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  • Writer's pictureKath Hall

Why the first year at law school is so HARD

Updated: Jun 16

Getting into Law School is tough but for many law students - the first year studying law is even harder. Why? Well - there's the workload, the reading, the assessment, the other students (who all seem to be coping fine) and the persistent negative thoughts that maybe you made a mistake in studying law and don't have what it takes to make it through.

But before you start thinking you are the only one who is struggling - consider this. AT LAW SCHOOL EVERYTHING IS NEW. The content, the terminology, the skills required, the forms of assessment - all of these things are like learning a foreign language where no one speaks English. Even if you have had some experience with the law before you start - chances are this will make very little difference once you are buried in the details of Contract Law, Torts, Public Law or Statutory Interpretation, or completing a Case Note, Memorandum of Advice, hypothetical answer to a problem question or research essay for the first time.

In other words, law school involves learning a lot of new skills at the same time as you are taking in large amounts of information in courses where everything seems important. It can be overwhelming!

So what do you do? Well, first off it's good to acknowledge that you are at the bottom of a steep learning curve and things will get easier.

Many law students later report that, while first year seemed to constantly involve learning new things, meeting new people, passing or failing courses and just getting by - second year was much better. By next year, you will understand more about what the law is, how law school works, what the best study techniques are and how to do well in assessment.

Second, it helps to remember that the people teaching you are experts in their field (as both teachers and subject experts). This means they will often skip explaining the fundamentals of what they are teaching - including how to study the topic and do well in assessment - because they assume you know these things.

As John D Branson et al write in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School

"The expert’s fluency can conceal the very principles and strategies that the novice must learn in order to become more expert. These principles and strategies are often invisible even to the expert precisely because they are second nature. And they’re invisible to the novice observing the expert because they’re implicit in the expert’s work."

This may mean you need to look outside of law school (see the skills sessions run by Law School Success or books such as Law Student Survival Guide) to fill these gaps.

Third, don't take your marks too seriously. Nobody expects you to get straight Distinctions in first year and, if you do, chances are you may not be able to explain why. Doing well in law assessments requires you to master the technique of legal research, writing and - most importantly - developing a legal argument. This last skill is a big one - and can take years to develop. It is at the heart of learning to "think like a lawyer" and is one of the most fundamental skills law school aims to teach.

Finally, appreciate that many of the challenges you are experiencing are about the way law school operates - not about you. These can include that:

  • every student you study with is intelligent and driven or they wouldn’t be at law school. This means the competition to do well and get good marks is very high,

  • often there is little feedback provided on how you are doing during a course, particularly if large end of semester exams are involved,

  • the measures of success (top marks, committee positions, paralegal jobs, clerkships and prizes) can seem impossible to achieve or may not be of interest to you (but the question becomes what do you do?)

  • there is a very narrow idea of the “ideal law student” and you may not be it. This can lead to feelings that you don’t fit in or have made a mistake in attending law school (you haven’t by the way!)

  • little attention may be given to the social, political and economic effects of law, or to the inequalities that pervade law school, the legal system and society,

  • there may be little connection between your life at law school and the outside world. Your partner, friends or family may have trouble understanding why you are stressed or always studying, and

  • the pressure to get a law job at the end of your study can feel intense, particularly if you do not know whether you will enjoy working in the law or find it meaningful.

Whatever your experience of first year studying law - remember you are not alone in how you are feeling. Most students are probably experiencing law school just the same way as you so please reach out to others (including Law School Success) and get the support you need.


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