10 Life Lessons I Learned from Law School

10 Life Lessons I Learned from Law School

Written by Emilie

Topics: Lifestyle Design

It’s no secret that I wasn’t the biggest fan of my law school experience. However, contrary to what you might assume, this is not going to be a law school bashing post.

As the 3.5 years come to an end (on Friday!!!), I thought it would be appropriate to look back and reflect upon what I’ve learned.

How did I End Up in Law School? I Blame this Pesky Puttylike Trait…

The first thing you must understand is that I never wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, my reasons for going to law school were directly related to my propensity to jump on new random ideas that interest me.

It was pretty simple. I took a communications law class in undergrad, became fascinated by this new discipline that I had never once considered studying before, and applied.

Well, lets just say that the magic faded quickly… Yet, I do not regret my decision. Although I don’t plan on being a lawyer, here are 10 things I learned that I feel will be useful going forward.

1. If You Want to Win Arguments, Isolate Your Issues

One of the things they drill into your head in law school is the importance of identifying and isolating distinct issues in a particular dilemma. This means extracting the ‘legal issue’ from the icky life mess. It also means distinguishing between different arguments and addressing them separately.

About a year into law school, I started noticing that non-law people don’t typically think this way. Most people tend to mush all their arguments up together. If you can go in there and be like “well hang on, there are 3 separate things going on here… ” and lay them out, you come off sounding a lot more calm and rational. You can also reach solutions much faster when you deal with one issue at a time.

2. Don’t be Intimidated by Big-Talkers

It’s funny thinking back to first year and remembering how intimidated I was by my classmates. Everyone around me seemed so intelligent and accomplished. People would raise their hands and spout out words that made no sense to me. They spoke about political theory and macroeconomics and who knows what else (really, I have no clue). This led me to falsely assume that I was surrounded by geniuses.

What I wish I had realized sooner is that most of what my classmates were saying meant nothing. If you were to deconstruct their sentences, you’d find that they’re often circular and entirely meaningless.

People love hearing themselves speak and they love sounding smart. A lot of people are more interested in impressing others than communicating ideas. In fact, an over-reliance on big showy language is a good indication that a person has no clue what they’re talking about.

I’m not saying you need to completely dumb down your speech, but you can use rich language without being convoluted.

3. Be Confident, not Arrogant

On a related note, I remember these horrible ‘getting to know you’ circles that would form during orientation, where we’d all gather in clusters and essentially list off our accomplishments to one another. We’d talk about our academic background, that year we spent volunteering in Africa (which someone I know fondly refers to as ‘Africa-wanks’) and our deep passion for constitutional law or human rights.

These conversations could have been so much more productive but they often just turned into bragging sessions. This was probably just due to the mutual intimidation and fear of a scary new environment but it’s something to be conscious of whenever you’re meeting someone new.

It’s great to be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t boast- at least not if you want to establish a genuine connection with someone.

4. You Don’t Need to Make Friends with Everyone, Just a Few Well-Connected People

We have these things in law school called summaries. They’re basically overviews of the entire course: every case, article and relevant legislative provision summarized, along with class notes and compiled in one massive word document that you can bring into the exam. Usually summaries already exist and are passed down by those who have taken the course before.

But other times law students will get into groups, split up the readings for the whole semester, and create their own summary. As a result, many of the students involved will naturally feel protective over their creation. Why should anybody else benefit from their hard work? I’m not going to get into the sharing vs not sharing debate here.

But here’s the thing I realized: There’s always a weak link.

It’s not so much a particular person as it is friendship. We don’t like denying our friends something that could help them when they’re struggling. I’ve often scored some incredible summaries by being friends with just one person in the group who secretly emailed me a copy.

What can we learn from this? Well, you don’t need to fully participate or ‘network’ with everyone, but making friends with a couple well-connected people is a very good idea.

5. There is Little Correlation Between the Number of Hours you Work and How Successful You Are

In first year you work ridiculous hours and have no life outside of law school, but very quickly you learn that you can work your ass off and get a B or you can completely slack off, cram right before the exam and still get a B. (The range is more like B- to B+, but still)… Now this might not be true at every law school, but it certainly was at mine.

It’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. What’s important isn’t the number of hours you put in, but how intelligently you work.

6. Personalize the Experience

Law school has the reputation of being a pretty mainstream place. Lets just say that my interests didn’t exactly line up with the majority of the courses and clubs offered at the faculty.

I survived largely by finding my niche, which was intellectual property/copyright policy, and getting involved in every way I could. I started an IP policy club with a friend of mine and we brought some creativity to the faculty by organizing things like a talk on the IP implications of graffiti art, the facebook privacy complaint and a karaoke party. Basically I did everything I could to personalize the experience.

If you ever find yourself in an uninspiring situation, see if there’s a way you can inject your own skills and interests into it. If nothing exists, create something new.

7. Avoid Sharks and Score Free Sushi

My law school holds these networking events that are sponsored by law firms. This means two things: free food/drinks and awkward conversations with lawyers. It’s essentially about recruitment. Lawyers come out, (some) law students dress up and everyone schmoozes.

Like I’ve mentioned a dozen times, I had no interest in working at a firm. However, I absolutely had an interest in free food/drinks!

What my buddy and I would do is we’d view these events kind of like video games. Every time you score free food, you get a point and every time you get stuck in an awful conversation with a lawyer, you lose a point. The whole thing became about maneuvering your way through the crowd to grab as much free sushi and wine as possible without getting trapped by someone in a suit… It was actually quite fun. :)

There’s a lesson in this somewhere. Oh yeah:

Maximize the time you spend doing things you love and minimize the time you spend doing things you do not love.

also:

Viewing life as a video game or experiment makes it way more fun!

8. Trust your Instincts and the Path will Reveal Itself

I ended up taking a music policy class in my last year. The final project involved coming up with an idea and business plan for a business related to the music industry.

Long story short, this class/project is what sparked my interest in entrepreneurship. Had I not gone to law school and chosen my courses based on my interests, who knows whether I would have ended up here.

Things tend to work out if you trust your instincts.

9. Great Friendships can be Built upon a Mutual Hatred of Something

Although I didn’t socialize much in the law school scene, I did meet a handful of really incredible people, one of whom became a really close buddy. In fact, this one friendship alone was well-worth the 3.5 years.

And guess what? she hated law school too! In fact, we had some fantastic times complaining about having to learn unjust enrichment thirty thousand times or suppressing laughter when a teacher would inadvertently say something that could be misconstrued in an…immature fashion. heh… Great memories.

Sometimes the greatest bonding happens over a common unpleasant experience.

And finally…

10. Always Ask Yourself ‘Why’

In third year, most of my classmates were stressed out of their minds, applying for positions at law firms and going through the interview process. I elected not to even bother.

I could have easily gone along with my cohort and done what everybody else was doing. But I would have been doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted then, but I certainly knew what I didn’t want.

I think law students (and many non-law students too) tend to forget that even though you are headed down a path, you can always change course. Other options are still available to you.

When you make a decision, you should always ask yourself why. If the answer (in Chris Guillebeau’s words) is “Because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” then it’s time to stop and think long and hard about what you want.

On a personal note, I know my blog tends to be a little ‘anti-status quo’ sometimes, but I don’t mean to follow blindly along with the nonconformist ideology either.

My main goal with this is to encourage people to question their motives. If you want to be a lawyer, that’s great, as long as it’s something you want to be and not something you think you should be.

And that’s the main reason I don’t regret going to law school; I went for me.

***

What do you think? If you are/were a law student, what are some life lessons you learned? Everybody else is of course free to comment as well. I’m sure that no matter what your background is, there’s stuff here you can relate to.

Oh good god, I had better get back to studying…

15 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    Great post em :)

    I especially like 1, 2 and 8.

    1. While studying philosophy, our teachers left us to our own devices in first year so we would figure out ourselves how to ‘do’ philosophy. Everyone would write big broad essays with impressive words, and come back with a shit mark. Only after about 6 months did we all start realising that the only way to get a decent mark was to focus relentlessly on just 1 or 2 premises of an argument that we thought were fundamental to the argument. Now every I know avoids arguments with me at all times because of this little technique haha. Yes!

    2. Again, I seem to have spent too much time over the past few years with people who ‘thought’ they were smart. They spoke like the queen, and seemed to spend their evenings in front of a dictionary. But when push comes to shove, they were usually just spouting crap and trying to impress rather than make a difference.

    8. I’ve completely given up taking the ‘normal’ path now. Instincts have been doing me amazingly well up to now (not financially, but overall, I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been), and I think that’s something I’ll be carrying with me my entire life now. I’m just grateful I’ve learned it early on, unlike many people who hit middle age, and still haven’t learned that lesson…

    :)

  2. Emilie says:

    Thanks Rob!

    I’m not surprised to hear that you had similar experiences. After all, many law students come straight out of philosophy programs (poli sci is the other big one).

    Re: #8. I’m curious, was there anyone in your class who admitted to actually wanting to BE a philosopher? Or was there pressure to ‘be practical’ and go on to things like law school or a masters program?

    I think a big difference between philosophy and law is that law is considered a ‘professional program’ and there is a very specific procedure set up to make that transition. Philosophy, by its very nature, seems to be less career-focused. At least that’s what I would assume. But I’m wondering if that’s actually true… What was considered the ‘normal’ path post-graduation? Was there the same kind of pressure to be ‘realistic’?

    • Rob says:

      Our department was very creative and liberal. We were never actively pushed or even encouraged into thinking about ‘careers’. Most of the teachers disagreed with the typical route through life.

      We were always encouraged to think more than read. They wanted original philosophy rather than summaries of what other people had said, so in that sense, I guess it fitted in really well with my view on life.

      But generally, very few people knew what they wanted to do after university. Most, I feel, go into law or journalism because its just the next ‘typical step’ that they feel they ‘should’ take. Most of my peers now, though, are just travelling and enjoying themselves, while my friends who studied sciences are stressing over money and jobs. I feel I’m only of the lucky ones… :)

  3. Colleen says:

    Whoo! #9 :)

    Yes, I just typed a whole message here and then when I clicked submit, there was an error message because I didn’t include my email address and I lost it! arrrrgs I hate that kind of thing.

    Yes, the gist was this: law school was the worst for me. I was miserable and depressed the whole time. The one thing it taught me though, only in retrospect, is that I’m resilient. I can’t believe I got through it. It was so intense. But, now I have a law degree, which is kind of hilarious to me, and someone told me the other day that an LL.B is the new MBA! haha…who knows, maybe I didn’t waste all that time and money for nothing. :)

    Yes, but, knowing full-well that I can’t take it back, so I won’t lose all the good things that came of law school (like meeting awesome people like you!), I definitely regret going. I learned what I don’t like, and who I’m not, and exactly where I don’t want to be. Valuable lessons, yes, but did I need to make such a massive commitment to learn that lesson? Bah. Water under the bridge. I’m going to get back to my administrative assistant-ing. Which I rock at, btw. F U law school.

    • Emilie says:

      tee hee…

      It was a massive commitment. I think I learned that lesson too. The next time I randomly become interested in biochemistry or space travel, I might take a bit more time to research what that kind of endeavor would entail. :)

  4. Jodi says:

    I can relate to most of what you’ve written because I also went to law school on a whim (well, a bet actually….someone bet me I couldn’t get in, and when I did I figured why not). Unlike you, I did work in a firm for a few years, itself both a great learning experience and a stepping stone to the next stage of my life. Law school was frustrating for the reasons you listed above – the ego, the big talkers, the schmoozing – but it was also a great thing for me, as it brought me out of my shell and it helped me isolate the things I wanted to improve on in my personality. It also gave me good examples for what I didn’t want to become!

    Ultimately, I was able to take such a casual attitude toward law school because tuition was quite low and going to law school had no downside. But the life lessons were important ones to learn. Great post!

    • Emilie says:

      Jodi,

      I love that you went to law school as a bet! Sure beats going to law school to get a ‘good job’ or because you don’t know what else to do with your life (which I think are pretty common reasons people go).

      It’s also really cool to meet someone from a similar background who is off living the digital nomad lifestyle. I think a lot of people who are into lifestyle design, etc. are a little unnecessarily critical of the mainstream path or their former lives, simply because that’s the trendy thing to do. But I think it’s way more valuable to look back at those times and view them as stepping stones and learning experiences.

      Thanks for the comment. :)

  5. Lisa says:

    “…you can use rich language without being convoluted.”

    and

    “Maximize the time you spend doing things you love and minimize the time you spend doing things you do not love.”

    Love it. This is the healthiest attitude I may have ever seen about law school posted anywhere.

    I didn’t exactly decide to go to law school on a whim–more like a wham. Picked up an LSAT prep book in my senior year of college and had a visceral reaction that might be interpreted as “Holy sh*t, I think like a shark. Time to learn how to swim.”

    That said, I’ve found that as much as I love the process of puzzling through legal problems, I’ve also found I don’t much like other law students (being neither particularly self-righteous nor willing to engage in the heavy-drinking social culture) & that I’m not terribly interested in the traditional firm or judiciary career paths.

    The best, best, best thing is hearing first hand from graduates & professionals that I can take this degree & that annual fee and run with ’em; if there’s anything I’m learning, it’s that this experience opens up possibilities rather than stifles them.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Lisa,

      I can completely relate to your attitude regarding other law students. I generally got along fine with most of my classmates, but I definitely didn’t relate to the overall culture! It’s one of the reasons I knew that firm life wasn’t for me either.

      I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of opportunities. I’m not sure that I will ever use my degree in any direct way. This post was really about pulling out the subtle things that I gained from the experience- things that will help me no matter what I do next. And there are plenty.

      So yeah, keep at it! (And also, I feel your pain. :)

  6. jesse says:

    I can begin to relate to your personality (puttylike), more and more. #you can’t make friends with everyone. I’ve tried that many times, and you know what? It is very stressful. thanks for pointing it out.

    #from Bloging, I have learn that you can’t focus on making money and develop excellent content that grips your audience. When you begin to thing, How can I help my audience to become more of who the’ll like to be, I will be able to dish out for them value. Thanks emilie.

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Jesse, I’m happy this resonated with you even though you’re not in law school. I think these ideas are pretty applicable in any field really.

      Thanks for the comment.

  7. tizzielish says:

    I am a law school graduate (in 1979) and I have been licensed to practice law (altho no longer, by choice) . . .I am interested in your invitation to comment on what I learned or got out of going to law school.

    You speak of being impressed by all the bombastic pontificating you experienced at the beginning of law school. I stepped down when I went to law school. I had gone to a first tier undergrad and found myself at, at best, a second tier law school. I was shocked by the dull minds I met in law school. Lesson Number one: you don’t have to be smart to be a lawyer (or, probably anything else). You just have to want it.

    Some of the dumbest people I have ever met, and this is still true 30+ years later are folks I met in law school. Any human mind of mediocre intelligence can discipline themselves to learn things. And many dull minds force themselves to do what is required to become lawyers for a range of reasons: the status of being a professional, the belief that lots of income will come to the successful lawyer, and some folks really do want to help people and society and believe the credential of being a lawyer will help (and they would be right in this regard).

    Another key lesson from having gone to law school: wow, our legal system has done a lot to shape our social discourse, to shape our culture. Shakespeare is often quoted as saying, in one of his plays, I think, ‘first we must kill all the lawyers’. I wouldn’t kill them but lawyers, the profession, legalistic analysis that reduces human challenges into adversarial thinking with winners and losers might be the single most destructive force thus far unleashed in human culture. Legal thinking is behind genetic science that tampers with the very essence of life. Legal thinking is behind the dominator capitalist economy that most people blindly assume is ‘the way it is’.

    Going to law school was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Being trained to think in that mindset corroded me and although I have substantially repaired the damage, it is like being in recovery for substance addiction (altho I am not substance addicted) . .. now I am pontificating like a bombastic first year law student.

    Oh, one good thing I learned: I can work hard. I can work very hard and master knowledge. I liked that part of law school. I liked how hard I had to work to become fluent in legal vocabulary and legal thinking. I wish I had invested that much of my fine life force in something else. If I could graduate from law school and pass the bar, I could have studied physics. Or anything else. I wish I had studied just about anything else.

    Oh well.

  8. Rachel says:

    Love this list, Emilie! Also, very cool to stumble (quite randomly) onto what you’re up to these days!

    I think I’ve thought of myself as a “multipotentialite” for a long time now, so it’s nice to have a word to throw around with the idea. I’ll see if I can use it in the next conversation I have with someone, in which they seem all puzzled with why I’m doing what I’m doing here in Guatemala this year, why I was working in social housing in Ottawa last year, why I’ve “given up” on performing spoken word, why I’m reveling in having zero future plans, etc!

    Good luck with all of the projects you’re up to!

  9. JD says:

    Oh, yeah!

    Thank you so much for posting this, Emilie. This post taught me many things and made me smile. I don’t know if it makes sense, but this list made me feel a lot better for not wanting to be a lawyer! When you go to Law School, a lot of people think and say you’re supposed to be a lawyer, and if you’re not careful, you end up believing what they say. It’s very good for me to know people that went through similar experiences, graduated from Law School and did not become lawyers.

    Love and peace!