Why it’s so hard to finish the open memo assignment

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[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Welcome to the throes of open memo season. Everyone has a ghostly absence behind their eyes. The doctrinal professors are refining their comedy routines in an attempt to cheer up all of us.

As the process of writing the memo assignment has gone on, I’ve been surprised at how frequently I hear organized, proactive students telling me how many all-nighters they pulled trying to finish. I thought it was just me who had been working diligently and ahead of schedule. Yet, I still got slammed by the Sisyphean disappointment of perpetually feeling like I was getting closer to the finish line only to realize that the more work I completed, the farther away from being done I felt.

In typical fashion, I procrastinated on finishing my memo by researching why I couldn’t finish my memo. Here’s what I learned.

It’s about metacognitive reprogramming

Metacognitive reprogramming is as complicated of a process as it sounds, neurologically speaking. Though, as a framework for understanding why 1L is so stinking hard, it’s pretty simple. As we learn new information and build new processes of learning, our brains are making new neural pathways. In other words, we are utilizing a significant amount of unconscious mental energy trying to learn how to learn.

It takes a lot of time and energy

I spent more hours than I care to admit reading and re-reading my cases in preparation to write my memo. I made a thorough outline (15 pages long, folks), and a detailed step-by-step plan. This was my long-perfected method for tackling complicated writing assignments and it served me well through undergrad and masters programs. But it failed me when it came to the open memo because I underestimated the amount of time and energy it would take to translate all of that work into a cogent, organized, 20-page analysis of a legal issue. If you asked me to explain all of the nuances of the issues to you, I could. However, I struggled so hard to translate my understanding of the situation into a product that still felt foreign to me.

By the way, if you need some really good guidance on how to outline in law school, you can find everything you need to know right here.

It requires learning while doing

If you’ve never written an open memo, researched on Westlaw or Lexis, or analyzed full court decisions on your own, you are learning how to do those things at the exact same time that you are being expected to do them. I don’t see this cognitive overburdening as a flaw in legal education. In fact, like difficult exercises that tears down muscles before rebuilding them, this process is important for learning new concepts. The flaw that I see is that we interact with assignments like the open memo as though this process was not happening, and then we have nothing to attribute our seemingly over-taxed minds to, except that we are incapable or unintelligent.

It’s productive to rest your brain

Take a break. You are bright and capable. You need to preserve the energy you may be expending on self-doubt. Sleep. Drink water. Eat healthy snacks. This is not only important for your mental and physical well-being, but also works to boost cognition.

Take rest days. Just like working out your biceps every day will be counterproductive, if you work nonstop on the same task, your brain will get fatigued. If you can’t afford a whole day off every week, build break times into your daily schedule. I apologize for all of the exercise metaphors here, but analogies are also metacognitive tools that help us tie new knowledge to preexisting knowledge (this is called neural reuse). This makes it easier to understand and harder to forget.

Giving your brain time to rest also allows it to catalog short-term memory into long-term memory. Sleep is a huge. Don’t skimp out on sleep. Lack of sleep weakens your cognitive abilities. It makes work more difficult and slower to accomplish. It makes you feel like you need to skip more sleep in order to finish everything. It’s a vicious cycle. Start now, if you can, and get some shut-eye.

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