Friday, August 07, 2009

How I Got Through Law School

The following is a VERY LONG POST intended for potential law students or current law students struggling through life as a "non-traditional" student and wondering how I managed.

I often get email asking for my advice. A recent reader sent me a whole list of questions, and I have answered them personally, but wanted to post them, too. Maybe someone will find them useful, or at the very least, not a terrible way to kill ten minutes. (Yes, ten - I told you it was a long post!)

First - for anyone with who is a partner of a law student, or law-student-wanna-be, be sure to check out my partner's blog, especially the archives - 2005 was my first year of law school from her perspective. (You will appreciate my sections below about how much it sucks to be a partner of a law student!)

Now, here is some of my best advice for making it through law school with a partner, and/or kids, and/or a full-time job:

First - mostly B's is totally good. At my school, the curve is forced that way. Period. You will get some A's, some C's, mostly B's. There are exceptions. Mostly, those of us working, and/or with kids, will not be among the exceptions. Once you can accept that, you will feel better. You are a non-traditional student and have to accept a different level of competence than you would have if you were not in your current situation. Even if you only have a partner to deal with, and are in your mid-30's, you are "non-traditional." You probably have more responsibilities than your 20-something classmates. You are now swimming in a pond of really freaking smart fish, and you may not be among the fastest of your peers. I was not. I always used to be before law school. It sucks, but is one of those things that I had to learn to accept. I had no energy to worry about it. I could only do my best....and school was only one of the balls I had in the air.

You do have an option. You can quit after your first year if you really think you will not want a career for which having a JD will help. You are probably already in debt, but it gets SO MUCH WORSE with every passing year, and lawyers do not make as much as people think. Still, I am glad I went. I loved the challenge. I know the JD will open doors for me. It will work out in the long run. I have to believe that. You must decide that for yourself. Really talk to other lawyers about their lives and careers. Most are very happy to talk to students about what they do and how they got there. Take some time to decide if this is best for you. Always believe you have choices in life.

OK. How did I do it?

1) I looked at the commitments I made as if there were no choice but to follow through with all of them. (Funny since I just told you to always believe you have choices! True, but I chose to follow through with my commitments and plans.)

I had my family. Sundays were for them. Period. No homework that day. I talked to my partner and my kids on the phone everyday, usually a few times a day.

I had certain hours I worked. I went to work. I did my job. The family needed money to live on - I was earning it. No choice. Then I had to go to class and pay attention. Not blog, not surf, just pay attention - take notes - participate when I wasn't completely lost or brain dead. I often felt as if I was both. Still....all I could do was my best under the circumstances.

Having ALL of my time so committed in some ways made my routine very easy. There were no choices to be made. I couldn't go have a drink after class. I didn't have time for law review. Some of that sucked a lot. I often wanted my biggest worry to be about where I was going drinking on Friday night, like some of my classmates, but that was not the path I'd chosen. I'd done that 15 years earlier.

2) I figured that homework was not optional. The assignments were not suggestions. They were what I had paid a huge amount of money to get to do to learn what I needed to learn. Did it help me during class? Sometimes. Did it help me during exams? Sometimes. Did it help me to learn the language of lawyers, how to think like a lawyer, help me to immerse myself in this odd culture of the law? Definitely. Indoctrination is part of the game.

How did I find the energy?

1) Sometimes it was very hard. During first year, I often took 15 minute naps in my car between work and school. I ate too much sugar and drank too much caffeine.

2) In my last year, I learned to regularly take walks, eat better, and pop a packet of Emergen-C in a bottle of water instead of opening a can of Coke.

3) A friend of mine really got involved in raw foods. She swears that is what helped her get through it all. It was probably an excellent idea. Her fruit smoothies definitely were better for her in the middle of class than my chocolate chip cookies.

How did I make my relationship last?

1) I am not sure. My first year was complete hell on our relationship. We fought a lot over I don't even know what. Mostly I had left her pretty much to be a single mom with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old. She still expected me to pick up my share of the household duties. I couldn't do that and go to school and work. She had too much to do, and so did I. Neither of us was well-prepared for what that meant emotionally, nor did we have the outside support that some have. We had some family that occasionally helped with the kids. It was not nearly enough. So, we fought, we took out our frustrations on each other. To make up for the hell, we went to Disneyland twice during the summer after first year and really reconnected.

2) Everyone says once you have kids, make sure you still make time for each other. Have date nights, whatever. Same goes for law school. Make dates with each other. Keep them. Talk about law school AND other things in life. Your partner does not know what you are going through and really cannot relate, but remember, you also cannot relate to what she is going through. You have to both try to share what you are going through without getting defensive. It is really hard. I'm still not very good at it.

3) Being a partner of a law student sucks. They (you know - THEM) are teaching us to be even more difficult, argumentative and arrogant than we likely already were. So, not only are we difficult and stressed out, but we cannot make our partners the number one priority in our lives, even if we want to, even if they deserve it. To get through school, something's gotta give, and unfortunately, it is often the time you spend with your partner. Be sure to carve out some time for her each week. Make your partner a priority - but if she insists on being your top priority all the time - it just won't work.

4) Law school does a number on your self-esteem. Most of us are used to being at the top of our class. Most of us are suddenly forced into mediocrity. Our writing that has been our strength is suddenly crap. We are tested in a high stress situation that doesn't necessarily reflect what we've learned - do your best in three hours and here is your grade for the entire 16 weeks of work. All of that, plus add that most of us are wondering if the loans will be worth it and what we will really do when we get out. All of that forces us to be....well....probably not the best partners. Keep that in mind. It is easy to blame the other person for your own short-comings. Arguing and feeling guilty are distracting, but everyone has distractions. I sometimes think if I'd not been dealing with family stuff, my grades would have been higher. Maybe, but that is not where I am in life.

5) We had already been married for 11 years when I entered law school. We had two little kids. That is a lot to walk away from. So, that solid foundation was strong enough to last even through the big fights.

6) It really does get better after the first year. The first year of law school weeds out those that really want to be there and can handle it from those who don't or can't. It probably also weeds out the relationships that can't handle the really tough times. I know at least one guy from my "pod" of 40 that divorced after first year.

7) Sometimes - do something fun and spontaneous, and forget school for a day or two. Take your partner on a surprise trip somewhere. Go to a concert. Anything. Enjoy each other. Then get right back on track with your school work so you don't fall behind.

How did I mentally manage it all?

1) Sometimes I didn't.

2) Sometimes I fought with my partner. Sometimes I wanted to run away from it all. Sometimes I said things I shouldn't say. Later, I apologized.

3) Sometimes, I called on an old friend to let her know I was drowning, and she'd throw me a lifeline. Keep in touch with your friends, especially those outside of law school. They are at least insane in a totally different way than your law school friends.

4) I blogged. I came up with creative summer projects that had nothing to do with the law. I found I need to be creative to balance out the intense academic demands.

5) Seek Balance. Everyone tells us that. What the heck does it mean? For me, it meant trying to be really present with what I was doing at that moment - playing with my kids, doing my work, studying, whatever. It also meant making time for work and for fun. There has to be some fun to keep you going. Some things had to be given up - like dusting or spending time with "have to" friends or family. There was only time for really important stuff. It meant some semi-important stuff had to be let go. Really unimportant stuff - gone! You hope you can go back and pick up the stuff you didn't want to let go, but had to, like maybe a hobby. In a few years, maybe you'll be interested and have time for it - but for now, prioritization is important.

6) I wanted to drink. I rarely did. Law school with all the wine and beer receptions and luncheons sets us up to drink too much. Be careful. Drunk people do not make good first impressions.

How can I improve my test-taking skills?

1) I never signed up for BarBri before the bar exam. Given how useful their bar course was, I probably should have, plus it would have locked in a lower bar review course price. I think that using their study guides might be useful. Many of us during bar review said we wished we'd had some of the tips we were learning then during law school, particularly those surrounding essay questions.

2) Talk to professors. They want to help us learn. Look at where you could have improved your exam grades. If your school offers resources, take advantage of them. (I never did any of this, nor did I ever feel that I had time to go back and look at what I'd done. That would have meant taking time away from family or from the current homework. Seems like I could never get off the ride long enough to adjust my safety gear. Might it have helped my overall GPA? Maybe.)

3) Some things that are so foreign now just get easier and there is no way to learn it without simply doing it. We learn by doing and by being immersed in the culture.

What suggestions do I have for not losing it mentally?

1) Just after the bar doesn't seem like a great time to answer that as I am not sure that I did not lose it! Bar aside, though, for keeping the course during law school -

2) Go back up to the answers under "how did I mentally manage it all."

3) Talk to your friends. Talk to your partner. Talk to your classmates. They are going through much of the same crap you are going through. It's just that most of us don't talk about it. We all want people to think we've got it all together. Or maybe we just don't even have the time to wonder if our classmates are feeling the same way. They are. I accidentally stumbled upon this enough times to know that if I was going through it, so were others. During our first year, we were all fighting with our partners. Find out - then you can all laugh -or cry - about it together.

That's it!

I certainly did not do everything right, nor was I a huge academic success. I was a good student, I learned, I passed, I freaking graduated!

Would it have been easier without a job, a wife, kids, all of the trappings of adulthood? Certainly. Can it be done with all of these elements? Absolutely.


nikk said...

...but only mildly insane....and it's one of my more endearing qualities. Sane is boring.

Dakota said...

Nikk - believe whatever gets you through the day, my friend!

Deb Peterson said...

Hi Outlaw Mama!

I blogged today about your wonderful blog:

I'm the Guide to Continuing Ed. at, part of the New York Times Company.

Thanks for all the great non-trad advice!

Deb Peterson

blur_ said...

I've said this before, it's hard on those of us who worked full time and went to school at night - I don't know how those of you with kids did it. I'm so glad we all made it through.

I think we also got really lucky having such a supportive, interesting, fun pod.

Dakota said...

Blur - yes, having a fun group did help a lot! We were fortunate!

Dakota said...

Thank you for sharing my post on your blog!

Jess said...

As an entering non-trad 1L (with hubby of 6 years), I'm beyond freaked out at the moment. Thanks for posting this! I plan to revisit your advice from time to time over the next several months.

Dakota said...

Best of luck to you! You may as well start getting comfortable with the feeling of "freaked out." It is likely to happen a lot in your first year....and then again from time to time. There are also a ton of really good times though that make it all worthwhile!

Kris said...

Hey mama

If people knew what it takes before signing up, I don't think most would put themselves through it. I'm still recovering from years of crap food and not enough exercise.

My favorite part was about homework not really being "optional". It is a whole different way of thinking and writing and there is no substitute for practice.

I salute you. Doing the business at law school AND dealing with everything else is an accomplishment.

Dakota said...

Kris - Thank you, I appreciate your kind words.

Anonymous said...

I am a 3L and I work now in the a.m. I am also a non trad, will graduate in time for retirement but went full time. It was insane, I don't know how I survived: my daughter doesn't talk to me any more, it was a casualty. Let's see what happens next year. Cheers!

Emily said...

Hi Dakota - I was lucky enough to stumble upon your post. I am a 41 year old with a great husband and 2 teen-aged boys who is considering law school. You're advice is appreciated!

Of course I had to go on and read more (nosy human nature I guess); it sounds like you're going through a tough time right now. I initiated a divorce with my ex when my boys were 10 and 12. It was pretty brutal, but I know without a doubt that it was the right decision. Counseling, time, faith, and patience have gotten us through. I wish you well!