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Guidance for 1Ls
Law school is best viewed as a marathon. When you first enter, you are inundated with information, events, and rumors. It is difficult to parse through all the noise and understand what to expect. This section attempts to highlight a basic overview of the law school experience and provides some helpful hints and strategies of how to achieve a balanced yet successful law school career. The section is divided up into four parts: 1L, 2L, 3L, and post-graduation. Each section defines the challenges and opportunities that law students will likely encounter in the given year and some tips for dealing with these factors. Each section also contains some practical guides to various aspects of law school life that have been drafted by NMLSA Executive Board and Circuit Chair members, who have been through the experience themselves.
The 1L Year
1L year is a very hectic and, sometimes, overwhelming time. You have just entered into a what is likely a very unfamiliar environment. You've forgotten most of what was said at orientation and are having trouble even remembering the names of the classmates you saw at an event yesterday. You have purchased some heavy textbooks that all seem to have size 8 font and cannot make out many of the words in your first reading assignment. For some reason the word "promissory estoppel" sounds like something from King Arthur's tale. Well, not to worry. We have compiled some helpful advice so that you can approach your 1L year with confidence and poise.
For almost all law schools, your 1L curriculum is set and you have very little flexibility in choosing your courses. Typically, you will cover the following courses: Civil Procedure, Contracts, Criminal Law, Property, Torts, Constitutional Law, and some sort of Legal Writing/Legal Research Seminar. These are what are known as "core," or foundational, courses and they lay the framework for more advanced courses and seminars which you may elect to take later on. For example, your Contracts course will allow you to delve into courses such as Corporations, Negotiations, and other law and business related courses.
These courses contain a lot of "black letter" law, which refers to important legal principles that have developed through centuries of case law and have been influenced by legislation, social movements, and political developments. It is important to be able to understand and critically engage with these principles. Not only will 1L exams test your ability to analyze these principles and apply them to novel legal sitations but also these principles will inevitably resurface on the bar exam, which you must pass soon after graduation in order to be certified to practice law in a particular state.
Another characteristic of these courses is that they are taught in a very different manner than you have likely ever encountered. Most law professors use what is called the "Socratic Method," which is basically a form of inquiry and debate among various perspectives designed to illuminate certain key principles or concepts. Essentially, the professor will not directly state what the legal principle is as he would in a typical lecture-style format. Instead, he asks students questions about cases and guides the discussion towards the revelation of a particular legal principle or idea. This method often creates a good bit of anxiety and fear among 1Ls. The key to overcoming this level of tension is to come to class prepared! This means coming to class having read the cases, briefed the cases (see guide to studying for law school classes for more details), and ready to speak intelligently and analytically about the cases. Warning: this is not college where you can walk into a lecture, sit in the back, tune out, and then rely on lecture slides to fill in the gaps. You are in a theater of active discussion. While your professor may have assigned days where he calls on certain students, many professors call on students randomly. While not being prepared may not directly affect your grade, it can lead to 1) being embarrased in front of your peers and 2) not helping yourself getting in a positive light with your professor.
In addition to facing challenging courses, as a 1L you will face tremendous pressures to obtain a solid class rank. When you are interviewing for both 1L and, more importantly, 2L summer jobs, your 1L grades will be of utmost importance. Many of the top firms will not even interview students below a certain percentile or GPA. The "weed out" process can be demoralizing but it is just a fact that you must learn to deal with and it is better to know about it beforehand so that you can focus right off the bat. Grades are also very important when applying for clerkships, fellowships, academic positions, and certain public interest positions. Finally, entry into your school's flagship journal, the Law Review, will also likely be determined by first year grades.
Your classes will likely be graded on a curve. While the curve can vary from school to school and even from professor to professor, most courses are curved to about a B or B+ average. This means that you will need to place in the top half of almost all of your classes in order to maintain a competitive GPA.