What You Should Be Doing the Summer Before Starting Law School
By Evangeline M. Mitchell, Esq., Ed.M.
The summer before law school began, I was eager and excited about starting the journey to earn my J.D. I knew that I would be attending the University of Iowa College of Law beginning that August. My big concern was that I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to go to the state of Iowa. Looking back, although that was something important to consider, that was really the least of my concerns. There was a lot more I should have been preoccupied with. I was actually going to be a law student but I really had no idea about what that really meant or what I should be doing to prepare. I spent that summer after college graduation working at a Houston-area museum to earn extra money for expenses until I received my financial aid.
Although I did get bits and pieces of advice from current law students I reached out to at the law school I chose to attend and some lawyers I encountered but did not really know well or have relationships with, my summer before law school I didn’t worry much about it and wasn’t sure what to do to prepare. I figured that I had done well academically in school all of my life, so why should law school be any different? The only thing I did to “prepare” was read two recommended books including One L by Scott Turow (chronicling the first-year experience of a former Stanford professor turned Harvard law student which is considered a classic in law student circles) and The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (a book in the category of an area of legal study known as critical race theory which examines the intersection of race and the law) by Patricia J. Williams. These were interesting and enlightening reads that I would recommend, but reflecting back I sincerely believe I should have done so much more.
The main thing is not to repeat doing what I did by not preparing. Some people will tell you that you can’t prepare for law school. A rigorous and challenging undergraduate education emphasizing logical reasoning, analytical and critical thinking, and strong reading, writing and research skills is great preparation. However, there are concrete and practical things that you can do and should be doing the summer before to help prepare you for what is to come.
If you need to work, try to do something law-related, don’t work too many hours, and carve out time specifically for law school preparation. However, don’t focus solely on your law school preparation. Although you should seriously get yourself ready for the experience, my recommendation is to prepare at least a few hours a day, but do try to go out with friends and family and do all of the wonderful things you enjoy doing because fun will have to take a backseat once law school is in full swing – essentially from day one.
Make certain that you put forth a serious effort to do something to prepare yourself. Don’t just go into law school cold without any previous preparation or exposure to what you are about to undertake. Incoming law students are expected to hit the ground running and your not knowing what is expected of you can force you in the pitied position of being behind before you ever get started. Below I provide ten key tips on things that I believe that I could have done to better prepare myself for law school the summer before it all started, and things that I adamantly believe you should do to get yourself ready for the very real demands of the law school experience.
- Try to participate in some type of law school preparation program. There are some pre-law prep programs that are available to college graduates, but to participate you will have to apply several months prior to law school starting in the fall. One such program designed to prepare you for law school is the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) Summer Institute housed at a specific law school every year. There is also the Charles Hamilton Houston Preparatory Institute in Washington, DC. A few law schools and the Law School Admission Council sponsor PreLaw Summer Institutes or PLUS programs but these are mainly for college sophomores, juniors or seniors. Some of these programs may accept you as a recent graduate. Don’t simply do an Internet search for the applications. Do your research. Talk to the program coordinators and alumni of the programs. Also, ask about whether a local bar association hosts any type of preparation program for students.
Some law schools’ academic support offices also provide summer programs during the summer prior to beginning the fall semester for accepted students who are from underrepresented minority groups or disadvantaged backgrounds, or who are identified as being able to benefit from such a head start. Find out if a school you were accepted to or the school that you have chosen to attend conducts such programs. Additionally, there are commercial law school preparatory courses provided by BARBRI’s Law Preview and Kaplan (1L Edge).
Whichever program you are able to attend, the main thing is that you should attend some type of intensive preparation program or course – no matter what. If you are not able to physically attend, surf the web and find an online course. Law school is very difficult and extremely competitive. By not getting yourself prepared, you will start out behind your colleagues who will be doing their best to get ready so they can gain an edge over the competition – you.
- Practice reading some actual legal cases but don’t get bogged down. Some students might recommend to you that you should read actual legal cases to get a jump start on your courses or may recommend that you review dense treatises. I personally do not believe this is good advice. Yes, you should read cases. However, you should not spend an inordinate amount of time doing this. It won’t hurt you to get a feel for what reading legal cases is like and using a legal dictionary to define all of the legal terms you don’t know, but don’t spend numerous hours a day doing this. You don’t want to burn yourself out before you officially start law school. As a law student, your life will be devoted to careful reading and comprehension of difficult to understand cases and you should not spend too much time laboring over them before you are required to.
- Listen to audio CDs or mp3s featuring Black letter law for all of your first-year courses including Torts, Property, Contracts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law and Evidence. Audio programs which clearly set forth the law in all of these critical and basic areas of law are available at local bookstores, law bookstores and can be easily ordered through the Internet at on-line Bookstore sites such as BarristerBooks.com, BarnesandNoble.com, AspenPublishers.com or Amazon.com. Ask around about which audio series is best for the different subjects so that you will know which series to purchase. If possible, try to find out which professors you will be taking and which case books they assign students to purchase. Some audio series specifically discuss the cases based on particular case books. Once you obtain the audio CDs or mp3s, take the time to carefully listen to them a few times – in your car, while cleaning up, or whenever you get spare time. The purpose of listening repeatedly is so that you will gain a firm grasp of the “big picture” of those major and critical subject areas so you understand the subject and have some idea of where the courses are going before law school even begins.
- Read law school preparation books offering practical guidance on how to analyze and brief cases, conduct legal research, and what to expect during the law school experience. You will not have the time to read these books on how to best navigate the law school experience once law school starts because you won’t have the time – plain and simple. As a law student, you will be focused on completing all of your assignments and keeping up with the daily heavy workload that gets more intense by the day. You can’t afford to take a day off or get behind because you may never catch up. Spend the summer reading all of the “how-to”
and law school experience books that you can get your hands on so you can get a better idea of what law school will expect of you and what legal education will be about. Ask lawyers and law students which resources out there are the best and do research on the Internet to find those of most interest to you. Also, be certain to read a few books specifically involving legal research, writing and legal reasoning that are written in plain language so that you can use them as references later when given writing assignments to complete
- Select a couple of books from recommended reading lists, but don’t try to spend your entire summer reading a lot of theoretical books on the Supreme Court, the lives of certain Justices, and the like. Many law schools will send you a list of books for recommended reading or include such lists on their websites. Remember that these are just suggestions and not mandatory reading assignments. If you see titles that are of personal interest to you, then you should go ahead and read them. But by no means should you take these lists literally and feel that by reading all of the classic and popular books recommended by your law faculty that are included on the list that they will prepare you for law school. Reading these books will give you insight and may be interesting reads, but they won’t necessarily prepare you for the road ahead.
The law school preparation and how-to books will get you better prepared in a more practical sense. Therefore, it is probably a much wiser investment to spend time learning how to brief cases and understanding the grading system and what professors are looking for in legal essay exams and coping with the pressures of being a law student to demystify law school, rather than pouring all of your energy into biographies and books on legal theories and such. This does not mean those books hold no value, they absolutely do, but when you have limited time, make the more practical books your priority.
- Take the time to talk to your family, friends and significant other about the time commitments of law school and ask for their support. Unless you have lawyers in your family or the people you know have some idea of the very real demands and rigors of a legal education, you can’t assume that they will understand that once you start your life will be dramatically different. You should try to explain to them before you get started that you simply won’t have spare time to hang out, talk about nothing on the phone, or do the things you used to do. Many law students complain that they don’t even have time for themselves, their old hobbies, or much of anything once they embark upon a legal education. Law school consumes people’s lives and the saying that “the law is a jealous mistress” couldn’t be more true. Law school will require everything you can give to it and more, especially during your first year.
Prepare the people in your life and let them know that you will need their support and to understand that you are not turning your back on, neglecting, or don’t want to spend time with them. However, obtaining a legal education is a major commitment which requires that you give your full attention and direct your total energies towards earning your law degree. The time, mental, emotional, intellectual and physical demands require your giving 110% to ensure you will make it through. Remind those you love and who are closest to you that now is a time when you need their love, support and understanding more than ever. Make it clear that law school is only a three to four-year, short-term endeavor and that the lifetime rewards of possessing your legal training will outweigh the temporary inconveniences.
- Take care of any financial, personal or other issues or areas of concern in your life that may distract you. Make sure that you don’t get ready to start law school with a lot of financial, personal or other problems hanging over your head. Tackle what you can before you get started. If it’s not possible to get those things in order, you may need to defer your law school attendance until you can as you may be unable to manage the law school workload as well as unrelated added strain. Law school is no joke. The pressures of the first year will make it extremely difficult to handle the demands of simply being a law student and worrying about bill collectors calling or the threat of your new car being repossessed or ex-boyfriends or girlfriends harassing you. Do everything in your power to get your finances in order, to get your personal relationships straightened out, and to tie up any loose ends. You will not have time to deal with distractions and frustrations and can’t allow those things to stand between you and your legal education. Law school will require your full and complete time and attention, and when you can’t give it all it requires and deserves, things will begin to crumble all around you. Your legal studies must come first. This may mean making tough choices such as getting out of toxic relationships or distancing yourself from negative people who will bring you down and steal your time and drain your emotional energy.
- Work on establishing relationships with law students at the school you will attend and making contacts with area lawyers. You must network! It is very important to let people know that you are about to start law school and to try to develop friendships with law students and lawyers. They have been where you are trying to go and through their guidance, mentorship and advice can help make the road a little easier than your trying to navigate the whole daunting adjustment process alone. Your previous educational experiences more than likely did not prepare you for the daily challenges of law school. The entire approach to legal education is very different from that of undergraduate programs. Even if you went to graduate school, the way classes were conducted and the way you were tested are certain to be very different from the way things are done in American law schools. Since you have not been on this path before you can learn a great deal from those who have. Get to know people, ask for their assistance and always remain gracious and humble. You may have been the king or queen of your college campus, but you are entering entirely new territory now and must go in respecting that. Respect those who have been there and humbly seek their advice. One thing a current law student and lawyer will dislike in any incoming law student is arrogance and an attitude that just because you were successful in past academic environments that you know you will be in law school so no one can tell you anything. Maintain your confidence, but understand that there is a lot you don’t know and so much for you to learn. You may know a lot and have read a lot but until you have gone through it and experienced it for yourself, you are not an expert. Remain open and willing to learn and listen. This will take you a long way.
- Get yourself ready to work possibly harder than you’ve ever worked before. In law school, you will be taking classes alongside other high achievers. The pace will be fast. A lot will be asked of and expected of you. No one will hold your hand. It’s sink or swim – you must decide. No one will baby you, direct you, guide you or lead you. No one will pick you up when you fall. You must pick yourself up. No one will be there to save you. You have to save yourself. If there is something you need to know, it’s up to you to take the initiative to find out and do the research. Go into law school recognizing that you can’t be lazy or passive and expect to succeed. You are ultimately responsible for your own legal education. No one will spoon feed you. You must actively seek it out and teach yourself. If you don’t have a strong, never say die attitude, a positive spirit and understanding that in life those things worth having are worth working for even if it takes blood, sweat and tears, and a formidable and relentless work ethic, then you are in for a very rude and painful awakening. You are making a major financial, mental, emotional, intellectual and physical commitment. If you are an underrepresented minority, you have the further burden of knowing that many people will expect you to fail or perform poorly, so you must ready yourself to prove them wrong. Therefore, you must go in willing to give your all and sustain that fire that has brought you far enough to convince a law school admissions committee that you are someone worthy of admission who can succeed in law school and beyond.
If you don’t know if law school is for you and you’re not quite willing to put everything into it and make the commitment, perhaps you should defer indefinitely until you are sure. You cannot and should not get through the law school experience half-way. Your performance will make a big difference as so many employers focus such a great deal of attention on grades, especially your first-year grades. Although you may have talked your way through things in life, know that many legal employers are not willing to take risks and will be deaf to your excuses. If you aren’t willing to do it right, consider putting it off until you are ready to give it the time, attention and dedication that your legal education deserves. You wouldn’t want to hire a lawyer who didn’t give law school their best efforts and your future clients deserve that same respect from you.
- Make a commitment to seriously learn how to manage your sacred and often elusive time effectively. You will never look at time in the same way again once you become a law student. You will never have enough time for all the things you have to do. You will likely find yourself even reading cases up to the minute classes start. You may even find yourself underestimating the amount of time assignments take realizing that reading a case just once or even twice isn’t enough for you to fully grasp what you have just read. You will sit at your desk for hours and hours grappling with the text looking up wondering where all of the time has gone. Therefore, it is critical that you go ahead and purchase a detailed planner and start working on charting out what you have to do and sticking with a schedule. Gone are the days where you can waste hours doing whatever and not accounting for your time and still manage to earn excellent grades.
Although most law school classes only have one exam at the end of the semester or year, you must stay on target so that you can keep up with the daily reading and class discussion. In your “spare” time, you need to work on synthesizing your cases and incorporating your notes into a study outline for the course which will help aid you in preparation for your law school exams. If you throw away time, you will not finish your assignments, will go to your classes unprepared, will be disorganized, and will more than likely be frustrated, overwhelmed, disenchanted with law school life, and embarrass and disappoint yourself.
Start respecting the value of time and get ready for a life where you will no longer be able to sit down in front of the TV several hours a night like you may have used to. Time will turn from something merely spent to a highly valued yet elusive commodity. If you were thinking about investing in digital cable or a satellite dish, save your money. Prepare yourself for eliminating those things that take up time that you don’t need in your life because time will never be on your side. And despite everything, although your life will absolutely be unbalanced with the vast majority of your life being disproportionately dedicated to legal study, remember that you are human so do plan to schedule in time for church, prayer or meditation, exercise as a positive outlet for your frustrations, “quality” time with the most important people in your life, and special time to focus on you.
Evangeline M. Mitchell, Esq., Ed.M. is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, the University of Iowa College of Law and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She is the founder of BlackPreLaw.com, the National Black Pre-Law Network, the National HBCU Pre-Law Project, and the annual National Black Pre-Law Conference and Law Fair.
Copyright © 2005-2013. Evangeline M. Mitchell. All rights reserved.