Half way through my second year of law school I drafted a list of 10 pieces of advice that I would give to anyone entering their first year. I passed this list on to between 5-10 people, and everyone seemed to appreciate it. After not having thought about the list for a few years someone who had heard of it recently asked me for it. It took me a fair bit of time searching through old Facebook messages to locate the list, so I decided to publish it here so that if I was ever asked again I could easily find my recommendations.
Remarkably, while I have updated the rationale behind each suggestion, my recommendations for people entering first year law remain the same now as they did when I was a second year law student.
So here they are.
1) You Control How Intense Law School Is
First year law school is intense. There are typically mandatory year long courses, most of which are graded almost exclusively on a final exam. You will be surrounded by some of the smartest people that you have ever met and will (depending on the school) be graded on a curve against them. There will be a flurry of electives that you can choose from and if you’ve gone abroad for school it could be difficult to not become fully immersed in the study of law.
However, law school is only as intense as you want it to be. You could spend thirty hours a week in the library or just use other people’s summaries. For every student spending their weekend reading dozens of cases there is another student probably doing just as well who is rock climbing having just read a ten sentence summary of each case.
I am not recommending one approach or the other. All I am saying is that you have a choice. You control how intense law school is.
2) Be Prepared for Class
Most law school classes are taught by incredibly engaged and smart individuals. I cannot remember having had any bad professors at either the University of Toronto (where I graduated from), the University of British Columbia (where I did a letter of permission for a semester), or Central European University (where I did an exchange).
Assuming that you enjoy learning about the law, and you probably should question why you are in law school if you aren’t interested in the law (but that’s a separate topic about whether you should go to law school, not advice for your first year there), then you will enjoy your classes even more if you are prepared for them.
The importance of being prepared is not only to avoid looking foolish if your professor uses the socratic method. You will get more out of class discussions if you know what is being discussed.
If you are not going to read a case before class, then you should at least read a summary of it. At every law school that I went to senior students were always happy to pass along USBs with case summaries and notes from previous classes. I imagine that such information is now even available online.
3) Don’t Ask People What they Got on the LSAT
Never ask someone what score they got on the LSAT or what their mark was in a course.
I was never asked these questions at UofT. When I did one semester for my third year of law at UBC I was asked a few times what my LSAT score was. It was annoying.
4) Don’t Give Legal Advice…
As soon as you are in law school people are likely going to come to you for legal advice. When I was in first year law school friends and family approached me with questions on topics ranging from basic criminal stuff, landlord issues, pre-nups, vehicle accidents and even on setting up tax minimization schemes.
At the time I did my best to provide whatever assistance I could, always with the caveat that I was only a law student and probably didn’t know what I was talking about. Having now taken and taught legal ethics I now realize what a bad idea even this was.
Put simply, if you don’t understand how confidentiality works in joint representation scenarios for people who haven’t signed retainer agreements then you shouldn’t be giving legal advice.
5) … But Do Fight Injustice
Having said that, within a few weeks or months after starting first year law school you will also start to realize how ignorant many laypeople are of how the law, and how others (sometimes innocently) take advantage of this ignorance.
You will look start looking at agreements between people differently. If you rent, or have friends who do, then you will likely be especially stunned with what some landlords attempt to get away with.
You may not be a lawyer yet. But that doesn’t mean that where you do know what you’re talking about and understand legal ethics that you should let yourself or others be taken advantage of.
The help that you give can be as simple as spotting an issue and referring someone to the appropriate person who can help.
6) First Year Exams
Don’t make any vacation plans for the last two weeks of March and first two weeks of April during your first year of law school. Those weeks may be the worst and most boring weeks of your life.
Having said that, many years later the only thing that I remember about first year exams was that I preferred the three hour exams to twenty-four hour ones, and that an impromptu dance party broke out in my residency quad while we were studying on a Saturday night. It didn’t impact my mark.
7) You’ll get a Job
The profession of law breeds career insecurity, much of it pushed down from the top.
First year law school comes with a bizarre obsession and pressure about getting a job. Whether it is from your school or the big firms that dominate the private practice recruitment process, you will start feeling pressure to find summer job(s) and articles within the first few months of your first year. I do not think that there is any other profession in the world that pushes such uncertainty and insecurity about getting a job to people almost immediately after they start an educational program.
When I first wrote this list of recommendations getting a job as a lawyer was admittedly easier then than it seems to be now. I am not going to pretend that everyone who graduates from law school will get a job in law as soon as they graduate.
At the same time, having seen how fulfilling the careers are for my former law school colleagues who either left the practice of law or never started in it, I believe more than ever that law students should not let the pressure to find articles plunge them into depression.
8) Determine the Kind of Person You Want to Be
You should determine early on what kind of person you want to be both in law school and after.
Are you willing to say “no” to something you really want to do in order to study for a few more hours? If you decide that you will put off doing what you like and missing important events while you are in law school, then you are laying the mental groundwork for doing the same thing during your career, and are setting yourself up for a solitary and lonely adulthood.
9) Keep an open mind
Some people go into law school knowing exactly what type of law they want to practice.
Others don’t have a clue.
Then there are people who thought they knew what area they wanted to work in without actually having a clue what the day to day practice of that area is like.
When I went to law school I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor. Volunteering at a criminal defence clinic turned me off criminal law (although as an immigration lawyer I sometimes feel like I am practicing quasi-criminal law in a regulatory regime with far less procedural safeguards). At the start of second year law school I had no clue what I wanted to do. I then took a course on insolvency law. Then an advanced course. I even won the Insolvency Institute of Canada’s annual student writing competition and had a paper published in a law journal. By the time that I started articles I was sure that I was going to be an insolvency lawyer. But then I did a tax evasion file. Boom. Now I knew what I really wanted to do. Then the tax litigator that I was working for said that given my interests in certain files that I should consider immigration law.
And now I’m a partner at one of Vancouver’s largest immigration law firms. I have a blog and a podcast on the topic, and will soon be wrapping up a two year stint as the Chair of the Canadian Bar Association of British Columbia’s Immigration Section.
If you had told me when I started law school that this is what I would be doing I wouldn’t have believed you.
So if you’re unsure of what type of lawyer you want to be, don’t worry. Most of those who say that they do probably will be as surprised as I was where their career took them.
10) Appreciate How Fortunate You are to be Studying Law
We live in a society where ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. Yet, there are not any real opportunities to study law unless you first complete an undergraduate degree and do very well on a standardized logic test.
For me the study of law was an exercise in unlearning alot of my previously held assumptions about the world. My staunchly held but undeveloped opinions were replaced by a greater understanding of how complicated most issues are.
Concurrent with your textbook studies you will have the opportunity to participate in fascinating extracurricular programs. During my first year of law school I represented someone charged with domestic assault in criminal court, wrote briefs on behalf of injured workers seeking compensation, and facilitated legal workshops in high schools.
It still seems remarkable that I was able to do any of the things at the age of 22, just because I was in first year law.