1L student reflects on balancing work, life and law school

If you’ll be attending law school in the evenings while working during the day, and are searching for advice on how to succeed as an evening 1L from someone who has been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale -- hi! Being an evening law student felt markedly different from my undergraduate and master’s degree experiences, and I find that’s a universal observation. Before I started law school, I tried to map out hour-by-hour how I could fit work, classes, studying, life, sleep, and adulting into the 168 hours we each have per week. I had no idea if my estimates for time to study were realistic, but I knew that I needed to be savvy with my time, and set up systems that I’d have a good chance of following even when life outside of school was crazy.

I love data, so here’s how my studying hours panned out. Note: these are concentrated, intense hours of studying. On a weekend day that was mostly dedicated to studying, I could typically only manage 5 such hours. Under more extreme circumstances (like week 11, with two midterms and a big legal research & writing assignment due, I eked out more, still not exactly sure how). Pure will, I guess!

Fall study hours

The first semester of law school worked out well for me (and I survived the second semester, which went online and pass/fail), but I really didn’t understand what going to law school would be like until I was there. Before school started, reading advice books and posts from law students gave me hope that I too could do this law school thing. However, advice for traditional students dominated, since us evening students are vastly outnumbered. I hope this speaks to evening students who are now in the same boat that I was, not too long ago!

Caveat 1: Human Biases (Take/leave this advice as desired)

I, like everyone who’s not superhuman, look back on lots of my choices and think they were more amazing and purposeful than they were. Hey, we all gotta feel good about where we end up and how we got there, right? I might be giving more weight to the impacts of choices I’ve made than they merit. After all, I don’t have a counterfactual to point to (a parallel universe where I made different choices which corresponded to a different outcome). Some of what I did may not be relevant (or possible) for you, but the spirit/philosophy could be useful, and as much as possible, I will highlight my thought process alongside the execution. You might think I’m stupid for doing X. No biggie, hopefully Y or Z thing that I did will spark an interesting thought. The best outcome of all, though, is if you write something about your own experience as a law student, and share your advice with other rising 1Ls. More experiences shared + more dialogue = more knowledge and more power for prospective law students.

Caveat 2: What I Optimized For (My biases/background)

I did not go to law school with a burning desire to become an attorney, but rather because I wanted to learn about the law. I’m well-established in my career as a financial advisor, where I (in part) work with attorneys on tax and estate matters. I want to continue working in that capacity (but better, by bringing more value to my clients through my legal knowledge). Some of my optimization started before school began, some before I even applied: I decided to move back home to Boston, where I hadn’t lived for 12 years, so I only applied to the two schools there offering evening programs, and picked the one that gave me a full scholarship. I knew exactly the kind of financial firm I wanted to work at (a fee-only, financial planning-centric one), so narrowed my list to the 5 or so firms that fit the bill and were in geographic proximity to school, and ultimately began working at a firm within 15 minutes walking distance of New England Law. To further reduce commuting time, I chose an apartment within a few minutes of the school, trying to minimize both distance and cost. (A move further away is in my future for quality of life purposes, but this apartment was perfect for my first year juggling work and school.)

Because money is an extremely powerful tool, and I like having it, my job was my first priority, though I imposed very clear boundaries on my time. I didn’t work or check work email outside of my core hours (8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.). Time and money savings informed my one-time big decisions (where I lived, worked, and went to school), but I tried to free up time through my smaller choices as well. My office has a culture of eating lunch at your desk, so I’d get groceries, run to CVS, or handle an errand during lunch when possible. Since I’d finally moved back home after 12 years away, I was beyond eager to spend more than just holidays, long weekends, and vacations with friends. My brain was melted by Friday evenings after the end of a school and work week, so I only worked on Fridays around finals and midterms, otherwise preferring to hang out with friends (or have quality relaxation time at home). I’d typically have one or two other get-togethers with friends each weekend, except during crunch time around finals and midterms. I failed spectacularly at consistently exercising, so eagerly accepting any and all advice on that. Finally, my husband and I had been together for 10.5 years before I started law school, so I was fortunate to have an amazing person in my corner, supporting me (though at times from a distance, as he lived in a different state.) I used to read around 50 books a year, and now read about five. C’est la vie!

Summer, Orientation, and First Weeks

I (attempted to) read a bunch of books in the summer before starting:

  •   1L of a Ride - Andrew McClurg
  •   Law School Confidential - Robert Miller
  •   Getting to Maybe - Fischl & Paul
  •  Learning Legal Reasoning - Delaney
  •   How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams - Delaney

The first two, which are light and talk about what attending school is generally like, made me feel better prepared for what was to come, and introduced me to some terms and concepts (like clerkships, law review, and briefing). Very helpful for someone with no law background, but I think the benefit was more psychological than anything else. The rest of the books, I started reading but couldn’t finish. They were dense. I culled this list of five books from many other advice posts, and now share the general sentiment that summer is for getting mentally and organizationally ready for school, and that nothing you read will give you any measurable advantage over other students.

At orientation, I was an eager beaver. I dutifully briefed the couple of case summaries that were provided. And then ... I felt like a giant idiot when my brief didn’t contain a bunch of the information our professor highlighted as the important parts of the case. This is very normal, and I promise that if this also happens to you, you won’t feel clueless for too long if you work to change that. Stepping back: cases are brought to court, and judges make a decision about the outcome by analyzing the facts and how the current law applies to them. Future cases (and the lawyers who choose whether to bring them) rely on this past precedent, and more importantly, the logic behind the court’s decisions, to understand how things may go for their client. Briefing is the process of pulling out certain relevant parts of the case, such as the procedural history, the legal rule the case established, the reasoning behind it, and the facts of the case. In theory, briefing a case allows you to understand the salient points and be equipped to apply what you’ve learned to other situations. It can also take a long time, and ultimately you’re graded on your ability to take a final exam, and not on briefing cases, so there is contention on whether briefing is worthwhile.

Many of the assigned readings in the first week included detailed overviews of the trial process, and I dutifully took copious notes (on an old ipad, which I nixed in favor of handwritten notes after two weeks). The readings had little case stories, which I read and took no notes on. (No assignments said to specifically brief the cases!) In my first class, the professor started asking lots of questions about the cases. With a cold sweat, I realized I should have focused on those couple paragraphs, since the professor didn’t seem to care about any of the background content. And that simple case? I realized I’d be unable to recall the specific details without having notes prepared. So, I attempted to write a mini-brief right then and there, as I sat in class, wondering if my professor could sense my dread. Fortunately, enough classmates were excited to share their thoughts, and I never got called on that day.

I spent a lot of time on the readings in the first week, trying to properly brief the cases. I would miss small details that hadn’t seemed important when considering the broader result of the case, and simultaneously wouldn’t stretch the application far enough. I’d understand how to evaluate a future case that was really similar to the one in the reading, but didn’t feel comfortable speculating about how a largely dissimilar case would play out. Some of that, I believe, is a natural part of starting law school. With more cases read, and more questions asked by professors, you build an understanding of what information you should seek out during the case reading. That makes you faster, and that allows your brain to put more energy into the ‘why’ of the case’s outcome. Of course, as you read more cases, you have more heuristics to rely on to evaluate the outcome in a hypothetical case (which you’ll probably have to do on your exams).

First Semester - Systems for Studying

Daniel Coyne has a short book, The Talent Code, with a powerful thesis. He posits that we become good at doing things by building connections in our brains, and these neural pathways strengthen with use, as myelin builds them up. Doing the same activity with different focuses, reviewing information in different ways (reading, writing, describing, conversing with someone, highlighting), all of that builds our capacity and makes us better at our work. I would think about this (and visualize my neural connections getting stronger) as I studied, and so constructed a system to efficiently learn the law.

I tracked my assignments in a weekly planner (and tracked my time spent doing homework by using the stopwatch on my cell phone). As I did the reading, I would highlight the key parts of a case (what happened at various levels of the court, the outcome, the issue being adjudicated, the logic behind the rule, pertinent facts). Nothing fancy, all in one color. The goal here was to read with purpose, find what matters, and to make my next review of the case easier, as I could look only at the highlighted parts and ignore the rest. Then, after reading the case and any subsequent textbook notes, I would write (with black pen, on paper) a mini-brief. One summary sentence of all the facts, one sentence for procedural history, and a sentence or two about the issue in question, and what the court decided (and why).

In some cases, this required labeling each part of my mini-brief. Others were straightforward and shorter. I cared about the substance, not the format. The goal was to force myself to understand the information by condensing it even further from what was highlighted, and to burn it into my brain through the action of writing. Ultimately, I wanted to be able to concisely answer my professor’s question about the case in class, and have the core information to answer further questions. I also wanted to limit any note-taking during class, so I could instead focus on the substance of the conversation and pick up any nuances I’d missed, rather than scribbling notes. I felt this would make class more enjoyable, and I wanted less pressure since I’d be in class after what was already a full day of work.

In addition to mini-briefs for the cases in assigned readings, I wanted to also prepare myself for finals as much as I could in advance. Sadly, my busy time as a financial planner lines up exactly, and horribly, with the ends of semesters: November/December and April/May. For Torts and Contracts, nearly every weekend, starting after the fourth week of classes, I would pull up the class slides, my notes (where any additions I made during class were in blue ink, so I could distinguish them), and any class materials provided by the professor, and condense it into an outline. I went to office hours for both classes, once, to ask about my outlining technique (before I got too far in the wrong direction). My professors emphasized that outlines are individual, but that they seemed alright. My academic excellence professor thought my outlines didn’t focus enough on the thought processes the judges had in reaching a verdict, but ultimately I didn’t make any significant changes to my process of outlining because I couldn’t figure out what to do with this feedback.

I struggled with replicating this process for Civil Procedure, and ultimately didn’t. Ultimately, I outlined once classes ended, and relied mostly on the free Barbri 1L online lectures, free Barbri Civil Procedure outline, and free CALI online exercises. I ultimately came to understand the content well, but it was painful and I think ultimately burned me out for studying for other finals (which were later). So, I’m far from perfect - but I didn’t need to be perfect in order to do well in the first semester. My process of outlining each week worked better in classes with more structure, because that’s the teaching style that resonates more with me as a student.

First Finals

I was shell-shocked and elated to be done and frankly a bit depressed at how exams went by the time I streamed into a bar along with many of my classmates after our last final of the first semester. We did it! I felt like one of my finals went horribly, one pretty horribly, and one really well. The week of finals and the one preceding it were rough - and my well-meaning and wonderful coworkers kept congratulating me on being done with the semester during finals week, and I’d have to tell them I still had more exams to take. Our exams were during the same time slots as classes (so, starting at 6pm after a full workday), and we were able to hand-write them or use exam software.

Finals were a blur of madly typing things, re-reading paragraphs in the prompts many times and retaining nothing, looking at the time on my laptop and panicking about how little time was left and how poorly I’d used the preceding 10 minutes. When I re-read what I wrote towards the end of the exam time, fortunately nothing seemed as stupid or illogical or needlessly repetitive as I was sure it would be (can you tell I set high standards for myself?). My brain, as I wrote my exam answers, felt like it wasn’t doing novel thinking, but reverting back to the patterns I’d studied in cases in class. Speaking of studying - my technique was first to create a master document, with bullets for each exam containing my “to study” steps in sequential order. I included re-reading my outline, exercises, past final exams to take, midterm exams to review, and anything else I thought would be useful to cementing my knowledge. It didn’t take too long to put together (maybe an hour) but helped immensely because whenever I would study, I didn’t need to think about where to start, I could just revisit my list (which got adjusted over time as needed).

My grades didn’t line up with my horrible impressions of exams, which I think is a good reminder that to do well you don’t need to have a perfect and flawless exam. One thing I’d suggest, is to stay away from people who are discussing the exams after they’re done. Their debriefing isn’t going to make their grades any better, and their comments will probably make you feel worse, even if ultimately you did fine. Also, I feel confident in saying that you shouldn’t and can’t draw conclusions about how anybody did with their grades, unless they tell you themselves, or assume anything about someone’s intelligence or work ethic based on their first-semester grades. Your grades in the first semester are just that. If they’re not what you wanted, it’s a matter of figuring out what to change and adjust in the next seven semesters. And, if you had the best grades ever and are first in your class (that’s not me), there will still be a lot of work in the next seven semesters as you have new professors and subjects. First semester is just the start. I hope that sounds more comforting than demoralizing.

Second Semester

...Went not at all as planned. COVID-19 and all of its impacts are so wide-reaching and affected me and all of my classmates in unique ways. I’m just proud of everyone who went through law school, and dealt with classes going online, in the middle of the pandemic. It was hard and unprecedented, and everyone (professors, school staff, and students) did what they needed to in order to get through it, and I’m impressed by the amount of grace people extended to each other in my law school community. But I can’t pretend that I have any advice to give. Or that it wasn’t a mostly-miserable experience. I did track my hours - on average, my studying was 10.2 hours per week, as compared to 12.3 hours in the first semester (or 12.2 hours during the first 6 weeks of the second semester, before classes went online). So, even though I dutifully did the readings and wrote mini-briefs and added to my outlines each week and tried to understand the legal concepts, clearly there’s a difference in how much studying went. Let’s just say I hope it’s possible to safely attend class in-person next fall, along with ensuring all students can continue attending classes online, and that we collectively as a society let scientific findings and recommendations guide our actions.

Spring study hours

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