As the beginning of the school year draws ever closer, I know I have not been the only one contemplating the predicament our young 1Ls will find themselves in this September. This has been a topic of discussion amongst my colleagues, fellow classmates, faculty and professors too. Below, I’ll post the email conversation between myself and Professor Peter Sankoff (who may well be teaching some of your Criminal Law classes!). We discuss what its like to be a 1L and offer some tips for how to make sense of the wealth of information and advice you’ll be getting from professors, faculty and upper years as you begin your law school careers!
Hope you enjoy,
Dear Professor Sankoff,
I can only speak from my own experience from the most part, but I think most law students will identify with at least parts of my experience.
I really felt like I had to figure out how to be the Ideal Law Student in that first couple of months of school and I really didn't know how. Between El Hacko, First Friday Back and all the other early LSA events and Career Day, Networking workshops and OCIs, Clubs Day and SLS, guest lectures, and getting to know all these new classmates and professors I was very very overwhelmed. I looked to others to try to find out what was important. Should I volunteer with SLS? For which projects? Should I join a club? Which clubs? Should I go out for drinks with the LSA or my cohort? How important is it to make friends? Do I need to go to career day? Do I need to be looking for summer work in October? How should I take notes? I wandered around our little Law Centre essentially wondering "Am I doing it right? Am I a law student yet? Am I ok?"
If I had treated the transition into law school the same way I treated transitions in my undergraduate studies I could have saved myself a lot of stress. I know myself quite well. I'm introverted, I love to work alone, I know what I'm interested in, I know how to study and take notes and read and manage my academic and personal life. I even knew what I wanted out of law school- I wanted to continue to be academic but I wanted my focus to shift to a more well-rounded education. I wanted to volunteer and get some practical experience, I wanted to be a part of things I might not get the chance to be a part of as a lawyer in private practice, I wanted to enjoy what I was learning about. By the end of the year, I was doing what made a lot of sense. I studied alone or with friends outside the faculty, I attended class as regularly as possible, I took notes when I thought it was important to do so, I've still never been to an LSA event, I love my volunteer work with SLS and WLF and feel its entirely manageable even on top of my studies. I do what works for me, what has always worked for me.
For some reason though, starting out I was very worried about what everyone else was doing, which is completely unprecedented for me. I've never been afraid to be different than others, I've never been scared to do things my own way. Starting law school is the only time I've been so desperate for validation from others that I'm competent and capable of succeeding. For some reason, I didn't think the things that have worked for me in the past would work for me in law school and I felt like I needed to find the new "right way to do things" before it was too late! I don't know why this happened to me (although I've always suspected that I studied so hard for the LSAT that I inflicted some permanent damage upon myself).
It may have been because this was the professional degree I'd always wanted, every other part of my education has been a means to the end that is being a practicing lawyer. I didn't feel like I was switching schools so much as I felt I was starting my career. Since my father is a lawyer I grew up with an understanding of the fact that the legal community is small and your reputation is very important and it starts in law school. Law School has always been the Big Leagues in my life and all of a sudden the opinions my peers would have of me were very important to me.
Another factor I think contributed to making the transition so much more difficult was that I felt I was finally among academic peers. I'd taken for granted being at the top of my class throughout my life but I knew with 178 admitted from 1425 applicants the class is comprised of people who were always at the top of the class like me. I used to have unfailing confidence in my academic abilities, I knew I could succeed at anything I put my mind to. That confidence was - poof! - gone, as soon as I started law school. One of the biggest messages I got from orientation is "your grades will drop", so failing or being at the bottom of the class was a real possibility in my mind and that was very new for me. Sure my study methods had always brought me success in the past, but how could they succeed against all these new people I had to compete with?
I also worried I wouldn't succeed or fit in because of my age, but in hindsight I think most of us will find a way to feel isolated for some reason or another. Professor Henderson would talk to us about imposter syndrome- the feeling that you were accepted into the faculty by some sort of mistake or oversight and I certainly was not the only person who identified with that. For all of us, starting law school brings about a lot of uncertainty and any insecurity can be magnified a thousand times in an intimidating new environment.
Moving forward, I don't anticipate anywhere near the amount of stress starting 2L as I experienced starting 1L. Law school will continue to be stressful and there's a lot of work to do and I'm sure I'll still burn out from time to time, but I don't see myself fretting at all about LSA events, when and where to volunteer, how to learn, or anything like that. I credit that absolutely to simply having regained my confidence in myself. I'm not sure how it disappeared or how I got it back, but at this point I simply feel self-assured and that I will be able to succeed (even if my definition of succeeding these days is closer to a 3.0 than a 4.0).
Does this seem to you to be the standard reaction you see from 1Ls? Do we all seem to have little identity crises?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts,
Thanks for your email. I am very excited to be having a conversation about these issues.
To answer your main question: Yes - this is the standard reaction we see from 1Ls - and, quite frankly, though I went to law school a long, long time ago, it was very similar to the reaction I had. No matter how much we try to tell everyone to breathe; no matter how much we warn you about taking on commitments; no matter how much we tell you to believe in yourself.... the pressure is very strong, and it creates the insecurity and uncertainty you write about.
You raise a number of interesting points, and have described the 1L experience eloquently. I want to touch on a few, and ask you a few questions as well. First, it has always seemed to me that 2Ls and 3Ls play an interesting role in this 1L experience - sometimes harmful, sometimes helpful. To be absolutely clear, I don't think that upper year students do any of what I'm about to describe out of malevolence! Nonetheless, I do feel that upper year students see the new crop of 1Ls and approach them a bit like an 8 year old who sees my 5 year old daughter trying to ride a bike for the first time. The 8 year old - meaning no harm whatsoever - comes up and helpfully says things like "You just have to balance yourself and push the pedals - it's easy!". The comparison, of course, is for the 2L or 3L, who says things like "You don't really have to read all the cases - just get the CAN!" or, "don't worry about missing a class here and there" or... all the other sorts of advice that for a 2L or 3L is probably appropriate BECAUSE THEY HAVE ALREADY LIVED THE 1L EXPERIENCE. They forget that a year or two ago, they were the ones arriving with the deer in the headlights look. (Actually, my advice to all 2Ls and 3Ls about what to say to 1Ls is the same: offer comfort, support and a willingness to talk if needed - but try not to offer too much in the way of advice.)
Does that seem familiar? Does that occur? My worry is that upper year students actually compound the problem of the 1L experience - again, totally unintentionally – by telling 1Ls all the things they "should do" if they are going to succeed. This includes things like joining clubs, taking on heavy SLS responsibilities, doing a million activities - all things that a 2L or 3L can handle, but all things that might turn out to be disastrous for a 1L who needs most of their time just to survive the first few months. Since coming to U of A, I can't tell you how many 1Ls I have had in my office in November who looked ready for a breakdown. Yes, their studies were tough - but again and again, the problem was their overcommitment to various things, brought on in part by encouragement from upper years who said "you have to do it! You need it on your CV!" Strikes me that this kind of pressure is not a good thing for students starting such a difficult program.
I have another question for you. I've been teaching for a long time, and I've come to accept the fact that students are 10x more likely to take the advice of their peers over the advice of their Professors. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I don't think it's a big one. I do find it odd, however, that most of the Profs have been doing this a lot longer than the students, and though I realize we are "on the other side of the podium", we do have considerable experience in seeing what works for students. Yet, time and again, I feel it's hard to get those messages taken seriously, and I'm fairly certain that messages from students about "how to survive" or "how to succeed" tend to have greater impact. Is there a way to bridge that divide? Maybe a skit in law show?
PS. What's your most hated gym exercise? Mine is squats. Won't do em, no matter how good they are for you.
It's absolutely familiar and it does occur a lot. I got the "just get CANs and join 50 things" brand of advice as a 1L and I know the 1Ls this year will get the same advice. And I agree that it is absolutely not the advice 1Ls need to hear.
I also definitely agree that students are far more likely to follow advice from fellow students than from professors and it doesn't surprise me at all. It's no different than how my younger sisters would take advice from me in a heartbeat while years of nagging from my parents would never get through. I think its very simply that we don't take advice as seriously from those who are in a position of authority because we have preconceived notions about authority figures and we prescribe biases to them before we even meet. Of course professors are going to tell you to do all of the readings, attend all of the classes, etc. They have to say that! We trust students to tell it like it is because, the way we see it, they don't have the same obligation to say certain things.
And maybe we don't but we are absolutely biased. I work with SLS and I asked all of them for their advice for 1Ls and 90% of them said "Work with SLS!" I'm sure if I asked the cast of Alawddin they'd say you simply can't go through law school without being in Law Show. And I totally understand why we say those things. I've found CANs that have absolutely been very helpful study tools (but none are as useful as being engaged in class). And I absolutely love SLS, just as other students love their extra cirricular activities. We all love getting involved, getting involved is great. But the problem this creates is that one poor 1L asks 10 upper year students for advice and what they hear is that they have to join 10 different clubs- no one is telling 1Ls to overcommit but when we all tell them different things they feel like they have to. The 1L doesn't have time to learn a whole lot about these things before big deadlines come by. Career Day and Clubs Day come up painfully fast and they feel like they have to make a decision or miss their chance to do all these things they apparently have to do! Meanwhile, they haven't even gotten the hang of reading cases. It's no wonder they are overwhelmed.
The advice 1Ls need to hear is that they are going to be ok but they need to figure out on their own what study habits and activities are going to work for them. I think a collaboration like this where both professors and students are weighing in is a great way to get good information to 1Ls in a way that they are going to accept and find helpful. We lend each other credibility and hopefully we'll be able to provide advice that is more balanced and encourages 1Ls to make decisions that are best for them personally as opposed to decisions that have worked for other students. I think if faculty and upper years jointly offered their thoughtful, objective support, 1Ls would benefit.
Thank you for your input,
PS Squats are my FAVOURITE! I love squats. Dead lifts are way harder, they feel super awkward and they make me so sore for so long. Right now I'm working from a powerlifting program - "Wendler 5-3-1" - to try to get all of my lifts up, so I have squats and deadlifts and bench press and overhead press in my routine, its AWESOME. Totally love it.
What I wouldn't be caught dead doing in the gym is lunges. I see people at the gym who will do lunges all the way around the track with free weights and I'd just rather die. That's the only exercise I just blatantly refuse to do.
I'm not sure what part of your email makes me more sad. The part that recognizes that as a Professor my students think my advice is irrelevant, or the part that recognizes as a parent my kids will soon think my advice is irrelevant. This is some seriously depressing stuff.
I guess on a certain level I am pleased to hear that my impression about the transfer of information from upper years to 1Ls is correct, though I was kind of hoping I was wrong. I feel bad for 1Ls. I wish there were more mechanisms in place to protect them from their own inclinations. For example, at my law school 1Ls couldn't do clinic in their first year, or were restricted to extremely small roles. Sure, clinic is great fun, but it also takes up a ton of time, and can lead to the stress problems you talk about in your email. It seems to me that we both agree that one of the most important messages is: THINK VERY HARD BEFORE YOU TAKE ON EXTRA COMMITMENTS, and I would add DON'T BELIEVE THAT YOU HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE OR YOU WON'T GET A JOB (mainly because that's just not true...). Do you feel those messages get through enough? I've definitely heard them thrown out once in awhile, but I'm not sure they're being sold as hard as they should be. By the way, I don't want people thinking I don't like these extra-curricular things like Law Show, SLS or clubs. They're great - and everyone should do them. But law school is three years long, and there's plenty of time to try these things out. I'm not convinced first semester of first year is the time to fill your calendar with commitments.
P.S. I finished a powerlifting 5-3-1 series in June and really enjoyed it. It has screwed up a lot of my senses about "what a lot of weight is", and going back to reps of 6 has been a bit of a struggle. I worry if we keep talking about weightlifting, we may lose readers, so let me just leave you with a separate question. Have you seen, or have any interest in seeing, Boyhood? Just curious…
Hahaha, it is sad but true, Proffessor!
I think you're right that the main message should be that you don't need to take on everything at once, you don't need to do everything and you don't need to be worried about your CV in 1L- you have a long time and a lot to learn before its time to be thinking about jobs and articling and such. Unfortunately, I don't think these are the main messages 1L's retain in the first month of September. I felt that messages like "your grades will drop and that's ok" or "your reputation starts here" or "it's important to get involved" get a lot more airtime; it would be nice to see that change. It's not that these messages aren't true- they are. It's just that they add to the anxiety 1Ls are facing when what they need is permission to take their time and ease into the faculty. I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest that the grades and clubs and jobs are not at all the problem, its just the pressure to join clubs AND keep your grades up AND start developing your resume in the first month of school before you've gotten your bearings can be really stressful and against the best interests of new students.
Now, my advice wouldn't even be not to do any of that stuff in your first year; just to be very selective and remember that less is more. If you can choose just one or two commitments in the programs you are most interested in, you'll meet new people, learn a lot and feel fulfilled by your law school experience. Start small! Many clubs offer roles that don't require a lot of time commitment and can be very flexible to work with your studies. These smaller roles are a great way to start out as a 1L trying to get involved. It's easier to add on new commitments if you're not feeling challenged later on than it is to back out of commitments you've already made. Finally, don't be afraid to just sample different clubs in your first year. There are always all sorts of events going on around the law school that are run by different clubs and there will always be posters and announcements throughout the Law Centre to keep you in the loop. Just attending events and guest lectures and supporting faculty groups is a great way to develop interests in certain groups that you may want to pursue in your upper years.
PS I'd love to do powerlifting meets someday so getting my lifts up is going to be really fun. Weightlifting is the best.
I hadn't ever heard about this Boyhood movie you mention, I had to go look it up, but I would absolutely see it. Between the years of 2002 and 2014 when the movie was filmed I've grew from being 7 to being 20 so to watch someone go from being 5 to 18 in that period on film will be like watching my childhood. I can't imagine watching the film without feeling some kinship with the actor growing up. Sounds like a really interesting idea to base a film around simply watching someone grow up. Sounds like the film will pass the Bechdel Test too, so it meets my feminist standards!
This appears to be the end of our discussion of 1L Life but fret not! A second part remains in progress, so stay tuned!
Thanks for reading, 1Ls! See you soon.