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So you’re starting law school in a pandemic: How to succeed in a remote or hybrid 1L Year

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So, you’re starting law school in the middle of a global pandemic. This wasn’t how you pictured it going. You didn’t intend to be part of this chapter in the history of legal education, but here you are. How can you make the most of it?

As we write this, some law schools have opted for entirely remote instruction, but most are planning for a hybrid in-person/remote approach. Implementation will vary widely between institutions, but most schools planning to have in-person classes are prioritizing face-to-face instruction for 1Ls.

Still, if you do have the chance to be in a physical classroom, that space won’t look anything like what you’re used to. And even if you’re in the law school for some of your classes, other events might be virtual, like student organization meetings, public lectures, and office hours. Plus, you probably won’t be able to just hang out on campus between classes.

In other words, the beginning of your law school experience will be different than it was for every other class of 1Ls. As a result, your approach will be different, too. You can’t count on organically forming connections with your classmates in common areas during breaks, or making friends at interest meetings or free lunch talks. You likely won’t have chance encounters with your professors in the hallways that help you get to know them. And you may not have consistent access to quiet study spaces on campus.

We don’t say these things to intimidate you, but because we think it’s important that you start with realistic expectations and think ahead about preparing yourself for success. While law school may look different this year, we’re confident that you can still have an experience that’s engaging, challenging, and fulfilling. To help you get there, we’ve compiled a list of 8 tips that we hope will help ease your transition to law school, form real connections within the law school community, and take care of yourself.

1. Be aware. As you start law school, think about what the last six months have been like for you, and be aware of what they may have been like for your classmates. You probably encountered many challenges, difficulties, and disappointments. But, if you’re lucky, you may not have personally experienced some of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic. Some of your peers—or your professors—probably have. And some of them have probably had traumatic summers in other ways. BIPOC and especially Black students, faculty, and staff have always faced systemic racism and racial trauma, but this summer’s national reckoning with these issues has almost certainly left many members of your new law school community exhausted or traumatized.

Remember also that law school, like any institution, may not be equally welcoming for you and your new peers. Every 1L will go through the transition into law school, but the transition can be especially hard for students who come from traditionally marginalized communities and as well as first-generation students. If you’re a member of one of those communities, make sure you’re reaching out for the support you need, including by getting connected with affinity organizations (like BLSA) or a first-gen student group if your school has one. If you’re not a member of one of those communities, take the time to do some reading about what the law school experience may be like for folks who don’t look like you or share your background or privilege. And think about ways that you can contribute to an inclusive, equitable environment and disrupt any of the toxic -isms when you see them.

Here are some resources you may find helpful in fostering this awareness:

  • This powerful Slate article by University of Michigan Law alumna Hannah Taylor about her experience as a Black woman in law school.
  • A short essay by Professor Melissa Murray called Law School in a Different Voice, about women in the legal profession.

2. Be flexible. You’ve probably heard this before, or been told to “expect the unexpected.” But this year, it’s important that you not only expect your plans to be disrupted, but also that you accept that inevitable disruption with as much ease as you can, even if it feels chaotic. (And, if you’re like many of the people drawn to law school, dealing with chaos may not be your favorite feeling.) So while settling into a routine is important, it’s also important not to assume that you’ll be able to maintain that same routine throughout the semester.

Change is hard, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar and potentially intimidating environment, but this year will demand maximum flexibility from law schools and everyone else. The public health situation across the country is constantly evolving. Schools that currently plan to deliver in-person instruction may need to suddenly transition to entirely remote models. Or one of your classes might need to go remote after a potential COVID exposure. One of your professors may need a colleague to cover her class for a few weeks due to illness; another might need to change his office hours or delay your feedback on an assignment because his own family’s childcare situation has changed.

Which leads to a corollary: give your institution and your professors grace. Yes, you should expect a lot from them and tell them what you need, but remember that they are also living through a global pandemic and many are juggling a new way of teaching, increased service responsibilities at school, and added obligations at home. 

3. Be open. Expect your professors to try new teaching techniques this year, and be open to the innovation. Digital instruction is unique, so it is unsurprising that experts in the field have developed teaching techniques tailored to engaging students online. Those techniques, however, don’t always mirror the open-discussion, Socratic method you might have heard about from current law students or seen in movies. For example, professors might supplement Socratic instruction with digital forum discussions, formative assessments, asynchronous video content, breakout group work, and many other innovative active learning tools. These new assignments can be strange (and a bit overwhelming) at first, but they can also generate incredible results. Use these regularly administered assessments to monitor your course progress and track your strengths and weaknesses. That way, you can go into your final exams informed and prepared to succeed. 

4. Be prepared. Speaking of preparation, spend some time this summer readying yourself to be productive at home. In the before-times, students had access to public spaces both on and off campus to do work. Having physically separate environments for working and relaxing can help maximize productivity during work hours and relaxation during rest hours. But being able to study in one spot and live in another won’t be an option for many law students this year. Here are some great tips from Twitter for helping you create physical barriers or at least sensory cues that tell your brain “now it’s work time” and maximize your productivity in a blended environment. And here’s a great post on this blog by Reichi Lee, Associate Dean for Online Education and Director of the Academic Achievement Program at Golden Gate University, called “How to Train Your Brain to be Productive at Home.” We highly recommend it.

5. Be organized. Relatedly, you’ll have a lot to keep track of once you start law school, and you’ll need to stay organized. First of all, a lot of the communication with your new school, your professors, and your peers will be by email, even more so than usual. You’re likely starting law school with a new email address—and the luxury of inbox zero—so develop good email management techniques so that you stay on top of what’s coming in and can easily find what you need when you need it. Consider setting up Outlook folders for each class and another for extracurricular activities, or a filing system where you use flags or color coding for emails that require a response.

Additionally, your calendar is probably about to get very full—and very complicated. But keeping a calendar, with set external alerts, is imperative this year. By now, we are all way too familiar with the feeling of the days running together. It’s easy to underestimate how fast the time passes, and just as easy to underestimate how long it takes to complete online learning tasks. Consider calendaring every course requirement, even those requirements that seem small. Also, try the reverse calendaring method, which suggests breaking down large projects into discrete steps and setting “optimal project deadlines” one or two days before project due dates.

6. Be kind to yourself. Starting law school is hard anytime. Starting law school—perhaps remotely—in the middle of a global pandemic is especially hard. So this year, invest in your well-being. First, prioritize your mental, physical, and emotional health. Every individual’s wellness journey is different, but in general do things that give you energy. Fuel your body with healthy foods; schedule time to work out and enjoy nature; practice gratitude and mindfulness; participate in activities that bring you joy. Here and here are a variety of ABA resources designed to help law students deal with law school stress.

Second, give yourself grace. Law school comes with its highs and lows, and most of the A-type personalities attracted to law school (no judgment, we are both right there with you!) set for themselves an unreachable standard of perfection. In a rigorous academic environment, it’s easy to get trapped into feeling inferior or get stuck constantly comparing yourself to your peers. To compensate for feelings of self-doubt, some students study excessively to the detriment of their health. Indeed, in this article, Professor Gurvich shares her own 1L experience and warns against what she calls the “brute force” approach. Know this: there is no such thing as the “perfect” law student (especially during a global crisis), and you will fail sometimes. What matters is how you learn from your failures, how you use them as a catalyst to make you and your experience better.

7. Be proactive. As part of maintaining your well-being during these unprecedented times, be proactive in building a community and asking for help when you need it. As noted earlier, much of what facilitates community in your 1L year—campus events, campus study spaces—will be unavailable this year. So get creative. Schedule study hours or community lunches with your peers via Zoom or another digital platform. Schedule section-wide TV watch parties or form a section book club. Also, when your institution or your professors create these events for you, attend. Law school is so much easier when you’re not alone, so we mean it: actually put these events on your calendar. You won’t regret it.

Similarly, when you do find yourself struggling or when your situation changes rapidly, ask for help. Reach out to your peer community and your professors. Your professors want you to succeed, but they can’t always anticipate your situation. Don’t be afraid to set a meeting and ask for what you need to be successful.

8. Be resilient. Finally, know that if you embrace these remote learning circumstances, as difficult as they are, you will have a bright future ahead of you. This is certainly not how you (or we) wanted your law school experience to begin, but with a little bit of resilience, grit, and a growth mindset, you can graduate with a unique set of skills—notably, crisis management and competency surrounding remote communication technologies—that will serve you well in the legal profession and make you stand out among other new attorneys.

Rachel Gurvich and Annie Scardulla Rachel Gurvich is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of law, where she has taught first-year and upper-level legal writing courses since 2015. Before that, she was a patent and appellate litigator at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Boston. Connect with Rachel on Twitter. Annie Scardulla is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. Scardulla joined the faculty in 2020 and teaches first-year legal writing. Before teaching, Scardulla litigated mostly automotive products liability cases in the New Orleans area.