Surviving the First Year of Law School


If you are a public interest student, you might have had this experience. You went to law school because you thought a law degree would help you contribute to the world. But after the heady excitement of the first few weeks wears off, you find yourself disappointed. Your classes barely touch on anything related to your interests at all. Instead, you spend hour after hour reading old, crusty cases written by dead judges about legal principles you couldn’t care less about. You are surrounded by students who seem to have been born to go to law school and who always know the answers in class. You quickly get sucked into the competition for grades, even though everything you are learning seems pointless. Suddenly, everyone is competing for summer associate jobs, and even though you never wanted to work at a law firm, you start to feel nervous. Maybe you should be applying too? You alternate between feeling like you are already falling behind to thinking that maybe law school was a mistake.

The first year of law school is a rite of passage for every law student, but it can be particularly tough for public interest students. The first-year curriculum, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, is not exactly designed with future public interest lawyers in mind. And because you are taking the same classes as everyone else in your law school class, the herd mentality is hard to avoid. Many public interest students end up feeling bored, anxious, alienated, and confused in their first year.

The good news is that it will get better. By your second year, you will have most of your required courses out of the way, and you will be able to pick classes that align better with your interests. You will also be able to focus less on your classes and spend more time on volunteering, experiential learning, and extra-curriculars that will remind you why you came to law school in the first place. You will find other law students who are also hoping to chart a different path, and you will find professors and other mentors who want to support you.

Here are a few suggestions to get you through that difficult first year:

(1) Remember that it will get better. This may seem obvious, but not all law students understand how sui generis the first year of law school really is. It will get easier in your second year, and easier still in your third year. Just knowing that your misery is temporary may help you endure it.

(2) Don’t let law school consume your life. Keep strong connections with friends and family who knew you before you went to law school and can remind you of why you went. It will be easier to resist the herd mentality if you have a social life outside of law school.

(3) Find peers in your class with similar goals. This will happen naturally in your second and third years, but you can make an effort to find other public-interest minded students in your first year too. Although it might not seem like it, there are other students in your classes having the exact same thoughts as you. Find them as early as possible so you can commiserate together.

(4) Talk to someone who has already been through what you are experiencing. This might be an upperclassman or a recent graduate. Whoever it is, you want to find someone who can give you the much needed perspective you need to stick to your goals and not be sidetracked by what everyone else is doing.

(5) Find volunteer work that connects you to the communities you hope to serve. Most law schools discourage or prohibit 1Ls from participating in extracurricular activities because they want you focusing on your classes. You definitely should not overschedule yourself during your first year of law school, but you don’t need to spend every minute of every day studying. Find a way to give back that keeps you connected to your goals.

Most students who abandon their public interest dreams do so by the beginning of their second year, when students apply for law firm jobs for their second summer (many of which will turn in to permanent offers of employment). If you can remember why you came to law school during this first year, you are more likely to graduate into a job and career you actually want.

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