My 1L life is officially over. I finished my first year of law school with a click of the “submit” button on a five-hour, take-home Torts exam in a nearly empty library last Thursday afternoon.
I’m glad to check it off the list, but with all the hysteria surrounding the first year of law school, its ending was anticlimactic. I can’t say I felt any huge weight lift upon closing out of that last exam—there’s so much more I still have to do.
Part of the problem is that I’m still in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for one more week, struggling through the Law Review write-on competition, so it hasn’t quite set in yet that I don’t have to open a casebook for a few months.
Instead of rejoicing at my near-freedom, I keep thinking ahead about what’s next on my to-do list: sorting out my course schedule for next year, trying to do well at my summer job (I’m allowed to do real-life legal work already?), researching 2L summer job prospects (on-campus interviews are in July), contemplating what practice areas and type of work I might like, and so on, forever. All of this despite not knowing if I actually passed Torts yet.
Being prepared for the future is important, of course, but I’ve resolved to try to ditch this mindset of “what comes next?” It feels like the fastest route to burnout—a path well-traveled by many in the legal profession, from what I can tell, given the pressure to hustle to the top of the curve in law school, and then hustle to the top of the hierarchy in Big Law, in perpetuity.
So, with my quota for existential panic hereby reached, I’ll look backward instead of forward, reflecting on the dreaded 1L year.
First semester flew by, compared with second semester. The beginning of the school year was wildly busy with efforts to get a sense of how to keep up with readings and prepare for class at the most basic level. I went through at least four different note-taking schemes before settling on the simple, yet elegant, “reading notes in blue pen, class notes in black pen.”
The fall semester was also interesting in that most 1Ls seemed equally and intensely afraid of the mysterious law school final exam, but they were also equally hopeful. Someone had to be at the bottom of the curve, yes, but someone also got to be at the top, right?
Second semester, in contrast, seemed to drag on and on. Readings were still long and dense, but the novelty to them was gone, and I think everyone had figured out their personal approach to assignments by then. The fear of exams was significantly mitigated, too. Not only did we now know what an exam looked like, but it was also pretty clear that there was no secret formula–no single thing (or really, any combination of things) that could possibly ensure one person’s grade was better than that of someone else.
Don’t get me wrong, people still cared and worked hard, but the mystery was gone, and, frankly, the optimism was too. Since there’s no secret to doing well, we basically just had to shrug and do the best we could all semester and hope the professor liked whatever we cobbled together in those defining few hours of an exam.
Among the other factors that made second semester seem so long was the Michigan winter, obviously. Also, the social dynamics that develop from sitting in class with the same group of 80 people every day, for so many days, can be rather strange. First-year students are necessarily all focused on the exact same things—going through the same studying motions, reading the same cases, having the same academic discussions. In the second and third years of law school, there is much more variety in classes and extracurriculars. But we 1Ls (despite a great deal of person-to-person diversity in terms of age, background and personality) have, with few exceptions, been living unnervingly similar and monotonous lives for the past year.
My biggest complaint about this 1L bubble wasn’t the oft-criticized “vacuum of ideas” in higher education—civil procedure and contracts doctrines rarely evoke strong debate, regardless of the political leanings of the people in the classroom. No, my grievance is with the vacuum of conversation topics. I don’t watch Game of Thrones (leave me alone), and I need a very long break from jokes about Pennoyer v. Neff, Palsgraf, Rose 2d of Aberlone, Learned Hand and other staples of the 1L curriculum. (“Jokes” may be an overly generous description.)
All that aside, I do feel I learned a lot as a 1L. I would even call much of it interesting, not only preparing me for a legal career but also making me more informed on how the world works and the law’s role in it. Personally, I have no regrets about coming to law school, although I know some of my classmates feel differently.
Of course, even one year in, I have no idea how my 1L knowledge will translate to my ability to actually practice law. For an update on that, you’ll have to check back in September for the first “My 2L life” column, after I’ve had taken a stab at working in a law firm environment. I can’t promise that column will be free of existential panic, but fingers crossed.
Renee Griffin is a student at University of Michigan Law School. Her column will return in the fall as “My 2L Life.”