On Self-Care in the First Year of Law School

By LoriBelle. Published October 2010.

Many would have you believe that in the 1L year, grades aren’t the most important thing, they’re the only thing. While excellent grades do form the foundation for a successful law career, the truth is that they are not going to do you much good if you die of pneumonia in February because you were so busy studying that you didn’t have time to seek medical care. I was able to take care of myself while ranking in the top 5-10% of my class, winning awards for legal writing, and making law review. Here’s how.

Work/life balance isn’t just something for the workforce. Self-care is a habit you should begin now. After all, you will only be in law school for three years, but you’re stuck with your body and mind for the rest of your life. This is the real world, and you are an adult now. If you don’t take care of yourself physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, financially, and academically, no one else is going to do it for you. With that in mind, I offer the following advice.

Maintaining Your Physical Health

Before School: The Health Tune-Up

The best offense is a good defense. Get a health tune-up at the beginning of your law school experience, ideally in your 0L summer. Taking care of routine preventive care before the madness begins is a wise step. As a bonus, if your chosen law school is a new city and you do the tune-up before the move, you can get your health maintenance care out of the way with familiar providers. On the other hand, if you’re already in your new city, you can establish care with new providers and make sure they’re a good fit before you get sick.

A good health care tune-up should include at least the following: a physical with your primary care physician, an eye examination (you will do a LOT of close reading in law school), a dental check-up, and a visit to the gynecologist if you are female.

During the School Year: Wellness Measures

The first year of law school is incredibly stressful, not least because uncertainty is in the air. Books and websites aside, very few 1Ls have a clue what exactly it is that they are supposed to be doing. Law school is also a pretty insular environment. In the winter, you’ll find hundreds of stressed-out law students crammed into the library studying. Germs and illnesses spread at lightning speed in such an environment. Getting sick can interfere seriously with study time. Couple that with the fact that stress peaks right at exam time, and you have a potential recipe for disaster. Illness during exam week certainly doesn’t help exam performance, and it really does happen to a lot of people. If your grades are important (and they ARE), staying healthy is vital.

In preventing such a disaster, the best offense is, again, a good defense. Although there are myriad factors that have an impact on health, at least three are in your control: sleep hygiene, a healthy diet, and methods of stress reduction.

If you want to stay well, you have to sleep well. Getting a good night’s sleep (between 7 and 9 hours per night) has been shown to lower the risk of becoming ill. I know, I know – you can stay up for 64 hours on energy shots and sheer will, but that is not healthy and in the end, it usually doesn’t pay off. Why? People don’t study efficiently without sleep. First of all, we lose our ability to pay attention when we are exhausted. Second, scientific research suggests that our brains are not sitting idle while we sleep. Rather, we absorb and consolidate newly acquired information during this time. Sleep improves memory and information retention, so make a healthy amount of sleep a priority.

Nutrition is another essential component in the plan to stay well. Eat a decently healthy diet with a good amount of variety (note: yes, you will be tempted by Westlaw and Lexis, but this does not mean pizza every day at lunch for a week). Fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources are particularly good choices. Many people gain weight in their 1L year; don’t be one of them. Consider taking a multivitamin. Eat lunch. Drink plenty of water. Brush your teeth (okay, that’s not dietary…so sue me). Try to eat at home often, which has the added benefit of protecting your financial health.

Cooking is often difficult in law school because it takes time people feel they don’t have, but you have to make time. My own personal strategy for dealing with this has been to streamline the cooking process. I have an Excel spreadsheet with every meal I can think of to cook. The spreadsheet has separate columns for different aisles in the grocery store: meat, produce, bread, etc. When my weekly grocery day comes, I simply put a “YES” in the “this week” column for meals I’ll be cooking that week, filter for the YES, and voila! – grocery list made. Is this mildly OCD? Yes, but it works for me. Figuring out what works for you – physically, emotionally, and academically – will be HUGE in your first year. After the shopping trip is over, I do as much prep as I can for each meal (chopping vegetables, browning meat, etc.) so that each cooking session will be more streamlined. I also don’t cook every night. I simply make a huge batch of whatever it is and try to eat it multiple times that week. This may not work for everyone; I include it simply to illustrate that eating a proper diet is not impossible if you make it a priority.

The third prong in your health maintenance attack plan is stress management. Law school is stressful. If you reduce the stress, you will be much less likely to become ill, and you’ll be head and shoulders over the rest of your classmates emotionally, too. There are several strategies to reduce stress. Some of the most helpful I’ve found are exercise and meditation. Some people say they have no time to exercise in law school. If you have time to read this site, you have time to exercise. It’s all about priorities. It doesn’t have to be running on the treadmill, either. Some guys from our class formed a soccer team, and personally, I was really into Ultimate Frisbee. Research also shows that sex with a committed partner reduces stress (sex in general reduces stress, but casual sex occasionally brings its own anxieties…a herpes flare-up or a pregnancy scare in 1L can really mess a law student up).

Meditation is likewise an excellent form of stress reduction, especially in law school. When the wheels of your brain are spinning non-stop and going nowhere, emptying your mind of thoughts and judgments is sweet, sweet relief. Prayer may be similarly helpful to some, but I found myself dragging all my drama and anxiety into my prayer life in a way that did not significantly relieve my stress. My advice is to try it out and see what works for you. If you have the time before school starts, consider taking a class in meditation or stress reduction techniques.

If You Become Ill

If you get sick anyway despite all your efforts to stay well, my advice to you is to see a doctor as soon as possible. If your school has a student health service, this won’t even take that much time. In college or in the work world, people tend to wait out their illnesses to see if they will get better without going to the doctor. I do not recommend this in law school for two reasons.

First, based on my observation of myself and those around me, people who get sick in law school rarely get better on their own. Once some virus or bacterium has found its way past their defenses, people tend to stay sick until they get treatment. The second reason I advise you to see a doctor as soon as you can is that if you don’t, you lose valuable study time while you wait it out. Like tired people, sick people experience significant dips in study effectiveness. Law school consists of mountains of reading and LRW assignments. If you’re trying to get ahead, falling behind is obviously unhelpful. Do yourself a favor, take an hour or two out of a day that would have been unproductive anyway, and get help to get well.

Maintaining Your Emotional and Social Health

The primary risk to your emotional health in law school is stress, which is discussed above due to its tendency to affect physical health. However, there are many other potential mental and social health pitfalls during law school.

First, friends and family, no matter how wonderful, do not “get” law school unless they have been there. Prepare yourself for this reality. They don’t understand why weekly visits have turned to monthly ones, why you don’t call as often, or why girls’ night out is a thing of the past. True story: a friend from high school called me the day a memo was due and chewed me out pretty thoroughly for being a horrible friend. I spent an hour crying instead of writing. That was the last thing I needed, but I just had to remind myself that the outside world doesn’t get it, and I was doing the best that I could. They say you can’t please everybody, and that’s a million times more true in law school. Your time and resources are stretched to the max. People will be unhappy with their slice of the pie that is you, but you have to set priorities and stick to them. It’s okay to say that you’re sorry someone is unhappy, but there are only 168 hours in a week. Realize your limitations and refuse to let them bother you. There’s nothing you can really do anyway, short of ignoring your school work and failing as a result, so why get upset over things you can’t change?

Second, take advantage of opportunities to be social, but don’t take advantage of all of them. Balance is key here. Humans are social creatures, but there is such a thing as too much social time at the expense of other things you should be doing. This is especially true during the day between classes. You can spend your entire afternoon chatting aimlessly with a fellow student, or you can use that time to study so that you have less work in the evening and have time to go to bar review. Know your limitations. If your social time is interfering with preparedness for class or exams, maybe it is time to scale it back a bit. I will admit freely that the guy who is number one in our class does nothing but sit in the library all day and study. He doesn’t socialize very much at all. He was in the other section, but I am told he is grumpy and obviously miserable. Most people can’t do what he does without burning out (I know I couldn’t). Balance, balance, balance.

Get to know your fellow law students. You are stuck together for three years, and then after graduation, they’ll be your colleagues. Also, don’t limit your friendships to 1Ls. In addition to expanding your job networking opportunities, upper-level law students are usually fairly friendly and willing to help you learn the ropes. (A word of caution, though: if you’re shooting for really good grades, don’t believe everything 2Ls and 3Ls tell you. Statistically, only 10% of them are in the top 10%. If you do what everyone else is doing, you will get what everybody else is getting and land at median.)

Last, realize that these are your future colleagues. You are making a reputation for yourself even in law school. This is not undergrad, so be relatively professional. Going out for drinks with friends can be okay, but don’t get trashed and dance on the table at EVERY bar review. It will affect your reputation, and you never know who knows who. In most cities, the legal community is very tight-knit, and you don’t want to be blacklisted. Also, don’t be the mean guy or the gossip girl. I can only speak for my own school, but those who spent their time gossiping and belittling others generally landed in the bottom half of the class and were not well-liked. A couple of them even failed out. Think about whether things are a good use of time. If so, do them; if not, don't.

Law school is like high school on steroids. It’s a pressure cooker environment, and I’m sure there will be somebody in your section whom you don’t like. Maybe no one else does either. But talking about it only erodes others’ trust in you (“maybe he talks about ME like that, too”) and takes up your valuable time. Rumors will crop up. Most of them are outrageous and absolutely false. The drama is a distraction, and if you get caught up in it, it can negatively affect your own reputation. Be confident, but not arrogant. Be nice, but not a pushover. Be yourself, not some professional person you made up to impress other people…but be your professional self.

Maintaining Your Spiritual Health

Is there time for church or shul or mosque or circle? YES. If you are a spiritual person, there are three reasons you should make time for spiritual practices.

The first is that spiritual people tend to thrive when they nurture their spiritual selves. Prayer and the like can be an invaluable source of support and comfort to someone who is unsure of his ability to succeed or what to do next.

Second, religious observance provides a sense of continuity when the rest of your world is being turned upside down. Law school is a totally new world and completely unlike anything you’ve been through before, but if you can maintain the thread of spirit, you may feel much less lost. Faith provides a spiritual grounding and a sense that there is something bigger than oneself, bigger than law school, as well as a feeling that everything is going to work itself out.

Third, attendance at services and observance of rituals is at the cornerstone of many faiths. If you fail to do so, will you feel guilty or upset? Attendance/observance is usually not very time consuming and provides a daily/weekly constant in a sea of change. Note to Jews: my Shabbat-observant classmates have not reported that keeping Shabbat negatively impacts their study regimen. To the contrary, they assert that having a day of rest focuses and renews them.

Personally, I’m a Christian, and using prayer to cast my cares on God has helped me overcome a lot of procrastination and fear of failure in my first year. My church family is very supportive of my law school endeavors, and they let it be known they are praying for me. They check in with me periodically, comfort me when I am becoming discouraged, and occasionally have me over for meals on particularly bad weeks. They provide perspective; other things go on in the world besides school. Sure I got a median grade in Contracts, but kids are starving in Rwanda and there’s genocide in Darfur, and my friend just had a stillbirth. It’s about healthy perspective. I’m not “Sabbath-observant” per se, but it’s my general practice not to do any school work on Sundays for mental health reasons. Give your brain a break from law school; it will thank you later.

Maintaining Your Financial Health

There are several ways you can guard yourself financially during law school.

First of all, if you have student loans from your undergraduate work, make sure that you get them into deferment as soon as possible after you start law school. Some will go into deferment automatically, but others will not. You do not want to be making payments every month on a loan that you don’t have to pay for, especially if those payments would be coming out of funds from new law school student loans.

Watch your spending habits. You’re going to be an attorney someday, but not yet. You are not a high roller. Almost everyone goes into some debt for law school, but you can limit the amount. Watch your alcohol and cigarette consumption. Be careful how much you are dining out. Consider whether you actually need a $200/month cell phone plan or that expensive car note. Cut out whatever you can cut out so that you’ll owe less when you graduate. The economy is pretty scary right now, and there’s no guarantee of a job. Live frugally now so that you aren’t scrambling later to pay back your loans while studying for the bar and working nights at Chili’s.

Know the terms of any debt or bills you take on, and adhere to them. Avoid needless late fees. Create a calendar and make sure your bills are paid on time. As I’m sure you probably guessed, I have created another OCD-like Excel spreadsheet to track money in and money out. Know when your first student loan payments are due after you graduate. I used to work in a financial aid office, and you would be totally shocked to realize how many people moved after graduation and missed a whole year worth of payments before the IRS garnished their tax return money and they called us, furious, telling us they didn’t know. You signed the promissory note. It’s your reponsibility to know, so know. Your credit may come up in the character and fitness examination for the bar, so be careful to make all payments when they are due and take care of your outstanding accounts.

Maintaining Your Academic Health

This is what everyone wants to know: what do I need to do to get excellent 1L grades? My answer is that it really depends on what works for you. For some people, outlining works; for others (like me), flashcards work. For some, reading cases is a waste of time; for others (like me), reading cases helps to flesh out rules. For some (like me), supplements are an unnecessary expense on an already tight budget; for others, they are essential to success. For some, study groups are enormously helpful; for others (like me), they are a chatty distraction from other stuff I could be doing. For some, briefing cases is vital to understanding them; for others (like me), it is a mind-numbing waste of time that ceases in the second week of school. Never in your life has “know thyself” been more important than it is in law school. Know yourself, trust yourself, and do what works for you.

One thing that universally helps people is to guard time carefully. Time management is crucial. If you are not used to using a planner, get used to it. There are so many deadlines, assignments, and events in law school that even Rain Man probably couldn’t keep up without a planner. It’s very simple. Write things down in your planner when you hear about them and check the planner daily so you don’t forget anything. It also helps to keep a running to-do list and mark things off when you’re done with them. This helps in two ways. It shows you that you actually are making progress and getting things done, and if you’re ever lost and wondering what to do next, it gives you a starting place. Do what works for you, but the basic message is this: plan your work, work your plan, and profit.

Don’t get distracted by what others are doing. As I said before, do what works for YOU. You must realize that if you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else is getting and land at median. I can’t stress this enough. You have to distinguish yourself from the pack. Because of the way law school admissions works, it’s likely that you and your classmates have a similar level of intelligence and likelihood of success. Knowing what works for you and just plain working hard will get you further than spending the same number of hours in the library as your classmates, reading the same supplements, or using the same old outline from a 2L who got a B in the class anyway.

Last, don’t forget that the exam is the point. The class is NOT the point. It doesn’t matter if you get called on and look like a fool. If you don’t know, it’s unlikely the rest of the class does, either. Don’t pay attention to what professors say in class as much as how they say it, because it will give you clues about what they’d like to see on an exam. It only matters what happens in that 3 or 4 hours of furious typing at the end of the semester. Begin with the end in mind, and you’ll meander FAR less.

Most professors really don’t care about case names. They are not impressed with your ability to memorize a brief or even rules. They are concerned with your skill for legal analysis. You are not in law school to learn tort law, contract law, civil procedure, or anything else. Laws change, and as a lawyer you’ll be able to look them up anyway. Knowing the rules is usually necessary for success on a law school exam, but it's definitely not sufficient. You are there to learn legal analysis, and the best way to develop this skill is to practice it. Start taking practice exams early, and take them often. If your professors are willing, have them look over your answers to practice exams and discuss how they could be improved. There is a lot of other very helpful information about academic success on TLS. Read it and internalize it, because it is often very good advice. But ultimately, knowing yourself and knowing whether it will be useful to you is the real key to success.

Good luck to you in the first year of law school, and don’t forget to take care of yourself!