Apparently, the best way to get someone to read something these days is to promise a definitive short-list. That is why every magazine seems to boast of the “5 strategies to your fastest marathon” or “7 secrets to losing 50 pounds effortlessly” or “6 strategies for X-rated things that are quite properly not the topic of this blog”.
So, to tap into the list-obsessed zeitgeist of the times, I propose 5 unorthodox strategies for excelling in law school. These are based on qualitative observations of thousands of students over 10 years, without much rigorous quantitative data – another way in which this post resembles those magazine articles. Before we begin, a quick terminological note: by “excel” I mean more than “get lots of As”. I mean: sucking the marrow from the bone of law school, seizing the day, carpe diem, etc.
1. Do Better in School by Doing Less in It:
Studying law is like a goldfish. A goldfish will expand into a good-sized carp if you take it from bowl and place it in a pond. Likewise, law school will consume every waking moment, if you let it. Everyone’s point of diminishing returns is different, but the reality is that you quickly reach it. At some point, the extra hour spent really, deeply understanding an extraneous factual detail in that obscure 1957 case in your property class produces no additional quantum of skill, understanding or intellectual well-roundedness. It also doesn’t produce a better mark.
The fact is that in law school you luxuriate in ridiculous, billowing blankets of time. Law students don’t believe us when we tell them this – they think they work hard. And then on the first day on the job, they discover that they’re expected to turn out work-product in five hours that we give them five weeks to do. I love the visit from the former law student halfway through their articling job that amounts to a “I had no idea, boy was law school bubbly and effervescent” admission.
So do your schoolwork, but don’t live to work at school. That is not an invitation to squander life’s precious moments on the Xbox. Instead, be the law student you read about and see in the movies, the one that doesn’t let the distance between the present and the freshly minted JD degree stop them from being a force to be reckoned with and a public citizen. And that’s strategy number 2.
If you combine strategy numbers 1 and 2, you’ll likely find that it hones your time management skills, and makes you very efficient. And that is one of the most important attributes you could ever hope to acquire in law school.
2. The Credential is Not the Starting Line:
That shiny new law degree is not the beginning of life’s career race. It is more like the aid station in the marathon: a nice little hit of Gatorade. The race should begin long before – for many law students, it began in the distant past, if their admissions personal statements are any indication. To continue the sporting analogy, while in law school Just Do It. Just do it if you have any interest in a career in social justice, human rights, environment, development, international law – any alternative career. Very few people – nay, NO ONE – goes forth with a fresh JD and an empty resume and finds a job in this sector.
This is the way it works: while in law school, you volunteer or intern; you prove reliable; you make yourself indispensable. Then, as you graduate, someone in the organization that loves you goes on parental leave. And so you get an acting position. And while there, other opportunities arise. And because you’re so good at your job and so entrepreneurial, before you know it, you’re working at the international secretariat in London, England. So the starting line in this race is NOW, not in three years. And it’s all on you: you need to pound the pavement to make this happen.
And if you don’t want a career in non-traditional sectors, well then feel free to go forth with a fresh JD and an empty resume and compete in the job market against all the other people who followed strategy item #1 and #2. Good luck with that.
3. Be Humble:
Gandhi famously insisted on washing the toilets, even when he had acquired a status of the sort that one doesn’t associate with such a task. It’s hard to put on airs when you’re washing toilets, which is why most people won’t do it. I’m not proposing that you literally take up the bristly brush, but don’t be too proud to work in the proverbial restroom. The reality is that unless you’re in the “car and driver, staying at the Savoy on the taxpayer’s dime” class, sometimes you need to take up the plunger yourself. And when you’re starting out and fulfilling strategy #2, expect to be plunging an awful lot: you need to prove yourself. It is the coin of the realm. It also keeps you humble. And there is nothing more dangerous than an overinflated sense of self-worth to guarantee calamitous failure at some point in the future, celebrated by all who have grown weary of your top-heavy ego. (Witness what often happens to "the car and driver, staying at the Savoy on the taxpayer's dime" class.)
4. Eat the Green Eggs and Ham:
Oh, the number of omniscient students in law school with a fixed sense of what they will be doing years from now and laser-like precision about which courses are necessary and which unnecessary to their pre-ordained destiny. Please. It doesn’t work that way. You are a bottle tossed on heavy seas. Enjoy the current. See it as an opportunity. Dare yourself with the course you thought would be useless. There are so many times when that afterthought of a course proves unexpectedly elemental. And yes that means all you with social justice impulses. Don’t confine yourself. Advancing social justice means hardcore skills, not just good analyses of the ills of the world. You’d better understand tax law and securities law and so much else better than the 12 extremely well-paid big firm lawyers on the other side of the table.
And you big firm-bound lawyers, if you don’t get the context – why are those people camping on Wall Street – you risk being blindsided. Really. I pursued corporate social responsibility as a human rights activist and every bit of that expertise was of relevance when I later was briefly in private practice, helping advise large companies scratching their heads over Sarbanes-Oxley and with overseas operations subject to ATCA lawsuit and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Same goes for applying strategy #2: be omnivorous. Pursue unexpected opportunities even if they’re not part of your master plan. Don’t be too discerning too early in your career. Run with things that drop in your lap, even if you think they aren’t really what you’re interested in. You just don’t have the experience base to know.
In sum: relish the green eggs and ham. Savour every slimy bite.
5. Don’t Run on Empty, Just Run:
Exercise. I’m serious. Exercise. Do it out of pure academic self-interest, if for no other reason. The research on the correlation between exercise and academic performance is now absolutely overwhelming. If you’re like most of the human species, get in your morning constitutional and you will learn more, faster and with greater ease. More than that, it relieves stress and it makes you feel better (and yes, there will be a painful transition if you’ve been completely sedentary. Just buckle down and get through it). So it is both intelligence booster and coping strategy. If it were a drug, they would patent it. (And some pharmaceutical companies are actually trying to manufacture the benefits of exercise in a pill.) Don’t rely on big pharma or the coffee fields of Ecuador. Just Do It. Walk, run, swim, roll, pedal, ski, pilate, yogasize, deepwater run, spin, ballroom dance. Whatever. Move in whatever ways are open to you.
And if exercise for its own sake doesn’t get you out of the bed, pick an event. Set it as a goal. Work up a training plan. Fundraise for a cause. Suddenly it becomes bigger than yourself. See above about feeling better. Ottawa Race Weekend is a natural for Ottawa law student. It comes in late May and so is a goal that keeps you running through exams. Register now – it sells out quickly.
I’m giving idle thought to starting a little law school running group with the Ottawa Race Weekend Half-Marathon as its objective. I’ll coach lightly (I’m certified NCCP level 1 in triathlon) in return for participants committing seriously and agreeing to support and run in support of Girls Gotta Run Foundation. We can call it Fartleks with Forcese. (And if you don’t speak Swedish and don’t know what a fartlek it, that’s your first homework assignment).
I may roll that out later in the year, but treat this as a trial balloon and feel free to email me to let me know if you’re interested.