGE
Brian Barnes, a third-year law student at George Mason, sits on an admissions panel for prospective students, where he makes it clear to them that law school is a life-changing experience. Even obtaining a master’s degree right after his bachelor’s didn’t fully prepare him for that first year at George Mason.
“I tell them that law school will take as much of your time as you’re willing to give it,”he says. “The rigor and sheer volume of work are unlike anything they’ve seen. I think I was still a little bit taken aback my first year.”
Barnes could sense the change as the time he spent talking to friends and family dwindled and he felt compelled to skip events such as weddings when they impinged on crucial reading or study time. These feelings intensified later in his first year when he got married. “We talked about the wedding before law school started, and then she just kind of took over the planning altogether,” he says.
Jason Duey, a second-year student at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, says there was little doubt that the way he viewed life was changed by his first year.
“I don’t think the same way as I did prior to going to law school,” he says. “I expect direct answers to questions, not just roundabout answers that take a long time. I have to see both sides of an issue before I give an opinion. Once you start thinking like a lawyer, you’ll do it all the time.”
But third-year student Dan Flaherty, who attends the University of Montana School of Law in Missoula, knows there are limits outside the classroom even though his father is a lawyer and the law is becoming ingrained in him. “Your family gets a little tired of your talking about torts,” he says.
Law school counselors say it’s important for students to know that their lives and their interactions will change—at least for the next three years or so. Setting realistic expectations for themselves—and the people they live with and care about—is important to success, says Pamela Vesilind, who advises first-year students at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
“It’s normal and OK to tell people that you’re not going to be such a great family member or friend for a while,” she says. “Ask them to please understand that it’s not personal. Tell them that it’s OK, and that you’ll make it up to them.”
Doug Dagan, a second-year student at Vermont, realized like many students that he needed to make some social adjustments. “I once changed my Facebook status to, ‘I’m not changing my Facebook status for the next month,’” he says. “I was fortunate that I had family and friends who understood that and respected that.”
Vesilind says she often counsels students to find a trusted family member or friend who is willing to listen to some venting and frustration now and then, someone who is willing to offer advice, as well as to hear complaints and fears.
At George Mason, Malone says her discussions with first-year students often turn to time management and the importance of scheduling most everything, from how much time they spend reading to when they update their Facebook pages.
“It’s all about planning,” Vesilind says. “You have to micromanage yourself. Write down when you call Mom and when you go to the gym.”
Barnes, Dagan, Duey, and other students are tested believers in the vital task of scheduling. Barnes says he usually sits down with his wife at the beginning of each semester to make long-term plans, then has follow-up meetings monthly and weekly to review any changes. He even goes so far as to schedule when he will review and answer personal e-mails.
“I know it sounds like an awful thing to say, but you have to prioritize your relationships,” he says. “It sounds kind of regimented, but it can get away from you on either side of the spectrum.”
This may seem impersonal, but your family, friends, coworkers, and others will appreciate that you’ve made it apriority to communicate with them honestly about your schedule. Taking control of your law school and non-law school schedules this way will help you manage your time, prevent stress, and perhaps even improve certain relationships as a result.
Bill Henslee, an associate professorat Florida A&M Law and author of the ABA online guide How to Survivethe First Year of Law School, sees the mix of law school and social demands close up. Heworries that not managing social and family demands can have an impact on lawschool activities that go beyond the basics.
“I have heard students complain thatthey are not able to participate in extracurricular activities because of family obligations,” he says. “As the competition teams coordinator (such as moot court, mock trial, and skills competitions), I lose a number of good students to family obligations each semester.”
LIVE IN THE “REAL” WORLD
But as Henslee states in his guide—and as many students, professors, and administrators concur—finding time for life outside law school is also critical to success in law school.
“Make sure your schedule includes time to exercise, eat, sleep, commute, enjoy your family and/or significantothers, and observe your religion, as well as attend classes and study,” Henslee writes in the updated 2010–11 guide. This sounds like a tall order, but heeding this advice is worth it.
For Yin Cheung, a third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a married mother of two young children, making outside time has meant changing priorities. “I used to be a real neat freak, but then I realized that I really had a finite amount of time,” she says. “You learn to prioritize things.”
Malone adds that students should also be open to seeking help from other students, professors, and counselors to achieve that work-life balance. “We try to hook up (students seeking advice) with student and alumni mentors who may have had similar issues,” she says.“Sometimes, they just need to talk it out with someone.”
In the deep woods of Vermont, where the winters can be long and the isolation severe, a little distraction can go along way toward relieving the stress of law school, according to Vesilind.
“Sometimes, an e-mail will go out to everybody saying there’s a snowball fight in the quad, and a lot of students will take advantage of that,” she says. “Everybody has to have their own outlet. It’s also important to have some time for reflection.”
Freeing up time on the weekends to spend with his wife is important for Flaherty, who also counts on his wife, a nursing major, to keep him grounded. “I can talk about a hard day of study, and she can talk about someone almost losing their life,” he says. “Losing touch with the real world is pretty easy in academia. Lawyers need to function in the real world.”
Dinners with his wife and other shared outside activities are also important to Jason Duey—although he still manages to keep the end goal of a law career in mind.
“You have to take Jason Time, but it’s with the caveat that school comes first,” he says. “Nobody wants the lawyer who took the easy way out of law school.”
Nontraditional Students Build Support Networks
Wasim Bleibel was a cutting-edge cancer researcher in his late 20s when he decided to leave his job, move back to his childhood home, and go to law school. He thought he was comfortable with the choice—until shortly after his first nerve-wracking set of exams.
“When the exam started, I froze for the first 15 minutes. I left school that day thinking I was done,” he says. “I called my friend, almost hysterical. I said, ‘What have I done? I don’t know what I’m doing here.’”
Nearly three years later, Bleibel, 3L, is lead articles editor for the Review of Intellectual Property Law at the in , where he is on track to receive his JD later this year. He is looking for his own apartment and making plans for his new career as a lawyer.
Daunting workloads, demanding professors, and potentially prolific student loan debts can deter anyone of any age from seeking law school. It can be even more discouraging for latecomers to the law, such as Bleibel, who opt to leave secure careers and established lifestyles. Loss of income and adjusting to a demanding, full-time academic load can often trump any shifts in social and family life that such students face in their first year of law school.
But many of these older students also have an advantage as they face this adversity, according to some students and law school counselors. Maturity gained from years of working, parenting, and other life experiences is an asset that helps older students navigate law school. While they say they are not immune to common first-year frustrations of frayed relationships and altered social lives, such students say they’re well prepared to handle all of what law school can dish out.
After spending six years living and working in , Bleibel knew he had to make some adjustments for law school. That’s why he decided to seek the support network offered by his parents, his 17-year-old sister, and friends. It was his sister, who battled childhood cancer, who has been an inspiration for his career choices. The time he has spent with his sister during the last three years, he says, has helped make 40-minute train commutes, 16-hour study days, and thousands of dollars in loans worth it.
Despite the support, Bleibel knew there would be tough days when he embarked on his studies. “I warned them that they were going to see a person in me that they’ve never seen before,” he says. “I would blow up at them, and then I would stand back and it would be all right. I found myself being very apologetic that first year.”
One of the biggest challenges for Bleibel was adjusting to life on a much tighter budget. “The financial situation was a huge concern, but I just had to grin and bear it. I view it as an investment in my future,” he says.
While Jason Duey says he is fortunate to have his law school bills paid via the U.S. Army Reserves, the 41-year-old former customs agent says it was still a “huge shock” going from everyday work to the study-classroom-test grind at Florida A&M University College of Law in . “First-year law school was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he says. “After 15 years (as a customs agent) it was scary taking that first step into the unknown.”
Like many older students leaving established careers, he had some doubts as he faced long study hours and time away from his wife. Now in his second year, Duey says, “I get ‘it’ now, and can focus solely on second-year work. What I mean is that because of past preparation, I have a more solid foundation in understanding the law. The second year is more challenging because the volume of work increases. My understanding of the law, however, makes the workload more manageable.”
Duey is confident about his choice to go to law school and credits the confidence and support of his wife for helping him cope with his first-year stress.
“I made a conscious effort to bring her on campus, to bring her to class, to meet some of the couples,” he says. “That way, there was no question in her mind of what I was doing. It de-mystified law school for her.”
Spouse and family support was also crucial for Yin Cheung, a 33-year-old third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law in . The former software engineer started law school four years ago, nine months after the birth of her first son. In addition to the academic stresses of first-year law school, she became pregnant with her second son later that year. “I recommend not being pregnant the first year in law school,” she says, with a laugh.
The support of her husband, parents, and parents-in-law was crucial, she says, as she coped with fatigue, long study hours, and the needs of her first son, who was also born two months premature. Also important, she adds, was a campus support network known as PALS (). Regular meetings allowed the parents/students to share stories and ideas, giving them another way to reduce stress.
Cheung also credited the law school, which allowed her to take a year off after her first year. The school also provides facilities on campus for nursing mothers, as well as a room where students can bring their children while watching a live video feed of their classes. “I tell people to hang in there. It’s going to get better. First-year is the worst. You do get better at handling things as you go along.”
As someone who got her JD 17 years after her undergrad degree, Pamela Vesilind understands why so many older students are able to cope with first-year stresses. She is an assistant professor at in , and assistant director of the school’s Academic Success Program, which is aimed at helping first-year students.
“I remember the isolation and feeling humbled, and how I was able to deal with it,” says Vesilind, who graduated from Vermont Law in 2008. “[Older students] really understand it’s a delicate balance.”
“From being out in the working world, I knew how much effort I had to put in to get the job done [in law school],” he says. “I took my job routine and put it into my law school routine.”
And he hopes it won’t be long before he puts that routine back into play at a law firm.