This week we welcome back guest writer Alexandra Muskat to talk about dealing with the adjustment to law school as a 1L.
The first few weeks of law school are over for many of you, and I’m sure that the “out-of-water” feeling is starting to set in. When I first started school, I was totally overwhelmed by the feeling that something was wrong. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety and couldn’t comprehend why I had decided to put myself through this experience. I also had an incredible bout of imposter syndrome – I constantly felt like someone was going to pull off the shroud around me and decree to my classmates that I was a fraud.
During my first semester of law school, I felt out of place. My classmates seemed to have an interest in our lessons that I did not share. They also seemed to know all the answers before the professors even finished their questions. I didn’t understand how any of my classmates were so confident. It felt like a sham to me. I felt so far behind them that it was incredible to me I’d even gotten into school. In fact, I was convinced that I was going to fail out and be a laughing stock.
In all honesty, this fish-out-of-water feeling didn’t disappear completely until I started my second year, but it did begin to abate during the second semester. I wish I had had the tools to combat it back then, but I didn’t. I hope these tips will help you if you find yourself feeling like you don’t belong and your classmates are far ahead of you in experience.
Everyone is Posturing
I had read before starting school, the different types of law students and how they behaved. But what I didn’t realize is that everyone would be posturing. Every single classmate behaved as if they knew everything, and this characteristic does not fade until at least a year after the bar exam.
So, if you are worried that you are so far behind and can’t understand why your classmates are having an easier time answering questions – well most of them are on Quimbee looking up the cases and presenting their answers in question form (I figured this out when I switched to sitting in the back of the class and could observe their computers).
If you’re worried, they really do know better, and you aren’t getting the same information from the case – go discuss it with your professor. I promise, professors, most of them anyway, really want you to understand the material and really want to discuss it with you during office hours. For my civil procedure midterm, I thought I knew what determined domicile. I explained it to a classmate, who promptly told me I was wrong and explained why she was right. I believed her, felt terrible about my inability to understand the law, wrote my answer on the exam to reflect what the classmate had explained, and got no points for my answer – because it had been wrong and my original understanding of domicile had been correct. I stopped asking my classmates for help and started emailing my professors, carefully explaining what I was understanding and asking for clarification.
Additionally, everyone will lie about their grades. Do not feel bad about sharing yours, or being bombarded with your classmates’ exclamations that they did better. Most of the time, they are just trying to make themselves feel better. Alternatively, don’t feel bad if you did do well if you studied in your own way. I once had a classmate ream me out for getting a higher grade on our Constitutional Law midterm because she stayed at school to study and I went home after classes.
Now that I’ve just filled you with dread that everyone in school lies, I want to remind you that this posturing is to make themselves feel better, and they are still good people. The quickest way to feel less out of place is to make friends. Or at least acquaintances. Having someone to smile and say good morning to, or sit with at lunch, can make you feel more at home.
This may sound daunting, but law school is a really easy place to make friends because you’re with the same eighty to a hundred people all day long, every day, for a year. Most of the people from law school I still speak to, were in my 1L section. Say hello to your seat mates, and they’ll inevitably become your lunch buddies.
Seek Help if You Need it
I am not ashamed to say that after two weeks of school, and this feeling of overwhelm, I put myself into therapy. My school had a great wellness center located across the street, and I spent once a week for a month (until I found a permanent therapist) visiting the psychology department. It was wonderful, and probably the biggest thing that helped me adjust.
There is a stigma in law school, and the legal profession, that lawyers should be tough and shouldn’t need therapy. But the truth is, lawyers, and law students, have a specific personality trait – it’s what leads us to law school. This trait can be characterized as a Type A personality. We are organized, we are diligent, we are specific, and we are relentless. These characteristics are amazing, and have the potential to help so many people, but they are also dangerous in that they can lead to feeling inadequate when they can’t be achieved.
Many law students feel like if they aren’t achieving all their goals, getting straight As, writing for law review and crushing it in moot court while interning for a Chief Justice and working for legal aid, then they’ve failed. So they take any means to achieve this – which is why the legal profession has some of the highest levels of substance abuse of any profession.
Fight the stigma and seek help if this feeling of overwhelm or being a fish out of water does not abate. Learn tools to change how you are feeling about school, and about your peers. Make friends, forget what everyone says about their grades, figure out how to believe in yourself, and you will go far.
Law school is very hard. It’s time consuming and it will make you feel like you don’t belong. But if you try to combat that fear and overwhelm, you’ll soar through it. My first month, I didn’t think I’d make it through. By the second semester, I felt better, but after my summer internship, where I really learned to write and conduct legal research, I felt like I belonged and my fear dissipated. I wish I had felt that way during my first year, and I hope the tips above will help you.