Monday, July 15, 2019

What I Wish I Would've Known Before Law School


Two months ago I walked across the stage where I shook hands with my University's President and received a piece of paper signifying the most important accomplishment of my life thus far - my Juris Doctor degree. That's right, folks! I'm a lawyer now. While I am very thrilled to be in this new phase of life, I can't help but think about where I was just a few years ago. . .


When I started law school, I was newly 21 years old, fresh out of college, with my dreams and my cardigan - just like Miley taught me. I remember spending the summer before law school endlessly searching for blogs with any tips or advice for how to handle the brand new adventure that was waiting for me in law school. I researched diligently, and felt like I was entering law school extremely prepared. And for the most part, that was true. I generally knew what was going on and what would happen, plus I had a few good study tips ready to try out.

Unfortunately, despite my diligent research, law school had a few life lessons waiting for me. Like any big adventure, law school came with its own set of difficulties. And those difficulties taught me a few things during my three year journey to my JD. So, I thought I'd write a list of things I wish I would've known before law school, as if I were writing to my younger self.

The Biggest Key to Success is Taking Care of Yourself

I learned this lesson in the hardest way. During my 1L year, I had a full blown breakdown in January that involved me getting on a plane and flying away. Seriously. I had done extremely well during my first semester of school academically, ranking in the top 10% of my class. Unfortunately, that academic success came at the sacrifice of my own mental and physical health. Luckily, with a not-so-gently push from my family and friends, I took the time to learn about taking care of myself and fostering a postive mental health environment, and really began to thrive.

My grades weren't as top notch as they were first semester, but I ended law school in the top 25% of my class and started actually enjoying my life in law school as well. I made tons of friends that I already miss so much, got a job I'm super excited about, and made it out of law school in one piece. Had I not learned to take care of myself properly, I am 100% sure I would've dropped out of school.

Law school is hard. It's stressful. It's competitive. So, make sure you take care of yourself. Don't forget to eat. Make some friends you can trust. Set goals and explore your passions. And most importantly, don't forget to set aside some time to treat yourself. Take a vacation, take weekly bubble baths, get food you enjoy, etc. Just take care of yourself first, school second.

Grades are Important, But They Aren't Everything

One thing you will hear over and over again before law school, during orientation, and over the course of your studies is how important it is to get good grades. It's honestly super overwhelming during that first semester when all anyone tells you is that you should be studying because grades are the only thing that matters. You know what happens when you listen to that advice a little too closely? Refer back to the item above. 

So here's the truth. Grades do matter. The top jobs go to the top of the class, and getting good grades can really help you get ahead. However, here's the other half of the truth: not everyone can get the best grades. Law school grades are typically curved, meaning that as great as it is to be in the top 10% of the class, someone has to be in that bottom 10%. And guess what? That bottom 10% can still get jobs and become very successful lawyers.  

If you find yourself not getting the grades that you want, don't panic. Yes,  take it as incentive to study a little harder. But also use it as incentive to round out your law school resume. Try to get involved in organizations and maybe take on a leadership role. Think about trying to "specialize", perhaps by focusing on public interest or a certain subject area. I know plenty of people who graduate toward the bottom of the class and found wonderful jobs early on. I also know plenty of people in the top of the class still looking for work. So yes - grades are important, but they aren't the only thing that matters.

It's Okay to Not Know What You Want to Do After Law School

I mean, sort of. Obviously you came to law school to be a lawyer. That's step one. An important step. But what about step two? Figuring out what type of lawyer you want to be. That opens a whole myriad of possibilities. When I first entered law school, I told everyone I wanted to be a tax lawyer. Yes, that's a little weird but I have always loved all things tax and loved that being a lawyer was a way for me to work in the tax field. While I still do love tax law, I've backtracked a little. I'm not completely sure that I want to work in tax law. I think I could be happy doing that. I also think I could be happy doing a lot of other things. At this point, I'm even open to working in litigation. So even if you do know what you want to do when you enter law school, you might change your mind or expand your interests.

On top of that, plenty of people have no idea what type of lawyer they want to be going into law school and that's completely and totally okay. Law school is a time to explore and figure that out. 

If you are one of those people that happens to know exactly what you want, good for you! But if not, that's completely okay.

It's Your Last Three Years Before Real Life


I feel like we spend so much of our life focused on our next step. In high school, you're focused on getting into a good college. In college, you're focused on getting into a good law school. In law school, you're focused on getting a good job. And then once you get a job, you realize so much of life has passed you by. If you were anything like me in college, you probably forgot to have a typical college experience while you were hyper-focused on your law school future. 

I spent my first year of law school the same way - focused on the future. By my second year, I realized that it was also important to enjoy life. Tailgates and football games on the weekend made life a little more fun. Napping in the middle of the day is a luxury. And living off kind of gross fast food and cheap groceries can be a great way to bond with your friends. Enjoy the last few years you have of youth, before true responsibility and real life sets in. You'll have the rest of your life to be a boring lawyer. Life it up and be a student for awhile.

Yes, You're Smart. So is EVERYONE ELSE.

Most law students are acheivers - we are used to being one of the smartest people in the room. Getting into a law school is a huge accomplishment in this world. But here's the problem: when you get to law school, everyone is smart. Everyone has gotten into law school. Everyone is an achiever.

This kind of relates to the item above about grades being important, but not being everything. Most law students are used to getting As, getting the job, getting into the schools we want, etc. Well, now you're in an environment that is concentrated with equally smart and possibly smarter people. It's probably a good idea to humble yourself a little bit before starting school.

It's a Long Three Years, But it's Worth It

Lastly, yes. Law school is three years. And they are a long three years. Some of the most grueling years of your life. But they fly by faster than you think, and at the end YOU WILL BE A LAWYER. Knowing everything I know now, I truthfully would do it all again. And I mean all of it. The hard parts, the learning moments, and the rock bottoms were a big part of my growth and my journey throughout law school. And now I'm a lawyer. It is all so worth it.

To anyone getting ready to jump into law school - good luck! Feel free to drop some questions below. I love to answer them, and I might even write a post about your question if I have enough to say.



Friday, July 12, 2019

How my law school study group saved me (Guest Post!)


GUEST POST by ADAM BALINSKI

Oh, crud. What have I done?

It had been only two weeks and I already felt like my soul was withering away. Seemingly endless days buried in books. A competitive culture. Classrooms haunted by an Ancient Greek philosopher who was turning out not to be quite as cool as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure had led me to believe. The Socratic Method is sometimes accused of being a law student torture apparatus. That’s because that’s exactly what it is. 

Maybe I'd made a mistake. Maybe law school was not for me. Gone were the days of being surrounded by friends and the collaborative learning environment I had once enjoyed as a corporate trainer.

It probably shouldn’t have taken me two full weeks to start to question the sanity of quitting an awesome job, selling my house, and squeezing my growing family into a small, two-bedroom cinder block apartment. There was at least one red flag by day one.

When you opened up the main doors to enter the law school I attended, you were immediately greeted by a dark brick wall. Though a reliable receptionist, the school may have well hung a sign that said, “Abandon hope, all ye that enter.” That wall could be an accurate metaphor for the experience of many law students. 

That brick wall could have been a metaphor for me. But it wasn’t. I could have emerged from law school depressed and cynical. But I didn’t. 

Week three changed everything: It gave me a killer study group.

Forming the right team

One study group strategy is to team up with gunners. Gunners sometimes get a bad rap for holding the grip too tight, brown-nosing with professors, and other socially destructive behaviors.

There’s a sliding scale between the laziest students and craziest gunners. You don’t necessarily have to be a self-absorbed, ultra-competitive freak to be a gunner. Some gunners manage to be well-prepared and engage in class without damaging their reputation or relationships. 

Good gunners can come in handy when it comes to study groups. Well-prepared students can often explain things in a more digestible way than professors. This is probably because they recently walked the bridge between ignorance and competence. Professors may have a harder time remembering just how long that bridge can be.

You may be tempted to make a gunners-only study group (or at least a group where everyone else has to be a gunner. . . ). I can see how that approach may seem at least a little appealing, but it's shortsighted.

Gunners are good, in moderation

For starters, gunners are highly competitive and a study group where everyone is aggressively competing with each other, even if they're pretty nice about it, won't be much fun. 

A more important issue is that a gunners-only study group may lack diversity of personality types and approach. During law school, you'll likely learn about the prudent investor rule. Something prudent investors almost always do is diversify. Your study group is an investment. Make sure your portfolio of study group compadres is a good mix.

That's what I lucked into when I haphazardly approached several classmates about joining my study group. A couple of us were genuine gunners (and probably took law school a little too seriously), a couple probably could have taken law school a little more seriously, and a couple were somewhere in between. 

We balanced each other out. We kept each other sane. And we opened each other's eyes to fresh perspectives. 

Formula for study group success

The traditional mid-semester study group model is pretty simple: Study the assigned reading, then come together to discuss. (When finals come around, it looks a little different, but I want to focus this post on more of the day-to-day class preparation.)

There's nothing fundamentally flawed about the traditional study group formula. If you have the time for it. The problem is many law students don't have the time to carefully read every case on their own, let alone get together to talk hypotheticals and theory after. 

Being married with children, active in the community and in my religion, I personally had a hard time keeping up with the reading. Before my study group, I found myself often resorting to online case briefs, which left me feeling less confident and less prepared for class. I didn't want my study group to make my time management challenges even worse. I wanted to find a way to use my study group to save time, be more prepared, and have more fun than I would preparing on my own. 

The formula I came up with accomplished all of those things better than I anticipated.

Divide and conquer, return and report

Each week, we rotated who would be the "experts" for a given subject. We decided to have two experts at a time for each subject to create a bit of an internal auditing system or safety net. We rotated subjects to keep us all comfortable reading and analyzing cases across all subjects. 
When you were an "expert" for a subject, you would read very carefully and take thorough notes which you would post to a shared Google Drive folder. Then about 20 minutes right before each class that you were an expert in, you and the other expert would get together with the whole group and explain anything confusing and answer any questions the group might have. 
Being an expert took more time than preparing independently, but it resulted in more critical reading and better note-taking because you knew the others in your group were relying on you. As a little aside, I found this process to be helpful in preparing me to be an effective attorney after law school because any time I read a case, I was reading carefully with a client in mind (my study group).

Though being an "expert" in a subject took more time than typical preparation, being a "non-expert" in the other subjects saved more than enough time to compensate. 
When you were a non-expert for a subject, you could skip reading the case book entirely and just read through two sets of thorough notes the night before the class. That's what I usually did. It typically took only about 20-30 minutes to read through both sets of notes. I did it before bed, so that it would be easier to remember the following day. Then right before class, I would show up to my study group to enjoy whatever else I could learn from the experts. 

I was often surprised to find that many of the questions we discussed before class specifically came up during class. I always felt prepared and my professors had no clue when I hadn't "done the reading" (at least in the conventional sense).

Results

The folks I recruited to my study group initially only committed to a two-week trial using the above-described method. After two weeks though, everyone enthusiastically wanted to continue and we even picked up another member. Though it made an odd number, we figured out a rotation that gave each of us a week "off" every so often (which helped us make time for papers and such). We followed the formula for two semesters straight.

One nice thing about the law school I attended is that you are in the same classes with many of the same students for the entire first year, which made this model work well. However, the model didn't work as well for my second and third years because everyone was taking different classes. Our first year, with only one or two exceptions, we performed better in terms of grades than we did during our second and third years. In other words, we generally outperformed ourselves academically when we worked together using the model above. And we saved time and had fun.

Lifelong benefits

Part of the value of a study group is the friendships you create. We still do BBQs and Christmas parties together. Most of us are heading up to Canada this summer to attend the wedding of one of the guys in our group. I consider the crew among my very best friends. 

Another part of the value of a study group is the professional network it eventually creates.  And here again, the more diverse, the better. One of us went to work for a huge firm in London. Another is working for the FBI. Another is a real estate broker. Another is working for a small firm. Another is working for a legal aid organization. Another is working for a mid-size firm and beginning a pivot into politics. Another is working for a tech company. And then there's me, who did a stint as an assistant attorney general in American Samoa, before founding a revolutionary law school study aid company and returning to work for my alma mater.

Figure out something that works for you

Though a study group makes sense for most students, it may not make the most sense for you. Also, if you do form a study group, the type of study group I described may not be the Holy Grail for you, like it was for me. Your circumstances may be different than mine were. Your law school path is your own and I only hope that you walk away from reading this with some fresh ideas about study groups and how you might make the most of them.


About the author: Adam Balinski graduated summa cum laude from BYU Law and scored in the top 5% nationally on the Uniform Bar Exam. He founded Crushendo, the leading audio-based bar prep and law school study aid solution, and is currently writing a book called, “The Law School Cheat Code: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know About Crushing Law School.”
 
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