Category Archives: Stress and Mental Health

Keeping Priorities in Focus When Starting Law School

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In only a couple more months, many of you will be heading off to law school for the first time. As we have discussed previously, your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience. When we are extremely busy, it can be easy to lose sight of the things that are our greatest priorities—especially if we have not made conscious decisions regarding what our priorities actually are. Regardless of your background and experiences, the summer before you start law school can be a great time to evaluate your priorities and make sure that they are front and foremost in your mind as law school begins.

So what do I mean when I talk about “priorities”? Priorities are the things that we value the most. They can include personal goals we have, such as financial goals, educational goals, or other things we want to achieve. They can include relationships—friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Priorities may include things like our physical and mental health, religious beliefs, or other tangible or intangible things that have value to us. Priorities are very personal—the things that are most important to you may not be the same for someone else.

While we may have a number of general priorities, usually there are four or five priorities that are most important to us. Moreover, sometimes priorities change over time, and it is a good idea to evaluate priorities periodically to make sure that they still reflect what is most important to you. This summer, take the time to decide what your highest priorities are.

Once you have made deliberate decisions about what your priorities are, keep them in mind as you start law school. When you are creating a schedule of what you want to accomplish, make sure that your highest priorities are not edged out by activities that don’t contribute to those priorities or are less important. When you are deciding whether you should commit to something else in your busy day, such as a club or other extracurricular activity, measure it against your priorities to see if it will support them. Make sure that one priority does not eclipse other things that are important in your life.

If you have consciously identified your most important priorities, you can use them as a compass to keep you on the right path when life gets busy. Keep your priorities in focus as you get ready for law school in the fall!

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Getting Past Panic in Law School Exams

We’ve all had that feeling—that moment when you are sitting in the classroom, your professor hands out the exam, and every rational thought flees your brain. You are paralyzed. Sweat begins to bead your forehead. And then the voice in your head screams out: “I can’t remember anything I studied! I’m about to fail my exam!” The challenge is how to move past that feeling of panic and successfully complete the exam.

While you can’t vanquish those feelings of panic with a magic wand, there are things that you can do to conquer panic during exams. As with so much else in law school, one of the most important keys is what you’ve done prior to the exam—your preparation. We’ve talked before about how taking the right approach to outlining can help you to predict what may be tested on the exam. One of the reasons why law students panic at the beginning of an exam is because they are afraid of the unknown. Law students view exam creation as a mysterious and unpredictable process. In reality, as I’ve explained before, professors tend to test the nuances in the law—areas where there are competing approaches, shifting outcomes based upon facts or policy approaches, and fact patterns that require students to recognize how a series of legal issues relate to each other. Identifying those nuances in advance through outlining will make the exam more predictable and reduce your feelings of anxiety.

I have also explained previously about how to create a one-page checklist of legal issues that may be tested on an exam. This checklist is a very specific way of connecting your preparation prior to the exam to what is going on during the exam. If you create a checklist of potential legal issues, you have a mental prompt you can rely upon when that feeling of panic rears its head at the beginning of the exam. How can you do this? If you immediately panic when you look at the exam questions, try this technique: Put your exam aside for a minute and take out your scrap paper. Quickly replicate a shorthand version of your checklist on the scrap paper. Once you have put that checklist on paper, you have a tool that you can use to answer the exam questions. You can literally take each issue on the checklist and evaluate whether that issue is raised by the fact pattern in the essay question. If it is, you can jot down quick notes about what facts you wish to talk about with respect to that issue. By the time that you get through the checklist, you have created a quick outline, chart, or list about how you will tackle the essay question, and the writing should go smoothly and quickly. The feeling of panic will go away as your preparation kicks in!

 

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Outlines, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

Law Student Voices: Finding Balance in Law School

 

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the most difficult tasks for a law student at any stage of law school is to find balance. It is easy to succumb to the many long hours of studying and school-related activities. However, focusing on law school to the exclusion of everything else can be a recipe for disaster. One key ingredient to law school success is taking affirmative steps to care for your mental and physical health.

In our first year legal writing class, we were taught the importance of incubation. Incubation is a period of time, after saturating your brain with research, when you go do something non-law related to allow your brain to make the subconscious connections that cannot be made while actively thinking about a problem. Allowing your brain to quiet for a short period of time can lead to that pivotal moment where the solution to your problem becomes clear. Personally, I took this advice and applied it to all aspects of law school. When life gets overwhelming, I do something active—usually running—in order to re-group and recharge. I also run one mile with a friend before every exam. This helps us to get out some of our physical anxiety and gives us a few minutes for mental preparation. Each person has to choose an activity that fits their life. Even though running is what works for me, for others it may be meditation, yoga, creative writing, reading for pleasure, going on a date with your significant other, seeing a movie, etc.— anything enjoyable that is not law-school related. Obviously, this technique will not work if you let it take away from your studies. But allowing yourself a short break will keep your brain sharp and fresh, ready to dominate the mental gymnastics of law school.

It’s also important for law students to pay attention to their sleep and diet. Busy schedules and dedication to excellence can lead to poor eating and sleeping habits. These two things are very important to mental health. It will be more difficult to pay attention in class or create outlines if you are exhausted. You will spend your energy trying to stay awake rather than absorbing the material. Sleeping enough and eating well will keep your energy up and provide the endurance to keep pushing forward on your law school journey.

My colleagues frequently ask how I have time to run with all the demands of law school. My answer is always the same, how can I not? I know I owe it to myself to take care of my body and my mind, so I find the time. This is my challenge to you: Take care of yourselves, make the time!

This post was authored by Amanda M. Fisher, J.D., Savannah Law School ’15.

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Surviving Law School Bullies

Today I want to talk about one of the uglier aspects of the law school experience–law school bullying. We’ve all had experience with bullying, whether as a victim, a witness to bullying incidents, or even as a bully yourself. The competitive law school environment can feed bullying. Students are targeted by bullies for a number of reasons, including their academic strengths or weaknesses (real or perceived); physical appearance or characteristics; race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or ethnicity; physical disabilities; learning disabilities; mental health; or any other of a host of reasons. As we’ve learned from media coverage of issues related to bullying, such as Anderson Cooper’s documentary special, The Bully Effect, on CNN, the consequences of bullying can be devastating. Bullying can demoralize, humiliate, and isolate its victims. It can affect your mental health, motivation to be in law school, confidence in your own abilities, and desire to interact with those around you. I’m not saying that you should not feel upset or be affected by bullying–your feelings are valid and important. But there are things that you can do as a law student to survive–even thrive–despite the bullying. So if you are bullied by your law school classmates, what can you do about it? Here are a few (nonexclusive) suggestions:

First, understand that you are not alone. You are not the only law student who has been bullied. There’s a reason why I felt that writing this post was important, and that’s because so many students experience it. Moreover, it’s important to understand that not everyone is against you. Bullies are vocal and, as a result, tend to make us feel like everyone thinks the same way about us. But, in reality, bullies are a minority. They don’t speak for most students. Be careful not to adopt an “everyone is against me mentality.”

Second, help is out there. You don’t have to go through bullying alone. There are people at your law school who will support you if you reach out to them–professors, deans, academic support professionals, counselors. We don’t want our law schools to be a climate in which bullying is acceptable, and we will do whatever we can to support you and stop the bullying. But we’re not always in a position to see bullying firsthand. Give us the opportunity to help you and others by letting us know what is going on. We also know of additional resources that may be helpful to you if bullying affects your ability to focus on your academic success and mental and physical wellbeing. We want you to succeed–not just in law school but in life. Take advantage of our willingness to help.

Third, remind yourself that, although bullying is very personal to you (of course it is–how can it not be, when you’re the one feeling its effects?), it often reflects the bully’s personal insecurities as well. Many bullies try to feel better about their own insecurities by putting other people down. In that way, they are really signaling to you how they feel about themselves, rather than how they feel about you. Although it may not make bullying any more pleasant, and it certainly doesn’t make it any more acceptable, that understanding can help you to maintain a sense of perspective so that you can move beyond the bullying experience and focus on your own academic and professional success.

I also want to speak to those witnesses of law school bullying. Don’t stay silent when you see bullying taking place. Speak up! Don’t tolerate bullying among your fellow students. You are our future lawyers–if you do not stand up in these types of situations, who will? And even if you do not feel comfortable speaking out, at least reach out to fellow students who have been bullied and show them that they are not alone.

Finally, a word for law school bullies: Bullying is not acceptable for anyone, but certainly not for future lawyers. It does not reflect the personal character demanded by our profession.

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The Spring Break Balance

For many law students, classes have dragged the last few weeks. You may find it more difficult to come up with inspiration to tackle casebooks, outlines, and writing assignments. Spring Break shines like a beacon of hope in the distance.

Students often ask what they should do during Spring Break. Should you stay home and get your outlines in order so that the rest of the semester goes smoothly? Should you vacation with your family in Florida? Should you travel with friends on that sweet all-inclusive trip to Mexico? For each student, the decision is personal. You must make the right decision for you. Regardless of that decision, the key to having Spring Break contribute to your academic success is balance.

So, what do I mean by balance? Let’s look at the student who focuses on outlines and reading during Spring Break. One approach is to continue your regular study schedule throughout Spring Break, showing up each morning to the law school library and working 8 or more hours each day. By the end of the week, you’ve accomplished a lot. Your outlines for Torts, Civil Procedure, and Contracts are up-to-date, and you’ve completed most of your reading for next week’s classes. This is a great accomplishment–don’t get me wrong. But having spent your entire Spring Break in the library, you may be tired when classes start back the following week. There are still seven weeks before finals, and it’s difficult to keep up the pace until May without a break. An alternative approach is to split your Spring Break between your studies and giving yourself a mental break. Work all day long for only part of the break, or work only half days.  In the remaining time, do something FUN! Go hiking in a state park, visit the zoo, go bowling.  Connect with friends and family, see a movie, take your dog for long walks, read a novel.  Give yourself permission to take time off as well as work during the break.  Having recharged your mental batteries, you’ll come back to your studies refreshed and inspired.

If you travel during Spring Break, balance is also key. You’ve probably heard people say that they needed another vacation to recover from their vacation. You don’t want that experience. Rather than recharging batteries, a Spring Break trip may zap your mental energy and make the second half of the semester even tougher. Consider traveling for a shorter time period (4 or 5 days) or return home at least a couple of days before classes resume. You can then rest up before school starts back, get household chores (like laundry) done, and read for those first few classes–avoid starting out behind the week after Spring Break.

If you decide to study during your travels, be realistic about what you can accomplish and don’t drag along every casebook. Instead, set one or two goals for yourself and schedule time each day to work on that goal. For example, concentrate on getting your Contracts outline in good order, and only pack materials that relate to that goal. Once you figure out that you have a couple of hours free each morning, set that time aside to work on your outline.  You’re more likely to accomplish something during Spring Break if you set realistic goals for yourself and create a plan for how to accomplish those goals.  The key is balance!

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Filed under General, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips