As I begin my final year of law at Osgoode Hall Law School, I find myself thinking back to that week with a strange nostalgia. Emotionally, I was somewhere between excited and nervous. However, when I recall my expectations for this degree, I realize now I was very naive.
While applying to law school, I didn't really do the thorough research I know many applicants do. I never went to open houses, I didn't reach out to student ambassadors, and I didn't compile a long pros and cons list comparing different law schools. I just knew I wanted to live in Ontario close to my family and I wanted to study law in a good school with experiential education opportunities. I applied to only three schools and luckily my top choice accepted me.
I was very naive about what law school entailed on a day-to-day basis, although I felt committed to the pursuit. True, this naiveté might be due in part to applying while living abroad. Whatever the reason, I expected an extended master's degree where my metaphorically beret-capped classmates and I would discuss legislation in place of anthropological phenomenology. That seemed somehow more familiar to me (or at least more expected of education beyond undergrad).
That impression changed pretty quickly. I realized lawyers are more like the engineers of the arts rather than the philosophers. Law school hit me like a ton of bricks.
In hindsight, there are a few key lessons I wish I knew before beginning. Some might sound discouraging, but, at this point, my realism is about expectation-setting rather than false hope.
Law school will be the toughest thing you've done yet
I think it is safe to say that most law students are used to working hard and doing well because of it. I remember acknowledging that law would be difficult, but not worrying too much about it. I had overcome some significant intellectual obstacles in the past and it worked out OK. I didn't really realize that in law school, you work harder than you ever have because it is totally new.
1L is the highest, steepest hill you've ever had to climb
Law school overall is difficult, but first year is by far the worst. The learning curve is steep as ever and you feel like you’re trudging uphill the whole way. I'm glad I stuck it out though because a lot of great opportunities were borne out of that year and the one that followed was way better.
Law school is like high school all over again
I really didn't expect this part, yet if I had thought about it, I wouldn't be surprised. A small graduating class all in the same building every day for three years? The dynamics are similar to high school — there are cliques, there are politics, but there are also lots of opportunities to get involved. I was a real extracurricular keener in high school and I guess I can say the same about law school. For better or worse, prepare yourself for this.
It's OK to take a day off
I've emphasized how hard law school is, especially first year, but it is also important to remember to step back and take some time for yourself. It is impossible to exert so much energy and focus without replenishing it. I made this mistake in first year and I paid the price. I worked all the time and felt guilty when I wasn't, but it didn't result in straight As as I hoped. I was utterly exhausted by the end and barely functioning. I wish I had let myself off the hook and taken a day off every once in a while.
If you bomb an exam, you'll still get a summer job . . . and an articling job . . . and even become partner one day
The emphasis on marks in law school is intense and sometimes suffocating. Not only is a low mark a blow to the ego, but all of a sudden that C is now imprinted on your transcript for all future employers to see. While it is true that some firms really look at grades and make decisions based on them, that's not true for all. Some won't care and you can still be successful in spite of it.
Speak to as many legal professionals as possible early on
In order to counteract the pressure I was feeling in first year, I tried to meet as many lawyers and legal professionals as I could. I wanted to get concrete examples of what a career might look like after these three years in the Os bubble. It really gave me some perspective and direction. That might have been the smartest move I made in first year because I feel so much more at ease about the future now.
Make friends with upper-years
Not only are upper-year students more relaxed, they're often willing to help you out. One of the best things about law is the commitment to mentorship, formally or informally. It's reassuring to speak to people who are familiar with law school challenges, but aren't as terrified or stressed as your 1L peers. They are also very helpful come exam time when you're scrambling for summaries to help you make sense of restitution or federalism. My few 2L and 3L pals were fantastic supports. I just wish I made the effort to get to know more of them earlier on.
Stay involved with your non-law circles
Sometimes you need a break from the law world. Even if you don't particularly like law school, you'll find it's all you talk about. Really. Non-law friends and family will bring you back down to earth.
You can take risks in law school
The road less travelled can lead you to success as well! This is the most important lesson I have learned since I began two years ago. There is something about law school that is very conformist and conventional. Some describe it as structure and find it very helpful. Personally, I found that my interests went against the grain quite a bit and some of my choices were met with skepticism. Despite the pressure I felt, I stuck to my guns and it's working out.
Of course, everyone's realities and experiences are different, so I can’t say with authority that these retrospective lessons will apply across the board. But the one thing I can say with greater certainty is that law school will push your boundaries in more ways than you can imagine. And you can retain your humanity and ambitions in spite of it.