The famous Gothic-style buildings on the Quad at Michigan Law School are part of the institution’s draw. During my admissions visit on a sunny March day last year, I thought the school’s design embodied everything I expected law school to be: interesting and serious, charming and traditional, exciting and important.
Now as a 1L heading into my first bout of exams, the Ann Arbor skies are always gray instead of blue, and the law school’s medieval architecture seems more ominous than inspirational.
The air of anxiety among 1Ls this time of year has ramped up significantly from the mid-semester mood, back when 2Ls and 3Ls and professors and deans told us not to worry about supplements or practice exams or outlining. “Just keep up with your reading and pay attention in class,” they said. “You’ll be fine,” they said.
But they also said we should spend the Thanksgiving break diving into exam preparations. They directed us to outline banks where we could find hundreds and hundreds of pages of review for our courses. Yet they said we should still make our own outlines, obviously, to make sure we grasp the material. And, offhandedly, they said to maybe look into summer jobs, too, since the National Association for Law Placement allows us to submit applications starting Dec. 1.
And then they told us about the format of the exams and, vaguely, what material we were expected to know. (To quote my Contracts professor: “Everything.”) And the Office of Student Life sent emails reminding us to take care of ourselves. (“SLEEP,” we were commanded.)
Naturally, this has culminated in a sense of panic that lurks in the background of every class, every session of professor office hours, every passing hello in the hallways of Hutchins Hall and even every weekend night at the bars.
There are some benefits to the omnipresent dread of final exams, though. Personally, I’ve found that working frantically under pressure prevents me from overthinking. This is key in law school, where it’s possible to get so lost in the fact pattern of a case or in the reasoning of a court that my Criminal Law notes indicate that murder is not against the law at all, which just doesn’t seem quite right.
Before law school, I worked as a sports writer, and I think some of my best stories came when the first 3½ quarters of a game had been lopsided. Just when I thought my article was nearly done, the losing team would suddenly rally, launching the game into overtime and winning—with the final score posted about 20 minutes before the late-night deadline I had to meet for my story to make it into the morning newspaper.
The closing weeks of my first semester of law school feel like a longer, higher stakes version of those urgent 20 minutes spent rewriting a full 700-word article for print the next day.
Besides forcing me to commit to schoolwork and produce tangible results—yes, my outlines are done, nicely concise at about 55 pages each—the 1L end-of-semester hysteria does lend itself to a certain sense of camaraderie. I can’t speak for other law schools, but very few people at Michigan seem to view law school as a competition. Exam advice and study materials are shared ubiquitously, and the curve is an afterthought—in fact, I still have no idea how the curve works.
The recurring question of “How’s studying going?” is asked with empathy, never antagonism. The answer is typically an unintelligible groan—we panic irrationally, but we can at least laugh at ourselves while we do it. I also expect this collegial spirit to be in even fuller force the moment we walk out of the final Criminal Law exam at 11 a.m. on Dec. 21. Thoughts of that moment keep me going through dark times in the depths of Michigan Law’s underground library.
Plus, the bonds formed by the 1L experience extend far beyond current classmates. 2Ls and 3Ls look upon us with kindness, giving us candy, insight into what snacks to bring to four-hour exams and unheeded assurances that we’ll do just fine. Even the professors who write our exams have regaled us with horror stories from their own first-year experiences. I’m not sure if these were intended to alleviate our panic by showing that they turned out well despite their struggles or add to our panic by showing that even the smartest among us are going to struggle, inducing us to study even more.
Standing at a football tailgate earlier this fall at the University of Notre Dame (my alma mater—Go Irish! Sorry, Wolverines) with my father and his former Notre Dame Law classmates in the Class of 1989, I was of course asked how law school was going. My answer then—as now—was “Ask me again after exams,” which instantly led them to launch into recollections of their own exam traumas. My dad says he still has nightmares about blanking on his Civil Procedure exam.
I suppose the moral of this story is that law school exams have become no less terrifying than they were 30 years ago, and I’m still going to remember exactly how terrifying they were in 2048.
But on the bright side, there is substantial evidence that my 1L classmates and I actually will come out of exams alive—if not well—and will go on to become lawyers who can look back and laugh about the hypothetical fact pattern on the Crim exam that no one understood. For now, I remain skeptical.
Renee Griffin is a first-year student at University of Michigan Law School.