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Sound Advice: Putting your first year law school exams in perspective (podcast)


I felt old last week when I had a conversation with a good friend whose daughter is studying for her first semester law school exams.  But it is not really that long ago that I was doing the same.

The sense of dread, but excitement or maybe nervous energy, the accompanying fatigue, irritability (ask your non-law school friends or family if you think otherwise), that kind of sick feeling in your stomach when you’ve not had enough to eat and too much coffee.  My go-to was a pack of hot chocolate mix, but instead of using water or milk, I’d use coffee.  I remember it all very well.

Your first exams are important.  There is no getting around that.  And you should obviously take them seriously and do the work needed to have your best chance at succeeding.  Along those lines, I did a podcast discussing how to suppress your fight-or-flight response in times of extreme stress, like exams.

In that podcast, I spoke with Matt McCusker of Convince, LLC.  Matt is a nationally renowned litigation consultant with a background in industrial-organizational psychology, and he offered essential test-taking and stress-management strategies for test-takers.  It is a quick twelve minutes and has some practical tips that might make your exam season a little easier.

In this podcast though, I want to instead try to take a broader perspective.  What do these tests really mean to you?  Big picture.  And I want to do so not to down play their importance or have you blow them off or not do everything you can to succeed.

But rather, I think taking a step back and clearing your mind of some of the clutter may help you do your best.  If nothing else, maybe it will give you a break for a few minutes during what is certainly a stressful time.

In the podcast, I talk about looking at law school exams as a rite of passage and also compare them to the Ming dynasty’s civil service exam.  Both topics provide a little perspective as to what young people such as yourselves have endured over the ages.

Can you really complain about studying hard when you think about some of the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges that have been faced and conquered by young men and women across the globe?  When you’re petting a puppy in the library or helping yourself to a brownie paid for by the SBA, take a minute to compare yourself to the Ming students who were given a straw cot, a chamber pot, literally bread and water, and locked into what must have seemed like a cell for two nights and three days for testing on eight subjects covering 3,000 years of Chinese thought.  Those that died during the test had their bodies wrapped in the straw and thrown over the walls for collection by their families so as to not bother the other candidates.

So things could be worse.

Setting that fact aside, the main point of the podcast is that these exams are not going to define you as a law student, a lawyer, or a person.  What kind of person are you or do you want to become?  Are you kind, honest, intelligent, funny, caring?  How you treat people is in large part a measure of the type of person you are, not whether you got an A- or B+ on your property exam.

These exams are not even going to define you as a law student.  Do you show up to class, contribute, do the work, put in the time, build the relationships?  Are you volunteering your time and new-found skills to make someone’s life better?  Have you taken a leadership role in something that’s important to you?  If not, why not?

And if so, these are the things that are going to matter to you five, ten, twenty years from now.  Again, not the grades.  But rather how you conducted yourself as a student and future member of the bar.  These things are going to be your legacy as a law student and that’s what should really be important over the next couple of years.

Nor are these exams going to define you as a lawyer.  I’m not saying there are no consequences to problematic grades, but how successful you are as a lawyer is simply not going to be decided on your first-year grades.  It’s just not.

Are you willing to work hard and learn?  Are you passionate about something?  Are you dedicated and diligent?  What do you want to do?  Who do you want to be?  What do you want to change?  The answers to those questions are not dependent on how you do on this or any other test.

These are bigger questions that only you can answer.  And the answers you give are so much more important than grades.

Good luck.

Josh Jones Josh Jones is a principal at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. and a leader in the ABA Section of Litigation. Josh ’s practice focuses on the defense of financial institutions. He also defends clients in criminal/regulatory investigations and represents lenders in reorganization and litigated insolvency matters.