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Dear 1L

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Kayli Smendec, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

Dear 1L,

Congratulations, and also, good luck! More than luck, however, in law school we all need a healthy balance of realism and optimism, learned resilience, and a strong sense of self. For law students’ personalities being overall so similar, it is so easy to feel like you’re the only one who feels different. Law school can bring out your worst insecurities and fears, but I am optimistic that maybe in the end, law school can bring out your best if you let it. My goal in writing this is not to give advice on getting good grades, getting on journal, or finding a job—what I lightheartedly refer to as the “easy” part of law school. I intend to help provide retrospective perspective on the law school experience and the hard part—getting through it, which is a skill to be learned for all three years of law school and beyond.

The Law School Experience: “Embrace Ambiguity” (what, like it’s hard?)

From the very beginning of law school, we are told over and over again to “embrace ambiguity.” As the “law-student-type,” we thrive on certainty and accuracy, we follow a plan, and we fear failure. When it comes to the casebook method at least, ambiguity can actually be our friend. But what about the ambiguity of the law school experience? All of the advice in the world cannot prepare you for how uncertain you will feel, particularly about yourself. This says a lot about the systematic problems within law school and the profession, but it also tells you that you are not alone, and perhaps that can provide some comfort for now. Even the best and the brightest are impacted, though they might not express it. What you feel is part of a much bigger problem with the profession, one in which I hope we can take part in the solution, but the best thing you can do in the meantime is to focus on you.

Tip #1: Have Realistic Expectations (but be optimistic)

You should know that law school may be the biggest intellectual (and mental) challenge that you face thus far. This does not mean that you need to have a negative attitude going in, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be naïve about what you are getting yourself into (To all of my complaining, already-in-law-school friends that I thought were being dramatic, I’m sorry). Beginning with some myth-busting, doing your best may not feel good enough, you can’t just not worry about cold calls, and you probably should do all of your reading. The skills that got you to law school will not go to waste. Some people may talk about how much they love law school, but I’m telling you, it is totally okay and even normal to not enjoy law school, or even to fantasize about dropping out. Lastly, 2L may actually be harder than 1L, and 3L is by no means easy.

A lot of us end up in law school due to what I see as a “liberal arts to law school pipeline.” We are used to a lot of reading and writing, and we view law school as the appropriate choice for a stable job ($) and the respectability of being a “professional.” If we are lucky, we may have some passion for law too, but the question remains as to whether we will actually follow that path. The pressures we face may make pursuing passion like a privilege. The positive takeaway is that a law degree is a powerful achievement. Take the time to appreciate your own hard work and how far you have come. As the saying goes, “Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.” Sometimes, happiness is very much a choice. Just because you might feel stuck in law school, in your career, or in life, does not mean that you are stuck on that single path forever. You have the power to choose to seek open doors, or even to open your own doors, so try not to lose sight of your possibilities even if they don’t quite feel like options yet.

Tip #2: Learn to Be Resilient (or pretend you are)

● Start your day with positivity (a mantra, music, or conversation). Every time you have a negative thought, counter it with a positive thought.

● Don’t let a bad moment (or bad cold call) ruin your whole day. View failure from a big picture perspective, and don’t dwell on it.

● Keep setting goals, but don’t forget to be content in the moment. Don’t let what other people think of you limit you.

● Talk to people (family, friends, therapists) (but do not talk to classmates about grades!).

● Seek inspiration; it is all too easy to get caught up in the mundane. Do more of what you enjoy. If you don’t know what you like, find it.

Take care of your physical and mental self by exercising, meditating, eating healthy, or whatever works best for you (I recommend getting a pet and acupuncture).

● In some cases, the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy can also be quite effective. Exuding confidence (even if forced) can go a long way in the legal world.

Tip #3: Believe in Yourself (unconditionally)

Most importantly, believe in yourself. This starts with knowing yourself—your values, goals, strengths, and struggles. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even if/especially if it means standing out. The legal profession, despite its flaws, is an honorable one, and you get to be part of it. Just trust that you are equally deserving of your spot in law school, that you have unique strengths to contribute to the legal profession, and that will make you succeed in your own way on your own terms. As Elle Woods once said, “You must always have faith in people, but most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.”


Kayli Smendec (3L/almost-survivor)