College is collegial; it’s right there in the name. Students have plenty of time to socialize, explore and acclimate. Many college students spend their first year just learning the ropes.
In law school, however, the first year — called 1L — is most critical. The curriculum and teaching methods are established. Most classes are large, intimidating lectures. Professors typically base their grades on final exams graded blindly using a fixed curve, with percentage quotas for each grade. And 1L grades are a key factor in determining summer positions, future job opportunities, eligibility for law review and transfer applications.
Even if not as cutthroat as in the past, 1L year is a high-pressure setting — like legal practice itself. To succeed in this daunting environment, first-year students should:
— Narrow your focus
— Annotate readings
— Use study aids
— Attend office hours
— Join an extracurricular activity
Narrow Your Focus
Liberal arts colleges reward broad-mindedness, and many students end up majoring in a subject for which they had little previous inclination. Law school is a professional school meant to prepare you for a career. Students who choose and pursue clear career goals get the most out of the opportunities and resources provided.
[READ: Follow 3 Steps to Choose a Law School Specialization.]
There is still room for intellectual curiosity in law school, of course, but it is best to explore deep down a few paths rather than taking tentative steps in many directions. Each legal specialization has countless nuances and approaches. Think hard about what kinds of work settings foster your best performance.
There’s a reason the reading comprehension section of the LSAT tests annotation more than recall. Readings in law school are quite different from the textbooks, articles and classics assigned in college. The jurisprudence that dominates law school readings can seem opaque and dense, especially at first.
Since classroom discussions revolve around specific cases and rules, they will be incomprehensible unless you stay on top of the reading. So prepare for class not just by doing all the reading, but also engaging with it by briefing cases and outlining concepts. Develop your own system for keeping cases straight and understanding how they relate to one another. If you get called on, you will need clear notes for reference.
Use Study Aids
No book can be purchased to replace the active learning that comes from compiling your own case briefs and outlines. But commercial guides — bought new or used, or simply borrowed — can make studying easier and faster by organizing information better than textbooks and class notes. Such products include hornbooks, which clearly and succinctly explain legal concepts, as well as commercial outlines and other materials.
[Read: College Classes That Best Prepare You for Law School]
However, since study aids are meant to be universal, they contain a wealth of information irrelevant to what your own professor cares about and will likely test on the exam. So use study aids only to elucidate concepts or cases you cannot understand from your own notes.
Attend Office Hours
Whether their style is strict or lax, law professors tend to teach 1L classes using the Socratic method, calling on students unannounced to put them on the spot. To command attention and keep control of classroom discussion, professors might come across as serious and unapproachable.
Don’t be intimidated. Many professors are eager to engage with students outside the classroom. Attending office hours or review sessions can be a great way to get to know professors, discuss your personal interests and seek clarification.
[READ: What Underrepresented Law School Applicants Should Know.]
Through such sessions, you might also learn about ways to get involved in research and other activities. And if you end up needing a recommendation letter for a fellowship or transfer application, it helps to have a personal relationship with a 1L professor.
Join an Extracurricular Activity
Joining an extracurricular activity is a great antidote to 1L stress. Extracurricular activities in law school give students, even 1Ls, opportunities to work on causes of their choice in meaningful and practical ways. Whether through a journal, society or clinic, law students can find activities to apply their knowledge to real-life issues and meet like-minded students outside of their own classes.
Extracurricular activities can also help you narrow your career interests, beyond broad law classes. Assisting prosecutors or defense attorneys to build their arguments may give you a stronger sense of criminal law than a lecture class based on old cases.
If done right, 1L year will leave you with lifelong friends, confidence and career interests. The journey may not be easy, but it will go better if you start on the right foot.
Gabriel Kuris is a contributor to the U.S. News Law Admissions Lowdown blog, writing about issues relating to applying to law school. After advising law school applicants for more than 15 years with Powerscore and JDMission, he founded Top Law Coach to directly help applicants master the LSAT, find their voice and make their best case to law schools.
Kuris has worked as a legal researcher focused on human rights, corruption and policy reforms for Columbia Law School, the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, the World Bank and the American Bar Association. He has done field research to support judicial reforms and transitional justice efforts in more than 20 countries. Previously, he taught at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and practiced global finance law at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in New York.
Kuris received a Fulbright Fellowship in creative writing and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Harvard Review, Policy and Society and ForeignPolicy.com. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University.