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Dear Law Prof: How Can I Be Successful and Happy in My First Year of Law School

Dear Law Prof,
I am starting law school this fall and wondered if you have any advice or suggestions about how to be successful and happy in my first year?
– Almost Minted 1L

Dear Almost Minted,
We’re happy to share our advice with you. We’re including our handout of what we wish we had known when we were about to start law school – and what we wish we had known during law school. Happy reading!
– The Law Profs


Seven Things You Need to Know to Be Happy in Law School


For those of you who are just beginning law school, we thought it would be helpful to prepare you for what is to come with seven things you need to know to be happy in law school. And, for those of you already in law school, this can serve as a review and guide. We want to build on your hopes and expectations about law school to help you be happy — and successful.

1. Law School Is Not College

This may seem like an obvious point, but it is hard to overstate how important it is for you to understand the many ways in which law school is different from your previous educational experience. Law school is much more focused and demanding. You may not be accustomed to the model of a single exam at semester’s end. Likely for the first time, you will be preparing for work that you will do for the rest of your professional life. To succeed, you may have to change the study and class preparation habits you have developed over the course of your education. The most significant thing to understand in making those changes is that:

2. All of Law School Is Skills Training, and the Skills Are Different Types of Judgment

Law school does require a certain amount of the kind of learning that you did in college, but law school is more like tennis lessons than it is like learning anatomy. Yes, you will need to understand legal doctrine, but what you will be tested on is your skill at applying that legal doctrine to complex sets of facts. Your skill at developing that kind of analytical judgment and using it within the organized structure of legal writing will determine the grades you receive. In addition, you will be required to develop your tactical and strategic judgment about how best to analyze and litigate cases and your ethical and moral judgment about what lawyers may and may not do for their clients.

This distinction between memorizing knowledge and developing and refining a skill is crucial for several reasons. First, you have to practice these skills in and outside of class in order to improve. The students who perform best on exams have put themselves through quite a few sets of them in preparation. (It is kind of like the difference between preparing for a 5K race by reading about running or by logging a lot of miles.) Second, some 1Ls have already practiced these skills while others have learned different styles of writing (like journalistic writing) that will have to be unlearned in order to succeed at legal analysis. Finally, because you are learning a skill, you will have to be prepared to make a lot of mistakes and cope with a fair amount of uncertainty with how well you are acquiring the skills, which brings us to point three:

3. Learn to Succeed and Fail or Fail to Learn Successfully

A lot of famously successful people have talked about the importance of accepting failure as an inevitable part of the path to success. Thomas Edison was fond of saying, “I failed my way to success,” while Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM said, “if you want to double your success rate, double your failure rate.” If you want a really eloquent take on the importance of learning to fail, check out J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech here.

Learning to fail is even more important to succeeding in law school. Failure is a part of learning any skill, so you have to accept that you are going to hit the ball into the net many times, and sometimes you will even hit the ball out of the court and into the neighboring swimming pool. If you let failure bother you, you will have a miserable existence in law school — everyone makes mistakes, and should do so! Indeed, the Socratic method of teaching, which is commonly used in many law school classes, depends upon imperfect answers for its success. If every student were able to give a perfect answer in class, then it would be a lecture in dialog format. The reason the Socratic method is useful is that it allows the professor to work with a student to get from an imperfect answer to a better answer in a logical way that allows the student to practice the analytical technique that will be tested on the final exam. Making mistakes helps you acquire the skills necessary to succeed in law school as long as you remember point four.

4. You Have to Believe In Your Ability to Improve

The judgment skills you will learn in law school are not fixed; legal education is a long process, and your skill levels will improve dramatically over time … as long as you continue to believe in your ability to improve. People acquire skills at different rates, and because not everyone starts at the same skill level, the progress they make varies even further. As a result, the first grades you receive are not necessarily a particularly good indicator of how well you will acquire the skill of legal analysis by the end of law school. Moreover, the analytical and judgment skills we teach in law school are just one part of what will determine your ultimate success as a lawyer. The only thing we can be certain of is that if you fail to believe in your ability to improve, you will almost certainly fulfill that expectation. A huge amount of social psychology research supports this conclusion, and we will discuss it in more detail in upcoming columns. Of course, you will be concerned about your early grades, but one way to deal with that stress is to:

5. Create Your Own Definition of Success

It is a lot easier to resist the stress of law school if you have a good idea of why you are there and where you want to be headed. People who are driven by their own goals and ambitions (those who are intrinsically motivated) are much more resistant to stress and depression than those who are extrinsically motivated — those who strive simply to satisfy others’ standards by getting good grades, doing what their parents want, making law review, etc. The sooner you figure out why you are in law school, what your passion is, and where you are headed, the better able you will be to survive the difficulties you encounter in law school. The happier law students are the ones who work on figuring out what interests them: they have conversations with professors, job shadow people in their chosen field, attend lectures in other departments on campus, or pursue their own writing, service, or foundation building projects. We will write more in the future about how to figure out what goals are right for you. For now, just recognize the importance of defining and pursuing your own personal goals, not the goals that others think are important. In the meantime, because law school can create stress and, potentially, problems for your relationships with others, it is important to:

6. Recognize That Happiness Is a Habit

Law school will teach you many skills and build many habits that will be professionally advantageous in your career. Unfortunately, many of these skills and habits will be counterproductive when applied to your personal life and your close relationships with other people. You need to resist the use of your newly acquired analytical skills in your intimate relationships. At home, don’t brief the issue of who has to take out the garbage. You don’t want to be like the student of one of the authors who happily reported that law school was really paying off because he was starting to win all of his arguments with his girlfriend. We promise that’s one of the quickest routes to having an ex-girlfriend. What you learn in law school should guide you in your professional life, not your personal life.

Law school teaches you to look for problems and mistakes, habits that do not promote happiness when applied to your personal life. For reasons we will talk about more in future columns, however, it can be very difficult to avoid applying these critical analytical skills you learn in law school to your personal life. One of the best ways to counter that tendency is to spend a little time each night writing about three things from your day for which you are grateful. This little exercise has been empirically shown to help people avoid an overemphasis on the negative aspects of their life and improve their subjective well being. You can also condition yourself towards positive thoughts about difficult challenges: “I learned pretty quickly that all judges’ first names don’t begin with the letter ‘J.’ I can master this part. If I hit something I can’t understand, I will research it or talk to someone.” Repeated positive thoughts can improve your outlook on life and improve your relationships with other people. And that leads us to our final point:

7. Relationships Matter

If we can leave you with one thought, it would be this: The best way to start a solid professional foundation (and to deal with law school stresses) is by building and maintaining good relationships with your law school colleagues and your friends and family outside of law school. University of Michigan psychologist Chris Peterson is fond of summing up the entire field of positive psychology in three words: “Other people matter.” More than any other thing, those relationships will help you to experience law school as the most exciting and satisfying challenge of your life.

The Law Profs

The law profs are: Naomi Cahn (left) and Todd Peterson (center), GWU Law School, and Nancy Levit (right), UMKC School of Law.

Please send your questions to with the subject line Dear Law Prof.

About the Author

Nancy Levit holds both a Curator’s Professorship and the Edward D. Ellison Professorship at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law School. She teaches Defamation & Privacy, Employment Discrimination, Gender & Justice, Jurisprudence, and Torts, and is the co-advisor to the UMKC Law Review. Professor Levit has been voted by the students as the Law School’s Outstanding Professor of the Year three times and she has received the Elmer Pierson Faculty Teaching Award three times as well, the N.T. Veatch Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity, the UMKC Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011, and the Missouri Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She will be profiled in Professor Michael Schwartz’s book, What the Best Law Teachers Do, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2012. She is the author of The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law, and the co-author (with Richard Delgado and Robert L. Hayman, Jr.) of Jurisprudence—Classical and Contemporary, the co-author (with Robert R.M. Verchick) of Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer, and the co-author (with Douglas Linder) of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. Her areas of expertise include family law, adoption law, and reproductive technology. She has written numerous law review articles on family law, feminist jurisprudence, and other subjects, and has co-authored several books, including, with June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families (OUP 2010). She has co-authored casebooks in family law and trusts and estates. She is a Senior Fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a member of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, and a board Member of the Donor Sibling Registry. Prior to joining the faculty at George Washington in 1993, Professor Cahn practiced with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC, and as a staff attorney with Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services. During college, she was a student teacher for high school students, and she received a Teaching Certificate.

Todd Peterson joined the Law School faculty in 1987. Earlier, he had been a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm of Ross, Dixon & Masback, where he specialized in commercial litigation. Professor Peterson also served as an attorney adviser in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is responsible for providing advice to the attorney general and White House on constitutional law issues. He began practice in the fields of administrative and commercial litigation at the D.C. firm of Crowell & Moring. Professor Peterson has served as a consultant to the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal and as co-chair of the D.C. Circuit Special Committee on Race and Ethnic Bias. From 1997 to 1999, Professor Peterson returned to the Office of Legal Counsel to serve as deputy assistant attorney general. Professor Peterson teaches civil procedure, federal courts, and separation of powers. He writes principally in the areas of separation of powers and the federal judicial system.

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