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August 04, 2006
ADVICE TO INCOMING FIRST-YEAR LAW STUDENTS: It's just about time for classes to start. The first year students at Cumberland begin orientation a week from Monday. I remember my first year experience as being profoundly challenging and humbling. Thinking back over my first-year, first semester experience and seeing first-year students from the other side (this is my eighth year teaching), I have a few pieces of advice for the up-and-coming first-year law student.
1. Treat law school like a job: I treated my first semester of law school like the third semester of my senior year, with predictable results when grades came out. While it may take you a bit to catch on to the expectations of law professors, the material in law school is not necessarily inherently difficult; rather, it simply takes time to master. It takes some students more time than others to catch on. (It took me at least two semesters.) Once I began to simply go to school and stay there until I had finished my work (as opposed to trying to "study" while watching the Braves or Melrose Place) I found myself much more confident in class and much less anxious come exam time. Don't fall into the trap of sitting around with other law students complaining about the amount of work you have, and never getting around to doing it.
2. Exercise: This is perhaps the most essential thing you can do (other than your classwork). Unfortunately, it is the first thing that harried law students convince themselves they're too busy to do. Nonesense. You're too busy not to do it. While not all law schools are like Georgetown and have an in-school gym, most universities have a nice student rec center (Tennessee sure does). Or just get out and walk or run. Not only is it good for you physically, but it is essential to mental well-being as well, allowing you to clear your mind, work off stress and frustration, and enable you to sleep well at night. Find fellow students to exercise with or, even better, find people who aren't in law school to spend time with as well!
3. Maintain Outside Interests: Law school is very time-intensive, especially in the first year. You (and, perhaps, you significant others) will be eating and sleeping the law for 10-12 hours a day. But while law school should be treated like a job, it shouldn't be regarded as a prison sentence (if it begins to feel like this, you might want to revisit your decision to go). Therefore, make time for the things that you liked to do before you went to law school. I liked to read, and as much reading as I did that was school-related, I felt it necessary to read some non-law-related material before falling asleep. I started reading "great books" that I didn't get to read in college. I carried one with me and would reward myself with a "reading break" while studying. I found that helped combat mental fatigue that inevitably accompanied long-term exposure to casebooks.
I'm sure others would have additional suggestions, but these are definitely my top three.