How Hard is Law School?

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With each new law school admissions cycle, tens of thousands of law school applicants have the same question: “So, how hard is law school?” These curious souls, anxious with anticipation, and perhaps consumed with some degree of dread, turn to me to get a better idea of just how hard they should expect law school to be. Having recently graduated from the University of Chicago Law School myself, I’m here to tell you: on the whole, law school isn’t really all that bad, arduous though it may be.

Note: For A Complete Guide to The Law School Experience check out Law School Confidential

How Hard is Law School? No… Seriously, how hard is law school, really?

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Now, I certainly don’t want to lure you into a false sense of security. Although I say that law school isn’t really all that bad, it certainly isn’t something that you will be able to coast through without a great deal of effort on your part. Law school in general, and 1L year in particular, are likely to demand that you work harder than you have ever worked before, perhaps harder than you thought yourself capable.

Should you slack off and fall into a state of torpor, you are going to find yourself in for a rude awakening as finals approach. The law school workload is immense, and although last-minute “cramming” may have been an effective method of catching up on neglected readings in undergrad, “cramming” for law school exams is a nearly impossible feat.

So… is law school hard?

Well… Yes. in many ways, law school is hard. But is law school really that hard? Well, that depends. In an absolute sense, law school is hard. There are very few educational experiences that can match it for rigor, both in terms of the work required and the amount of stress you will face.

However, how hard law school is for you will depend on how well you are suited to it. When deciding whether or not to go to law school, it’s time to take an honest look in the mirror and do some very serious introspection. If you are a classic type-A person who has always been ahead of the curve and enjoys taking on heavy burdens at work and school, then law school won’t be hard for you, it will be your natural environment!

You have to be careful when making these self-assessments thoughin law school you are not comparing yourself to the lazy rabble of undergrad. Imagine competing with 200 or more of the hardest-working people you’ve ever met. That is what you are up against in law school.

Now, it’s not a must that you be an automaton who can handle anything… just be aware that if you are not one, you are going to find law school hard work. If you have a tendency to slack off and enjoy lazy afternoons in front of the television, you should do some real soul-searching before you accept an offer to attend law school. It doesn’t matter if you killed the LSAT; if you can’t grind out hours upon hours of book work, then you might be miserable in law school (not to mention law practice).

Although there are strategies to get through law school without feeling totally overwhelmed, you cannot fake anything and you cannot simply rely on your brains alone. Law school requires a ton of work, and you have to be ready to slog through it.

Why is Law School Hard?

1 – Law School is a Heavy Workload

First and foremost, law school is hard because you are expected to do a lot of work. This work consists mostly of reading dense law cases laden with unfamiliar legal jargon and exotic nomenclature. And unlike undergrad where you could get away with skimming the text before class & going back and cramming before an exam, in law school you will actually have to do almost all of the assigned reading on time, as scheduled in the syllabus or risk falling too far behind to have any chance of catching up.

How much work will you have 1L year? Generally, you can count on 1.5 to 3 hours worth of reading every night after your 1L classes, which is just the baseline before finals study kicks in.

2 – Law School is High-Pressure

Although law school classes seldom have “quizzes” or “homework” like undergrad classes, don’t think that this means you can comfortably skip your nightly readings. The hours of reading every night are necessary so that you understand what the professor is talking about and so you don’t embarrass yourself in front of your peers when you get cold-called and asked to recite the facts of the case.

If you think you won’t care about looking stupid in class, trust me, you will. It’s part of the culture of law school. The pressure to perform is palpable, and you are expected to perform well, not only on final exams but also when you are called on in class. Which brings me to the third reason that law school is hard…

3 – Getting Cold-Called Sucks

They say that more people fear public speaking than anything else in the world, including death. So if you aren’t the type of person who is always eager to raise your hand, law school is going to force you to face your fear…

Most law school professors use a technique that has come to be known as cold-calling. Although every professor employs a slightly different cold-calling technique, these common elements are typical to most cold-calling techniques:

a) you don’t know when you will be called on,

b) you don’t know what the professor is going to ask you,

c) you will be put on the spot in front of a 100 or of your peers,

d)  many of the questions you will be asked will require you to “think on your feet,” and

e) you will not always know the answer, no matter how hard you prepared.

4 – Get Ready to Be Wrong. Often.

As the previous point suggested above, there are going to be times when you get called on to answer a question and you won’t be able come up with a good response. It may be because you didn’t prepare, or it may just be a tough question, but at some point you’ll be stumped.

When you answer questions in class, you’ll often be flat-out wrong. Now, although that is okay… in fact it is part of the process of learning under the socratic method, it certainly won’t feel good. You got into law school because you are smart and because you’ve succeeded in undergrad and probably pretty much everything else that you’ve ever done. No one likes to be wrong, but the type of person who ends up in law school probably works very hard to make sure they don’t make mistakes, and is probably used to excelling in an academic setting.

As a result, it can be difficult to adjust to an environment where you aren’t always going to have the right answer… and you’ll have to publicly blunder your way through a particularly difficult line of questioning on more than one occasion during your first year of law school. Just remember that everyone else will do the same thing at some point, and don’t let it get to you.

5 – Law School is Fast Paced

In law school, a lot of material is covered very rapidly, and you are going to be tested on it. In undergrad, you probably tuned in and out of lectures (those of you who attended any), because while it may have been about interesting stuff, none of it was essential to know. In undergrad, it is pretty easy to  learn the material simply by reading the assigned textbooks.

Not so in law school. Anything you miss in lecture is potentially a point missed on the test, so class itself requires a lot more intensity and focus than you may be used to applying. For that reason, the four or so hours you spend in class four days a week (and sometimes a morning class on Friday 1L year) are also very hard work.

No, really, why is law school so hard?

Just the assigned work alone would not make law school a daunting proposition. The real reason law school is hard is that you are graded on a bell curve, and where you land on that curve matters a lot.

Whether you live or die in law school is largely a function of your ability to outperform your peers. And remember, these are truly your peers. You’re probably a highly-intelligent overachiever who has consistently outperformed classmates throughout your entire academic career. Shortly after stepping foot into a classroom on your first day of law school, you’ll begin to realize that the playing field has been leveled. The entire room will be filled with a self-selected group of incredibly hard-working students who have excelled at pretty much everything they’ve put their mind to. They’ve earned their spot in that classroom for the same reasons that you earned yours. For the first time in your life you’ll begin to feel average, or perhaps even below average (though you might never admit it, even to yourself).

Because everyone is competing against everyone else, when the time comes to study for exams (and often well before that time), people tend to work about as hard as it is possible for them work in order to out-compete each other. This doesn’t mean that it is unfriendly environment, but the reality is that if you aren’t working really hard, then people are doing more than you and likely putting themselves in a better position to get the high marks.

There is a sort of tacit agreement among most students to avoid working themselves to death, but those gunning for law review are going to be pushing themselves about as close to the edge as possible, and everyone else has to work about that hard just to keep up with them.

Luckily for you, there will be some students who won’t put in the necessary effort, so as long as you stay on top of the assigned reading you should be able to land somewhere in the middle of the grading curve without killing yourself to get there. If, however, you’re aiming for the top of your class, you’d better be ready to work harder than you ever thought you were capable of working.

Yes, It would be great if everyone could agree to take it down a notch and just chill, but a collective action problem (a term you will almost certainly learn 1L year) prevents the group from doing so.

So how does one survive law school, sanity intact?

Why Law School Isn’t really that hard

Most of the people I knew in law school were pretty happy in general, and I don’t think it’s just because well-adjusted students tend to go to good law schools, though that’s part of it. The silver lining for you at law school is going to depend a lot on who you are. My law school was absolutely infested with people with so much natural curiosity that they probably hardly noticed that they were doing work.

What’s more, law school is very social. You can successfully combine studying with social time through group study. In fact, many of the best students were not the lone wolf types. Aside from that, there are always times when everyone decides to put down the books and go out. Bar review, an once-weekly tradition where the school has a night out at a new bar, is usually well attended until the last few weeks before exams, and special events like charity auctions and dances dot the law school social calendar.

Also, good time management skills should allow you to have a good deal of free time outside of finals period. Finals period is a nightmare, particularly 1L year, but one you are likely to strangely relish: 1L will probably be the time you recall most fondly as a law student, despite the stress, as the pressure brings people together and creates a deep sense of camaraderie.

As for the rest of your law school experience, I think the classic thing you hear is “only 1L year is really hard, you just have to get through that and you are good.” This really isn’t true. Almost everyone I knew took on about as much work as they could handle throughout all 3 years of school. Though class may become less important, clinic work, student groups, journal work and the like will generally fill in the gap.

What is definitely true is that 2L and 3L year are considerably less stressful. The fog of mystery surrounding test taking is gone, professors no longer seem like scary demons, and the stakes are no longer quite so high. This release of stress allows you to enjoy the fairly ample time that you do have before becoming a young lawyer, which is a different matter altogether…

For those who want to read more about law school here are some great books to get you ready to face the challenge (also great for those who just want to learn more about what law school is like):

GETTING TO MAYBE

 Getting to Maybe - A great guide on how to do well on law school exams. Law school exams are unlike anything you experienced in undergrad, and your law school grades in each course are based largely on a single exam. Knowing how to approach these unique exams will make your law school experience much easier. You definitely need to read this book! Almost everyone I know used this book to prepare for their first law school exams.

LAW SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE LAW SCHOOL EXPERIENCE

Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to The Law School Experience - This law school book starts with tips and advice on law school admissions, so it is a great resource to have even before you’ve started your first year of law school, but the real meat of the book guides you through your 1L year. From an overview of the subjects you will be covering during 1L year, to advice on how to brief cases, through outlining and preparing for exams, this is a great book to read once before you start your first year of law school and to use as a reference as you begin your studies. Most people I know got this book during 1L year if they didn’t already have it.

1L OF A RIDE

1L of a Ride 1L of a Ride by Andrew J. McClurg- Written by an award-winning professor who has taught all kinds of 1L subjects, this book gives you invaluable advice, telling you just about everything you need to know to be successful your 1L year. I especially liked the 5 habits of successful law students. Regrettably, I didn’t read this book before 1L. Don’t make the same mistake!

BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY

 Black’s Law Dictionary - If you get the pocket version of Black’s Law Dictionary, you will not regret it. Nearly every case you read during your first year of law school will include some unfamiliar term that you will need to look up… Of course, you could use the internet, but the problem with doing so is that the legal meaning of many words is very specific and different from the colloquial meaning. Don’t leave your understanding of critical legal terms to chance, make sure you have a copy of the preeminent legal dictionary beside you whenever you open up a casebook 1L year!

PLAIN ENGLISH FOR LAWYERS

 Plain English for Lawyers - Lawyers (and law students) have a bad habit of writing “like lawyers.” All Law students learning legal writing should read this book and form good habits early. Writing in plain english will make your essays, exams, and other writing more concise and clear. The skills taught in this book will carry you far throughout law school and your legal career.

WRITING A LEGAL MEMO

Writing A Legal Memo - This book is a short, simple, effective guide to writing a legal memo. The same tips can be applied to any kind of legal writing… including exams.

More Great Law School Reads:

Best Pre-Law Summer Reading

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6 Comments

  1. Great writeup. I’m a 1L at Columbia just about to finish my last set of finals, and I think you captured the rigors of law school, at least 1L year, very accurately. The material itself, at a conceptual level, isn’t terribly difficult, but it’s the sheer scale of it all that gets you.

    • Thank you! Also v. true about the scale. 1L reading reminds me of Newman’s description of the mail in Seinfeld http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL6ubXD9ZjY I had a personal goal to chill and watch a movie if it was all possible every week night of 1L (finals time not included). I got it in most nights but it often meant going to bed at 1 or 2 ( with 8:50 am classes thanks UChicago). I think the toughest thing to explain to a new LS student is how long any 10 pages of case law reading is going to take you before you get good at it. Maybe my 1.5-3 hours a night reading estimate was a little soft. It was probably more like 2-4 (though I admit my ADD may have contributed to that).

  2. Great post, Joshua. You nailed all of the reasons that make law school hard. The scale of it all is what really makes it so tough, especially that first year. I’d add that before going to law school, in addition to making sure you’re the right type of person for law school, like you mention, people should fully research the different careers available to law grads to make sure those careers truly fit them. After all, you want to be sure you’ll be happy in those years after law school so that that big commitment of time, energy and money is all worth it.

  3. I don’t care if this article is over a year old, this lone wolf is commenting anyway. Lol

    This article makes me smile, especially the emphasis on personality. I was the lone wolf type, a very difficult personality. The work didn’t bother me, other people did. I am not a competitive person and that drove my professors insane. I motivated myself to succeed and it drove the professors absolutely nuts that I refused to …how do I say it? Make an effort to play nice with others? Sorry, not my personality!

    My “peers” never liked me (as if I cared) but the professors did for some bizarre reason, except one. We had a serious power struggle, personality clash, whatever our issue was with each other. She always tried to make a big deal if I answered something wrong…yet I just shrugged and was unfazed. That drove her crazy. Either she was a egomaniac, control freak type or maybe I was just an arrogant asshole begging for a slap down but she was hellbent to ruffle my feathers and couldn’t. It drove her insane.

    One day, I felt extremely immature and I felt like messing with her. She called on me and I ignored her and kept writing. She spoke louder and I pretended I heard her and replied. She fussed that I hadn’t been paying attention to her. I shrugged and said I wasn’t in the mood to pay attention to her today and went back to writing. Naturally, she was not amused. She bitched at me for a moment until I looked back up at her and smirked/smiled at her then went back to writing again. She quickly figured out I was just messing with her.

    God knows how I made it through law school pulling stunts like that! That was me though, full of attitude but an excellent student. I was forever being told I had an attitude problem, I needed to learn to delegate and work better with others. 25 years later, I still have that same attitude problem. I’m my own damned boss now. I still don’t work well with others, not even myself! :)

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