7 Tips for the first semester of law school

In the last post, I shared some tips for getting through the first week of law school. Now that you’ve done that, here are some global tips to help with the first semester of law school.

1. Cultivate a “Growth” mindset

There’s an old adage that some of us were subjected to growing up, “whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

Thanks to Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset, specifically whether a person operates from a “growth” mindset or a “fixed” mindset, we know that the quote has a solid kernel of truth to it. A person’s mindset refers to the beliefs s/he/they hold about intelligence and learning. People operating from a “fixed” mindset believe you’ve either “got it” or you don’t. People operating from a “growth” mindset understand that with effort it is possible to learn new things and expand one’s abilities.

You came to law school because you believed with instruction and training you can become a lawyer. Hold on to that belief and nurture it in the days and weeks ahead. And yes, you need to actively nurture this belief because you are going to be inundated with people expressing thoughts representative of a fixed mindset.

When you encounter some of the hard new things law school asks you to do, if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do this,” add “, yet” to the end of that thought. “I can’t do this, yet.”

2. Embrace Discomfort

Building off the idea that you will have to acknowledge you can’t do certain things yet, you need to embrace discomfort. A well-run program of legal education is going to cause discomfort because it is asking you to grow beyond your current abilities and to learn new things you can’t just stumble upon in day-to-day life.

Where this discomfort comes from is going to vary tremendously from person-to-person. Some people are going to experience discomfort because they realize they haven’t learned certain skills as well as they thought they had (e.g., reading critically, writing, etc.). Others are going to experience discomfort because they’re learning new and unpleasant facts about the world around us and how we’ve built society. Others are going to experience discomfort because they’re having to acculturate into a new set of social norms and preferences. That’s just three of the obvious sources of discomfort a law student may experience, there are a lot more.

Learn to embrace the discomfort so that you can open the door to your own growth.

3. Be Curious

Practice curiosity. Curiosity transforms a “to-do” list into a “get to do” list. Curiosity helps us figure out new ways to do things (new-to-us at least). Curiosity is a thread that helps us draw connections between things we already know and the things we want to learn.

Moreover, curiosity facilitates building relationships with new people. Who really likes conversing to someone who only talks about themselves and never asks questions of the conversational partner?

By practicing curiosity, we can remove judgmental thoughts that erect barriers between a person and learning.

Practicing curiosity can start very simply with the words, “I wonder ….”

4. Embrace the slog

Curiosity will help you sustain the motivation to complete this journey. And fostering a growth mindset and embracing discomfort will help you continue to put forth the effort required to learn and to grow. But, make no mistake, law school requires sustained effort so that you can incorporate all the things you need to learn into yourself.

You’re acquiring knowledge about the legal system and the various rules of law that have grown over time. You’re building skills for writing to and conversing with legal professionals. You’re acquiring a new culture of lawyering norms and customs. You’re learning a set of ethics to layer on top of the rules of morality you already hold. You will emerge from law school a different person than the person you are today.

All of those things require a certain amount of drudgery. Showing up and doing work that is probably not inherently fun. So, there will be points of slog during the journey, but they are necessary to reach the results you are hoping for.

5. Cultivate habits & systems to mitigate future crises

Emergencies and catastrophes crop up; it’s part of life. Part of your personal and professional development during law school is to build habits and systems to minimize the disruption future you will experience around emergencies and catastrophes.

Habits are the things you can do without thinking about them because they are so engrained in the routine of your life. Systems are the things that ensure the non-habitual activities occur at appropriate times and places.

Habits also enable you to harness the power of cumulative or compounding effects towards your future needs.

One example of cumulative effects work is how the reading habits of K-12 children tend to be determinative of their results on standardized exams later in life. A child who reads an average of 20 minutes per day is going to consume nearly 2 million words per year. A child who reads an average of 5 minutes per day is going to consume nearly 300K words per year. A child who reads on average 1 minute per day only consumes 8,000 words per year. Once you multiply those habits by the 13 years of K-12 education its easy to see why 20 min/day child is scoring in the 90th percentile (s/he has consumed more than 23 million words of information), the 5 min/day child is scoring in the 50th percentile (s/he has consumed 3.7 million words of information), and 1 min/day child is scoring in the 10th percentile (s/he has consumed just 104,000 words of information). The 1 min/day child hasn’t even encountered words that are part of the other two children’s vocabulary.

*** Since law students are mostly younger individuals who have not yet made certain family-planning decisions, consider this my plea that should your future include children, you read with them daily and encourage other parents within your circles of influence to do so as well. We ALL benefit from a literate, numerate, and scientifically adept populace.***

Bringing it back to law school – having good reading habits, good information processing habits, and personal care habits will make it a lot easier for future lawyer you to deal with the stressors of working in this profession. Having good systems so you can recover dropped balls will also make future you’s life easier.

6. Prioritize Sleep

While the previous point implied that good nutritional and exercise habits are a worthwhile thing to continue or to cultivate in law school, I want to be explicit about making it clear that cultivating good sleeping habits are essential to both your law school success and your longevity in the profession.

While our conscious mind may remember next to nothing about the hours we spend sleeping, very important things are happening in our bodies and our minds. If we short change ourselves of sleep, we limit our body’s immune system’s ability to keep us healthy. Moreover, sleep deprivation limits our brain’s ability to consolidate memories and encode learning into long term memory. Disordered sleep has also been linked to various forms of emotional distress. If severe enough, sleep deprivation can lead to psychomotor & judgment impairments as severe as driving drunk, or even trigger a psychotic episode. Chronic sleep deprivation also contributes to other physical health conditions, mental illness issues, and emotional problems.

Now that the highlights of the parade of horribles from sleep deprivation has been covered, let’s look at what sleep DOES for you. A good night’s sleep generally resets your emotions back to a “normal” or “neutral” set point. A good night’s sleep also gives your body time for all the cellular-level work that goes into repairing itself and keeping the immune system functioning properly. A good night’s sleep lets the neurons in your brain practice firing so that the things you need to remember get retained and the things you can forget get pruned away. In short, good sleep makes your brain work more efficiently.

The average adult needs somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per day. You’ll have to do some experimentation to figure out what your magic number of hours of sleep is to keep yourself healthy, happy, and learning. Some people just need one big chunk of overnight sleep. Others may need a large overnight block and a nap. The precise timing and configuration of sleep will vary from person to person. There is no moral value inherent in being a morning-lark, or a night owl, or a permanently exhausted pigeon. If your brain works better from 4a to 8a for self study, then as long as your circumstances allow, sleep from 7pm-ish to 3:45 and study from 4a to 8a; if your brain works better from 4p to 8p, then you can consider sleeping from 11pm-ish to 7:00. Prioritizing sleep doesn’t necessarily mean doing it at the socially sanctioned time.

Once you figure out your particularities, protect your sleep times and your sleep spaces.

7. Remember to have fun

It may be daunting to realize you’ve signed up for reading a couple hundred pages of dense material every week. Reading through this post it may be fearsome to consider that you are embarking on a transformative course of education that is going to fundamentally change the way you think about the world. But here’s a truth to consider too — things worth having require effort. The world needs lawyers. You started off with a desire to be one, and if you made it into law school, absent some really bad luck or poor decisions, you’ve got what it takes to get through and become a lawyer.

But at the end of the day, lawyers are people first and lawyers second. Lawyers have all the same human needs that nonlawyers have. We need shelter, sustenance, and socialization.

So, work hard, but block off some time for play and find the play in the work you’re doing. Learning to do difficult things well brings its own kind of joy and satisfaction to help sustain us through the less pleasant parts of the process.