Law school exam stress- “you can’t control the weather”

It’s mid- March and many of us are beginning the feel the sinking dread in the pit of our stomachs that is “exam season”. Law school presents an especially daunting exam period than we have ever faced given the 100% finals, dense materials, and competition. I know I have recently found myself under a lot of pressure so I sat down with a friend of mine who is a third year student to get some advice on how to handle the stress.

My stress is typical of many 1Ls- fear of failure, self-doubt, and apprehension at the idea of facing something I have never quite experienced before.

My friend told me a story that calmed me and gave me some amazing insight into how to handle the weeks ahead. She began telling me about her experiences as a kayak racer. The fear, dread, excitement, thrill, and competition. Her biggest lesson to me was “you can’t control the weather” and I believe this is a great metaphor for how to handle exam stress.

When she was in races she had to force herself to let go of the things she cannot control, and focus on the things she can control. Once she did that, a large portion of her stress would melt away and she could focus more clearly at the task at hand. One huge impediment to doing well in a race is the weather. Rather than worrying about choppy waves or strong wind, my friend learned to accept that she could not control this particular variable. This applies to 1) what the professor will ask you on exam day 2) how your peers will perform 3) any other environmental thing that may happen to you during exams like sickness or bad luck. You can’t control these variables.

By letting this go my friend explained that she had more time and energy to invest in things that would help her succeed, like good preparation, working out enough, and eating well. The same goes for law school. I am trying to channel my nervous energy into productivity rather than fear and stress. I’m reminding myself that I “can’t control the weather”. It helps me focus on what I can control: my level of preparation and my attitude towards this experience.

One more thing about competition: I remember when I was younger I used to love racing, specifically in swimming. Once my coach told me “if you’d only stop turning your head to see where everyone else was, you’d keep focused and not lose your rhythm!” I’m not sure why I’m on such a roll with the sports analogies today, but this applies to law school as well. Don’t look at how much time everyone else is in the library or what they are doing to prepare. It will only psych you out. Focus on what you feel you need to do to feel comfortable on exam day.

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Using Rap for Business Lessons

I read this great article in the NY Times about Ben Horowitz, a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who uses rap to motivate himself and help others understand his point of view.

I imagine it’s somewhat of a discord to hear a white guy dropping rap lines in a business meeting but apparently it works. Horowitz basically offers a business moral or idea followed by  rap lyrics that make the point. He has a great following on his blog.I like the fact that Horowitz wants Silicon Valley to be a little less….homogeneous.

It’s pithy, smart and poignant. I recommend you give it a read. And in law, career, life use whatever musical influence you like for a pick-me-up or to make a point!

I have some rap/R&B favourites for different motivations as well- for general sentiment, not a particular business lesson. (warning- the songs contained in the links have explicit lyrics!)

1) When something you’re doing isn’t working

2) When you need to get amped up for a new project or challenge

3) When you’re really happy

4) When you need some girl-power

Reading week is here and I I know us 1L’s are so happy to have a chance to catch up on sleep, readings, and seeing non-law friends.Unlike undergrad where reading week is a vacation, reading week in law school is an opportunity (I know I need!) to look back, review, catch up, and rest. Important stuff.

Hope everyone has a safe and productive reading week!

Law and Life- Is There a Business Case for Balance?

This week 1L’s at UBC law had a crash course on how to be ethical as a lawyer, and certain challenges faced by those in the legal profession.

I’ve learned that as a lawyer the expectations society and the profession have of you are much higher than others. Yes, practicing law has a technical aspect to it but lawyers are more than just that. Lawyers are supposed to be champions of justice, equality and the rule of law. We learned that in supporting this system it is equally as important that unpopular clients/cases are represented. Unfortunately, certain systemic problems with the profession interfere with this lofty ideal.

Much was covered this week so I won’t be able to boil it down to one post, but the one thing that struck me was the challenge of the profession in general, and how having a life outside of law seems to be so difficult. We read an article where the author argues that living an unbalanced, unhealthy life where you cannot contribute to your community or be a good mom/dad/partner is unethical. We also read an article about the business case for women in law. We read another article on the business case for retaining women in law (read it here) that said the average cost of an associate leaving a firm is over $300,000.

Taking these two pieces together the same argument could be made for making lawyers’ lives more balanced and healthy. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, which is why it’s somewhat confusing to me that law firms still demand such high levels of billable hours from associates. I’m not an economist but I’m sure having happier, healthier people who worked a bit less but ultimately stayed at the firm would provide a net financial benefit to the firm in the same way retaining women does.

If I owned a firm, I would want people to be healthy, balanced and happy not only because it’s sad to think of people suffering but also because people are more productive and better at their jobs when they are not ill and struggling with personal problems. I liked the suggestion in one article that if something really isn’t working for you at your firm, you should approach them and seek a resolution rather than suffering in silence and ultimately leaving.

Rather than blaming the firms, the profession, or the employer, I think it’s on the employee to be an advocate for themselves, and to communicate problems to their firms with the hope of reaching a solution that makes sense for everyone. Ultimately I feel the onus is on individuals to take ownership and responsibility for their happiness and health by drawing boundaries between their home and work lives. A firm is just a corporation. You cannot expect an entity like that to view you as anything other than a commodity which is profitable. However the people running the firm, and your peers and supervisors are the human face. I don’t know for certain and maybe I am naive, but I feel that if my life really is falling apart from a work schedule or expectations that are unreasonable, my employer would offer support or hear my suggestions. It just makes business sense to retain people over the long run, especially as lawyers become more specialized and develop important relationships with clients. It’s so expensive to hire and train new people all the time, why not do the utmost to keep competent and hardworking lawyers on?

So despite the somewhat bleak picture of big firm life that has been painted for us at UBC, I think if working for a big firm is really what you want, go for it but be prepared to make sacrifices, and advocate for yourself if need be. Being armed with the downside is a good thing, and it takes well-informed people to change problems with any profession.

Bottom line:

  • Being a lawyer is hard and you have to be scrupulous about your actions. Wimps or liars need not apply
  • Don’t let any employer run roughshod over you. There’s a difference between a heavy workload and something unreasonable that ultimately costs everyone money and headaches.
  • My two cents: take responsibility for your career and health. If something is really not working for you, propose a solution. It makes business sense to keep lawyers from quitting, so the onus should be at least partly on the lawyers to tell management what’s not working. Your boss is not a psychic.

Happy reading week everyone!

The Value of A Good “Poker Face”

Over the past month 1L’s at UBC have have the opportunity to participate in a moot (mock trial), and watch a mock discplinary hearing by members of the Law Association.

I learned many things from both these experiences, but the one thing I learned in both situations is the value of a good “poker face”.

According to Dicionary.com a poker face is “A face lacking any interpretable expression, as that of an expert poker player”. When we were doing our moot, our inexperience made it so easy for us to read each others’ faces. We weren’t necessarily negotiating so much as we were arguing our respective points, but unlike the lawyers we saw in action today, our emotions were readily apparent on our faces. Especially when we were being grilled by the judges. In which case our faces were generally burning red….but I digress.

I was struck by how cool, calm and collected both the lawyers and the adjudicator were in today’s mock disciplinary hearing. It was amazing to watch seasoned lawyers in action. What was even more amazing was that even though this was a “mock” hearing, they both brought their “A” games. It appears so professional to me to be able to conduct yourself like that while still remaining so mentally active and vigorously defending your position.

Being able to argue your clients’ points and answer questions while appearing unruffled is definitely a skill I want to acquire. I’m pretty sure my face looked more like this or this during the moot than the pictures of serenity I saw today.

I know what I will be practicing in the mirror tonight! 🙂

The Dark Side of Law School

Since one of the aims of this blog is to give a clear impression of what it’s like to be in law school, it would be amiss for me not to mention that it’s very challenging, and many people go through periods in 1L where they struggle emotionally or academically.

I had a fellow 1L tell me the other day “Law school is hard because in my prior life, I could get by on personality, looks, and hard work. It feels like my best effort isn’t good enough”. Although some parts of this statement make law school sound more merit-based than this person’s previous life, the overall message is that law school can make one feel extremely inadequate.

The law is a vast area that is changing all the time. It’s not something anyone can ever truly master (at least it seems to me).

Many of my classmates have experienced extreme frustration at the amount and volume of work, the way we are evaluated, the extremely competitive environment, and certain professor’s teaching styles. No matter who you are, there will be some aspect of law school that pushes your buttons, stresses you out, or makes you feel inadequate in some way.

I want to communicate this to those considering law school not to dissuade them, but to prepare them. I feel like knowledge is power, and knowing what you are up against will help you prepare emotionally.

Another aspect that many people have found is that law school is incredibly hard on personal relationships. In first year you have much less time for friends, significant others, hobbies, and even basic necessities like exercise. Many relationships experience extreme strain in first year because of the time demands. Some people find they change in law school as your way of thinking shifts, and some become more analytical and even more argumentative. Anecdotally speaking, I don’t think this is that uncommon.

There are social challenges in addition to the academic ones. One thing that has surprised me about law school is that in some ways it feels like high school. There is much more gossiping, inter-classmate dating/breaking up, and cliquey-ness that in undergrad. I think this is because it’s such a small community, we spend so much time together, and we’re similar. Don’t get me wrong- I really like all my classmates. But the social scene is much more like high school than my undergraduate degree was in that sense. It seems much harder for those who moved to Vancouver as well because they lack the “non-law friends” and outside support network. It’s really important to get away from law school and go out with people who don’t know anything about Torts, Contracts, or the rest of what we talk about all day.

If asked about my experience in law school, I would have many wonderful things to say, but I wouldn’t leave out that it is very hard work and requires determination, stamina, resilience, and a positive attitude. On that note, there is an upside to all this. Here are a few things I learned about myself so far in 1L as a result of the challenges:

1) I am capable of much more than I realized

If I had seen the amount of work, and the high expectations before entering law school, I would have doubted if I could do it. Looking back on how much I have learned over the past several months, I’m surprised to see that I have a greater capacity to learn and overcome challenges than I knew. This is great because it only makes me want to take on more to see what I’m really capable of.

2) A positive attitude is something that needs to be cultivated

In pre-law school academic life it wasn’t very hard to find encouragement or positive reinforcement. In law school, due to the fact we are not evaluated on a consistent basis and don’t get as much feedback on our work as we are used to, one needs to be more self-motivating. This is great because in the legal profession and life generally, you aren’t always going to have your own personal cheer section at your beck and call. You need to be your own personal cheer section. It’s the only way to get better at things you struggle with.

3) I’ve learned to take more initiative in my learning objectives

In undergrad students are spoon-fed material and given opportunities for improvement on a silver platter. In law school if you want to stay on track you need to take the initiative to schedule appointments with your professors, seek extra help when you need it, and get supplementary materials if you require clarification. I feel this style is much more realistic and fosters maturity in students rather than a snotty “we’re the customers, spoon-feed us only exactly what we need” attitude I have seen in my pre-law life.

….and for some unorthodox pre-law advice…

I would remove any negative influences or relationships prior to starting law school. In a way, it’s a great way to see who your real friends are. When life is stressful and you have very little time, you see the people who you have genuine relationships with will be understanding and flexible, and give you some leeway during this important time in your life and career. People who you probably could do without will gradually fall away, or become angry and jealous at your tight schedule. This might sound negative, but I truly think it’s a good thing. I’ve noticed many people who entered law school in romantic relationships that were on weak ground to begin with quickly became single. Trial by fire! I think these things are for the best- so for any people entering law school in September who are in bad relationships, be aware this tends to happen.

Law school may be challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible, and very do-able if you work hard and are persistent. What you learn about yourself along the way just might make the challenge worth its weight in gold.

Law profs weigh in on references

Over the last several weeks law students have been busily studying, mooting, and doing applications for summer jobs and internships.

Most of those positions require references. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to approach a professor for a reference, so I asked some faculty favourites to weigh in on when they won’t give a good reference, and generally what they look for.

Here’s their input:

Benjamin Perrin

How do you know if the person you’ve asked to provide a reference will sing your praises, or torpedo your chances of that dream job with a lukewarm endorsement?

This is one of the most sensitive and difficult questions that I remember agonizing over as a student – especially coming out of first year law school. I remember being advised to bluntly ask a potential referee directly whether they will give you a “good reference”. I never had the guts to do that, but when I’ve been asked now as a professor that question, I give as clear an answer as I can. Unless you get an enthusiastic “yes” to your request asking for a reference, it might be best to be cautious. While some referees will say “no” if they know they can’t give a strong reference, many others have trouble being so forthright so it’s best to watch for cues. For example, “I really haven’t had a good chance to observe your work” is thinly coded for “please don’t ask me to be a reference, it probably won’t help your chance, but if you pressure me, I will anyway.” If referees are not needed for a job, don’t worry about asking for them.

At the end of the day, cultivating a great set of referees takes time – don’t forget about your pre-law referees because one of them can still be a good reference for your character and work ethic in your initial hunt for a law job. The best referees are the ones you know value your work and contributions. You’ve gotten to know them, and they’ve gotten to know you. You’ve received frank and open feedback from them, and demonstrated the ability to grow and learn. It can be tough especially in first year, or even early in second year of law school, to find a good law professor referee. Office hours, coming to Faculty talks that interest you, and speaking up in class when you have an insight or question, are really important to get to know your professors. Starting in second year, try to take a seminar or participate in a moot with a professor whose areas of interest match up with yours. Apply for those research assistant jobs that are posted, and ask your favourite profs if they’ll have job openings in the summer or next year. While I post all of my student positions, many others are filled without an open call for proposals. At the end of the day, your professors really do want to get to know you and support you in your work. Once your referee has written one letter for you, remember it is relatively easy for them to update/modify it for other positions – it is not a big imposition to ask for another one for another job/position/program. Just be sure to give lots of lead time, and send a friendly reminder close to the due date. It is also fine to follow-up and make sure the reference letter/call was made.

There’s nothing more rewarding than the letters and phone calls that I’ve made on behalf of students that I’ve seen grow into thoughtful and bright lawyers-to-be as they apply for summer or articling jobs. And, always be sure to thank your referees and keep them posted on when you land that job.

Cristie Ford
“What clues do professors give students when they are not able to provide a strong reference?”

We have great students at UBC and it’s generally not hard to find good things to say about someone.  In the rare situation where there is an issue -let’s say the student chronically falls asleep and snores loudly in my classes -I would be frank with that student about what I can and cannot say. I can’t tell that student that I can speak positively about his/her engagement with the class, for example.  I might ask the student whether, in light of our interactions, I was necessarily the best person to write a reference for him/her. This would be a rare situation.  The more common challenge is writing a letter for a student I do not know very well. Reference letters are a very important part of an application package. It makes a real difference if I can provide some specific information about a student’s interests, plans, or perspective. It is easier for me to do this for students who participate in class or whom I’ve had a chance to get to know a bit better. The more a student is engaged at the school and in my class, the easier it is to write a reference (though my colleagues will be upset if you tell them Prof. Ford said you should spend more time in their offices!)

Ben Goold

I am almost always very happy to write references for my students – in fact, it is one of the more enjoyable parts of the job. Ideally, the student will have already spoken with me about their studies outside of the lecture, but if that isn’t the case then I will try to meet with them before writing the reference to discuss their work and future plans. This usually helps a great deal when it comes to writing the letter, and also gives me an opportunity to talk to the student about their application (and occasionally offer advice about things such as the CV and cover letter). In those rare instances where I don’t feel that I am able to write an entirely positive reference – perhaps because the student didn’t show up for class regularly, or there were problems with their work for me – then I will make it clear that I may not be the best person to ask for a letter, and that they might want to think about approaching another member of faculty. As final point, I should add that just because a student doesn’t always speak up in class or didn’t get the best mark in my subject doesn’t mean that they won’t get a good reference from me. Talent and effort can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, and I am happy to say that it generally isn’t difficult to find good things to say about our students here at UBC. 
…last but not least (and with uncharacteristic brevity)
Dennis Pavlich
“I don’t give negative references. If someone who I cannot write a positive reference for asks me, I simply say no!”
I found these submissions enlightening for a few reasons.
  • I didn’t fully realize the importance of participating in class for helping a prof get to know you
  • I usually feel a bit sheepish asking for busy people to give up their time- but from this feedback it seems like professors are quite open and willing to help their students
  • It’s comforting to know that professors will generally say no, or give some clear signal if they are not able to provide an entirely positive reference

I hope everyone finds this helpful- I know I did!

Thanks again to our panel of professors for weighing in on this month’s “Ask a Prof” topic.

The difference between first and second semester

Even though it is only the end of January, I already see a huge difference from first semester.

1) I spend less time trying to figure out what to read, and more time reading

I still remember reading a case for the very first time. Just figuring out how to read the style of cause was a challenge. Now, instead of trying to learn how to study effectively, I know how to read, and what to read.

2) The “legalese” being thrown around makes sense

First semester of law school is like going on exchange to a country where you don’t speak the language. By second semester, things are much clearer than they were in first semester.

3) I don’t feel pressure to attend every single event

It’s great that there are so many events to attend in 1L, it makes it easier to make friends and meet new people. But I remember in first semester, especially September, where it seemed like there was an event every single day. Interestingly, law school has proven to be much like high school in a lot of ways. I suppose that’s what happens when you mixed like-minded people in a small space for three years….

4) I know what I need to do to be successful (more or less)

For me, Sept-Dec were four of the craziest months I have had in awhile. In addition to the deluge of new information, there is insane pressure to perform- and the worst part is, you don’t know if you’re on the right track until January when marks come out. After speaking to professors and examining my studying strategies, I have a better feel for what I need to do to perform better.

5) The pressure is still there- but it’s different

First semester, most of my worries were focused on the day-to-day of law school, like learning how to brief a case, and understanding what’s going on. January has been a bit of a stressful month because not only did we get our marks back (which means meeting with each professor and going over the exam), but all the application deadlines for 1L summer jobs are coming up. Many students are applying for legal jobs, of which there are very few for 1Ls and even fewer for 1Ls in Vancouver. The pressure now is more career-oriented than academic- but ask me again in April and I might be singing a different tune!

Stay tuned- next week we will be hearing from some faculty favourites at UBC law on how to get references!

Dennis Pavlich, Cristie Ford, Ben Perrin, and Ben Goold have all weighed in on this month’s “Ask a Prof” question which is: “What clues do professors give students when they are not able to provide a strong reference?”

Perfectionism is an affliction- ditch it

“Perfect is the enemy of the good”- Voltaire

One of the hardest things to overcome in law school is the “perfectionist” tendency.

Most of us in law school are type “A” perfectionists, which makes law school that much more challenging. Why? Because trying to be the “perfect” law student is like carrying around a ball and chain that only serves to make life harder. Wikipedia tells me that perfectionism is “a belief that a state of completeness and flawlessness can and should be attained”. Sounds exhausting when you look at it that way.

I remember I used to proclaim that I was a perfectionist with a hint of pride. I felt like admitting that was analogous to saying I always did my best and never settled for less. While that sentiment is still a good one, attempting perfection in law school is a losing battle.

Why?

  • because there’s no such thing as the “perfect” answer in law school. It’s highly dependent on facts + circumstances, personal points of view, and the eye of the beholder
  • you cannot read every word assigned to you, and comprehend every word. some cases are for skimming and allowing your prof to give you context
  • the law is not a science. if it were, we wouldn’t need lawyers or judges, we’d just have a supercomputer to give us the answers

If you try to cling to the standard of perfectionism, you’ll miss the whole point- which is to recognize that the law is dynamic, creative, and highly subjective and most of all highly imperfect.

It’s somewhat ironic that the same perfectionist, relentless tendencies that got most of us in law school are exactly what will be our undoing as students and lawyers if we let it get out of hand. This blog post explains that perfectionists agonize over choices, have trouble with failure/perceived failure, and are less able to emotionally  distance themselves from negative feedback.

The good news is, perfectionists excel in law school and the workplace due to their attention to detail and personal standards of excellence. But at what cost?

I’m sure there is a way to maintain high standards while letting go of unattainable standards and overly stressful self-analysis.

As for me? I’m not a perfectionist anymore. I’m a recovering perfectionist.

Seeing the Matrix in law school: there is no answer

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in my first semester of law school was trying to find “the answer”.

In class when we went over cases or problems, I would always think “okay, what’s the answer?”. On assignments and exams, I kept trying to write “the perfect answer”.

It wasn’t until this semester that it really clicked for me: there usually is no answer. Or, more accurately, there are 1) many answers, and/or 2) it depends.

In pre-law school academic life, (at least for me) there was always an answer somewhere that was right, and other answers that were perhaps less so. But in any case, there was “an answer” somewhere. In a law school where we learn primarily through the case method, it seems to me that the cases we are given are not “answers” but tools. You can use the ratio of each case to build your own argument to a particular fact pattern.

Does this revelation make writing a great exam answer any easier? Not really, but at least I can stop my fruitless quest for “the” answer to a law school exam. One of my professors drove the point home last week when he told our class “even if I completely disagreed with your answer, if you used the case law correctly and built a persuasive argument I would award you points”. This felt wildly different than my undergraduate degree.

I suppose that’s what people mean when they say that law school changes the way you think. The ratio of a case is not just a simple answer to a question: it’s one piece of information you have to lead you to a certain conclusion. Not only that, but what it doesn’t mean can have implications for your fact pattern (ie exceptions to the rule, or how far the rule can take you). One can also use policy arguments to fill in the gaps between ratios.

Now that I understand this, the law seems so much more exciting and creative than it did before. Looking for “the answer” all the time was like having blinders on, it’s too narrow. This great blog post explains the difference between bad and good confusion in law school- bad confusion is when you’re simply lost. Good confusion means you don’t know the answer but you can elucidate what particular cases would lead you to conclude.

If I could go back to first semester, I would try to see the forest for the trees, take a step back, and think harder about the implications of a case, rather than agonize over the details.

Go ahead, drop some F-bombs

It’s really interesting to me how “feminism” is considered such a dirty word.

The other night I was at an event and had a conversation with a really smart, funny accomplished older woman about her career. She made some really interesting observations about how teams composed of roughly equal numbers of men and women seemed to function better than those that were not as balanced, how women have so many opportunities today we didn’t a generation ago….and then said said something that I’ve heard too many times before, but never ceases to surprise me.

Putting her hands out defensively she hastily added “…but I’m not a feminist or anything!”. She said the word the way some say “terrorist”.

Why do so many people think “feminist” is synonymous with “man hating militant psycho”? I had a male mentor who was CEO of a Canadian corporation who would proudly tell anyone he was a feminist. He told me he liked to mentor me because he thought women still had a rough time in business, and he has a daughter so he hoped by investing time in me he’d help pave the way for more equality in the future. There’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be feminists. All it really stands for is equality. Who can’t get behind that?

I think about this a lot in the context of the legal profession. Women have come so far. I met a female lawyer in her 60’s who gave birth to the first baby ever born at this particular “big firm”, and at that time they didn’t even have a maternity plan. It is great how much progress has been made, but it would be nice to see more women as equity partners (right now women comprise only around 9-12% depending on the study).

I think having a more equal world starts and ends with each of us. Sheryl Sandberg said that the “most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry”, and that having a supportive partner makes all the difference in the world in achieving your goals. Being open about wanting more equality for everyone shouldn’t be stigmatized, and it starts with people admitting “hey, I’m a feminist”.

“Feminist” is not a bad word. So go ahead, drop some F-bombs.

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