September: Law students should take it in stride
- Subtitle: Ab Initio
For many, September represents a time of new resolutions. Stemming from those ingrained back-to-school feelings, many individuals set new goals. For law students, the prospect of overcoming last year’s academic struggles can guide their September aspirations. No matter what year a law student is in, the fall renews ambition. There are clubs to join, moots to consider, potential jobs to look into and study habits to improve. Whether starting your law school career or breezing into third year, a successful school year requires a plan in September. Here are a few suggestions to maintain a level head academically, while still participating in extracurricular activities.
For the incoming class, “clubs day” is exciting. Most schools have a wide variety to choose from. In joining a club, students are able to engage in an area of law that their first-year classes may not explore. They can be exposed to legal causes that, for example, may ignite a passion for social justice and demonstrate the many uses of a law degree. There is something for everyone.
It’s important to be selective. Choose something exciting that can add a new dimension to an already packed resumé or, if completely undecided, find a friendly group and build relationships with classmates. Julie, a new lawyer in Ottawa, remembers her days in school and advises, “While you might want to join every club that sounds interesting, pick one or two activities for the year and really commit to them. You will get more out of it.”
By second and third year, students are aware of how a club is run and what membership entails. They may want to become executives. At this point, even if career options are still being explored, it’s time to direct attention to specifics — do you see yourself practising commercial law? Join the business law club. Interested in criminal law? Maybe join the school’s club for defence of the wrongly convicted. Be sure to take an active role because, at the very least, it gives you something to talk about in a job interview.
No matter what year of law school, students always pledge that “this year will be different.” Most students can improve their study habits. In his book The Power of Habit (highly recommended), Charles Duhigg writes “habits [. . .] emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.” Habits are unavoidable, but they’re not cemented. By the time law school begins, most study habits have formed. They don’t change easily, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change.
First, it is critical to pinpoint one shortcoming at a time. For example, a procrastinator writing a research paper may think “once the research is done, the paper will write itself.” Write this habit down, then develop a plan on how to change. Again, be realistic. Perhaps once the research is done, the writing begins the next day. There will be a strong pull to the old habit, but be diligent. Offer yourself a reward for implementing the new behaviour. When the new habit has been set (which may take a while), move on to another. Again, if this is a major challenge, check out Duhigg’s book.
The other stuff
Moots. Teams. Jobs. Clinics. There are so many opportunities for law students. In the competitive law school environment, students are constantly looking for experiences that will make them unique to future employers.
New students: Slow down. Before signing up to the more demanding experiences, do the research.
Speak to upper-year students, professors and the dean. They will offer candid explanations of the workload, the commitment and the expectations each activity demands.
Listen. If it seems overwhelming, focus on your schoolwork. As a first-year student, it is likely that you have not experienced the workload that comes with law school; take your time and do not exhaust yourself with the extras. Like clubs, be selective and committed — you can always broaden your experience next year.
For upper years, the “other stuff” gives experience that employers appreciate and, nowadays, come to expect. While not mandatory, these extracurricular activities can help develop skills that are practical for a career in law. Even more importantly, they can expose areas of the law that are right or wrong for you to practise.
Law school is busy and law students are motivated. In the end, the key to a successful start is remembering why you’re there: Is it to attend classes and get the grades or are you looking for a more holistic experience? Sophie, an experienced lawyer in Ottawa, suggests, “The best way to survive a year of law school — or make it to the end without burning out — is to set a routine and stick to it. It should include study periods at hours that are most productive for you, as well as some well-deserved leisure time for non-law-related activities to help clear your mind. The goal is to stay on track but also remain balanced.” A strong school year requires a strong, planned September.
Julie offers some sound final words.
“Before you start stressing out about moots, clubs and clinics, remember that half of the battle is showing up to class and paying attention.”
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