Are we there yet? A road map for your IL year

By Alexandra Sumner

When your smartphone dies mid-car trip, you know you’re in trouble. For one thing, you can’t call for help if something goes wrong. For another, with your trusty GPS gone, you now have no idea where you’re going. Sure, you’re on the highway going in the right direction (North? Yeah, we need to go north. Or was it east?) but once you break out the compass you might as well pull over.

Your 1L year is a lot like driving without a smartphone. You’ve got a full tank of gas, new tires, and even an oil change. You know where you’d like to end up but are not exactly sure of the best route to get there.

Here’s where I, as a recent law school graduate, come in. Below is a roadmap of key 1L landmarks and opportunities. With it, you’ll be able to navigate the tough road ahead and reach your destination without too much wear and tear on your treads.

So, ladies and gentleman, start your engines.

A few things first: I’ve organized the roadmap under a 12 week semester, leaving two extra weeks at the end of each term for finals. The majority of the advice here concerns what you should do during the substantive weeks, rather during “crunch time.”

When it comes to studying for finals, the key is to study the way you always have. Finals are not the time for new methods or experimental ideas. Playing a contracts audiobook as you sleep probably won’t help you retain much information, so don’t bank on that.

Be sure to give yourself enough time to work through your outline and any practice questions you have access to but don’t work so hard that you burn yourself out. This really isn’t a situation where you should embody the phrase: “The candle that burns the brightest only lasts half as long.”

Finally, I have organized each semester under a general theme. By keeping each in mind, it will be a lot easier to focus your efforts toward an attainable goal, rather than just treading water. In law school’s “sink or swim” mentality, why not float?


Fall Semester: Survive.

I have to be blunt: Your first semester of law school is the hardest. End of story. The amount of reading you’re required is do is so sweeping you may blurt out in desperation: “Alexa, how can I purchase a second set of eyes?” Chances are, it will leave you mentally and physically drained each night. Your main goal here will be to survive.

Do as much of the readings as you can, review your notes after class and make sure to turn any assignments in on time. That, and all the other stuff I’ll mention below. (Nobody said this would be easy.)

Before Week 1: Buy your textbooks and do all the preliminary assignments you are given. Be sure to check your school’s canvas/blackboard page and print out any syllabi or supplemental materials posted online.

Read them. Read them again. Make a note of any important dates or quizzes and mark them in your planner. Figure out your schedule, making time for study groups, physical exercise and down time. We’re in this for the long haul here.

Weeks 1 & 2: Get yourself situated. Start reading ahead. Building in a buffer early in the semester will help you later on when you’re tired and want to take a day off. Start writing case briefs for each class; there are plenty of examples online.

That may seem like a waste of time now, but you’re not doing this to memorize each piece of case law. You’re doing it to help you quickly identify parts and issues of a case. Your first brief might take you an hour, but by the end of the year you’ll be able to churn one out in under 20 minutes. Talk about measurable progress.

Weeks 3: Scheduling week. Go over all your syllabi and notes and make a chart of: (1) the dates/times of your finals, (2) the test type, and (3) how each of your final grades is determined. Print the chart out and put it up somewhere you can look at it regularly.

Also, keep up with your reading and briefing. Start your outline by using your notes for the past three weeks to create a skeleton of your class outline. If you have trouble making one from scratch, look over some online outlines by top bar prep providers and use their headings and organization. From there, filling in what you’ve learned will be a breeze. Continue doing this for the rest of the semester.

Week 6: Purchase supplements. No, not collagen or vitamin D. I’m speaking of law supplements. Check your syllabus to see if your professor has recommended any specific types. Buy them. If not, ask your professor what he/she recommends or review the supplement section of your school’s library to see which brand of book you find most helpful.

Weeks 9-10 Turn up the heat. Start reading your supplements, make sure your outlines are up to date, and begin researching and completing practice questions. If you have time, consider reading ahead and trying to complete your semester assignments early, so you give yourself more study time for finals. On the side, meet with someone in your school’s career services department for a resume review. (We’ll need that later.) Focus most of your energy on school during these final weeks. It’s difficult, but do-able.

Week 12: Finish what you started. Complete any missing or skipped assignments and begin identifying which areas will be on the final exam. If you have an issue understanding an area of law (like the Rules Against Perpetuities or the Erie Doctrine) look online for helpful resources.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Make sure to identify key areas where you need improvement and highly tested subjects. Start studying for finals.

Spring Semester: Network.

So you made it through your first semester, but you likely don’t have your grades back yet. I know it’s frustrating. In my second year we didn’t get our fall grades back until the end of February! This semester is all about networking. Grades are important, but connections are even better.

Repeat all the steps for weeks 1-12 mentioned above, cutting out anything you feel is excessive or no longer necessary (like brief writing or buying supplements.) Your biggest task for this semester is to ensure that you have a summer job after finals. To do that, you’re going to have to cast a big net.

Here are some steps that can make that happen: (1) Join a local bar association; (2) join a school club or organization; (3) start applying for on-campus interview jobs (OCI) using your school’s intranet system; (4) sign up for a local mentoring group either in your local bar association or through the school; (5) volunteer, either pro bono or doing something wholly unrelated to the law; (6) review potential internships or externships for the upcoming fall semester (try to apply early); and (7) determine if you’d like to try out for law review or moot court.

Sounds like a lot? There’s a method to the madness. When thinking about networking, the idea is this: You’re already running the race, why not get as many people as possible cheering you on from the stands?

Roadmap in hand and luggage packed in the backseat, you are ready to begin this journey. You know the important landmarks to look out for and the potholes to avoid. Don’t take your eyes off the road though, because while the destination is promising, the journey might surprise you.

Alexandra Sumner is a recent gradaute of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.