How to Succeed in Law School: Faculty, Alums Offer Tips for Incoming Students

Faculty, Alumni Offer Tips for Incoming Students
Clay Hall entrance
August 7, 2017

As the University of Virginia School of Law prepares to welcome the Class of 2020 later this month, faculty offer their best tips on how to succeed in law school.

Charles Barzun '05, Armistead M. Dobie Professor of Law

I would read every case twice: first slowly and with a pen. Then again much later, preferably just before class, to get the facts, rule and rationale fresh in your head again.

Molly Brady, Associate Professor of Law

  • Find two to three study spots that make you productive and happy, whether in the Law School, your apartment or a public place. These spots should be comfortable, convenient and suited to you — some people study best alone, others around lots of noise. If you can’t focus in one spot, move to the other one. Before you know it, just being in that place will put you in a positive and productive mood. My first choice is the corner of my own couch with an episode of "Law and Order" in the background; when that’s not working, I go buy a giant, fancy iced coffee at Starbucks and plan to stay a while.
  • If you don’t know many lawyers or have limited experience with law, you might be worried that you lack some knowledge or skills that your peers already have. Fear not. During my 1L fall, I heard a few people say that they dreamed of clerking for SCOTUS, so I spent a week frantically Googling “Judge Scotus” and “Where are Judge Scotus’ chambers.” If I can get through law school starting there, anyone can! Ask 2Ls, 3Ls and professors any questions you have — trust me, we probably had that same question ourselves, and if we didn’t, we’ve heard it before. You’ll quickly catch up, and before you know it, you and hundreds of fellow classmates will all be on the same page trying to figure out what in the world "livery of seisin" is. ;
  • Make time to do things that seemingly have nothing to do with your new career: watching terrible TV, running, acting, fiction-writing, anything. Though law itself is always exciting and evolving, some days, law school will feel confining and homogenizing. Having things outside of the law to explore will help you retain your identity and focus clearly on what you like and want. Bonus points if you do things that are challenging for you, not just things that come easily! I took an adult gymnastics class for a year and spent most of it flopping on the floor and hanging helplessly from a rope while failing to climb it. Even though I wrote two articles during that time, I would say I felt most accomplished that year when I finally got my first handstand. The process of failing in a low-stakes environment gave me patience and grit that carried over to all other aspects of my life. (It also gave me a number of awesomely embarrassing stories for cocktail parties.

Darryl Brown '90, O. M. Vicars Professor of Law

Do the assigned reading, go to class, ask questions in and after class. Do some but not all of your studying with others. Use the library’s hornbooks as supplements to reduce the expense of buying supplementary subject-matter books. Stick with the note-taking and study methods that have worked well for you in the past. Don’t be intimidated by your smart classmates; you’re one of them. Play softball or cheerlead for your section team. Keep calm and carry on.

Grace Applefeld Cleveland '09, Director of Admissions

  • Connecting with faculty and staff at the Law School is a great way to maximize your experience here. Just as your classmates are going to be the foundation of your professional network for the rest of your career, the teachers and administrators you meet at UVA Law can become lifelong mentors.;
  • Eat at Lampo.

Chris Colby '04, Director of Admissions  

  • Relax before school starts. Don’t read ahead.
  • Before classes start, take a week wandering around Charlottesville and get a sense of the city.
  • Learn from your professors and your classmates alike – early and often.
  • Get involved with the Law School and within the community. Try out a student organization or two.
  • Get to know your classmates, trust your classmates and look out for your classmates.
  • You’re not alone. We’re all in this together, and we take care of each other.
  • Be friendly with everyone you meet. The staff and administration will remember you forever.
  • Try a new restaurant or new cuisine once a week.
  • You’re only here once, but your friends sitting beside you will last a lifetime.

Cordel Faulk '01, Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer

  • You will form some of the most significant personal and professional relationships of your lifetime with your Virginia Law classmates. They also will be some of the most interesting and capable people you ever will come into contact with. Enjoy that and enjoy them. Get to know as many people in the Class of 2020 as you can, and hold onto them as tightly as possible for the next 70 years or more. You won’t regret it.
  • Along those lines, try really hard not to make any enemies. That person you carelessly treat badly some random Thursday night while in law school probably will be a senator someday after her stint as a United States attorney.

Joe Fore '11, Assistant Professor of Law

  • Develop a routine that works for you and write it down. Whether you like a paper-based calendar or a digital calendar on Google or Outlook, having a written schedule will help you stay on top of your classes and also allow you to leave time for things outside of your coursework.
  • Build in regular time for studying and preparing for class, but also be sure to block out time for non-curricular stuff, like social activities, engaging in hobbies and exercising. Your daily schedule won’t look exactly like your classmates’, but that’s fine; find what works for you.
  • Visit your professors outside of class! Your professors are a great source of information, and we really do enjoy getting to know our students. Whether you want to talk about something class-related, career-related or about non-legal things that you are interested in, we’re happy to see you.
  • Make some time to do things that are completely unrelated to the law, whether it’s running, reading, trying new restaurants, going to concerts or whatever else you enjoy. Getting out into nature is also a great way to rejuvenate and sharpen your mind. I started fly fishing while in law school, and I found that even a few hours on the river paid huge dividends in terms of relieving stress and improving my overall well-being. Shenandoah National Park is only a half-hour away from the Law School, and there are plenty of other nature areas to hike, bike, kayak or fish. Get out and explore!

Kristin Glover '05, Research Librarian

  • Find a study space to suit your study style. The Law Library’s three floors offer a variety of study spaces for you to choose from – carrels, tables overlooking the courtyard, standing desks, and group study rooms. Use our map to scope out a spot.Reserve our Loblaw, Matlock, Woods and other study rooms to meet with your study groups. The library is open every day, 8 a.m. to midnight during the semester, and longer during finals period./li>
  • Come to us for help with studying and research. We have helpful "Nutshells" and "Examples & Explanations" on torts, property, constitutional law, bluebooks and more available to check out in the reserve stacks in our first floor Klaus Reading Room, next to the circulation desk. Search all of UVA’s print and electronic books, journals and databases in Virgo. Need something from another UVA library? Our Student Delivery Service will pick it up for you. Check out our research guides, videos and links to databases on the library homepage.
  • Take study breaks! In MyLab on the second floor, you’ll find coffee, a vending machine, space to chat on your phone and hang out with classmates, and board games to take a break during finals time. Take home "Game of Thrones," this year’s Oscar winners and more than a thousand other titles from our DVD collection in the first floor Klaus Reading Room. Drop in on weekly 10-minute meditation breaks in the library.
  • We’re here to help! Just ask. Ask us any questions you have. We’re happy to help you at the Circulation Desk on the first floor, and at the reference desk on the second floor. In addition to stopping by the reference desk in person anytime 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, you can email our reference staff or set up an appointment online for help with your research.

Patrice Hayden '02, Senior ​Director of Law Firm Recruiting

  • Meet as many people as you can during your time here. Get to know folks outside your section. There are some really fantastic people at UVA Law. 
  • Self-care is important. Take care of yourself: sleep, eat and make time for things outside of law school.

Andrew Hayashi, Associate Professor of Law

I think incoming students should pursue hard ideas and intellectual challenges and then take advantage of faculty office hours to discuss them.

A. E. Dick Howard '61, White Burkett Miller Professor of Law and Public Affairs

  • Be regular in class attendance. Don’t fall behind in your reading. A second reading of assigned cases may clarify issues and arguments. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. Review materials from time to time during the semester so that, when exams are at hand, you will already have a grasp of the subject.
  • Treat your time at Law School as being more than vocational education. Law is a profession, one enlarged by the teachings of other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, sociology and science. Begin to think about research and writing projects you could undertake as you move through your time at the Law School.
  • Get to know your classmates. You will quickly discover why the Law School has a reputation (envied by students at other law schools) for collegiality and fellowship. Your fellow students are remarkable people. You will make friendships here you will cherish throughout your life.
  • Take time to relax and have fun. Don’t neglect the passions and avocations you nurtured before you entered law school.
  • Discover Charlottesville and its environs. Pay visits to the homes of our founders – Jefferson, Madison and others. Enjoy the local vineyards, the variety of restaurants and the local art scene. Hike the trails in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
  • All in all, begin your law studies with high hopes and great expectations. I predict that, like so many of our alumni, you will look back on your time here as having been special and fulfilling.

Jennifer Hulvey, Director of Financial Aid

Old saying:  “If you live like a lawyer while you’re in law school, you will live like a student when you’re a lawyer.” Translation:  Sound fiscal policies while you are in law school, like living within your means and not borrowing more than is absolutely necessary, will serve you well now and in the future. 

Ruth MasonRuth Mason, Professor of Law

Study hard. Take tax.



John Norton Moore, Walter L. Brown Professor of Law; Director, Center for National Security Law and Director, Center for Oceans Law and Policy

I often suggest to incoming students that they find out what casebook will be used in one major first-year course they will be taking (this may vary by section professor) and begin to read ahead to get a sense of the cases and the subject matter. Civil procedure is a particularly good choice as it provides some overview useful in many classes.

George Rutherglen, John Barbee Minor Distinguished Professor of Law and Barron F. Black Research Professor of Law

When you have a choice between writing more in your notes and thinking more in class, try to think more and write less. Success in law school and in the legal profession does not go to the person with the most comprehensive of notes but the person with the best understanding of the law.

Frederick Schauer, David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law

Don’t be reluctant to speak up in class or display interest in the material for fear that your classmates will think you are a geek (or nerd, or gunner or whatever). You wouldn’t be here unless you were a geek, and everyone knows that. Your classmates wouldn’t be here unless they were geeks, and everyone knows that. And the professor in the front of the room wouldn’t be here unless she or he was a geek, and everyone knows that too. So we are all geeks, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Just get over trying to deny it, and take full advantage of the learning that comes from enthusiasm and intellectual engagement.

Molly Bishop Shadel, Professor of Law, General Faculty

Read "Finding Your Voice in Law School." Then come see me if you have questions!


Marit R. Spekman '09, Director of Career Services

Get to know all of your classmates! Not only will these people ultimately be your colleagues and clients, they’ll likely end up being some of your best friends.

Gregg Strauss, Associate Professor of Law

Sit down and, as cheesy as this sounds, write out a recommendation for yourself at the end of your three years. It makes you consider what you want people to be able to say about you after you've finished law school. Because then you've got an idea of how to go about doing it.

J. H. (Rip) Verkerke, T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law and Director, Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies

  • There are surprisingly few unequivocally “right” answers in law. Good arguments can usually be made better, and even very bad ones sometimes prevail in litigation.
  • Your 1L grades will not determine your future success and happiness. Many students have a challenging start in law school and become outstanding lawyers, and others excel on exams but struggle to find meaning in their legal career.
  • Embrace the collegial spirit of UVA Law, and celebrate the remarkable diversity of your classmates’ experiences, perspectives and approaches to life.
  • Professors care deeply about your learning and your happiness. Don’t hesitate to talk to us both in and out of class.
  • Make a mistake (or two or three) during your first week in classes. Learn that it’s not nearly as traumatic as you may have feared and that learning absolutely depends on being willing to try out an argument even when you’re not sure of yourself.
  • Finally, try to have some fun every day — in the classroom and outside it.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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