Mar 10 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part II

1L of a RideThis is Part II of my guest posting derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I related to psychological distress in law students. This installment explores “The Perilous Second Semester”

II. The Perilous Second Semester

In a way I kind of feel as though the first semester was like me going into a burning building to pull somebody out of the fire. I wanted to go and was happy to do it, and after coming out I was glad I did it, but felt like I wouldn’t want to do it again. Now for the next semester I feel as though there is somebody else in the house and the fire has gotten worse. I groan and make myself go in again, and part of me wants to go back in, but in the back of my mind I’m aware of how tired I am from the first time and am a little more worried about whether or not I will get out of the building alive this time.

1L’s comment about starting the second semester

I’ve been teaching law for what seems like an eternity and, yet, until writing 1L of a Ride, had never given serious consideration to the second semester of law school as an entity of independent significance. Studying and surveying students at the University of Memphis brought home the realization that the second semester is, in fact, one of the most daunting challenges in all of law school, as reflected by the quotation above. How students respond to it is a crucial determinant of their long-term success. This is the juncture where students seem to make judgments and decisions about themselves and law school that play a large role in determining and defining their ultimate “law school selves.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve polled my Torts students at the start of the second semester with this online question:

What is your dominant feeling as you begin the second semester?

  • Excited
  • Tired
  • Bored
  • Depressed
  • Rested and ready

The most common answers by far are “Tired” and “Depressed.” Recently, I probed more deeply into student sentiments about starting the second semester. Just before classes began, I asked a section of Torts students to comment on, among other things, their state of mind and motivation and happiness levels in comparison to the first semester. The responses showed that, while some students feel better off in the second semester, a significant number are less happy and less motivated. I received several responses resembling this one:

  1. State of mind: Unhappy and sullen.
  2. Motivation level: Much less motivated—I’m already convinced I failed out of school, so the last thing I want to do is continue to work hard.
  3. Happiness level: The same amount of light unhappiness, but it’s for different reasons. In the beginning it was fear and anxiety. Now I just feel defeated.

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that many law students find the second semester more difficult and dispiriting than the first. With three months experience under their belts, one might think the second semester would be a “been there, done that” relative breeze. Students know how to read and brief cases, outline courses, and take law school exams. They’ve made good friends, the physical surroundings are familiar, and they’ve discovered that the Socratic method and the law profs who administer it aren’t as bad as the horror stories they heard before starting law school.

The Pitfalls of the Second Semester

While the above are all real advantages, the second semester carries with it a whole new set of challenges. I list and briefly describe them below. The book expands on them and offers ways for students to address them.

Ignorance can be bliss. The uncertainty of the first semester is a substantial cause of strain on 1Ls, but unveiling law school can be problematic as well. In the second semester uncertainty about law school is replaced by a disquieting certainty that it can be an exhausting, onerous drudge. As one student put it: “Now I know exactly what I’m walking into. First semester there was a bit of excited anticipation, etc. Now I know I’ll be in the library for the next four months.”

The thrill is gone. Students arrive at law school brimming with anticipation and energy. Seeing and feeling it is one of the great joys of being a 1L law teacher. But like romances that lose their dizzying effects when the newness wears off, law school becomes more of a chore than an adventure after the ebullience of the first semester subsides. In the words of bluesman B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

The double-edged grade blade. Depending how they turn out, first-semester grades can be either a major boost or impediment to starting the second semester. Most students begin law school with at least some hope of finishing near the top of their class, but, of course, the mathematical reality is that only 10 percent of students finish in the top 10 percent. Ninety percent don’t.

For those who performed well, first-semester grades can infuse new energy and confidence. But for every student whose confidence gets a jolt from grades, three or four others get their egos electrocuted. High expectations, previous educational success, mandatory grading curves, and an abundance of talented people create a perfect storm for dashed hopes. The storm is unleashed the moment first-semester grades are released.

Getting back in the groove. After going and going like the battery bunny on meth for three months, students finish that last exam of the first semester and everything suddenly stops. Many students don’t know what to do with themselves during the holiday break. They’re not used to having so much free time. Many report that they can’t enjoy the break at the beginning because they feel guilty about not studying. Then, just about the time they readjust to an unstructured lifestyle full of leisure time, it’s time to get back to the grind. One of my survey questions was: “The hardest thing for me about starting the second semester is [fill in the blank].” Getting back into the groove was the most common answer.

Increased competitiveness. To the extent competitiveness is a problem in law school, students tell me it gets worse in the second semester. I think much of it relates back to that first set of grades having been issued. In the first semester, everyone is in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat. The shared experience creates a communal bond. But once first semester grades have been issued, there seems to be a feeling—both among some high achievers and some lower-than-hoped-for achievers—of “Hey, you’re in that boat and I’m in this boat.”

Enhanced workload. Depending on the law school, a major cause of second-semester stress is an increased workload. Some schools (like the University of Memphis) add an extra course in the second semester. Some professors move at a quicker pace in the second semester, which means more material and longer reading assignments. And then, of course, there’s the appellate brief and oral argument, one of the heaviest burdens of 1L existence.

Second-guessing life as a lawyer. One obstacle some students face is larger than the second semester and even law school itself. It’s the global issue of wondering whether one made the right choice in sacrificing everything (e.g., time, effort, financial resources, relationships, other opportunities) to come to law school. Should I be here? Is this what I really want to do with my life? In the first semester, students are struggling just to keep up, giving them little time to ponder the long-term wisdom of their career choice. In the second semester, nagging doubts kept at bay in the first semester start to creep into consciousness.

Financial issues. Many students get panicky, or at least very concerned, about financial issues in the second semester. Students often arrive having saved enough money to get them through the first semester only to realize they need to start borrowing more heavily starting in the second semester. Debt load, in turn, takes on greater prominence as a source of anxiety as students begin to realize that the lawyer salary data they read about prior to attending law school—and which, unfortunately, draws many students to law school—is skewed. Those $160,000 starting salaries and lavish annual bonuses splashed across the media go to only a small percentage of top-performing students who land jobs at large law firms in big cities. To make matters worse, these days students are barraged with reports about many of those highly paid associates being laid off as a consequence of the weak economy.

Summer job anxiety. Students feel tremendous pressure in the second semester to land summer clerkships at law firms. In many cases, this pressure arises from pressing financial needs, but it also stems from an expectation that getting summer legal jobs is something 1Ls are supposed to do. Depending on the city and job market, obtaining a summer association position at a law firm may be in unconquerable obstacle for a 1L, especially for those who aren’t in the top of their class.

Becoming aware of these second-semester issues has made me be a better advisor/mentor to my students. I never used to mention any of these issues to my students. Most of them never even occurred to me. Now I talk about each of them at some point during the second semester. The discussions don’t eliminate my students’ stress or worries, but they do seem to help relieve them.

For further discussions about the book click here.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part II”

  1. David Kleinon 16 Mar 2009 at 12:00 am

    The summer job anxiety sadly continues into the 2L year. The first year it was horrible, especially with the declining economic climate. Interview after interview, and the only way I got a job was through a personal connection. More and more interviews the 2L fall semester and even more anxiety. This anxiety was quelled when I received an early offer and accepted. However, the “what if” factor set in, when I began wondering if I would have waited for the other firms to get back with me.

  2. Andrew McClurgon 17 Mar 2009 at 11:47 am

    It’s going to be interesting (to use a neutral word) to see the impact of the economy on the legal job market. Historically, the job market for lawyers has been fairly strong and stable, but we’re in uncharted waters here.

    I’m glad you have a job in hand for this summer. (And while I don’t encourage it as a general practice, it’s not unheard of to retract an acceptance if your dream job comes along in the meantime. I’d be interested in hearing others’ input on this point, as it is a question my students come to me with from time to time.)

    Meanwhile, going beyond summer jobs, it’s a shame there’s so much pressure to just “get a job” in the legal market these days, as opposed to having the luxury of focusing on getting a job one believes they might actually enjoy. But the good news about the legal profession is that moving from one job to another is common and accepted. When I started as a litigation associate (way back in the day), my unhappy life was made more unhappy by my mistaken belief that I was stuck there for life. In fact, most every lawyer I know has made one or more moves (often several) from place to place in their search for the right fit.

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