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Surviving Thriving as a 1L: Transitioning to a law school mindset

Are you ready for your first cold call? Case brief? Read on for tips on how to be prepared for your 1L year. (iStock photo)

Thinking about going to law school? Applied to law school, but do not know what is next?  Accepted to law school, but nervous about what it will be like? Almost ready to begin your first year of law school and want to get a head start? 

Well…first, “Welcome to Law School!

Law students are inquisitive, hardworking, and typically enjoy a good challenge.  If you are asking questions similar to these, it sounds like you will fit right into the law school environment.  That said, you also likely want to be as prepared as possible before you get there.  Showing up for your first day as a 1L with a basic understanding of what to expect will make your transition to law school much easier!  

There are many ways to acclimate to and to survive the rigors of law school.  But, ultimately, you not only want to survive in law school, you also want to thrive in law school. 

One of the best ways to thrive in law school is to adopt a mindset for success.  Ridding your mind of misconceptions about law school is a great way to begin.  Gathering as much information about legal education ahead of time creates a more seamless adjustment.  And, familiarizing yourself with the unique practicalities of law school pedagogy will give you an edge.     

One such practicality is to realize at the outset that law school is much different than college—the classroom approach, the homework type, the grading, and the content.  The law school process is designed to encourage you to think, prepare, speak, write, and even begin to act like a lawyer.  To thrive in your law school classes, you will need to demonstrate your legal knowledge and know-how by identifying and solving legal problems and fluidly discuss how legal rules apply. 

Welcome to Law School will reduce some of the misconceptions behind the law school process and explain some of the basic components that you can expect during your first year classes…which will enable you to begin your legal learning journey on a successful path.

Most law schools operate on a semester basis with classes requiring copious amounts of nightly reading.  Learn more about what law school is like here! Some of you may be thinking, “Oh, just some reading?  That is all we have for homework? That’s no big deal, I can handle that.”  Well, think again!  Do not underestimate the reading and workload that you will encounter during your first year of law school.  The most difficult part of the first year for many students is the fact that you are trying to simultaneously absorb a new way of thinking while also dealing with a large volume of reading.  Time management, stress management, and thorough preparation are paramount to your success.  

Absorbing and synthesizing countless, new legal theories will be a challenge; but, one that is surmountable with a methodical approach and proper preparation.  You should draw upon what has worked for you in the past throughout your studies and schooling; but, your class preparation for law school will likely be much different than your class preparation from your undergrad days. 

Transitioning from an intelligent lay-person to a successful legal thinker requires some rewiring

Reading and class preparation for law school will require a specific level of attention because your class sessions will focus on the details of your reading via a Socratic dialogue.  And, much of what you will be tested on comes directly from these readings and class discussions. 

Rarely, in class or otherwise, will you ever be definitively told “this is the rule of law” on a particular subject.  Instead, during your careful reading, you will extract this information from centuries of jurisprudence.  You will then be expected during class discussions to apply these rules when confronted with new legal issues to solve from the hypotheticals posed by your professor. 

Thus, this approach, the case method, requires an extreme amount of case reading on a wide range of subjects and topics.  As you move through your first year of law school, this approach and workload will become easier to handle; but, at first it can take some getting used to.

So, you may now be thinking, “What exactly is a Socratic dialogue?”  Well, if we were engaging in a Socratic dialogue, I would not answer this directly.  But, since you aren’t quite a 1L yet, I will refrain from hiding the ball.  A Socratic dialogue centers around a professor cold-calling on students to answer various questions about a particular case reading or legal issues related to assigned casebook readings. 

Through this system of questioning, professors elicit answers regarding the case reading; but, more importantly, they will continue peppering a student with questions in order to foster the development of legal reasoning skills.  This type of classroom dynamic, with sometimes what feels like incessant peppering, can be a bit unsettling for most new law students–think sweaty palms and racing heartbeats.  But, keep in mind, a law professor uses this method not to intimidate or scare, but to help guide students as they begin to learn how to think like a lawyer.  If you want to avoid potential public embarrassment, preparation is key!  

Preparing detailed case briefs will help you survive and thrive when you are in the hot-seat during these Socratic episodes.  Case briefing is a skill that you will adopt as a 1L; and, should be something that you do consistently to prepare for class.  A solid case brief, a dissection of a case opinion, will ease some of the anxiety caused by the unanticipated questions that your professor may throw your way.  Your case briefing skills will evolve over time, but should always at least include details such as: parties, procedural posture, a brief factual summary, issue, holding, and rationale. 

Having these key details at the ready will help circumvent the cold-call jitters and keep you from experiencing the unflattering deer in the headlights look.  Walking through the Socratic method and learning how to draft a case brief before you begin your first semester of law school will help you orient to this new pedagogical approach.  

Transitioning from an intelligent lay-person to a successful legal thinker requires some rewiring—adapting how you prepare for class, how you learn, and even how you think.  This transition will not happen overnight; but, with the right tools and guidance, it can happen more easily and more quickly…and, hopefully spare you from feeling like a deer in the headlights. 

If you approach law school with a confident self-awareness of the challenges at hand and the mindset suited to meet those challenges, you can dispel misconceptions and fears, adopt helpful strategies, and make steady progress towards your ultimate goal: thriving and succeeding in law school.

Kaplan has more tips for Law School success, and remember to check out Kaplan’s Welcome to Law School course for just $249 to be ready this fall!