Reflecting back on law school: both the good and the bad

Reflections

[ Makenzie Way, 3L at the University of Pennsylvania ]

My time as the BARBRI Life of a 3L blogger has come to an end, as has my time as a law student – but don’t worry, you can continue to follow my adventures as the BARBRI bar prep blogger.

As I prepare to virtually walk across the stage, I’ve found myself reflecting on my law school experience; both the good and the bad. There are memories that I wince at, and things I would have done differently if I were to revisit them now, but ultimately, I am happy with how I conducted myself in law school. To that end, I’ve put together a list of my recommendations – feel free to take them with a grain of salt, after all, I’m no expert.

Maintain a Balance

My friend group enjoying a much-needed spa night/birthday celebration in 2L

I chose to prioritize friendships and family over my academics. I lost my brother during my first semester of law school, and it radically changed my outlook on life. Prior to his death, I viewed grades as the most important thing – so important that I once broke down in tears in my university library over a poor paper grade. After his passing, I realized that there are more important things in life – when all is said and done, can you really say that getting straight A’s is what you’ll remember about your life? For me, it’s not.

That is not to say I didn’t apply myself, because I did. Like any law student, I experienced late nights studying, grueling cold calls, and an overflowing calendar. However, I am glad my outlook shifted, because funnily enough, it made me a better law student (and person) in the end.

I would urge any current or aspiring law student to take a long hard look at their work-life balance. To a large degree, I think we as law students have a tendency to buy into this notion that we need to be absolutely perfect or no one is going to want to employ us. And sure, to an extent that is true – I don’t recommend skimming through by any means. But I also think it’s important to remember that we’re only human, and it’s okay to prioritize your relationships and wellbeing over your academic pursuits from time to time; it’s okay to say spend thanksgiving not studying, and it’s okay to take a mid-day nap instead of heading to the library. You need to find a balance that works for you, or you’ll burn yourself out.

Special shout out to this girl right here: meeting you was the best part of law school.

Foster Lasting Friendships

Without a doubt, the best part of my entire law school experience is the friendships I made. I can’t imagine what my law school experience would be like without them, but I know it would have been a struggle. These amazing people sent me care packages when my brother passed away; they made sure I had notes and study aids when I was too depressed to actually study on my own; they helped me move my belongings from state-to-state for summer jobs, and pack my apartment when, due to COVID-19, I was stuck outside the US; and so much more. These are the people that cheered me on during cold calls, inspired me to expand my research interests through their own passions, and blessed me with so many happy memories. So thank you to each and every one of you, and most especially, to my 1L roommate and legal bestie – you all amaze me.

Between orientation events, pre-assigned 1L sections, and the plethora of events, law school makes it easy for you to make friends. That said, I strongly recommend you move beyond those pre-arranged social events. Look outside of your section, and your year for friendships, join student organizations and pro bono projects, or take a trip with law students.

Develop Relationships With Your Professors

If I could go back and re-do one thing in law school, I would focus on developing deeper relationships with a wider range of professors. I came into law school with a solid idea of where I wanted my career to go, and because of that, I focused on establishing relationships with a targeted subset of the faculty. But, now that I’m beginning to look towards the bar and further graduate studies, I do wish I’d gotten to know some of the other professors at my university on the same level.

I took one course, one independent study, and formed NALSA with Professor Blackhawk (to my left). Thank you for all the support and guidance!

There’s a number of ways that you can establish lasting relationships with professors, the most obvious being course enrollment. If you’re unable to enroll in multiple courses with a professor, you can also serve as their research assistant, ask them to coffee to discuss their area of study, join the journal or group that they chair, do an independent study with them, etc. Regardless of how you do it, make sure to connect with at least a handful of professors – you’ll

need them for reference letters for jobs, the bar application, graduate school applications, etc.

Make your own outlines

During the first semester of 1L, I really bought into the idea of shared outlines, passed down from previous classes. Some of my friends still swear by it, but for me, it simply did not work in my favor because I benefit from the process of re-reading and re-organizing my notes. Admittedly, I did find shared outlines useful as references – especially during cold calls – but I would recommend that all law students take the time to craft their own unique outline.

The trick I used to make outlining less of a cumbersome ordeal was to start outlining from the beginning. I made use of the table of contents feature in word, and the different headers, to organize my notes as I took them. After each section of the course came to a close I would go back through my notes and make modifications. This helped keep the contents fresh in my mind, and cut down on time when reading week rolled around.

Study how you want, not how you’re told

Similar to outlining, I realized early on that study groups were not for me – which, realistically, was not a surprise since they had never worked for me before. I think the law school environment has a way of pushing students towards certain study methods, which can be harmful to those students who benefit from alternative study methods. I tried to avoid this pressure during my years as a law student, but it was tough at times.

Branch out From the Law School

Law students have a way of relating to one another; collectively, we all understand the legal world and the struggles associated with law school, and that can be comforting. Two of the best things I did during my time as a law student were non-law school-related; namely, joining a campus-wide event planning group, and joining the university hockey team. Each of these endeavors allowed me to meet people outside of the law school sphere, which greatly added to my overall experience.

Not only is it a good idea to make friends outside of the law school for your own mental wellbeing (sometimes you just need a break from all things law-related), but it’s also a good long-term ‘strategy.’ One of my mentors once told me that the key to being a successful lawyer is being a good networker. You may not view it as networking at the time, but attending non-law school-specific events, making friends with people from other departments or schools, and generally branching out from the law school bubble is a great way to begin expanding your social network.  For instance, through my hockey team, I met a Ph.D. student who, without knowing it, inspired me to apply to a Ph.D. program of my own.

Take Courses That Inspire you

In 1L you really don’t have much choice regarding the courses you take, but in 2L and 3L it’s pretty much a free for all. When 2L course selection rolled around I struggled between enrolling in courses that would be on the bar, and enrolling in courses that were interesting to me personally. Ultimately, I elected to enroll in the courses that inspired me, which, I think was the right choice. I noticed that compared to 1L, I was more energized in 2L and 3L because I was actually excited to attend class. And, since the topics aligned with my interests, I was able to get better grades and write papers that I went on to publish. This strategy also enabled me to create more meaningful relationships with a number of professors and students.

The majority of my pro bono efforts focused on animal rights!

Do Pro Bono Early

I jumped on the pro bono bandwagon within my first months of 1L; by the time I finished 2L I had completed the requisite number of pro bono hours for my university, meaning I could enter 3L (relatively) stress-free.

In 1L I focused on small non-time consuming projects with a few select pro bono groups that interested me. Working on these projects in 1L was a great supplement to my legal writing course; it helped me hone my researching and legal writing skills, and was a great benefit during my 1L summer. Additionally, by beginning my pro bono work early, I felt like I had more freedom to pick and choose assignments that were of interest to me since I didn’t feel pressured to rack up a certain number of hours in a relatively limited time span.

Obviously, you should take things at your own pace, especially since 1L grades are some of the most important grades of your entire law school career. That said, if by the time second semester rolls around, you feel confident enough to take on a few small projects, I say go for it! Alternatively, if you don’t feel comfortable balancing pro bono and 1L courses, I know a number of my friends completed a significant portion of their pro bono hours during their 1L summer.

Budget for a Social Life

I have an irrational – or perhaps very rational – fear of debt. In college, I balanced a heavy course load with two jobs to avoid taking out loans. Unfortunately, the price tag for my law school made it impossible to avoid federal loans, so I opted to live in a cheaper part of the city and limit my outings and Uber rides.

My 1L law school schedule basically consisted of walking to-and-from university, cooking at home, and attending only the most popular events. This was a great strategy in terms of saving money, but I felt like I was missing out on the social aspect of law school. Thus, I re-configured my law school budget for 2L to allow me to attend bar reviews, and partake in a few school trips – my experience that year was SO much better. In 3L, I finally took the plunge and moved into the city, and though it was short-lived thanks to COVID-19, I have to say, I was very happy for those few months.

Looking back at my quality of life in 1L, I wish I had been a little more flexible with my budget from the start. Not only did broadening my social sphere and changing my living conditions help me to socialize more and have a more well-rounded law school experience, it also brought me more joy and helped me mentally as well.

Participating in the 2019 I-trek trip with a group of Penn Law students
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