I have decided that this year, I am going to include some advice and demands of my law students beyond the normal variety. I have prepared a letter describing that advice. What do you think? What would you add? What would you take out?
As you begin your law study (and law career) things are moving quickly around you. You are building new relationships, continuing old ones that will have to adapt to your new surroundings, and engaging in a life-altering, rigorous study of the legal discipline. Some of you chose to be lawyers because of family. Some of you chose to become lawyers for the money. Some of you chose to be lawyers because of some meaningful interaction with the law some years ago. Some of you chose to become lawyers to pursue justice. Some of you had other reasons. Whatever was the basis for your decision, I am glad you made it. It shows that you are willing to take up a challenge.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Some of you that start will not finish law school. Some of you will decide that you would rather do something else. Kudos to you for making that decision! You came and tried the law and decided that it just wasn’t for you. Frankly all of you come to law school without significant personal experience being a lawyer. Its ok to decide that you do not want to be a lawyer. Some of you will not be able to handle the rigors of law school’s academics. Don’t get me wrong — we think you are capable. But some of you will decide that other things are more important than engaging in the type of study that law school requires. Some of you will face insurmountable obstacles that just don’t allow you to devote yourself to legal study. Let me say right now: that’s ok too. Some people are just not meant to be lawyers. It may be because they have more important work ahead of them. Or it may be that the timing is just not quite right at this moment. Seasons of life change slowly, and often we do not obtain the perspective necessary to know whether we should have stayed with something or not until years down the road. Don’t worry. Do your best and make the best decisions you can.
Now for some advice and demands, if I may.
First, be diligent in your work. Law school can feel overwhelming. Trust me, it is overwhelming. But you can make it and you can succeed. What you can’t do is just coast by. Remember that you are sitting next to people every bit as smart and talented as you are. For every minute that you are not working, someone else is working and gaining. Maintain a discipline of devotion to your studies – force yourself to work hard and not accept shortcuts. Treat this like a job. Designate reading hours for each week and keep to your schedule like you are being paid to do so.
Every year, students ask me what supplements I recommend. And every year, my answer is the same: your textbook is a supplement to our class periods; your notes are a supplement to the textbook; and my lectures are a supplement to your inquiry into both. Class supplements train your brain to be lazy in the disciplines of the primary things we do as lawyers – thinking. When you purchase a supplement you are allowing someone else to think for you. That will short-circuit your brain over time and leave you impaired. If you do choose to engage supplements, do so cautiously and in a very limited form.
Along those lines, don’t wait to begin your fidelity to diligence. Begin now with setting out the plans for how you think you will attack this course of study. Two things about that. First, don’t expect those plans to remain the same. Be flexible and allow them to change as they need to in order to meet your study demands. Second, don’t think that intelligence or other factors will make up for a lack of discipline. There is a fable of a boy who owned a corn field. Everyday he would wake up and say, I’ll hoe the corn tomorrow. Finally, the corn grew up so tall that rot began to set in. Still, the boy said, I will hoe my corn tomorrow. In early September, an early frost came and wiped out the boy’s corn crop. The moral of the story is start developing your work discipline now. I can assure you, December will be here before you know it.
In maintaining your discipline, don’t assume that you will be taught anything. This sounds odd doesn’t it? After all, you entered law school to learn from people, like me, who have had successful careers in the law. Notice I did not say that you would not learn. But law school is not a process in which you are given information to digest. Rather, you must engage actively in the learning process. Thus, expect that you will do a lot of self-learning, self-reflecting, and gain some understanding from that process. When you come to class, we will challenge your learning and understanding, and hopefully refine it in a way that forces you to reenter your textbook and re-examine what you thought you learned. Thus, class can be at times a demoralizing and often frustrating time. Be open to understanding and allow your Professors to challenge your knowledge. Let me say, I know this is an exhausting process. However, you will be a better law student, a better lawyer, and a better person by engaging in the type of discipline that assumes that you have created a base level of knowledge to work from.
Second, in your devotion to being diligent about work, communicate with those in your lives about what you are doing. Trust me, they do not want to hear it all. Trust me, they will tell you to stop very often. Rather than communicate about what you are learning, communicate about the process. Be honest with them about what you like, what you hate, what you are scared of, and what you expect to be coming out of this process. We often assume when we take on life-altering processes that everyone in our lives are on board for the change as well. That’s not always the case. Remember: You are the one that is in law school. You are the one that is changing. And you are the one with responsibilities and obligations to your professors and classmates. Your significant other, your partner, or your family may not be on board completely. You will find out soon enough. The most important thing you can do is communicate with them about this process and what you expect all along the way.
Finally, don’t assume that law school is only about learning the law. It’s not, though a great deal of our time is spent doing so. Law school, as part of the liberal education tradition, has a role in shaping you as a human being. We are also a professional school in that you are being trained to enter a profession. Part of being an engaged, and learned human, and being a member of the legal profession, is the ability to critically assess your knowledge and experiences against other people’s knowledge and experiences. On a personal level we call this self-awareness. When applied to the law, we call it policy. Let’s be clear about both. In order to do well at being both a human being and at being a lawyer, you have to both know the subject and be able to assess where it is going and where it should go. As a human, you have to know yourself to understand how to adapt. In the law, you have to know the “black letter law” before you can assess where the black letter law will go. Law school will do its share of teaching you not only the law, but how to critically analyze the law (and hopefully yourself too). Don’t resist either part, and don’t assume you can do one without the other.
To that end, be engaged! You will enjoy law school more, do better, and become a better thinker, and therefore a better lawyer. You will be thrust into classrooms where there are people from many many different backgrounds and experiences. Embrace those people, particularly the ones who are different than you. Learn from them. Allow your own beliefs and thoughts to be challenged, even the sacred ones. Particularly the sacred ones! Trust me, if they are meant to stand the test of time, not even law school will overcome them. Remember, law school, like every other hard venture you undertake will help you put miles on your soul – some of those miles include laughter, some include crying, and some, just are hard!
Because law school puts you in contact with so many different people, remember one key piece of advice and a demand if you are in my class – be courteous to everyone. Remember, your faculty, fellow students, and the staff that make this wonderful law school work are entitled to, and deserve your respect. As trying as law school is, there is no excuse for discourteous behavior. Little things matter – being on time to class, being prepared, saying thank you to staff members who assist you, speaking in proper tones – these things are very important. As an NYU business professor has said, these things in and of themselves will not make you successful – but failure to master them will certainly hold you back and prevent you from achieving the great possibilities that no doubt your talent and intellect prepare you for! As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “There is always time enough for courtesy.”
And don’t confuse your Professor’s attempt to frustrate you or challenge your thinking as discourteous behavior. The same is true when we may show intolerance for laziness, lack of preparation, or inartful expressions. All of these things are for your benefit. Your Professors are interested in your development and success. That should be the default assumption regarding any actions that your Professors take towards you. Until there is evidence to the contrary (and I don’t mean your grade in a particular class) you should assume that your Professors (each one of them) are vitally committed to do whatever it takes to develop you as a law student, lawyer, and more importantly a human being.
And along the lines of courteous interactions, be helpful to everyone – including your fellow students. Share outlines and notes with each other. Be a resource for each other. Discuss together. In short, be a community for each other. I learned the most by helping friends understand.
Finally, a word of advice to those of you who are more successful than your peers. Be humble about your accomplishments. Don’t brag. Be measured and restrained in your accomplishments. Trust me, there will be many opportunities to celebrate your well-deserved accolades. However, boasting of your own accomplishments creates an atmosphere of distrust and disdain. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The louder he spoke of his virtue, the faster we counted our spoons.” Decide to believe that everyone, yourself included, are smart capable people. Do not discount anyone. Instead resolve to do your best and allow your successes, whether measured or great, to speak for themselves.
You are an accomplished group. Welcome to the next phase of your life. Embrace it. Enjoy it, as hard as it may be. Allow it to put miles on your soul.