At the risk of making this column a sequel of my last where I lamented about the unfortunate impact of exams on the holidays, I must state: law school exams are horrible.
Professors shoehorn material into the final lectures before classes end as if a student’s brain is a sponge that never saturates. Days upon days are spent reading, highlighting, condensing, and memorizing material learned over three months of lectures that could easily be stretched to a year.
Preparation does not just involve knowing the area of law in each course, but knowing your professor’s preferred version of the law. A binding case or legal principle loses its authority if the professor just doesn’t like it. And the exam period is like an Ironman for the brain, testing a student’s endurance and judgment of when to peak and when to valley.
If that’s not enough, the stress is compounded by law school’s student-ranking requirement — a fertile ground for suspicion, mind games, and judgment in even the most disciplined student.
During this perfect storm of pressure, doubt, and anxiety, reflecting on and even regretting the decision to come to law school is common.
I have survived three law school exam periods. Each time, I ask myself: “Why am I subjecting myself to this?” The question is practically sung by a chorus of bewildered students frequenting the library during its extended exam hours. It is hard to keep your eye on the prize when you’re tackling the obstacle of exams.
At the halfway mark of my law school adventure with the finish line drawing closer, I feel it is particularly timely to tweak my approach. Here are a few resolutions I plan to explore in the new year.
To avoid the overwhelming logjam of work at the end of the semester (case briefing, developing CANs, and connecting the dots), preparing for exams earlier in the semester seems prudent.
A professor cautioned my business organizations class not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The warning wasn’t original but certainly well timed. I often find myself lost at sea navigating my way through a densely written case when I can easily consult an online brief first to get the high notes, then read the case with greater focus on the important bits.
There’s also merit in pulling together my CANs earlier in the semester and not relying solely on those professors who assign a midterm to switch my brain on.
I would also like to be more active in lectures, questioning explanations that do not jive with what I have read or what I think. Easier said than done. There is a code of silence in law school. Asking a question in lecture would reveal a weakness: not understanding. Such a confession stands in stark opposition to the “act like everything is normal” approach to law school survival.
But, too often in reviewing my lecture notes before exams, I ask myself, “This makes no sense, why didn’t I ask the professor?” At the risk of becoming Ludlow’s most annoying student, my arm is going to be raised more often in lecture and my voice will become more familiar.
Health and wellness
During last year’s orientation of the University of New Brunswick law’s class of 2016, N.B. Court of Appeal Justice Richard Bell offered us sage advice on surviving law school in his address.
“As a law student, your brain is your most important asset. The old view is that after 25 or 30 years, it only gets worse. What should that tell us about judges? Thankfully there is a new view amongst psychiatrists and psychologists. The new view is that the brain is constantly changing and the good news is that those changes can be for the better. These changes are experience dependent. And the best ways to rejuvenate your brain according to Dr. Mark Fenske, a psychologist at the University of Guelph are the following three: physical exercise, getting out into nature, and challenging mental activities. I am certain your professors will provide you with lots of opportunities for the third method of rejuvenating your brain. It is up to you to tend to the first two: physical exercise and getting out into nature.”
Three semesters later and 16 months wiser, his remarks are more meaningful to me now. The amount of time I spend in the gym, on the ice, and outdoors has certainly tapered. Though perhaps harder in the almost-Arctic conditions of Fredericton, it’s my goal to follow the justice’s advice and clock more time rejuvenating; even short sessions between studying.
If I’m going to be on the up in the classroom, gym, and outdoors, I eventually need to come down. I am not a meditator. I have to purposefully remind myself to relax my shoulders, Yoga leaves me “meh.” But I’d like to explore methods of clearing my mind and recharging my battery throughout the day beyond sleep.
And if law school has taught me anything, it is to prepare for the unexpected. Consequently, I will not tether myself to these resolutions! Happy Holidays and Happy New Year all!