Reaching law school is an achievement in itself. Even just applying is a demonstration of your ambition and enthusiasm, not to mention the hurdles you’ve had to overcome and the hard work you’ve had to put in, to get here.
However, Law school is also hard – and not just in the ways you might be used to. We are likely to bend and stretch you beyond your comfort zone – emotionally, socially, and academically.
Students beginning a law degree are generally very high achievers, priding themselves on accomplishment. You might be used to being at the top of your class, and getting glowing feedback from past teachers or mentors. But not everyone can be at the top of the class in law. Some of you – probably almost all of you – will falter, flounder, and fall. And you might find that you struggle to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. That’s okay – you’re not alone.
So, how can you best approach your first year of law, to avoid the pitfalls and make the most of the opportunities? Let’s consider some tips.
1. Be proactive.
Take responsibility for your learning. It is great when teachers and others can anticipate your needs and questions, but this won’t always happen. It’s up to you to make sure you understand what’s expected of you, both inside class and outside. Sign up for tours and orientation events, so that you learn about the campus, the library, and how La Trobe University works.
2. Be organised.
Typically, law subjects involve small weekly contact hours, but a whole lot of preparation – which you are expected to fit into your busy schedules, and keep on top of. There is always, always a lot of reading. And it will take longer than you think. You’ll be reading all kinds of documents you’ve probably never seen before – like cases and legislation – and you’ll struggle to understand them. Again, that’s okay. It’s normal.
So, expect class preparation, homework and assessments to be frustrating, and incredibly time-consuming. Organise your schedule so that you can come to class prepared and submit your work on time, rather than falling behind.
3. Reach out when you need help.
This is especially important if you need some help. Asking for help can be hard, but everyone has to do it some time. If you’re struggling in a subject, approach your tutor or lecturer. They would much rather know what’s happening, than have you slip out of sight and not do as well as you might have done with some early assistance.
But there’s no need to wait until the warning bells ring, to reach out. Other students can be a huge source of support – moral and scholarly – throughout your time at law school. Take up opportunities to meet with others, and form casual study groups. This can take courage, and time. But keep trying, and keep reaching out. You won’t regret it.
4. Focus on your skills.
Many students think that law school is about learning the law – the legal rules, the precedents, the legal language and concepts. And it is about those things, but only partly. The other part of a legal education is legal skills – skills like finding law online, reading cases, analysing laws and suggesting better ones, applying legal principles to new facts, and legal writing (among others). If you think about law school as a kind of apprenticeship in legal skills, this will help you to embrace chances to learn doing new things, and to make the most of feedback from teachers.
Legal skills are unique. You may be a fabulous essay-writer, but that doesn’t mean you know how to write a legal letter of advice to a client. In fact, this can be a problem for graduate law students (like JD students or graduate-entry LLB students). You might assume that because you’ve completed tertiary studies before you’re coming into law school with a head start. But it could be just the opposite. You may need to un-learn other ways of studying, reading, thinking and writing, before you’re able to hone your legal skills.
If this is the case, there is plenty of support available to help you focus on legal skills. Not only will teaching staff encourage you to think and talk about various skills. The law school also runs various kinds of skills support – like our regular Law School 101 skills workshops which start in week 3. Come along and see what tools you need in your legal skills toolbox.
5. Take care of yourself.
Finally, take good care of yourself. Yes, hard work often means pushing yourself. But you also need to take time to relax, to exercise, and to socialise. Law school, at its worst, can be a real threat to your sense of wellbeing. Anxiety, stress and depression are all too common – so keep an eye on your state of mind. If you are concerned, please let us know. La Trobe University and the student union offer all kinds of assistance and support to students. This includes a free counselling service. Sometimes just taking the time to talk to someone about your troubles, can make a massive difference.
The first days of Law School might feel overwhelming to many of you, but there is plenty of support available to students at any stage in their law degree. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need it, and make sure to check out our Law Skills 101 seminars, as well as initiatives like Wellbeing Week.
Follow our school on Twitter as well, to ensure you are always aware of the latest developments within the School.
We look forward to welcoming all of you to the Law School this year!