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The Emotional Aspects of Law School

published February 13, 2013

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You will find the study of law is an endless well and can easily absorb your every waking moment (it may pervade your dreaming moments, too!). Success in law school depends upon an unreasonable commitment to the study of law, a commitment that looms over law practice, too.

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The pressures of study, the emotional abrasions of examinations, and the sheer amount of time required of you will have a marked effect on your personality. Your moods will range from despondent to angst-ridden to suicidal to elated. Free time is suddenly a rare commodity, and those unoccupied hours you can squeeze from a rock will be tainted by thoughts of assignments and examinations.

What’s more, if you think you have it rough, consider your family, paramours, and friends—those victims on whom much of the burden falls and yet who don’t experience the exhilaration you feel when your studying pays off, when you do well on exams, and during those moments when you realize, “I may just be a lawyer yet!”

If you and those close to you are going to survive these pressures, remember that although law is more than a career, it is not a way of life. It should not replace your personal relationships and those aspects of your being that existed before you started law school. You must rein it back continually to make sure that the law keeps its place.

Sacrifices are something you will have to give while you are in law school. Cut down on soap operas, skiing in Switzerland, football, Proust, video games—whatever occupied your time before you set to work learning torts and contracts. Consider carefully what’s going to have to go, and make sure you’re aware of the consequences if among your sacrifices are personal relationships or activities vitally important to you.

Statistics show that the average age of law students is now higher than it once was; many more students are married or have permanent attachments. Similarly, statistics show that there is a high degree of divorce among law school students. True, perhaps certain dissatisfaction in personal relationships precipitates a number of changes in life-style—career changes and the choice to go to law school among them. Nonetheless, it won’t take more than two weeks for those close to you to realize that you’re a lot less fun to be with than you used to be (when you’re around at all and not lost in the library or in your bedroom with the door closed, poring over some legal tome).

You need not sacrifice much study time to guarantee that the study of law not topple your personal life. But some of it will have to go. When you do stop studying, you should come to a complete stop. Leave the books, cases, issues, holdings, and rules all behind you. Don’t let the rule against perpetuities or the defences to slander slowly dissolve your nervous system while you are out to dinner; you might even have fun in spite of yourself.

The Benefit of Not Studying

Apart from preserving your personal life, there are two other benefits from stepping away from studying at times.

First, doing so allows ideas to gel.

Legal study is a creative process, a problem-solving process. You’re continually wrestling with obstacles—not only legal problems, but difficulties in organizing your outline, coming up with topic headings, budgeting your time, and the like. Any creative activity needs a certain “baking” period during which your thoughts have a chance to rest and solidify. Solutions will occur by themselves, but the process does not happen when the oven door is open. Close it. Go out and play. When you come back to study your mind might have come up with a solution all by itself.

Second, maintaining contact with Earth while you’re in school continues the liberal arts education that all attorneys need. An attorney is a person who must command many skills and have many interests. The most successful attorneys are those who combine concentration and masterful knowledge of law with wide-ranging minds. Because the law’s ultimate concern is the relationships among human beings, a lawyer must know more than isolated rules; a lawyer must know human nature. Fortunately, that involves a far more enjoyable and informal method of study than what’s presented in law school.

So study hard, yes. But practice some moderation as well— for your sake, for the sake of those close to you, and for the sake of your future skills as an attorney.

The Swing Shift (Night School)

Some schools in this country still offer evening programs. The course of study takes four years, and the classes offered are virtually the same as those of the day division, albeit with some of the more esoteric ones absent.

The chasm between day and evening is not actually as great as some seem to feel. A number of day students work in law firms or in businesses although they don’t put in quite the same number of hours that a night student would. Moreover, what the evening students lack in time available for studying is often compensated for by their practical business and legal experience.

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But the pros and cons aside, you’re probably wondering: How will I survive? It helps if you have a job that doesn’t require weekend work and that is over at 5 P.M. every night. If not, you might shop around and locate one. After your first year you might find a law clerkship or paralegal job that pays a decent salary and that isn’t too demanding time-wise.

You may have to cut back on outside reading or be very selective in what you read, and your outlines may be cut to the bare essentials. But remember that you’ll be taking fewer courses than the day students. They’ll take six; you’ll take four.

Night school isn’t easy, but don’t let anyone tell you that a night student can’t get a legal job. Push a little harder; get the grades. Learn law. After you’ve been in practice for two months, no one will know or care whether you took contracts at 10:30 A.M. or 6 P.M.

Paper Courses

Finally, you must take a paper course. Writing instruction in most schools is woefully neglected; yet most of what occupies lawyers’ days is writing briefs, correspondence, and contracts, or reading what someone else has written (and then, naturally, rewriting it their way). Everyone needs writing experience, and a paper course is one way to get it.

Multi-degree Programs

Until recently most people who went to law school studied only law. While this is still true for the majority of students, most law schools now are offering joint degrees.

Traditionally such degrees were limited to specialties of legal practice. For instance, a number of tax lawyers have their J.D. and their masters in taxation. Antitrust lawyers often have J.D.s and advanced degrees in economics or trade regulation. In many cases, however, these attorneys completed one degree first, then after working for several years in either law or their other specialty went back to school part-time to secure the second degree.

Now, however, by pursuing a joint degree program, you can relieve two degrees at once by extending your stay in school for less time than it would take to pursue the degrees separately.

Typically, you would receive a J.D. and a masters’ degree in one of the following areas: business administration, taxation, public affairs, urban planning, trade regulation, and social work. In addition, it is possible in some schools to combine your J.D. with an M.A. degree in economics, legal history, political science, philosophy, or sociology.

Clinical Programs

Perhaps the most striking recent trend in law school instruction is the shift away from a purely academic, theoretical approach toward practical law.

Most schools now offer upper-class students the opportunity to work in legal clinics, assisting practicing attorneys on real cases. Under certain circumstances and with the approval of the local court system, some students are actually able to prepare real court documents and even appear in court for oral argument.

Typically, legal clinics specialize in providing the following services:

  • criminal trials (defence)
  • criminal trials (prosecution, in conjunction with local district attorneys)
  • criminal appeals
  • city government
  • juvenile law
  • general legal services for the poor
  • human rights law
  • alternative dispute resolution/mediation
Normally the second degree is a designation of the school that confers it: M.P.A. in the Public Administration School, for instance. Some degrees, however, are advanced law degrees, such as the Master of Law (L.L.M.) in taxation.

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