Welcome back! It’s been many many months since I’ve posted, and that’s a testament to how much of a load first year law school has been. I love blogging, and the opportunity to articulate and crystallize my thoughts, but school has simply made it impossible to do so outside of the classroom.
That’s all good! I’ve got a lot of things saved up, and I’m eager to get them out.
So is it that hard?
My friend started typing into Google the words “How hard is law”. Google popped up two suggested guesses (which I replicated about a month ago). The first suggestion was “How hard is law school?” – 83,600,000 results. The second suggestion was “How hard is law school really?” – 165,000,000 results.
Although humorous, this is a very valid question. The answer we’ve been given throughout the year has been that first year law is often the hardest part of a legal professional’s career. I have no way of ascertaining whether or not that will remain true as I continue in my own trajectory. But, it certainly feels believable being at the end of this year and looking back.
I, and I think many of my colleagues, had forgotten what it feels like to learn something from nothing. My recollection of school was the last couple of years that I’d spent there. I’d completed amost of the foundation courses, I was excited about the material I was learning and knew that I wanted to continue working in it. The self-doubt that had been present initially had washed away and been replaced with confidence that can only come from understanding the foundation of your chosen discipline, and learning about everything that can be derived from it.
Coming back to school was a lot more like I’m sure the very start of my undergrad felt like. At that time, I was young, had more energy, was more reckless, didn’t know what I wanted to do, ad nauseum. It was a different experience for many reasons, but most importantly, it was difficult to really appreciate everything that school represented at the green age of 18 (probably one of the reasons I flunked many of my first and second year courses).
This time around, I had awareness of what I wanted. I understood the challenges that I wanted to take on, and I had a better idea of what I would (and wanted to) get out of school (answer: more education – NOT a job, although that may be an added benefit to investing in myself). I had the confidence that came from proving myself in the field for five years before coming back to school. And I had a ton of great habits that I had developed before coming back.
All of these factors helped out incredibly, but that didn’t change the fact that first year Law was gruelling.
This will be a fairly long post; the intent is that I do a bit of a post mortem, like I would with a project that had completed. Look at what worked well, what didn’t work well, what I learned, what I won’t repeat, and also a look at some of the context while I was doing my first year (dance, squash, friends, relationship, etc.). Everything related to first year Law is immediately below – the context comes further down.
So is it that hard, really?
So, the answer is: Yes – it is that hard, really. Learning something new from the ground up is very challenging. Law is a particularly dense subject, with an immense set of jargon (legalese), rules, logic, background, and tradition to wade through.
Even just getting familiar with the best way to approach the material, and how to read caselaw can be a daunting process. I’ve been a very prodigious reader for most of my life, and have always done well on reading comprehension tests, so imagine the adjusting that it took to learn that it now required three hours for me to get through about 30 pages of one of my textbooks.
The problem isn’t that I’m bad at reading, just that I’m bad at reading law. And the reason that I’m bad at reading law isn’t that I’m bad at law in general – just that I’m not yet familiar with the domain and discipline.
These comments probably sound like platitudes at this point, but when you’re in the middle of trying to learn brand new material, integrate with a brand new social group, and under very tight deadlines, being able to find the time to adequately reflect and reach these conclusions is very challenging. Most of us instead find a good deal of the challenge is simply coming to terms with the self-doubt that the situation creates.
And so that was the first big challenge for me: self-doubt. I’m a very confident person. The reason I’m confident isn’t because I’m arrogant – it’s because I spend a good deal of time in contemplation, reflection, and introspection. I think about who I am, what I do well, and what I could do better. I hold my friends to very high standards, and expect no less of myself. This reflection is done with brutal honesty.
These are great ways to spend your time, and they allow you to appreciate and understand who you are. Most importantly, they aid in granting the ability to understand what motivates the person you are, and what they are capable of.
That’s just a long-winded way of me saying “self-doubt? But what about all this stuff you do?” Well, that stuff has been a great help. A huge help in fact. But no system is fool-proof, and no amount of preparation can adequately prepare you for every contingency that comes about. The truth is, Law school is extremely challenging, and when things get stressful, the natural inclination is to question whether or not you’re good enough..
So… Are you?
Of course I’m good enough, and so is everyone else. We got into Law school, and the reason we got in is because we met the standard that they set for their students. Law school is a lot like many other “career” graduate schools (I hate that description of it, but more on that later). The hardest part is getting in. Once you’ve done that, you’ve proven that you’ve got the chops to make it through to the other end. That doesn’t mean that you’ll make it through without hard work, but what it does mean is that a lot of the pressure that students feel in their first year of law school comes from within, rather than without.
UVic’s law program is known Canada-wide for its collegiate atmosphere. The environment is one of collaboration (with obvious exceptions such as assignments and writing exams (notwithstanding situations where it would be reasonable)), mutual encouragement, and working together to ensure that everyone better themselves.
In my opinion, this is the only atmosphere that you can aim to foster for the greatest long-term benefit. It leads to a healthier student-body, a happier alumni, and graduating students with a greater depth of knowledge than is possible when they are encouraged to work alone. Synergy isn’t just an obnoxious management term – it’s a concept very worthy of cultivation!
My own experience represents just one sample out of the many schools and programs available, but I found that the students that made it into the program were generally high achievers who were used to receiving good grades (A to A+ averages in their undergrad). These are people that put a lot of pressure on themselves, and are used to doing well. It can be quite challenging to have to adjust your benchmark for satisfactory performance.
One of the ways in which I managed this change was to reflect on what grades actually represent. Coming out of undergrad, a lot of us have the incorrect impression that they are solely reflective of how intelligent we are. Those of us that got good grades especially like to think along these lines, because it reflects positively on ourselves. Perhaps it’s good that we were all forced to re-evaluate this approach – the world doesn’t really need any more self-important lawyers.
The conclusion that I reached is that the grade you end up with represents many things. Intelligence, yes, certainly, but also things like the amount of time you’re willing to devote to school, and the sacrifices you’re willing to make. It shows how much of your life you’re willing to let school dictate. When I did my undergrad, these things weren’t obvious to me. I was younger, and the two things on my agenda were generally school and party. Partying took up the weekend, but other than that, I didn’t have a major relationship, physical exercise wasn’t as much of an issue, and there really wasn’t that many other things I had to worry about.
This time through, I have a greater appreciation for what I want out of life. I don’t want to have my head buried in a book for the 5 hours I have to myself outside of school. I’ve got other responsibilities, and not just responsibilities that I have to deal with, but responsibilities that I really want to deal with. I want to keep teaching dance – that’s important to me. I love my wife, and want to spend as much time with her as I can. I want to see my family as much as I can.
The fact is that these aren’t problems that interfere with me getting good grades in Law school. These are things that take precedence over school. It sounds simple, but it can be an ellusive conclusion to reach when returning to school at the age of 30. Things are different than the first time around!
Some things I’ve learned
You go back to school to learn, and that has happened in spades. One of my friends mentioned in class that a lot of your real learning takes place when you have time to reflect, but that the trouble with first year is that you’re so busy, you rarely have time to actually do so. I can appreciate this – I like to spend a lot of time in reflection and quiet contemplation.
For me, it’s all been about stealing moments when this is possible. On the bus or bike ride to and from school, when going on a walk for lunch, or even just the few minutes when I’m eating breakfast. These are valuable moments, easy to lose!
From a purely substantive perspective, I’ve learned a ton about the field of Law, or at least the foundations of it. The classes that (I believe) all first year students take are Contracts, Property, Torts (claims based in negligence and harm caused to others), Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Legal Research and Writing, and Law, Legislation and Policy.
The last class mentioned is the shortest one, and covers the process of interpreting legislation. This might sound trite, but legislation is almost meaningless until someone interprets it. If someone write a statute prohibiting all men, women, and seniors from doing something, does this include children? If yes, why aren’t they mentioned explicitly? If no, then what about any other classes that aren’t mentioned explicitly. Courts spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to best interpret legislation so as to remain true to the intent of the Legislature.
Contracts, Property, and Tort law are all forms of private law. They’re law that mediates the relationship between individuals. In Contracts, I learned that those mandatory arbitration clauses you see in cell-phone contracts are currently acceptable. That sucks – I was really hoping our (awesome) professor would let us know that this is a contentious area of law, and would soon be changing.
Property law is as it sounds, but what caught me off-guard is how damn archaic it is. Property is arguably the most ancient form of law that we have (though I might argue that before people had property, they were arguing about injuries that they had sustained as a result of each other’s actions – Tort). A lot of the law related to wills and estates is derived from law put into place because of a King’s whim, or in order to subvert that whim. That’s pretty wild, and can make for a difficult time to wrap your head around it from a logical perspective.
Tort law is the eye-rolling law. It’s the law that people typically get upset about – where someone spills hot coffee into their lap, and sue someone else because the coffee was too hot (that case was overturned at the court of appeals, incidentally). However, it’s also a very important area of law. It’s easy to get upset when you hear about ludicrous lawsuits that end up costing people millions of dollars, but what about situations where an employee suffered grievous bodily harm because their employer didn’t bother putting adequate safeguards in place? Tort law is in place to ensure that people injured due to other people’s negligence have a means of being compensated. Would it be fair for someone to leave their chainsaw running on their balcony, have it fall on you, and for you to have no form of compensation?
Constitutional and Criminal Law are both public law. They’re areas of law that mediate between “the state” (Canada, or the Province), and the individual. In 1982, Pierre Trudeau enacted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which sets limitations on what our government can actually do (notwithstanding the fact that there’s a clause including allowing them to override the constitution, given an appropriate circumstance). Constitutional law, for the most part, is based on interpreting and measuring whether or not various government legislation and actions violate our constitutional rights.
Criminal law is exactly what it sounds like. Most of what falls in the area of criminal law is codified in our Criminal Code – a massive book containing descriptions and explanations of everything that is criminal in our country.
I didn’t expect to like Criminal Law. Going back to school, it always felt like the area of law that would require the most flexible sense of morality. It hasn’t hurt that the professor I’ve had for this class has been one of the best professors I’ve ever had, undergrad or otherwise. I think that a flexible sense of morality may still be required – a number of the friends that have worked with criminal lawyers have mentioned that almost all of the clients being defended are factually guilty. The defense lies in pointing to technicalities, or violations of the accused’s Charter-protected rights in order to “get them off”.
The stance that I’ve started taking, when approaching this area of law, is that it’s really not at all about the people being defended. To me, the ideal a defense lawyer should be pursuing is not to help scum bags get off – it’s to protect the importance and sanctity of due process. Even before going back to school, I’ve had many arguments with many friends about the importance of due process. It’s something that a lot of people can’t get their heads around, because a lot of people take the attitude that “I don’t break the law, so I’m not concerned about the police entering my house, or searching my bag, or searching my locker”. It’s difficult for us to appreciate what would happen in a society where we did not have rights to privacy, security, life, and liberty that were not only protected by the Charter, but also that were upheld in courts of law.
Once we start allowing the state to infringe on our protected rights, its a gradual slide, first to the situation in the States (suffering under the ironically named Patriot Act), and then gradually toward situations like Communist Russia, and lastly landing in an Orwellian setting like 1984. This may sound dramatic, but I truly believe that protecting individual rights is one of the most important things a criminal defense lawyer does.
As a society, we should place a high value on the rights that individuals are given in Canada. The sacrifice that we make in order to ensure that those rights are protected is that factually guilty people will sometimes go free. We need only watch some of the videos that have surfaced on YouTube to see some of the violations that can occur at the hands of the police.
Some things that have worked…
Many of the good habits I set myself up with prior to coming to school have helped me greatly. Learning and applying GTD methodology has been incredibly helpful in ensuring that I’ve been able to keep on track of all the demands on my time, and allowed me to do way more than I would have been able to do if I didn’t have a system for keeping track of everything.
A lot of my friends laugh at me for the amount of scheduling that I do, and probably grow sick of hearing “Look, I need more than one day’s notice”. I think that many of them think “Adam’s way too busy and never had time for fun”. The reality is that by scheduling my time, I maximize the amount of fun that I have, as well as the amount of time I can spend being productive.
Law school presented a ton of opportunities to go out partying. I’m glad that I spent time before returning to think about where my priorities actually lie, and to figure out mechanisms for coping with an insane amount of workload that didn’t involve turning to the bottle every time I had a break. It’s definitely a way to blow off steam, but there are other far more constructive ways for me to do so.
Remembering the importance of physical exercise has been a huge help to. When the pressure gets put on, and time becomes tight, it’s easy to forget about how important this. Setting up good habits before going back to school has helped keep exercise in the forefront of my mind. Being married to someone that also knows the value of this has helped immensely as well.
This has been a bit of a ramble. I’m still processing thoughts, and figuring out how to articulate them – I could spend more time editing, staring, and trying to corral my words into something more meaningful, but in the past, the result from that has been that I just don’t make a post.
Stay tuned – there’ll be many more to come this Summer