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It’s Nothing Like Legally Blonde: How to Survive Your First Year of Law School

by Hugo Esteban Rodriguez Posted: 09-04-15 | 2 years ago
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It’s September 2015, and a number of you Houstonians have already started law school. At this point, you’ve probably come to the realization that this law school business is not much like your undergraduate career anymore.

You’ve probably also realized that Legally Blonde is about as accurate a representation of law school as Tom Cruise is of a samurai.

You’ve may have even spent several hours watching YouTube videos of law school students breaking down CivPro and Torts concepts, complete with song and dance numbers, not knowing that you should be focusing on outlining instead.

And you are definitely, probably thinking something like, oh: “Holy shit. This shit is real.”

There may now be some doubts, sure. You’ve heard all about how it’s a bad market. It’s a bad field. It sucks. Hell, some lawyers you know might have even warned you to pursue something else. I’ve been exactly where you’re at right now, thinking the same things.

But don’t take advice from me. I write on burgers most days. Take advice from these four Houstonians, one of whom is about to take the bar exam. The other three practicing lawyers. They’re going to give you advice on how best to survive the 1L year, because honestly, if you can get through that, you know you’re going to be (sort of) okay.


 

VERONICA

Veronica, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center.
Veronica, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center.

I recently met Veronica at a Houston alumni event for our alma maters (which are on their first year as part of a super-saiyan-like permanent fusion,) and she’s the type of person that would be able to sell a Texan on not installing AC in their home. Not even joking. In this piece, she’s representing not just the University of Houston Law Center, but first-generation law school students as well.

She writes:

From First Generation College Graduate to First Generation Law Student

Although first generation graduate students are relatively well-studied, we are still not well-supported.  Aside from the obvious challenges graduate students face, first-generation students face some unique challenges that can affect performance and family-balance. So here are a few more strategies for making the transition from college to law school in general with an emphasis of my experience as a first-generation law student and graduate.

Find out how you work. Many of us excelled in college and that’s why we are in law school in the first place. However, doing well in the classroom doesn’t always translate to becoming a productive and successful academic.  When I entered my first law school exam, I had no idea how to even start writing. Suddenly, I had tons of law and tons of strategies, but no idea what to do with either of them.  I credit my A’s in law school to overcoming the embarrassment of sending an e-mail to my professor regarding office hours to talk about my writing.  It made all the difference.

Get comfortable with failure.  While I can’t speak for other disciplines, everyone in law school has been wrong in answering a question (yes, even the “gunners”).  You will analyze facts with the wrong rule of law.  The professors will make you flop on your answers.  Someone will be unprepared to talk about a case.  Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent.  It means you are learning and you’re better off making a mistake in law school then when you’re a practicing attorney.  At a certain point, law school is more of a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep preserving rather than producing perfect case briefs.

Work smarter, not harder. When I started law school, I quickly realized that I did not know how to read or understand case law or identify the plaintiff from the defendant as most of the cases were appeals. For the life of me, I could not figure out how my peers were able to cover all the class readings and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up. For a while I thought it was due to me being from a small town university while many of my peers were from private institutions with impressive credentials. Nope! Turns out, most of the other students skimmed the facts and discussion sections just enough to discuss them in class.  It had nothing to do with my intelligence—I just didn’t know about a common shortcut because I hadn’t had experience with voluminous coursework. 

  • ProTip: Make sure you use Crunchtime or Examples and Explanations study guides for your classes. (Writer’s note: I can vouch for these! EnEs are amazing and concise)

Networking is a MUST.  I’m a firm believer of “Its NOT about who you know, its about who knows you.  Sometimes taking a moment to speak with those around you can remind you that you are definitely not alone in this process and that you too can make it out alive.  Go to events: see and be seen.

Talk to your Family.  Law school studying is difficult to explain, even more so to your parents who think you don’t need to study because you’re the smartest creature in the universe. Your family may never understand what you do or why you can’t go home every weekend. In fact, hardly anyone will understand what you do.  That’s ok. It doesn’t invalidate what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Being a lawyer is all about managing client expectations and being a law student is about managing our family’s expectations.

Finally, don’t beat yourself up if those pesky thoughts of “Did I make a right decision by coming to law school? Will this be worth it?” creep up—they’re just a good barometer of your ability to identify the growing pains that come along with being a law student. 

Veronica has also very kindly offered to be a mentor to any of you who need an outside voice telling you that no, you’re not going crazy. You can reach her at esveronicabernal@gmail.com


FRANK

Frank is a native Houstonian who went to law school at Vanderbilt, arguably the smartest school in the SEC (which means exactly what you think it means about their football record).

We met close to five years ago, and hated each other right off the bat because he is Argentinean and I am Mexican, and Argentina had just knocked El Tri out of the World Cup behind some astoundingly bad refereeing. We were at each other’s throats for a good week or two before finding common ground in metal, and a mutual fondness for the legal field. We’ve been good friends since.

Due to the nature of his work, a picture will not be provided. Just picture an smiling Argentinean. Yep. No, a little paler. Paler still. Okay, there we go.

Writing about my law school experience should have been easy. I did dedicate (I hate to use the word “sacrifice”) three years of my life to it, after all. But I have to admit that writer’s block hit me hard tonight and I hardly knew where to start. The words just wouldn’t come out. All retch and no vomit, so to speak. The best I could do was divide my answer to you into three pieces: my decision to go to law school, my experience during law school, and my life since graduation. Hopefully, this will give your readers a good enough picture of what they can expect.
 
Going to Law School
 Looking back, I realize I did almost everything you are *not* supposed to do when considering law school as a career. As an undergraduate at UT Austin, I lived my life in blinders, focusing simply on getting the best grades I could without ever preparing for a practical career after graduation. I was a double major in Poli-Sci (called simply “Government” at UT) and Spanish Literature; basically the stereotypical aimless liberal arts student who applies to law school as a last resort. I was smart, or so I thought, and knew I needed more schooling if I ever wanted to find a job. Keep in mind, this was late 2007. The economy had not yet gone completely off the rails. At the time, it really seemed like law school was the best option for a realistic path to secure employment. I had never interned at a law office, nor had I ever worked for a lawyer. All I knew about being a lawyer came from watching Sam Waterston kick ass on Law & Order reruns. Which is to say, basically nothing.
 
Today’s legal market is very different from 2007. Jobs are hard to come by. Good jobs even more so. I tell everyone I meet who’s considering going to law school the very same thing: think twice. In today’s economy it simply isn’t worth it to take out six-figures in loans only to take a five-figure salary upon graduation. Any undergraduate thinking about law school should intern at law offices and get as much practical experience as they can. Getting a good LSAT score and maintaining a high GPA is a must; law school admissions is a cruel numbers game and, despite all the admissions deans will tell you, law schools really don’t care about the mythical “well-rounded” applicant. They want students with high GPA’s and LSAT scores to boost their school’s median standing in the US News and World Report ranking that comes out every year.
 
Do your homework. Work hard. Don’t take on too much debt. The advice sounds basic, but it isn’t meant to patronize. I arrived at law school with only a very limited understanding of what I had committed myself to doing. While I have no real regrets, I wouldn’t do it the same way if I had the chance to change things.
 
Law School
 I attended Vanderbilt University Law School, and graduated with the class of 2013. It was both the most arduous and the most rewarding decision of my life.
 
Law school life is nothing like undergraduate life. It’s more insular, for one. You find yourself socializing less and less with people outside your class. If you’re like me, a restless academic perfectionist, you’ll likely put intense pressure on yourself to prepare outlines for every class, reread every case, and spend more hours in the library than you do in your own bed. That was certainly my life in law school. The pressure to compete within your own class can be intense. Law school exam grading forces everyone onto a curve; you are literally competing against your classmates for the highest grade. If anyone wonders why lawyers are stereotyped as cynical knaves, it’s likely because we’re educated in shark tanks. My experience of law school was of feeling very, very dumb for the first time in my life. Every day. For three years.
 
Since I knew I couldn’t control how smart I was, I stopped worrying about it. Instead, I focused on what I *could* control: how hard I worked. So, for three years, I was little more than a drone. I treated law school like it was my job, and I treated that job like it was my life. It worked, I got the grades I wanted, but I was often deeply unhappy. Sometimes I’d feel like what Bilbo Baggins described as “too little butter spread over too much bread”; burning the candle at both ends for so long that it’s a small miracle I never had a breakdown. All of it motivated by my own fear of failure.
 
My advice would be just to relax. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Your classmates are all going to seem incredibly smart. There will be times when you’ll feel stupid and wonder why everyone else seems to be understanding things more quickly and effortlessly. It’s all an illusion. Law school is hard for everyone, but you shouldn’t lose sight of the things you like that make you a complete human being. Work out! Date! Watch sports! Do all the things that make you happy. Three years seems like an eternity, but it will eventually pass by quicker than you ever expect.
 
Life After Law School
 A law school graduate hardly has time to enjoy graduation before immediately having to stress about the bar exam. Everyone, and I really mean everyone, takes a prep course. I took Kaplan for the simple reason that it was cheaper than BarBri. That’s it. BarBri has the better reputation, but I liked Kaplan and was able to pass the Texas bar exam on the first try. Unlike the LSAT, which truly tests raw analytical intelligence/logic/reasoning, the bar exam is a straight up memorization test. Intelligence has nothing to do with it, only preparation. The closest thing I can compare to the experience of studying for the bar exam is to ask you to imagine memorizing a phone book, then being quizzed over names and numbers in random order for eight hours. You touch on a wide range of law, but do not delve into any particular topic very deeply. The bar exam is “a mile wide, but one foot deep”. It will not be a fun experience. You will become a surlier, grouchier version of yourself as the test date looms. That’s normal. Just keep treating bar exam study like you treated law school.
 
I currently work as an Assistant District Attorney in my home state of Texas. It is my dream job, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have a job I love and feel proud of. Many lawyers aren’t that lucky, and I know that all too well. I know, speaking for myself, that I chose a profession that both excites my passion and utilizes my best talents for writing, reasoning, and oratory. I knew I was attracted to criminal law because of the internships I did at state and federal prosecutors offices as a law student. Your summer jobs and internships are the best way to both network and discover your own legal talents.
 
In sum, I’m happy with my life. Happier than I ever was as a law student, frankly. It all gets better with time, and I’m happy to have had the chance to share these thoughts.
I followed up — why leave for Vanderbilt and not say, UT-Austin?
“If you can’t have the one you love, love the one you have.”

 JASON

Jason, presumably hard at work.
Jason, presumably hard at work.
Jason was one of my classmates at South Texas College of Law, a quiet individual who had kind words of advice whenever anyone needed it. He was and is also the biggest Game of Thrones fan in that entire cohort. He is currently a practicing attorney in the city.
He says:
So, you’re thinking about going to law school, and you’re wondering what to expect. As someone who recently completed the grind and now practices in the trenches, let me tell you a little bit about how the process works, and what to expect from it. The most obvious thing to expect from law school is that you’re going to be doing a lot of reading. I’m not talking fun reading either – I’m talking 150-year old opinions about railroads. It can be a real drag to have to dedicate hours each day to staying on top of the material, but it’s your responsibility to manage the workload. A law school class typically consists of recitation, meaning that you will be called upon by the professor to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the materials you read. This is harder than it sounds, but it gets easier over time.
Your first two semesters’ courses will have the most rigid structure and most unforgiving professors, and things get more informal and relaxed as you advance. What you are really getting out of this experience is threefold: Learning how to manage your time and resources effectively, learning the substantive and procedural rules, and learning to ‘think’ like a lawyer – how to argue for or against particular outcomes based on the rules and facts of a given situation. The most important thing you will learn from attending law school is what personal attributes you need to prevail in court. The first such attribute is to always be prepared. Proper preparation for what lies ahead is without a doubt the most important in the legal profession, and most mistakes made by lawyers – even extremely skilled and experienced ones – result from a lack of preparation.
It’s also very important to be well organized, so that you utilize your time in resources in the most effective manner possible. Lastly, never procrastinate. Putting off until tomorrow what one can do today is a recipe for disaster in both law school and real life practice. While many would probably argue that the aforementioned traits are innate, I can tell you definitively that they will be hammered into you during your time in law school. The real trick is learning to continue doing so after you finish law school as you study for the bar, and as you advocate on behalf of clients in the real world.
Lastly, it’s vitally important for you to get to know your classmates and professors. Whether you prefer to act as a lone wolf or lead your own study group, many of your cohorts will continue to practice with you for years or even decades after graduating, and maintaining positive relationships with them is extremely important for your career. Contrary to popular belief, most lawyering does not happen in the courtroom – it happens by email or phone, from one lawyer directly to another. Having a robust professional network enables you to stay informed on what’s new in the field and to get answers for difficult legal or ethical questions. I personally am of the opinion that every citizen of this nation should be given a crash course equivalent to the first year of law school, just so that they understand their rights and learn to think critically and analytically. I’d encourage anybody who is seriously considering law school to attend. But, like I said earlier, if you want to succeed, be it academically or professionally, you need to be prepared.

 


ASHLEY

Ashley, proving that law students are capable of smiling.
Ashley, proving that law students are capable of smiling.
 Ashley was another of my classmates at South Texas before she transferred over to Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Throughout our year together, she was an invaluable source of friendship, a hell of a wingwoman, and someone who approached life, fun, and work with near-reckless abandon. She is currently a 3L at the school.
The best advice I can give to someone beginning their first year of law school is to not feel guilty for being selfish. You will spend countless hours studying and writing to become the best attorney that you can be. You do not have time to feel guilty for not going to a friend’s birthday party or a family reunion. You have to be selfish or you will not have time to be a successful student and stress will consume your life. Also, seek out a 2nd or 3rd year student and become friends with them. Most upperclassmen want to help because they know what it is like to be where you are and it makes them feel important. They can provide a wealth of knowledge regarding class scheduling, internships, and outlines for your classes.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be extremely kind to the people that work in career services and in the administration. Bring them donuts and coffee randomly. These people will bend over backwards for you if you just put forth a little kindness and effort. This will be the best chance for you to get an internship while in school and a job after you pass the bar. Half of the battle is getting good grades and the other half is about who you know. Join law review. I repeat, join law review. I can not stress that enough. Most employers will not care how many organizations you were in, even if you were on the executive board. I can not tell you how many interviews I have been in where they glance at my resume and only notice my law review membership.

 HUGO

The author.
The author.

So, I think if we’re going to talk about law school successes, it’s also fair that I throw some dirt on myself. I was a student at South Texas College of Law from 2011-2012. I left after my first year through a (mostly) mutual decision between the school and me. I went from starry-eyed 1L who touched the bronze eagle outside of the school for good luck every day to a completely different person.

Everyone considers the first year the weeding out period in a law student’s career, and I was one of the victims of that scythe. There came a time when I realized, hey, maybe this isn’t for me. I grappled with that late into my second semester, feeling like an utter failure and a disappointment. Every night I fell asleep feeling like I was disappointing my friends, my family, and my community. This obviously was not true. My family, my friends, and my classmates from my alma mater had my back regardless of what I chose to do with my life.

But the feeling is there, you know?

And it’s okay to doubt yourself. No one expects you to be perfect. Get extra tutoring. Work through it, ask for help, seek professional resources if necessary. No one is going to think any less of you for that. Focus on what made you want to be there in the first place, find that hunger every morning when you wake up, and know that you got this. If you haven’t read Dune, consider reading the Litany of Fear to yourself:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. 

Or, you know, you can read a prayer or something else.

But it’s also okay to say, you know what, this isn’t for me. I struggled with that. I was heartbroken, but now, on the verge of finishing graduate school, I realize that it was the right thing in the long run. I eventually took my parents’ advice and stopped looking at the whole thing as a failure. I approached it as a learning experience instead. And boy, did I learn amazing things about the legal world under professors Corn, Moore and Kelso. (Constitutional Law is still one of my favorite things to talk about.)

And I learned a lot through my own classmates, who brought to the table their own fair share of experiences. I formed friendships over Disney musicals and soccer that I would have never made otherwise.

Would I take any of that back? Absolutely not.

But leaving also gave me the opportunity to only make more life-long friendships in the jobs that came after. Leaving allowed me to enroll in a graduate program that was actually right for me, and also allowed me the freedom to write, to be published, to do what I’ve always wanted to do.

Would I go back? Nope, because I’ve come to discover who and what I am. And lawyer isn’t that. Neither is doctor or soccer star (thank you, bum knees) or metal vocalist (can’t carry a tune in a bucket). And that’s okay (except the singing bit, #sorrynotsorry to whoever rides with me).

But here’s my own advice to you L1s or 1Ls: Prioritize. Get organized. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” as Professor Corn would put it.

Get plenty of sleep and exercise, even if it means you won’t be able to watch Netflix one night. Socialize. Eat healthy. Talk to professors. Reach out to people. Whatever emotions you are feeling, know you are not alone. Study. Study. Study. But don’t beat yourself up over the head if one weekend you decide — you know what, I need to watch a goddamn movie. It’s a competition, sure, but there’s no need to kill yourself over it.

Oh, and as relevant as most courses you take will be, the one I think is the most interesting is Con Law, since right now it’s more relevant than ever. After all, we’re dealing with the 14th amendment and gay marriage, and the Commerce Clause and legalization of marijuana.

So, I wish you Houston law students the best of luck, and hope that one of you remembers this in a time of need — because I’m going to need an IP lawyer at some point.

Hugo Esteban RC

"You can take the Mexican out of the Valley, but you can't take the Valley out of the Mexican. Writer, poet, interpreter."

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