The 1L Transformation

by ursavoice

Professor Susannah Pollvogt, UCI Law

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    Stress is “[a] constraining force or influence . . . a force exerted when one body or body part presses on, pulls on, pushes against, or tends to compress or twist another body or body part . . . the deformation caused in a body by such a force . . . [or] a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.”

    It’s something I observe every year: how 1Ls, over the course of their first semester of law school, transform from healthy, fresh-faced, enthusiastic novices into hardened law students with pale skin, brittle hair, and lingering coughs. After first semester they start to bounce back.  But the first semester of law school involves unique forms of stress that take their toll on us physically and otherwise. I remember reaching the end of my own first semester of law school and wondering why I didn’t have any energy, given my winning diet of bagels with cream cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner—accompanied, of course, by copious amounts of coffee. As time went on I learned how to better balance the demands of school with the health of my body and mind. But it takes some figuring out.

    Some of the stresses of law school are unavoidable. It is true, as Elizabeth Mertz (author of The Language of Law School) and others have noted, that becoming a law student involves an act of personal transformation that is profound and, at times, violent. We are asked to abandon our common-sense notions of fairness and instead think about justice in ways that are sometimes counterintuitive. We are required to leave behind our natural approach to solving problems and instead embrace and adhere to a rigid set of rules with which we may or may not agree. We go from being objects acted upon by the law to subjects empowered to leverage and sometimes even author the law. We come to see that the world does not necessarily work in the way we once thought it did.

    Thus, becoming a law student and a lawyer necessarily involves acquiring vast amounts of new knowledge and—to greater and lesser degrees—putting on a new identity. One cannot undertake such important changes without enduring a certain degree of stress. Stress is a result of force, and some amount of force is necessary to work these changes upon our person.

    But other stresses associated with legal education are avoidable, or can at least be mitigated.  Larry Krieger describes these in The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress. This title often makes students laugh, because of course it is no secret that law school is stressful, and the sources of stress hardly seem “hidden.”  But Krieger emphasizes that the most damaging sources of stress are often not those that are the most obvious or visible. Rather, Krieger notes that while heavy workload is a real and understandable stressor, it is also something that most of us have dealt with before and are capable of responding to.  More insipid stressors include things like false values (Krieger’s term).  

    For example, a student who perhaps came to law school with the goal of becoming a public interest lawyer gets swept up in the frenzy surrounding OCI and jobs in Big Law. Another student who is more passionate about the world of business than about constitutional law worries that he is “selling out” in the eyes of his public-interest-minded friends. Yet another student, the first in her family to graduate from college much less obtain a professional degree, struggles with how to fit in with professors and employers who are firmly ensconced in the upper-class.

    When students become preoccupied with externally imposed priorities not their own, they lose sight of themselves and their original goals. This alienation from self, in turn, causes persistent stress, which undermines optimal performance.

    At the end of the day, Krieger finds that students succeed—on both an objective and subjective level—when they focus on the process of learning itself, rather than on narrowly defined/externally validated outcomes (GPA, class rank, prestigious job offers). There is not only one path to personal and professional fulfillment; there are many. But this is easy to forget in the high-pressure fish bowl that is law school (and especially a small law school).

    One of the goals of Academic Skills Program at UCI Law is to help students find the path to optimal performance on their terms.  We do this in part by trying to de-mystify the learning process of law school, making certain that all students have access to the core skills required to perform confidently in their classes, extracurricular activities, and work environments. We encourage students to focus on process–the best way to study for exams—instead of outcomes—getting an “A” in a particular class. We also seek to support students in identifying their individual academic and professional goals, and coming up with creative ways in which they can achieve them.

    Law school changes us—and it should. It is through law school that we are admitted to an immensely powerful profession. It is a profession defined by strict standards of competence and ethics. These standards exist to ensure that we are vigilant in serving our clients. Conforming to these standards is the price we pay for the privilege of entering the profession.

    But just because law school changes us does not mean that it occupies the entirety of who we are, evicting any identity that existed before. Rather, each of us faces an individual challenge in determining how to become a law student and lawyer while remaining, on a fundamental level, ourselves.