Skip to content

Studying law south of the border

Reflecting on the first semester of law school and being trained to be a 'lawyer of the future.'

At the beginning of August my mom and I packed up a rented white Subaru with clear garbage bags full of clothing and boxes of books and knick-knacks and made the drive from Toronto and State College, Pennsylvania. I was to start law school the following week at Penn State and needed my mom with me for moral support, and to fill my fridge with groceries from Trader Joe’s.

The first week of class was, unlike what I had become accustomed to during undergrad, not a “syllabus week.” There were already reading assignments and the threat of a looming September deadline for our first big project. That first week was rough. I quickly adopted all the anxieties of family members who were afraid that I would be at a disadvantage because I had not been through the American education system already and spent the first week too exhausted to cry. This wasn’t how my whole semester was, but it definitely was how I spent my first week living as an American student.

As the semester went on, I fell into somewhat of a groove. After doing some reading online about how to survive and thrive during your first semester of law school, I, in fits of ambition, meal-prepped and made large dishes to last a couple of weeks. The thinking was that since I spend much of my time reading, having dinner ready when I trudged home bleary-eyed from a day cooped up at the library was just practical. Each time I did this, however, I quickly grew tired of eating whatever soup, pasta, or casserole and banished it to the freezer. Currently there are three giant Ziploc containers living in the freezer, filled with dinners from long ago.

What surprised me the most this semester was just how difficult it was to manage my time. I had always been the sort of person who kept an agenda and scheduled myself to the minute, but that system fell apart fast. During the first little bit of school I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to be at school for 7 a.m., and always plan to leave the law building by 6 p.m. I discovered very quickly that a) I do not particularly like waking up at 5:30 a.m. and b) I would often find myself at school until 8 or 9 p.m., allowing that 6 p.m. leave-by deadline to pass me by. This may work for some people, but, as some very wise 2Ls told me, that kind of schedule does not work for everybody.

The best advice I got this semester was, generally, that if something doesn’t work for you, you shouldn’t force it. What ended up actually working for me was a mixture of going to the library early in the morning to study for a couple of hours before class and going home right after classes on other days for a few hours then returning to school to put in a few hours there. I found that I really enjoyed being in the library at times when the least number of students were there. This realization also spawned another great law school lesson: you don’t need a study group to succeed. The way I always saw law school depicted in movies was that the law student experience revolved around a study group. Personally, my best studying was done alone or with one other person. I did give studying in a group the good ol’ college try, but, again, it just wasn’t for me. As I am getting my grades back, I am also happy to report that not having a study group did not hurt me in the long run.

Having gone to undergrad in Toronto — the same city I was born in, grew up in, and attending all my other schooling in — I was more than ready to leave. What did not occur to me was just how much I would actually miss home. This longing for home was especially strong in October, after having spent more than two months in school. Around thanksgiving (Canadian thanksgiving) myself and a couple of the other 1Ls from Canada planned and hosted a thanksgiving potluck dinner at my apartment. This dinner happened to fall on the week our first major assignment for the legal writing class was due, and possibly I should have been working on the paper, but that dinner was needed for so many other reasons.

Now that I am home and am being asked by acquaintances, friends and family about my legal education in the United States, I always start each conversation with the disclaimer that I am fortunate enough to be attending law school on a full-tuition scholarship. Because of this I cannot speak to what it takes to finance education in the U.S. beyond rent, books, and groceries, but for this opportunity, I would not be where I am right now. Past that, I am prepared to say (and to use the oft-quoted “lawyer of the future” line) that I feel as if I am being trained to be a “lawyer of the future.” In first year, we have the fairly standard substantive classes: torts, property, contracts …etc, but what I appreciate about my institution is the upper-year classes and clinics that in part teach us about modern technology at use in practice, the various lecturers that visit the law building to speak on their experiences and predictions for the future of practice, and the lunchtime demonstrations on different legal artificial intelligence tools.

This winter break I’ve been asked by a few different aspiring law students about advice on law school in general, and specific advice to those looking to cross the border for school. For the latter I say: don’t be intimidated by the amount of paperwork you’ll have to fill out, the Canadian banks that won’t approve you for a student line of credit because you’re not attending school in Canada, and the general bureaucracy you’ll encounter.

The first semester of law school has certainly had many ups and downs, but I am nonetheless looking forward to tackling second semester with renewed zeal, after having eaten a few home-cooked meals, of course.

Lisa Cumming is a former intern at Canadian Lawyer magazine and a first year law student attending Penn State.