I originally wrote this post in 2017, but I’m reposting it this week to share with my new students. Good luck with law school!
OK, that title was complete clickbait. And usually this is a blog about health law. But we run a Master of Health Law program, as well as doing research, so I thought I’d try something different.
The first year of Law School is tough. I didn’t enjoy it very much and I spent a lot of time flailing around, not entirely sure what I was doing.
I feel like I have a slightly better idea now that I’ve completed two undergraduate degrees and a PhD, and started working as a lecturer.
So, having lived to tell the tale, here are my top ten tips for surviving law school.
- Come to class
I get it. All the lectures are recorded these days, so why bother getting out of your pajamas and coming to class? First, research shows that attending lectures can improve students’ academic performance. Second (and just as important), university can be a lonely place. Lectures are a reason to get out of bed, put on real clothes, and interact with other human beings. Who knows? You may even make a new friend. Lectures give your day a sense of structure, and they could even help us learn to listen without checking Facebook or doing a spot of online shopping.
- Read the cases
Every semester I get this question:
Do I really need to read the cases?
The answer is yes. Emphatically, and unequivocally.
Along with statutes, cases are our source of law – not your lecturer, and not the textbook. Lecturers may explain the principle deriving from a case, but if you don’t know the facts or the reasoning behind the decision, how will you know if that principle can be applied to the facts in a problem question? Further down the track, when you’re a practicing lawyer, your client’s case may turn on the meaning of the word “reasonable.” And he or she will expect you to have read and understood all of the relevant cases on what “reasonable” means. There’s a lot of reading, I know, but cases become easier to read with practice, and your writing will improve as your reading does.
Judgments are the foundation of our discipline and our practice, and it makes me feel like this when students seem to think that reading cases isn’t necessary.
- Learn how to learn
Law School’s simple, right? Come to class, read cases, take notes, done.
Not so much.
You need to learn a number of new skills along with cramming your head full of content. These include: writing a concise case summary, learning how to answer a problem question, and conveying information effectively in oral and written form. It took me a long time to learn that just taking screeds of notes was not the path to effective study. Learn from my mistakes and think critically about what you’re doing. The Law School has a number of resources for learning the skills required to be a successful law student, and a book like this one may also help.
- Get to know how special consideration and appeal processes work – right now
The University of Sydney has a central process for dealing with (most) special consideration requests, and for disability services. It’s a good idea to know about these services before you need to use them. Don’t be the person panicking on the day of the exam because you’re sick and can’t sit the exam, and don’t know what to do next. The same goes for appealing your marks. Hopefully you won’t need to use these processes, but it’s good to have at least a passing familiarity with how they work, just in case you do.
- Get help when you need it
There are often a lot of things happening in your life during your time at university: break-ups, moving out of home, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that really was too good to be true. It may feel like there’s no one there to help if you if you’re struggling. But the University has a range of services, including counselling, and the Law School offers various forms of support. Please talk to your tutor or lecturer if you have issues that are affecting your study. They may not be able to solve every problem, but they can offer strategies for catching up on work, for example. There is help available if you reach out, and it’s better to do so sooner rather than later when everything’s falling apart.
- Check your email
You’ve emailed me (your lecturer) about an important, life-changing event. I’ve emailed you back. You don’t check your email for a week. There’s not much I can do in the meantime, and it’s frustrating. Check your university email regularly. If you don’t think you’ll remember to do it, set up a redirect so it goes to another account that you do check on a regular basis.
- Manage stress
One thing that I found invaluable during my time as a student (and in life more generally), is learning techniques for managing stress. This could mean mindfulness, exercise, catching up with friends – whatever works for you, so long as it’s sustainable and beneficial in the long run. Sitting exams and submitting assignments are stressful, and we’ve got to learn how to deal. Remember that prevention is better than cure, and regularly engaging in activities like exercise may help to avoid a death spiral of depression and anxiety.
- Get involved
It’s often difficult for students to find time for anything but study or work. But one thing I sincerely regret not doing when I was an undergraduate is participating in the life of my faulty more. This could be performing in the Law Revue, it could be mooting, it could be only the occasional social event. I understand that students may feel like they don’t fit in, or that those sorts of things are not for them. But I can tell you from talking to my students that it’s not uncommon to feel that way. Maybe this is something faculties need to think about. But please don’t let feelings of not-fitting-in (or just plain shyness) stop you from attending events.
- Make the most of your degree
There’s a lot of talk about how competitive it is to get a job in law these days, particularly with the increasing number of graduates coming out of law schools. Students don’t need any more pressure to hustle to get a good job when they finish their degree. But you will get out of university what you put in. This means using your time at university to look for opportunities that will help you move towards the career you want to be in when you graduate. I’m not necessarily talking about creating a start-up to help you get a job in a law firm. I put in an application for an obscure summer scholarship that was advertised on a notice board, and that move changed the trajectory of my whole career. There are a variety of opportunities available at University, and it’s important to be proactive in searching out the ones that suit you best.
- Have… fun (?)
This blog post could end with a picture of happy smiling students strolling across the law school lawn, and with me saying something like, “Enjoy yourself! University is the best experience of your life, blah blah.” But law school is often demanding, and it’s not necessarily a rewarding experience being broke and living in a share house with people who may or may not have fleas.
So my final suggestion is not “have fun,” but “persist.” You will not like every course. In some, making it through the end of the lecture may be a triumph, and in those courses, survival may be the name of the game.
But you will find courses that you enjoy, and moments where you feel like you have conquered the subject. This is what makes it all worthwhile, as well as finally getting your degree at the end. And what makes it worth it for me is seeing my students getting to graduation, and then moving on to even greater things. Good luck.
Ps. University is a great time to experiment with your style, and if you feel like dying your hair blue, then go for it. It becomes harder to do things like that once you have a serious job, like being a law lecturer. Just don’t do it right before your clerkship interview.