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Four years ago, after a particularly dispute-filled visit with my attorney-infested future in-laws, I promised my girlfriend that I would never, ever, ever go to law school. I had all of the classic symptoms of pre-lawyering psychosis: a habit of adopting ridiculous positions on topics about which I knew nothing, solely for argument’s sake; a tendency to ruthlessly correct the imprecise language of friends, acquaintances, and total strangers; and a perverse delight in crafting mangled prose and run-on sentences. She really ought to have seen it coming. Shortly before my girlfriend and I got married, I was desperate for an excuse to escape South Florida. A lucky break on the LSATs and a funding commitment from my fairy grandmother sent me packing for Washington. As you begin your legal career, remember there was somebody with a worse reason for going to law school than you. Keep that in mind because the first few days and weeks of law school are a period of intense stress. Unlike nearly every other nonathletic field, it is not enough to do well by some objective standard. Rather, your performance will be judged by how well you do in comparison with your classmates. Sadly, your professional career will hinge largely on what you accomplish in your first year — or at least that’s the fear. Your first-year grades are a major factor in getting onto law review. Your school, grades, and review membership get you a summer position at a firm. The same things get you a clerkship with a federal judge. After school, your standing is determined by the prestige of your firm. That B- in contracts will haunt you forever. That is the first lesson of law school. The good news is that the stress eventually lessens. The bad news is that you’ll be in the grave by then. What follows are a few hints to at least make law school more manageable. 1. BUY A STURDY BACKPACK Casebooks are heavy. And large. My fashion consultants tell me that bike messenger bags are still in. Ignore that urge. The dimensions and weight of your standard tome are such that you’ll get kidney failure from even occasional use of such a flimsy article. Mere attach�s and briefcases will quickly fail. Some would advocate rolling around those wheeled carry-on size suitcases. That’s a bit awkward, but the point is that back spasms tend to interfere with your studies. 2. LIVE CHEAPLY A penny saved is a dollar you will not have to send to Sallie Mae a few years down the line. One of the reasons so many people in your future profession are so unhappy is that they feel forced into working for large firms because their loan payments exceed $1,500 a month. So resist the temptation to spend your summer riches on baubles like $250 shoes (guilty), $600 suits (guilty), or expensive trips (would be guilty if I had the time). Westlaw and Lexis are more than happy to give you a wardrobe of stylish T-shirts and tote umbrellas. Firms and school events will ply you with free booze. If you can keep your expenses under control today, the $125,000 you will make is actually a lot of money. In the alternative, if you aren’t loaded down with debt, you’ll actually be able to save the world instead of being stuck in a job you hate. 3. STUDY, BUT NOT TOO MUCH Despite the importance of your first-year grades, it is very possible to study too much. The danger is that you can become a sniveling idiot come exam time or not be able to adequately prepare for your other classes. To avoid that disaster, do not get behind in your reading and never skip class. It is all too easy to get so far behind that it is simply impossible to catch up. And because law is a seamless web, every concept builds on the last, especially in the first few classes. Studying consists of not just reading the cases but also briefing them. Most of your classmates will abandon briefing cases by the middle of the first semester. This is not a good idea. Briefing your cases, no matter how pedantic or mechanical it gets, forces you to actually read the material. A good brief also allows you to quickly answer the easy questions from the professor in class, saving you from being asked the difficult ones, which make you look like an imbecile. 4. DON’T BE A GUNNER Every class you take will have at least one jackass who just likes to hear herself talk. She will raise her hand on every question and yammer on about something or other, usually totally unrelated to the issue at hand. Professors don’t like gunners, students don’t like gunners. While folks who aspire to be lawyers shouldn’t be all that concerned about being liked, you need to have some self-respect. The Socratic method of today is not nearly as terrifying as that portrayed in “One-L” and “The Paper Chase.” Answer exactly what was asked and as definitively as possible. Otherwise, asking questions is fine. Giving the right answer is fine. Getting to know a professor outside of class (not in that way) to secure recommendations is fine. Talking about your time with Senator So-and-so is not. By the same token, your non-law-school friends (assuming you have any left) do not care about the holding in Palsgraf. Keep current on at least one nonlaw topic so you can talk about something else. Whom Bush would appoint to the Supreme Court does not count. Sports is always a good choice. And buy your wife flowers from time to time. 5. LRW IS A JOKE First-years generally have to take a class in legal research and writing (sometimes called legal theory). Practices differ, but at Georgetown LRW is a graded, three-credit course. Three credits is not nearly enough to warrant the time you’ll be tempted to spend on the assignments. Don’t get me wrong, clear writing (hah!) is the most important aspect of lawyering, but your grade in civil procedure is far more important for your career. Anywhere you can cut time off from LRW is time that you can more profitably spend somewhere else. At the very least, remember that the professor or your law fellow does not care in the slightest whether you think Jones should get the chair or not. You’ll have to rewrite the damn thing next summer for your writing sample anyway. Flip a coin and don’t waste time trying to find the “right” answer. 6. MARK DECEMBER AND MAY AND KEEP THEM HOLY After Thanksgiving, inform your family and friends that they can see you in January. If you have to, break up with your significant other now rather than the day before the torts exam. Balance your checkbook. Clean the house. Drink until the very thought of liquor is repugnant. You need the time in December to outline your classes. Yes, you can buy very good commercial outlines or you can get them from other students. The point is not, however, to have the outline at the exam (you won’t have time to use it); rather, it is to make it. If you have time, review some of the professor’s past exams. Looking at past exams is the only function of a study group, so keep one in reserve. During the year, study groups are a tremendous waste of time. During exam season, they are extremely useful because having more eyes means a better opportunity for spotting the ways your professor hides the issues. Professors are creatures of habit and will do things the same way every year — unless, of course, the past exams are erratic, in which case it’s every student for himself. If at all possible, do absolutely nothing the night before and the day of the exam. Whenever you can, type your exam. At least one study has shown typed exams tend to get higher grades. 7. RELAX The next semester is more of the same. Assuming all has gone well by the end of the year, you’ll be in good shape. It doesn’t really matter what you do during the summer between your first and second years, unless you have a hankering for public interest work. If you can, try to get a summer associate position. This pays well, but is extremely difficult to land as a first-year. During on-campus interviewing next fall, firms won’t care how you spent your first summer as long as you do something vaguely law-related. I apologize for painting a fairly bleak picture here. The law will make a cynic out of anyone. But it’s a wonderful field. And best of all, you’ll be able to yell at the television shows about law firms that always get it wrong. Good luck. Doug Smith is a second-year evening student at Georgetown University Law Center and a law clerk at Washington, D.C.’s Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg.

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