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The summer before 1L: Here’s the secret to law school prep

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Law School Prep
Here for suggestions on how to spend your summer before starting law school preparing? Read on. (No, literally.)

Like clockwork, each year’s newly admitted law students ask the Internet, “What can I do to prepare for law school?”  You may be asking the same question.  You may have already heard the most popular answer—“Nothing!”—and continued asking around, just to be sure.  If that search has led you here, well, I have a different answer for your consideration:  It depends.

Gauge your time and interest

If you don’t want to or have time to prepare for law school, that is totally fine.  Sure, look up what books you’ll need for class.  Figure out where and whether you’ll rent them, buy them used or new, or borrow them from the library.  Definitely carve out time to do your first readings (yes, many classes will expect you to start reading before the first day of class).  But otherwise, there’s nothing you actually need to do.  Seriously, you can stop reading now.  Really.  Why are you still here?

For those fortunate enough to have the time—and eager or anxious enough to have the interest—to do some preparation, the question is still not what you “should” or “must” do.  The answer to those questions remains the same:  “Nothing.”  But if are still wondering what you can do to make your pre-law time productive, some types of preparation are definitely better than others.

Avoid substance but stay curious

As tempting as it may be, you should stay away from trying to teach yourself anything about the law itself.  Getting “ahead” on your future coursework is more likely to set you back.  Law professors’ perspectives and curricula vary wildly.  Dive into your anticipated 1L subjects now at your own risk.  More likely than not, you will have to unlearn what you tried in error to teach yourself.  Better to leave the substance alone.

That does not mean you must swear off learning about the legal profession.  And definitely don’t quash your curiosity about the law.  For first-generation law students especially, there can be real value in gathering information and building your legal vocabulary.  Growing up, no one in my family was a lawyer.  I was full of questions I felt almost ashamed to ask: 

  • What do lawyers really do?
  • What’s law school like?
  • What’s a clerkship?
  • What’s a “tort”?

Books, podcasts, and even Google can help you here.  Wikipedia is your friend.  Even random lawyers and law students on Twitter will happily answer your questions.  Let your curiosity (and maybe your anxiety) guide you.  To the extent anything touches on first-year subject matter, though, you should probably try to forget it before classes start.

Make healthy habits and practice skills

If you are still itching for something to do, focus your energy and time on establishing habits and developing skills that will serve you well in law school.  Depending on your precise interests and situation, here are a few ways to do just that:

Start healthy

Healthy habits are a good starting place.  Have you been meaning to learn to cook?  Now’s a great time.  Been telling yourself to get a more consistent sleep or exercise regime?  Great.  If you start law school with healthy habits, you will be more likely to thrive in law school—and in life, for that matter.

Refresh your technical skills

Similarly, developing your computer skills can only help you.  Most law school exams are typed, as is the bar exam.  Expertise in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and even Excel can make your life as a law student and lawyer much easier.  But if you’ve never learned to touch-type or become comfortable with the most recent Microsoft products, it isn’t too late.  There are many programs and even games online for practicing your speed typing.  And you can find other online tutorials to improve your Microsoft skills.  Or you can just play around in the relevant programs, learning through curiosity, trial, and error.

Remember reading?

You might also decide to practice sustained, distraction-fee reading.  Law school and lawyering require a tremendous amount of reading.  Most of it is fairly (or very) dry.  When was the last time you sat down and just read a non-fiction book for a few hours?  If intensive reading isn’t a big part of your life already, you can ease your transition into law school by practicing. 

In truth, the only secret is there isn’t one. 

Pick books that are interesting and will teach you something new.  Keep them non-fiction; your law textbooks won’t be a gripping mystery novel.  Books on history, writing style, social science, or law-adjacent topics like the legal profession or criminal justice can be good starting points.  I still have Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy on my own “to-read” list, but friends of mine have raved about them.  The summer before I started law school, I took on books like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic.  Pick something interesting—but not too interesting—and you’ll both improve your reading endurance and have something to talk to your new classmates about at orientation.

Ultimately, the subject matter is less important than the process.  Consider doing more than just reading.  Figure out what conditions, break intervals, tools, and techniques work best for your reading process.  Try setting a timer.  Try putting away your phone or using “screen time” limits on your social media apps.  If you make sustained, focused reading a habit, your first 200-page week of reading in law school won’t be quite as big a shock.

Stay sharp

You can also find other ways to keep your mind sharp.  If you’ve studied a foreign language in the past, you might try to refresh or expand your old skillset.  Studying a language can be a great way to practice memorization skills that are helpful for law school success. 

Crossword puzzles, daily sudokus, and even online games (like luminosity), are other fun ways to stay engaged.  Years ago, before I started law school, I tried out luminosity with a focus on getting better at remembering people’s names.  It was free—and I think it actually helped.  By the time orientation started, I felt a bit more ready to meet all my new classmates.  If you have the time and interest, why not?

Unfortunately, none of these suggestions is the secret to law school success.  In truth, the only secret is there isn’t one.  From the day you say “I do” to your law school, everyone will try to tell you how they survived or thrived in theirs.  They went to every class (or none of them).  They had a study group for every class (or never did).  They used the infamous 3- or 5- or 7-color highlighter system(s) to unlock each case’s secret meaning (or didn’t).  Try out the techniques that sound like they might work.  Reject the ones that don’t.  And remember that no one knows you, and how you learn, better than you do.

With that in mind, spend whatever free time you have before you start law school in the way you think best.  Maybe that’s relaxing, exercising, enjoying your hobbies.  Maybe it’s working a full-time job while taking care of your family.  Maybe it’s something entirely different.  But if you are looking for something—anything!—to ease that anxious feeling about being “prepared” for a new and largely mysterious phase in your life, there are things you can do.  Find ways to gather information, establish healthy habits, and build skills that will serve you well in law school and beyond.  You won’t regret it.

Jennifer Fischell Jennifer Fischell is an attorney specializing in complex civil litigation and appeals. After graduating from Michigan Law School in 2016, she worked as a law clerk for two federal judges and then as an associate at MoloLamken LLP. She will be clerking for Justice Elena Kagan of the Supreme Court of the United States during the October 2021-22 Term.