As law school exam season approaches, the tension in academic hallways thickens like soup. Over the past few weeks, as I’ve met with students in office hours, I’ve seen worries etch into their furrowed brows right before my eyes. Everyone seems to be ahead of me in their outlining. I still don’t understand Twombly. Why don’t I have a strong opinion yet on the “right” theory of punishment? Each year, I wrestle with the best words of encouragement for my students, seeking to inspire and reassure, yet also shape perspective. I too grappled with profound fear and anxiety toward law school exams. Though I graduated from law school 25 years ago and have been a law professor for 11 of those years, I still sometimes wake up from stress nightmares in which I somehow forgot to study for my Legislation exam.
I know saying Don’t worry, everything will be okay, doesn’t take away the emotional strain of law school exams and grades. But if I could go back in time 25 years and mentor my former law-student-self, this is what I would say…
Before your tests
I know that everyone around you seems to know what they’re doing. They understand the cases. They banter about theory. Their outlines are “done.” They’re joking around in the hallways. Their stomachs don’t hurt. They don’t have migraines. They’re able to take a break and play softball. They’re excited about the upcoming winter break.
It’s okay that you’re not like them. It’s okay that you’re nervous and scared. I promise, you’re going to be okay.
It’s okay for you to study alone if/when you want to be alone. It’s okay for you to do your outlines at your own pace.
It’s also okay for you to not understand everything your first semester of law school. Some of this is harder for us than it is for other people. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be here. You deserve to be here. You’re going to work as hard as you can, and do the best job you can. You’re going to be an amazing lawyer someday.
Also, just preparing and studying the substantive material might not be enough for some of us. Let’s also talk about the reality of mental fear messages and the physical manifestations of stress.
When you are studying, walking the law school hallways, or listening to classmates, you might be hearing a negative mental soundtrack, one that is telling you that you don’t belong, or aren’t smart enough, or aren’t tough enough for this. Perhaps you absorbed such messages from well-meaning folks in your past trying to motivate or look out for you, but those negative missives have absolutely no relevance to your new law student persona. It’s time to delete those messages. Let’s craft a new soundtrack: I’m doing the hard work. I belong here. I’m going to do the best job I possibly can.
Also, when you are outlining, or reviewing practice tests, or anticipating a test-taking scenario, notice your particular physical manifestations of anxiety. Does your body instinctively react in a self-protective mode? When I get stressed or scared, my body automatically folds inward, trying to get small or disappear. My shoulders hunch, I cross my arms and legs, and my physical frame shrinks. This natural fear response unfortunately blocks my oxygen, blood, and energy flow. My heart beats faster. I blush and sweat. I’m light-headed. I can’t think clearly. Everything hurts. What if we can change that? What if we treat ourselves like scholar-athletes? We are thinkers. We are doers. We are scholar-athletes. Subtle adjustments in the way we hold our physical frames can help us breathe better, calm a rapid heartbeat, and channel excess energy more productively. Watch Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on “power poses.” Think about how your favorite athlete or performer stands when poised to “own the moment.” Practice standing (or sitting) in a balanced athlete’s stance: spine tall, shoulders back, arms open, both feet on the floor. And breathe.
During the test
If you’re in the beginning or middle of a law school exam and you hear your negative mental soundtrack, apply the firefighter mantra: stop, drop, and roll. Stop for a few seconds. Notice and acknowledge that you’re hearing the outdated self-doubt messages. Remind yourself: Ok, this is just fear again. BUT, I studied hard for this. I’m prepared. I belong here. I’m going to do the best job I possibly can. I can do this. One question at a time. One issue at a time. One rule at a time. Keep going. You’re doing great, and you’re amazing.
If you feel physical manifestations of anxiety, stress, or fear during the test, stop for a moment. Notice how you are holding your physical frame. Are my shoulders hunched inward? Am I crossing my legs? Is my body twisted like a pretzel? Is my heart racing? Am I shaking or sweating? Am I closing off my breathing? Open your frame, uncross your legs, and shift your shoulders back. Sit in a balanced athlete’s stance or your favorite “power pose,” channel your favorite performer, and breathe. Let the oxygen, blood, and energy flow in a productive manner. You’ve got this. Now keep going.
After the test
When you finish each exam, give yourself permission to tune everyone out and go home and hibernate. Other students naturally might feel comfortable debriefing every nuance of the test. Consider putting on your headphones—like the rockstar or Olympic-style scholar-athlete you are—the moment you leave the exam room until you are nestled on your couch watching Netflix in sweatpants. You do not need to re-hash the test, with anyone. Trust your system. Let that test go. Move onward to the next one. If friends and classmates try to engage about the test, say, “Respectfully, that’s not part of my process. I’m not going to talk about the test right now. Thank you.” You’re entitled to decompress from the exam in your own way.
When grades come out
Let me tell you a little, somewhat embarrassing, story. When I was a 22-year-old 1L law student, I studied for weeks for my Criminal Law exam. All semester, I struggled to understand this course. My professor focused deeply on theory. I had trouble grasping the abstract concepts. After weeks of outlining, memorizing, and worrying, I took the final. Because the course was taught in small sections and therefore professors could grade the exams faster than the larger sections, the law school released our 1L Criminal Law grades first, weeks before any other grades. I got a C+—the worst grade of my life. My roommate, in a different section, scored an A+. To this day, I don’t know why we talked about our grades. Comparing myself to my roommate, I cried a LOT before the rest of my grades were released. I spent weeks feeling “less than.” I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I worried I wasn’t “cut out” for law school.
Eventually, I received my other grades and I did better. Still not awesome, but better. I stopped crying, picked myself up, and pushed myself into second semester.
Four months later, the same thing happened. I got a C+ in Constitutional Law. Everyone else seemed to get an A or an A+. I berated myself. Again.
Meanwhile, I sent out a hundred resumes and landed a summer associate position at a boutique litigation firm. I loved my summer job. I thrived in my research and writing role. No one remembered, mentioned, or cared about those two blips on my transcript.
Notwithstanding those two grades, I’ve been employed ever since law school—first, in that medium-sized litigation firm, then a large law firm, then a small boutique firm, then as a law professor at three different law schools. I wish I could go back and tell my 22-year-old-law-student self that, yes, it’s okay to be disappointed in, or worried about, a grade, but it does not define you. I wasted weeks of tears over those grades. I let them define who I thought I was as a law student—for the next two years. Yes, grades are useful units of information (and I acknowledge that they can affect scholarships and some job opportunities). But they absolutely do not define who we are as contributors to our educational community and our profession. They do not define whether we are “successful” or not.
I wish I could go back and tell my 22-year-old-law-student-self that, instead of dwelling on those letter grades, let’s analyze the nature of the classes that stump us. I know now that my brain functions better with the application of rules that have concrete elements or factors—a checklist of rule components that I can apply to client facts. (I loved Civil Procedure, Tax, the Uniform Commercial Code). In contrast, my brain does not readily grasp abstract concepts, such as legal theory. If I had known this as a law student, perhaps I could have approached my theory classes differently, and adjusted how I studied and learned. Maybe I could have worked with my professors to somehow convert theory to workable “rules.” Instead, I wasted truckloads of time thinking I was just dumber than my classmates. I wasn’t.
If you’re nervous about your first (or second, or third) set of law school exams, please know that I see you. I hear you. And I care about you. I know you can do this. It’s okay to talk about being scared, or being worried that we don’t belong. We absolutely do belong. Let’s first remind ourselves that our grades don’t define us. If we can lay that foundation, we can start to set aside some of those unhealthy all-or-nothing thought processes that interfere with our ability to study, understand, and retain legal concepts. Next, we can rewrite our mental soundtrack, ejecting outdated and irrelevant messages. Further, we can adjust our physical approach to natural fear/stress responses in ways that will channel our oxygen, blood, and energy flow in a positive manner so our brains can perform at peak levels in a performance moment.
I’m proud of you. I wish I had been proud of myself 25 years ago. I did the hard work. I was scared. I gave myself no credit for getting through it.
promise you that law students who wrestle with stress, anxiety, and fear—and
who experience up-and-downs, including less-than-ideal grades on our
transcripts—go on to lead incredibly rewarding and fulfilling legal careers. I
know because I am one. And I’m rooting for you.