Top Law Students Share Their Biggest Lessons From Law School

by Jeff Schmitt on

New Haven - May 18: Yale University graduation ceremonies on Commencement Day on May 18, 2015. Yale University is a private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1701

To a cynic, law students learn one lesson in three years: ‘Every man for himself.’ You know the conventional wisdom. Class rank dictates where you work and what you earn (not to mention whether you keep a scholarship). No doubt, the legal system itself is designed to be adversarial, where one side wins and the other side appeals.

Well, legal education is changing. Just look at Seth Pearson, a 3L at Duke Law. He isn’t competing against classmates. Instead, he squares off each day with a more formidable foe: Himself. For Pearson, law school is an exercise in self-control. And his purpose is to tune out the distractions and devote his energies to what really matters.

“I always admired how sprinters in a race would focus so completely on their own stride that the only time they look to the left or right is when they cross the finish line,” he tells Tipping The Scales. “Law school has taught me to do just that. If you spend your time here comparing yourself to your classmates, you will drive yourself crazy. Focus on being better today than you were yesterday instead of being better than the person sitting next to you and you will not only be successful, you will be sane.”

LAW STUDENTS LEARN TO RAISE THEIR GAME TO MATCH HIGHER WORKLOADS AND EXPECTATIONS

That’s just one lesson absorbed by Tipping The Scales’ Top Law Students From The Class of 2016. As part of its survey of this year’s best and brightest 3Ls, Tipping The Scales asked them to share the biggest lessons they gained from law school. From classroom strategies to professional philosophies, the 2016 Class has absorbed a lifetime of lessons over the past three years.

Vanderbilt Law's Samiyyah Ali

Vanderbilt Law’s Samiyyah Ali

For some, law school was the time when they learned to dig deep into themselves. On the surface, law school can be a solitary journey. According to Boston College’s Andrea Clavijo, it isn’t for the faint of heart. “There will be times where you have studied more than ever before, where you’ve lost sleep and pushed through your exhaustion to master that one complex rule of law, and you get a grade that doesn’t reflect the insane amount of effort you put into it,” she concedes. Rather than give into burn out and doubt, Clavijo stopped beating herself up. She embraced a more realistic view of what she could do – and who she could become. “I’ve learned that I am ultimately responsible for dusting myself off, braving a smile and rooting myself on when I don’t get what I want. As long as I can go to sleep each night knowing I have done my best, while also taking care of my mind, body and spirit, then whether I get the “gold” or not – I am proud of my performance.”

Clavijo wasn’t the only top law student who relied on guts as much as guile to make it through. Vanderbilt Law’s Samiyyah Ali quickly realized that she needed to bring her A-game to class…every single day. Even more, she became conscious of how responsible she was for her own learning – and the dividends these efforts paid for the class as a whole. “I came to law school expecting to be taught,” she says. “I have grown to believe that position is too passive. If I come to any situation as prepared and educated as possible, I can grow from and contribute to the situation exponentially more than I would otherwise.”

Indeed, law school isn’t a pressure cooker by accident. During her time at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Racheal M. White Hawk’s biggest takeaway was to “never give up,” knowing she would be enduring adversity long after she collected her J.D. “Law school is tough,” White Hawk points out. “But it’s there to make law students stronger and to train us to be ready for what’s out there in the real world.” To prepare for this eventuality, Boston University’s Sabina Mariella tested her limits. “You will never know your strengths and weakness (or what you want out of your career) if you don’t take jobs or classes that are out of your comfort zone,” she cautions.

THE LAW COMES WITH A HUMAN ELEMENT

University of California, Berkeley's Misha Tsukerman

University of California, Berkeley’s Misha Tsukerman

Intangibles weren’t the only thing that these future legal stars developed. Early on, they learned to think, speak, and write like attorneys, able to rattle out black letter law and draft outlines that whittled arguments down to their bare essentials. In the end, they also developed an appreciation for the ambiguous side of the law. At the University of Minnesota Law School, Amber Kraemer discovered that the law was like putting together a puzzle, often requiring practitioners to withhold judgment until every piece was in place. “Always ask questions and think about things from another perspective,” she advises. “There are many sides to every story and many different ways that you can interpret information so you should always be sure not to take things simply at face value and ensure you have considered the situation from multiple viewpoints before making a determination as to how to act or feel.”

Others, like the University of California, Berkeley’s Misha Tsukerman, came away with an understanding of the limits of the law, arguing that going to court wasn’t necessarily the best solution to a problem. “[My biggest lesson was] a greater appreciation for when lawsuits are and aren’t the best avenue to create the change you seek. There [are] plenty of terrible laws that aren’t unconstitutional and suing to get them struck down isn’t going to work.”

And Tsukerman’s classmate, Lora Krsulich, is graduating with a greater appreciation for the human element of the law, urging her peers to come into practice with an “open and loving heart.” “Law school, like law practice, will inevitably come with bad days,” she adds. “It helps to remind yourself that, at the end of every case, there are people and human relationships.”

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