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Five students on how they faced their biggest challenges in law school

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Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’re going to face challenges and burdens during law school, along with unforeseeable circumstances, that will test your ability to succeed.

Nobody can tell you the best way to handle stress because what works is unique to each individual.

But what may help you is to take a glimpse behind the scenes of law school success stories to hear about the hidden challenges that often go untold. These stories reveal the challenges five students faced while pursuing their dreams and the creative solutions they found that enabled them to overcome their challenges. They also highlight some of the support networks that make the law school journey more manageable and less isolating.

Resources that work for you

Even after building the perfect schedule for the semester or the dream multiyear plan, extraordinary circumstances can affect your ability to follow through.

Stephen CainesFor Stephen Caines, a 3L at the University of Miami School of Law, finding work-life balance has been essential to his success in law school and his ability to the handle difficult situations he has faced
throughout his legal journey. Before his first year, Caines remembered that people would describe law school as a marathon, but he later found it was far more complex than that.

During the past few years, Caines lost his grandfather and a friend; he was physically injured in a car accident; and he experienced the end of a relationship. Caines’ formula to achieving academic excellence is multifaceted. For him, combining exercise, engagement, and creativity to set routines that complemented and promoted his career goals was the first step to building a comprehensive plan.

However, a plan is only a plan until it’s enacted. The second step is extremely important and requires great organization skills and diligence. Caines insisted that if you’re doing something that makes you happy, the load doesn’t feel as burdensome. Some of the things he’s integrated in his law school experience include practicing Muay Thai, doing hot yoga, becoming more engaged through service with the Greater Miami community, attending networking and art events, and venturing into new fields such as creating music or learning Python programming.

It’s important to remember that your situation may be unique, but that doesn’t mean you have to deal with it on your own. Reaching out to ask for help is important to your success. Your law school’s deans may be able to accommodate a request to miss class or reschedule a final exam due to a medical or family emergency. If you’re part of a study group, its members may be able to share their class notes with you. Other resources that are often underused include student government organizations.

Learning how to manage stress can help mitigate unpreventable circumstances. “Law school doesn’t get easier, but you get better,” said Caines.

When is a good time to ask for help?

Shellie ReidFor many law students, law is a second career. Shellie Reid, a 2L at Michigan State University College of Law in Lansing, is one of many parents around the country balancing education and family. After 28 years of marriage, she admitted the support of her family is invaluable and has kept her going when she was discouraged.

For Reid, starting law school didn’t mean she needed to start from scratch to find balance. As in most situations, she said, the key is to surround yourself with people who accept you no matter what and acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to achieving academic success, Reid said, “If you found a way of studying that worked in undergrad, I recommend adapting it for use in law school.” In addition, thinking about the first semester of law school as a trial may help you be more comfortable making adjustments to your study habits or memorization methods at a later time.

Integrating technology into her educational journey and personal life had a two-fold goal for Reid: Enabling her to maintain direct communication with her family and being able to explore new tools to enhance her learning experience.

Outlining for each class didn’t produce the results that Reid expected; however, she found the resources available in Quimbee to be very helpful. As a result, she’s now considering including more resources available from Quimbee and transitioning from outlining to using flashcards.

Making changes to your routine can be scary, but the important thing is to recognize that law school is about growing, not only as a legal advocate but also as a person. One way to approach which changes to make and determining when it’s a good time to do so may be to start by setting aside time at the end of each semester to write down the study techniques and materials you used and what worked and didn’t.

When it comes to achieving a balance, Reid is grateful for her family and the support they provide.

Communication and setting expectations for everyone has been important to ensure the bond with her family remained strong. “If you have family or significant others, find ways to care for them that reduce your burden,” she advised. “Knowing that your family is taken care of will allow you to focus on school.”

Also realize that while you’re in school, things aren’t going to be the same as they were before you began law school. While a home-cooked meal is ideal, Reid has found that using a meal delivery service ensures her family is well fed. Alternatively, she has relied more on her husband and son to take on chores for which she used to be primarily responsible.

To combat the isolation many law students experience and grow as a family, Reid’s family has started to play interactive games, such as chess and Scrabble, online, watch movies at the same time, and Skype regularly.

When spending time together may feel like a luxury, Reid has additional advice. “If your family is planning to visit during the semester, review the syllabus for your classes and choose times when not many projects are due,” she advised. Also, read ahead to ensure your loved ones have your undivided attention when they’re spending time with you, she suggested.

Build the path that’s right for you

For many, a commitment to law school success begins many years prior to starting their first year.

Marice GuzmanMarice Guzman, a 2018 graduate of Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, emigrated from Cuba with her mother at the age of 10. From that point on, she worked tirelessly to achieve her goal of becoming an attorney.

Guzman realized as a young woman that her success was going to require more than just diligence.

In addition to working hard, it became clear that staying focused on the final goal and being flexible enough to perceive and embrace the challenges in her path could transform her sacrifices into new opportunities.

Like many other immigrants before her, to achieve her goal, Guzman had to face the reality that standardized tests, such as the LSAT, posed a disadvantage for her as a low-income student and one for whom English wasn’t her first language. However, Guzman said she wasn’t ready “to allow a test dictate the course of her career.”

When she didn’t get into the law school of her dreams, Guzman didn’t let that hold her back. “I believe you should always do your best and remain open to the possibility of things changing or not going as planned,” she said.

Attending law school as a part-time student while working full time is challenging, but Guzman decided that if others could do it, she could, too. She built strong mentoring relationships by collaborating with organizations on campus doing work she’s passionate about, being willing to receive advice, and learning from professors and practitioners in her areas of interest.

For Guzman, who decided to stay in Miami after finishing high school to take care of her mother, being able to transfer from Miami Dade College to Wellesley College to complete her bachelor’s degree was, in part, thanks to the support of her peers and professors. Like many first-generation college students whose parents aren’t familiar with how the U.S. education system works, for Guzman, mentors are a source of guidance and inspiration, and she’s comfortable asking for advice because she believes they have her best interest at heart.

Guzman’s path to her law degree wasn’t a straight one, but her dream came true last spring when she received her J.D.

Learn from every step

Chase ParangaoChase Parangao grew up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which is about a half-hour flight away from the University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law on the island of Oahu. When he was applying to law school, Parangao knew he wanted to stay close to his family, and Oahu was the closest option.

During law school, he found the hours in each day slipping through his hands. As his workload continued to increase, the library was becoming his second home. “Tackling law school without support from family and friends seemed daunting and unhealthy,” he said.

While Parangao was focusing solely on his studies, the new lifestyle was affecting him emotionally, and it was affecting his performance at school. He first reached out to his family for reassurance and guidance. Parangao then chatted with his partner, and they agreed to split the chores to allow him to spend at least 30 minutes each day talking to his family on FaceTime.

“Having that brief moment to just chit chat with my family was cathartic,” he said. However, it came at a price. Diligence was required to allow Parangao to compensate for dropping his assignments after 8 p.m. Some of the changes he made included staying at the library after class and working during lunch on upcoming assignments.

Knowing his family was willing to be at his side and that together they’d find solutions to defeat the distance between them, Parangao considered transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, a school that aligned with his goal of practicing entertainment and employment law.

However, Parangao was again faced with a challenge when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Without hesitation, he deferred his admission to transfer to UCLA and took a year to care for her. That enabled Parangao to be close to his mother while working for a law firm in town that also allowed him to gain experience in his practice areas of interest. Now that his mom is doing better, Parangao feels more confident putting into practice what he’s learned about being diligent in setting time aside to spend with his partner and chatting with his family on a daily basis.

The entire family goes to law school

Jennifer CovarrubiasFor Jennifer Covarrubias, a 2L, Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles was the perfect choice because her family would be only 20 miles away. Still, Covarrubias knew her law school journey would require her to balance three important aspects of life: Her relationship with her partner, her family, and her relationship with herself. It may be easier to assume people around you don’t understand the life of a law student.

However, Covarrubias refused to take that shortcut and decided to make her loved ones active participants in her journey. Before her first semester, when Covarrubias was assigned to read 1L by Scott Turow, she encouraged her partner to join her. “That was essential to share at least a glimpse of what the next three years were going to look like,” she said.

Covarrubias’s experience proves that people who’ve supported you throughout your life and care about your success aren’t going to stop now because you’re in law school. It’s up to you to invite them to be part of the experience.

“The idea of being away from home for long periods at a time is frowned upon” in the Covarrubias family, she said, which is one of the reasons she chose to be close to her family. By doing that, her family was able to find times throughout the work week to meet her for coffee or lunch close to Southwestern.

“These pockets of time meant the world to me when motivation was low and work seemed never-ending,” she said. “It was these small gestures that truly made me feel like my family was supportive and understanding of my journey.”

Covarrubias also did her part. She found courses at her school outside the traditional 1L curriculum. A course Covarrubias found helpful, and that she believes should be replicated in schools around the country, covered techniques for stress management and meditation. “Most of all, it provided a safe space on campus to talk about our insecurities and dilemmas,” she said.

It also helped Covarrubias learn how to focus on her breathing before taking exams and to keep in mind her vision and ultimate goals.

While law school can be about mastering the law and getting your degree, it’s also an opportunity for self-growth. The constant balancing of Covarrubias’s relationship with herself, her family, and her partner allowed her to stay motivated and successfully complete her first year of law school. Her story shows that support networks are most effective when everyone does their part.

Andres Gonzalez Andres Gonzalez is a 3L student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law who focuses on the intersection of law and technology. He received an A.A. in Biology from Miami Dade Honors College and a B.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University. After college, Andres worked for an e-commerce platform, where he honed his customer service and sales skills, supporting both the U.S. and international markets.