Like other major life events such as starting a new job or buying a home, the first year of law school can be anxiety-inducing. But Professor Molly Bishop Shadel of the University of Virginia School of Law says it doesn’t have to be.
Shadel, who teaches public speaking and oral advocacy, among other courses at the Law School, recently shared five tips to help first-years have a successful year in the classroom.
In an environment where students are often “cold-called” by professors to analyze an argument, four of her steps will help students be more prepared — and the fifth will help them stay in the proper head space, she said.
Shadel is the author of the book “Finding Your Voice in Law School: Mastering Classroom Cold Calls, Job Interviews and Other Verbal Challenges.”
1. Do your reading every night.
For students who put aside reading until the last minute during their undergraduate days, that approach won’t work in law school, Shadel said.
“So much of law school is about reading judicial opinions, and you have to get it done,” she said. “Law school education is cumulative. Each day builds on the day before.”
2. Read for particular things.
Cases, with their length and unfamiliar language, can seem overwhelming on first blush, when in fact they’re all made up of the same components. Learning to look for those elements — such as who the parties are, the question the judge is being asked to answer and the holding of the case — make analysis an easier task.
“The language can seem foreign,” Shadel said. “It gets easier. You start to get a sense of what you’re looking for. There are certain things that should always jump out you when you are reading a judicial opinion, no matter what class you’re in. You can even come up with a form for yourself, a checklist, where you make sure you’re looking for these different things.”
3. Create a visual aid.
But even if you understand the complexities of a case, being able to answer on the spot is another matter. To be able to reference text quickly without getting flustered, students typically devise a visual scheme for their note-taking.
“You just need some sort of a system,” she said. When Shadel was a law student, “I took notes in the casebook itself, that’s where the judicial opinion is that you’re reading, and I had a system where I would use yellow highlighters to highlight the holding of the case, and then green highlighters to highlight who the parties were.”
4. Keep actively listening (even if you know you won’t be called on).
Shadel said it can be tempting in a first-year class to become mentally lazy if you think you won’t be called on again. That would be a mistake, she said. Students should think through each case along with their classmates.
“Mentally answer those questions yourself, and see what you might have said,” she suggested. “And pay attention to anything you might need to change in your notes.”
5. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself.
Finally, Shadel’s main tip for 1L students is to work on your inner voice. It’s the one we all hear when we endeavor to do anything difficult. The one that secretly worries that we are not good enough, that we can’t rise to the challenge.
“I think back to that first day of law school for me, when I walked into that classroom and felt so nervous, and felt like maybe I didn’t belong there, that maybe everybody else knew things that I didn’t know, and maybe I was going to fail and people would laugh,” she said. “I realize now that stories like that weren’t serving me well.”
Shadel added that not talking in class is cheating yourself of the rhetorical law school experience.
“I promise you that the admissions office always gets it right,” she said. “So if you’ve gotten into law school, it means you belong there. You absolutely belong there.”
“Finding Your Voice in Law School” is published by Carolina Academic Press. The book includes a sample study form and more about visual aids, as well as practical advice for life outside of class, including job interviews.
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.