A few years ago, I watched The Paper Chase for the first time. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the entire movie is basically about the difficulties and stresses of the first year of law school. One of the most famous lines from the film, delivered by a stern and austere law professor is, “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.”
After watching that movie, I dreaded my 1L year. And though my time at Columbia Law has confirmed some of my less-than-positive expectations, it’s belied others. Let’s start with what’s met my expectations:
If you know nothing else about law school, you probably know that professors follow the Socratic Method in running their classes—they call on unsuspecting students to answer a variety of questions about that day’s reading. Going in, I expected this process to be stressful and unpleasant. I was right.
The second time I got cold called, I didn’t have any idea what my professor was actually asking me (there were a few questions projected on a screen and he’d called on a few other students, then he looked at me and simply said my name). To make matters worse, that particular professor hated being asked to repeat himself. I did my best to answer the question I thought he might’ve been asking me, and, much to my relief, he moved on. Long story short, cold calls are a ubiquitous part of the law school experience, and they aren’t fun.
In talking to law students and attorneys alike before I came to school, I kept hearing that one of the most unsettling parts of the first semester of law school is the lack of validation. Every day, you’re assigned cases, you read those cases, then you go to class and the professor asks questions. Nowhere in this process is there any definite way to know whether or not you’re doing anything correctly. You might think you have a good handle on a particular assignment only to find out that there was a more important issue that you missed entirely. Until you get your first set of exams, there is no actual way to measure your progress.
On a more positive note, let’s talk about what has defied my exceedingly negative expectations:
The Work Load
Most people think that law students spend entire semesters holed up in the library, poring through endless amounts of reading. I thought I would never have any free time to talk to anyone or to do anything fun. Fortunately, that has not been the case. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of reading. But if you have discipline and manage your time, it’s not an overwhelming amount (at least for the first couple months). Just so you know, I’ve completed all of my assignments and done some supplemental reading, so I’m not saying there’s free time just because I’ve been procrastinating. You should come to law school knowing that your primary objective is to learn and work, but you will probably be surprised to find that you have time to sleep, eat, go to the gym, and socialize.
The general impression seems to be, and certainly my impression was, that law students are extremely competitive and unsocial individuals. I thought I would be surrounded by people I couldn’t relate to or have fun with—I couldn’t have been more wrong. The majority of people that I’ve met at Columbia are friendly and collegial. I haven’t felt, for even a second, that my classmates want to put me down or are overly concerned with outcompeting each other. I have no doubt that I will be relying on these people in my professional life, and I couldn’t ask for a better peer group.
Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by law school. There are, naturally, aspects of the process that are difficult and nerve-wracking, but they don’t come close to outweighing the positives that I’ve encountered so far.