Scare you to death, work you to death, bore you to death

One of the very first things I heard as a 1L, from one of my favorite professors, was this old law school adage. Supposedly, it goes like this: “1L – scare you to death; 2L – work you to death; 3L – bore you to death.”  For whatever reason, that saying got stuck in my head early on. I know I’ve blogged about it before. To be completely honest, I got pretty fixated on this phrase, and I’ve spent most of my law school career passively trying to figure out if it’s accurate or not. Well, big news! I’m graduating in 2 weeks, 10 hours, and 24 minutes (I may or may not have a countdown clock installed on my computer), and this may very well be my last ever blog post as a law student, so I’ve decided that the time has come to share my answer!

1L – Scare you to death. Answer: True, with one caveat

Listen, 1L was scary. That might be the word I would most use to describe it, actually, even if I hadn’t heard that scare you work you bore you thing. Every single experience for most of the first year, from cold calls to summer job interviews to moot court to briefing cases, was completely, horrifically, new.  I was at a particular disadvantage (or at least it felt that way) because I knew virtually nothing about the law when I sat down in that first Contracts class. I had to learn basic procedural things (like what summary judgment meant), along with the substantive law that was being pounded into my brain 29 hours a day. The threat of a cold call loomed over me always, made even worse by the fact that I didn’t understand 90% of what I was reading for the first few months. I was terrified of making mistakes and revealing the full depth of my idiocy to the entire class, and that was the scariest part.

Even after settling into a groove sometime around November, 1L was still scary. Law school finals are unlike any other tests most people have taken, so preparing for them for the first time is akin to jumping into a swimming pool that might be filled with water but also might be filled with lava. I had no clue what to expect. Furthermore, I’ve never felt the same amount of pressure and fear of failure as I did as a first semester 1L. Your grades are curved against your peers, and it’s almost impossible not to measure yourself against what others are saying or doing. I was prepping as hard as I could for tests that I didn’t know how to take, and I was convinced that everyone was doing everything better than me.

Finally, other parts of 1L were scary, too. I didn’t know how or when to apply for jobs, let alone which jobs to apply for. I was nervous about making new friends. I was terrified the first time I had to argue a case during moot court, in front of a panel of fake judges. I had to learn how to do legal citations with the BlueBook, which is a bafflingly complex process. I had to go to job interviews with attorneys and try to convince them that my 7 months of law school made me somehow qualified to work for them. It just seemed like, every time I started to feel secure during 1L, there was always a new experience that I had to conquer, and I couldn’t get my bearings to save my life.

The caveat about “scare you to death” year is this: although 1L was absolutely terrifying in so many ways, I came out of that year truly proud of myself in a way that I have never felt, either before or since. I sort of hate the term “self-growth,” but that’s what happened to me. I went into 1L unsure of so many things about myself, and I came out a totally different person. I think I learned more in my first two semesters in law school than I did in my entire college career, and I was truly amazed at how far I had come. Even better, I got decent grades, I made new friends, I learned that I was pretty good at moot court, and I figured out that my time/stress management skills were on par with the best of them. Basically, I came out of 1L year with the confidence that I might actually be a good lawyer one day, and I truly mean it when I say that all the fear in the world is worth it if it ultimately produces that kind of confidence in your own abilities.

2L – Work you to death. Answer: Absolutely, unequivocally true.

For the past two years, I’ve been a 1L advisee, which means I am paired up with two or three 1Ls and I pass down to them my sage words of wisdom about law school. Given my impending graduation, I guess it’s time to admit something: I’ve been blatantly lying to my advisees. You see, in the midst of all that 1L terror, when grades and cold calls weigh upon you every moment of every day, it’s really hard to accept the possibility that there might actually be an even harder phase of law school ahead of you. That knowledge might make you lose hope on the whole endeavor. So, when my advisees say to me, “1L is the hardest, though, right?” I nod and I look them in the eyes and I say, “Oh yeah, it definitely is.”

This statement is a blatant, bold-faced lie. I say it for the greater good of my advisees, because thinking about 2L is the absolute last thing they need to do in the middle of finals, but it’s a lie. 2L is the hardest, if by “hardest” you mean “the hardest year of your entire life to date in finding any kind of work-life balance.” This is due to a combination of factors. Most noticeably, your workload in individual classes goes up drastically; professors assume that, with one year of law school under your belt, you’re much better at briefing cases and understanding legal principles than you used to be. Although that’s true, it’s still quite the transition to go from having say, 15 pages of reading for one 4-credit class each night, to something more like 40. Multiply that by two or three, and suddenly you have a massive amount of reading to do every day.

The second problem is that you’re expected to participate in more things outside of strictly schoolwork as a 2L. Journals, moot court, clinics, mock trial, student organizations, pro bono activities, and many, many other things are all options that are available to you, and guess what? You really need to participate in at least some of them in order to have something to put on that nice top portion of your resume, a.k.a. the thing employers see first. Finally, you have the issue of trying to get a job lined up for your 2L summer. By this point, you probably have a better idea of what field you may want to go into, and it can be paradoxically more stressful trying to figure out how to get a toe in that particular door than when you were a 1L, hoping that someone somewhere on earth would hire you to do something that was even vaguely related to law. The job search often stretches well into the spring, so you’re juggling all of your increased school responsibilities with that whole process as well, and it can be very, very hard to manage.

There are things you can do to alleviate this stress, of course. You can make sure not to take more than a couple of four-credit classes each semester; you can choose carefully about how many extracurriculars you want to get involved with, from journal to moot court to clinics; you can (maybe) get a firm job for your 2L summer lined up before school even starts so you won’t have to worry about interviews all year. But the thing is: you almost certainly aren’t going to be able to do all of those things.  I personally thought, at the beginning of 2L, that I was doing a good job of managing my time. I took four classes each semester, roughly 14 or 15 credits total; I joined a journal; and I participated in moot court during the fall and the spring. That was pretty much it. On paper it seemed fine and yet, somehow, my schedule still meant that I spent more weekends than not holed up in my apartment like a hoarder, surrounded by giant books and pondering why on earth I had done this to myself. My work-life balance was at an all-time low that year and, sadly, I think that’s a pretty typical experience for 2Ls.

My point is simply this: 2L WILL be stressful. It just will be. It might not be as bad as mine, or it might be worse, but you will absolutely be shocked by how much more work you have to do than when you were a 1L. For that reason, I have to conclude that 2L is most certainly the “work you to death” year.

3L – Bore you to death. Answer: Not true.

It might seem like I’m lying when I say that this one isn’t true, but it really isn’t! (Keep in mind that I’m graduating in 2 weeks and I already have a job lined up, so I really don’t have much of an incentive to lie about how my last year of law school has been.)

One of the great things about surviving 2L is that you probably knocked out a ton of core, bar-tested classes along the way: things like Corporations, Trusts, Wills, & Estates, and Administrative Law. This means that your 3L schedule is much more open, and you can finally (hopefully) fill your days with classes that interest you. That was my experience, anyways. As a 3L, I took legal history classes, a 14th Amendment class with one of my favorite professors, and a Law and Sexual Minorities seminar that ended up being probably my favorite class in law school. None of these classes were boring to me, because they were about subjects I’m interested in.

So, no, I wouldn’t say 3L is “boring” per se. But the year does feel … something. It’s not quite that classes are irrelevant, but things like grades and class attendance matter much less to you as a 3L than they did earlier. A large part of this is the frustration you feel at being so close to graduating and facing the real life problems of being a lawyer, yet still being saddled with a ton of schoolwork. You have to get a job lined up, which is more critical to your success than all the A’s in the world, and you have to start preparing for taking the bar in July. Even more than that, I think, is the fact that many 3Ls are just tired by this point. It’s hard to keep that level of dedication up for three solid years, and I think most people are ready to begin a new phase of their careers by the time spring of 3L rolls around. All of this means that 3L is a very particular type of psychological struggle, but it’s certainly not boring!

Whew! That was a long blog post! Then again, it’s been a long three years, so I guess that makes sense. I’m not sure if I’ll write another post or not before graduation, so I’ll just say now that it’s been very fun to share my thoughts on this blog throughout my law school experience. To any law school hopefuls out there: I hope some of the things I’ve said have been even slightly helpful to you in deciding whether law school is the right choice for you. And finally, I’ll conclude by saying that, to anyone struggling through law school right now, I promise you will make it through. You can do this!

One Comment

Michael Levine posted on October 8, 2016 at 11:37 am

All of that makes sense. But once you cut through that fog you will discover that law school success is an easily attainable goal. it does not have to be scary or painful. Take a few minutes to learn from those that have been through it before and work with students on a regular basis. See our Blog posts for valuable perspectives. Work smart!

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *