Originally published -
Now that I’m a semester into law school, I look back on the blur that was the last four months and can’t help but laugh. The experience, the friends, the moments, and of course, the successes and mistakes that consume the soul of the first-year law student. I have gotten one grade back thus far, and it was a B. To people on the outside world, a B is a decent score that is either shrugged off or else mildly celebrated; for a law student, it is a consignment to imperfection, the first thing that has ever made me cry tears of sadness in a long time, and at the same time, a signal to myself that I need to loosen up a little.
Coming into law school, I was riding a wave of success from passing the Patent Bar, and I had been a high-achiever at my previous job. I felt like all I had to do was put in a 9-to-5 work ethic, and I would be able to get nothing but great grades in school. After all, a lot of the students were coming straight out of undergrad, and not from a work environment. What I found out is that the people in my class at school are some of the coolest, smartest, and nicest people; and they all have the same mindset as me. The fact is that everyone in law school thinks that they are that person that will get all A’s, and all but a small handful will be dealt at least a couple B’s on their first-semester transcript.
Now you may say to yourself, “why would anyone go through this disappointment?”, and when I first saw that grade on my school’s web portal, I may have agreed with you. I mean, looking back on it, I had been to every single class aside from a day I missed for a wedding. I had been to every TA session (extra learning opportunities hosted by the student assistant of the course). I had spent my nights reading, re-reading and briefing cases, building and tweaking my outlines, and soaking up supplemental learning from sites like CALI, and Barbri. I worked from Friday night to Monday morning on the midterm week, writing legal memos and generally freaking out about things. How could it be that this wasn’t enough to get an A in my first-semester Torts class? Well, the simple answer is that someone came in on the day of that final and wrote a better essay than me, answered a couple more multiple-choice questions correctly, and generally made fewer mistakes on a 3-hour exam. Honestly, with the grade leverage I came in with from small quizzes and assignments over the semester, there were probably plenty of students in my class who did a bit more to show what they had learned.
But looking back, this environment of fellow students made me learn not only a lot about the law but about myself as well. So, I want to take the time to document some of the thoughts I have on why I didn’t get that coveted A in Torts, and what I will do differently in the semesters to come.
Coming into law school, many a first-year student will be bombarded with strategies for success in their first semester. One of the tenets of this verbal bombardment will be to brief cases. Briefing cases means writing out the facts, procedural history, and anything else about the case that may get asked by the professor in the horrific event that they call on you to brief a case. Seriously, you will hear it coming in, but there is just no way to prepare yourself for that first cold-call. “Mr. Rand, what are the facts from Bristol-Meyers Squibb v. The Superior Court of California?” Even with a case brief in front of me, I sat there in astonished disbelief.
So naturally, briefing cases seems like the most important thing in school for many a student in their first semester. And the fact is that while reading the case is important, it is just not as important as it is cracked up to be. The most important thing to take from any case in law school is not what Justice delivered the opinion, not the procedural history, or the year that the plaintiff started feeling the effects of the asbestos poisoning. The most important thing is understanding why your professor assigned you the case. What single sentence specifically serves as the brick in the wall of knowledge that they are building in your repertoire? Sure, sometimes it is more than one sentence, but the important thing is not to dive into the facts blindly trying to determine what questions your professor will ask you on Monday morning.
You will almost never be asked what a certain case taught you on a final exam (but seriously, ask your professor, this is not legal advice, I am not a doctor, etc.). What you will be asked about is the law from which the cases arose. Taking the Bristol-Meyers Squibb case as an example, it meant absolutely nothing that the drug in question was Plavix, or that the dissent was masterfully penned by Justice Sotomeyer, or even that the court was in California. It was all about a concept called personal jurisdiction. The singular fact from that case that was important for me to realize is that it is fundamentally unjust for a company to be sued by a plaintiff in a state that (a) they aren’t domiciled, and (b) the cause of action did not arise.
So, in sum, keep it in context and take a step back. Don’t read the case, think about how it fits into the bigger picture.
There were two great quotes my professors said at the beginning of my first-semester. The first was one by my Civil Procedure professor. He said, “you know, a baseball player maximizes their power by having the loosest grip on their bat that is possible.” And it’s true, that is why you see baseball players flying bats into left field.
This is a big one that I think a lot of people including myself struggled with in the first semester. You come in so excited to succeed at this new endeavor, that you try to do everything to cover your bases. You go to every TA session, you stay up all night studying, and you brief every case; but then people around you who don’t do these things one-up you on the quiz, paper, or exam. Before you think to yourself, “it’s rigged,” think about what you are trying to accomplish. The goal in school is not to do everything that will help you learn the law, the goal is to do what will help you succeed, and to learn how you as an individual maximize efficiency.
I know for me, a big part of it was the echo chamber type of environment. Everyone is always comparing case briefs, outlines, attendance, cold-call performance, but listen, this stuff isn’t worth grades. The most important thing that I learned in law school is that everyone learns and practices the law in a different way. And that goes to the second quote that I wish I would have paid attention to a little more closely. One of the first things my Contracts professor said on our first day of class was “embrace the ambiguity.” The law is not a science, there is no concrete right and wrong. Working the way that someone else is, or the way you were taught during orientation will not guarantee success, just as finding the perfect precedent in practice will not guarantee a won case. At the end of the day, the ambiguities in the law are what make it such a rich profession. Right along with that, having what you think is the best essay on an exam may not mean that your professor will agree. Having the best argument in the courtroom will not guarantee that you will impress the judge. And finally, and this one is important, getting a B or a worse grade does not damn you, or mean that you are less of a person. In this odd world of the law, the person that gets straight A’s or goes to the best school may have the inside track on a coveted clerkship or job at a big law firm straight out of school. But if you are like me, and you came to school because of your genuine interest in practicing the law, and got a grade you weren’t expecting, you will have the rest of your life to make the case for why that grade doesn’t define you.