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Education, Law School, Mental Health, Personal, Uncategorized

11 Things I Learned From Law School

Back in 2015, I was sitting in my therapist’s office considering a career change. I had been a video editor for a while and it stopped being something I enjoyed. It was time for a change and I knew it. On a whim, I bought a Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) study guide and started thumbing through it. I wasn’t sure if I should take it, but I knew I needed to do something, even if that meant throwing as many things as possible at the wall until something stuck. I was talking over my options with my therapist and she gave me a piece of advice that I have carried with me since then. She said “Why don’t you start with looking through the LSAT book and when you stop enjoying things or it doesn’t feel worth it, just stop and move on to something else?” In hindsight, it was really obvious advice and it was basically “Just take things one step at a time” but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I made a deal with myself that when I stopped enjoying what I was doing, I would move on to something else and not trap myself just because I had invested some time into something.

Well, six years later (and after a few false starts) I have graduated law school, taken the bar exam, and am now awaiting my results! Today, as I start up regularly blogging again, I figured I would share some of the things I learned along the way that might help anyone who is considering law school, or anyone who has just started. Some of these are disability-related but I think all of this advice is generally applicable, regardless of how you identify. If anyone is currently in law school or has already been through it like me, please leave anything I forgot down in the comments!

1) Make organization a high priority

If you only remember one thing you read here, remember this: organizational skills are tested in every law school class—especially in your first year. Your ability to organize papers, organize thoughts, organize topics, and organize work are essential to your success. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you need to be traditionally organized—as long as there is some kind of internal consistency that you can personally keep straight, you should be better off than you otherwise would be. If you struggle with organization, it is really important to work on this before you start school and at the very least, create some kind of system so that you don’t forget reading assignments or lose track of things that you’ll need for class. 

Being organized will help you most with outlining. Outlining itself helps you stay organized and leaves less room for doubt and worry when you are studying, so try to come up with a system you can stick to early in the semester. Many law schools do not have classes on Fridays, so I tried to spend Fridays editing down my notes and adding the essentials to my outlines. That habit helped me keep my outlines up-to-date and also pointed out any gaps in my understanding that I could spend the weekend working on.

2) Start at step one

If everything I said above really made you feel overwhelmed, don’t worry! Most people, myself definitely included, started law school less organized than we were upon graduating. I significantly underestimated the volume of work my first year and overestimated my energy level when planning out my weeks. There were some days where I looked at my assignments for the day and realized there was no possible way I could complete all my work in the time I had. So I just started reading and stopped when I had to.

One tactic that also helped me to not get overwhelmed on those days was to pencil off time for each class. My first semester, I tried a few different tactics, including hopping from subject to subject, but I ultimately settled on getting all tomorrow’s reading done first, then concentrating especially hard on a different class every day. “Concentrating especially hard” usually just meant work on outlining, memorization, and deeper understanding of concepts. You may want to try a couple of different tactics until you find what works for you personally. Just do what is best for you but remember to take it one step at a time and don’t get so overwhelmed with your workload that you freeze and don’t do anything.

3) Look at yourself with honesty and grace

One of the hardest things about law school is that it puts you under a microscope and forces you to acknowledge what skills you don’t have and need to work on. In a way, it breaks you down so that you can (hopefully) be built up as a stronger and better learner because your skills will have a more solid foundation. That means acknowledging hard truths about yourself, which can sometimes be really hard. My first-ever writing assignment in law school was something that I thought should be framed because it was so well-written. Well, apparently it was not. It was my second-worst grade that I got during law school and it really humbled me. After meeting with my professor to get my grade and talk about it, I felt like complete garbage and I took that home with me. However, after I got past my feelings, I was able to improve my writing and do much better on my next assignment. In hindsight, I am so glad that she was that honest with me because it taught me how to grow. Just remember to try and take criticism as an opportunity for growth and learning, and try not to let it contribute to negative self-talk that is not productive or helpful. 

Instead, try to indulge in some self-care when you can. Some people I know did this by working out or doing yoga. I usually did it by putting my laptop away and watching a movie or a show I liked. I also usually listened to an audiobook or podcast in the car that was funny or distracting. Sometimes it felt good to just listen to music really loud or take a nap in the car (I wasn’t driving). And every day, no matter how much work I had, I allowed myself 30 minutes of uninterrupted alone time. During that time, I did not judge myself or what I was doing. If I spent 30 minutes crying, I allowed myself to cry without holding anything in. If I wanted to stare at the wall and zone out, I did that. Law school can feel like it is pulling you in a million different directions and you have to become a robot to complete everything you need to. And once you get an internship, you might be interacting with people who are angry or upset with you for something that was not your fault. That is stressful. It is so important that you do not continue that dialogue when you are alone.

4) Ask for help – including accommodations!

Right when I started law school, one of the first things lawyers started telling me was that I might struggle with the culture of traditionalism that I would no doubt encounter. Boy were they correct. See, law school—and the legal profession—is mostly run under the auspices of a very “old-school” mentality. That is one of many reasons that members of minority groups are accepted to law school at a much lower rate than others. What that meant for me was that a lot of my energy would need to be spent on advocating for myself and insisting to others that I belonged where I was. That I had the right to be there, and the right to take up space that I needed. Very luckily, my school administration understood that and I had very few issues receiving accommodations. But many of my friends did.

Whenever I did run into issues, although I know I was lucky that they were very few and far between, I tried to keep in mind that I knew my own capabilities better than anyone else and if an accommodation was refused, I would just need to do a better job explaining it to the decision-maker. If that didn’t work, I would go above them. I would continue that process until I was successful. What I found was that a lot of refusals were based on ignorance or a lack of understanding rather than cruelty or maliciousness. The most important fact, beyond the rules at your school, is that you have a right to be there. Once you are accepted to law school, that spot is yours. They have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to make sure that you can get meaningful use of your education.

5) Remember to be flexible and patient

Everything that I have said so far makes it sound like I was extremely disciplined, I stuck to my schedule, and I met every deadline I had. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I messed up a lot. Law school is hard! It takes a lot of work to keep your head above water and I think it takes even more work if you have a disability. There were many days where I physically or mentally could not do my work. I hit a point in the first semester where on a mental and emotional level, I was just checked out. I felt like I did not understand anything I was reading and was extremely overwhelmed with the amount of work I had to do. So mentally and emotionally, I quit. That evening I came home from classes, put my books away, and watched movies all night. In hindsight, I was running my body way too hard and I really needed a break. I’m so glad I took one because by the end of the night, I had a renewed sense of inner calm and happiness that propelled me forward through the rest of the semester. It was important to me that I was allowed to acknowledge that I could quit if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to quit so soon. Instead, I decided to take breaks and gave myself the space and time that I needed to do my work and keep some semblance of self.

It’s really, really important that you are patient with yourself and the other people in your life as you adjust to law school. This was profoundly clear to me in regards to my relationship with my fiancé. Leading up to school, I did a lot of the emotional labor that was required for planning things that we would do together. That quickly had to stop when classes started. Because we were patient and flexible with each other, we came up with a better system that worked for both of us and it did not affect our relationship. But there definitely was a learning curve for both of us because I went from having an almost 100% clear schedule to having basically no time to devote to anything. I think it was harder on me than it was on him, but I had to be patient with myself because I essentially started living a completely different lifestyle. That takes time to get used to!

6) Build an understanding support system

This is related to the last point. I know that I was very lucky that my fiancé and my parents were all on board with me going to law school and, for the most part, they understood the time commitment that it would require. But there were still times where I had to apologetically cancel plans at the last minute or had to disappoint people in other ways because of my schedule or workload. I tried to be as honest as I could in the beginning in telling my friends and family that my not returning phone calls or messages during the school year was never personal. I found that open and honest communication was vital in relationships lasting through school. The best part about it was that my more supportive friends and family knew that at certain times of the year (like the beginning of a new semester or during finals) I would not be responsive and they knew not to take that personally. 

I did have a handful of people in my life that just did not understand, no matter how many times I explained it, that law school was sucking up my time and that I would not be as available as I had been before. Unfortunately, those relationships really suffered. At first, I tried to repair them over school breaks or during times when my workload was lighter, but ultimately those were relationships that I had to let go. The best advice I can give is just to learn how to set boundaries early and assuredly.

7) Thank your body and brain for the heavy lifting

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, law school can really wear you out. But if you get up every day and consciously decide to go to school and you come home every day and consciously decide to do your work and try your best, you are on your way to being successful. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a cost at the end of the day. My fatigue level was my biggest challenge, especially in my first year. I became exhausted and, looking back, I spent my first semester struggling a lot more than I had to because I did not indulge in enough self-care. As a result, I burned out. One important way to avoid that burnout is to listen to your body and set aside time for your body and brain to rest. I love to read and before I started school, I thought I could unwind at the end of the day by reading something I enjoyed. What I didn’t realize was that with the amount I had to read for school, looking at a page with words on it was just about the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day. I had to listen to my body and listen to my brain and find something else I could do to relax. Sometimes that just meant an extra shower where I could zone out and think about nothing. At the end of my first semester, I completely crashed. In hindsight, I probably would not have done so if I had just slowed down a little bit in the beginning. Try to listen to your body and make sure you stay hydrated, get the right amount of sleep (at least try to), and eat as healthy as you can. You’ll need to be at your best to keep up with the workload.

8) Know that everyone struggles

One of the biggest mistakes I think I made my first year of school was keeping my concerns, stresses, and feelings to myself. What I figured out later in my law school experience was that everyone else was struggling the same way I was in the beginning. Imposter syndrome is a really common feeling within law school and the greater legal system in general. There were often times where I felt like I should not have been accepted to law school or that things were happening way over my head and I should just quit before I embarrass myself. I’m glad I didn’t do that, but I wish I had shared that burden with my classmates because many of them felt the same way. Even the people who I thought strongly excelled in subjects I struggled with were dealing with the same feelings. Law school definitely breathes a competitive attitude but it’s important to remember that everyone is striving toward the same goal and there is room for everyone to succeed. There’s no reason to think that you’re alone in your feelings.

9) Remember why you started

About halfway through my first semester, I had a really, really bad day. I was feeling extremely overwhelmed and was seriously considering dropping out. That night, I decided to turn on a movie while I was outlining and decided on Wonder Woman. I always really liked Wonder Woman’s story and I really loved the first movie when it came out. One of the most powerful scenes happens around the midpoint of the movie. The movie is set during World War I and during this scene, Diana (Wonder Woman) emerges up from a trench, revealing her costume for the first time, and walks across a no man’s land, drawing gunfire away from the other soldiers and allowing them to gain ground and cross over into enemy territory. Every other time I had watched that scene, I was struck by how brave she was to take all that gunfire. However, on that day I noticed something different. 

Diana was basically covered in armor and because she could move and heal supernaturally quickly, she was functionally bulletproof. So was she really brave? In real life, I thought, there was no Wonder Woman to help soldiers during World War I. In a situation like the one in the movie, a soldier would have had to walk out without the bulletproof protection that Wonder Woman would have. That, to me, is real bravery. Standing out in open space, knowing you might get shot but doing it anyway. 

I know that seems like a non-sequitur and a very random thing to bring up, but that really inspired me and helped me to remember why I was working so hard. There are plenty of lawyers doing wonderful things for people with disabilities, but overall we are still a minority group with very few rights compared to other people. We don’t have a Wonder Woman. There still has to be someone willing to push the line forward and make sure others are protected. That was why I decided to go to law school and why I kept going, even when things got really difficult and stressful. It’s important to remember that bulletproof people don’t have to be brave, and real bravery comes from acknowledging your vulnerabilities and still striving to help others.

10) Learn a skill, use a skill

If law school should be seen as anything, it should be a skill-building experience. Some skills are somewhat obvious, like logic, some types of debate, writing, and ethics. However, there are a lot of hidden skills that I feel like I’ve gained throughout the process. If you can’t tell from reading other posts on this blog, I tend to ramble. One of the first things I learned in school was to get to the point immediately, especially in writing. From the very beginning, law school teaches you to structure what you’re writing so that someone can skim it and still get the important points. Lawyers and judges are busy and don’t like their time being wasted. Although that was a challenge at first, I think it has greatly improved my writing. 

Law school also has made me more confident when I assert myself to people who have the authority to make decisions about me (like state employees that determine how many hours of care I get per day). Law school definitely taught me to be assertive, but also to ask the right questions and fully listen to what other people are saying without letting my emotions enter into it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t get emotional ever now, but it has gotten easier to compartmentalize my feelings when I need to be in business mode. It is for this reason that I will always be grateful for what law school taught me, regardless of whether or not I actually end up practicing law (PS, I don’t have a job so pls hire me thx). 

One of the most important pieces of advice that I think I can give is to learn as much as you can in law school and learn to apply your skills in every part of your life (where appropriate). Now, that doesn’t mean to argue all the time and turn normal discussions into a debate. That is how you harm personal relationships. But law school can teach you to become a really powerful advocate for yourself and others, among other skills.

11) Realize that law school does not measure your worth

This is probably the most important thing that everyone should know. Law school does not measure your worth. I’m going to be real, my grades in school were not that good. They were fine by my standards, but I was absolutely nowhere even remotely close to the top of my class. But you know what? I don’t really care. I got through law school with my romantic relationship intact (plus we upgraded from dating to engaged so that’s cool) and most of the parts of my personality that I really liked about myself are still there. I still think I’m very sensitive and caring and I still like to learn and help make other people’s lives easier where I can. I still think I’m funny (or at least as funny as I was before which might be not funny at all). I still have good taste in movies and shows. And now I have more skills to apply to become an even better person than I was before. 

Law school is an innately competitive and difficult experience. It functions like a gauntlet, even though I think it shouldn’t. It’s important not to lose your sense of self in the shuffle, because at the end of the day you still have to go to sleep at night and not absolutely loathe yourself. Sometimes that is a challenge. There have definitely been times where I have been in certain classes and gotten consumed by stress when learning about injustices or when hearing horrible stories about victims of crimes. Dealing with that stress and then having to come home and have dinner like nothing is wrong was really hard for me at times. 

In one of my internships, after a particularly rough day helping a client who had been really horribly victimized by multiple oppressive systems and awful people, I just came home and cried. I continued to cry off and on for the entire evening and couldn’t share much with the people around me for ethical reasons. I think I went to bed that night feeling the worst I have ever felt. About the world, about the people who would victimize our client, and about myself for being complicit in oppressive systems that I did not know were hurting other people so badly. But the important part was that the next morning I dried my tears, took a deep breath, and went back to work. Similar situations to that repeated themselves throughout my experience but I know that the personal strength that I was able to gain from continuously advocating for people was worth a lot more than a letter grade in a class.

All of the things that I have listed above ultimately come down to this: Think of law school as a growing experience. As with anything that grows, the growth should be somewhat controlled and cultivated so that you grow in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “11 Things I Learned From Law School”

  1. Wow! Well done, Gabriella. Well done. Do you remember when I broke my foot and had to use a knee scooter to get around? I called you up and shared with you that I thought I understood what it was like for you to use a power wheelchair. Boy was I wrong! There were A LOT of bumps and holes that I encountered using the knee scooter that were unexpected. I gained a new and better understanding of what you encounter on a daily basis using your chair. Your post reminds of that experience.I thought I knew what your law school experience was like. After reading this and being someone who had a front row seat to your time in law school, the challenges that you experienced and how you faced them surprised me (in a good way). Thank you for sharing this. It seems to me that you learned how to think, learn and grow in ways that were unexpected and meaningful. Thank you for sharing.

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