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Ten Tips for First Year Law Students

Candid Advice from the Editor-in-Chief


So you’ve made it to law school. Let me start by congratulating you and apologizing for how quickly you may find yourself in over your head. Getting into law school is a lot like having kids; people will talk about how great an experience it is before you start, and then laugh at you for ruining your life when it’s too late to turn back. This is not to suggest that law school doesn’t have some awesome moments and true value, but there are some things you can’t exactly prepare for, and a lot of the people who encouraged you to take this terrifying endeavour often weren’t entirely forthcoming.  On that note, here’s a list of tips for first year law students.

1: Get used to seeing people at their absolute worst

In law, you should get used to seeing the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. Family law often involves watching two people do their damnedest to use the legal system to seek revenge on their former partners, often at the expense of their children. In first year criminal law, my section’s professor apologized profusely before a class on rape-homicides (he’s such a nice guy it was like listening to Mr. Rogers describe the Khmer Rouge). Even in insurance law, you witness some real low points of humanity. I once watched a guy throw his disabled brother under the bus as part of his scheme to defraud an insurance company. He was using his brother’s name for paperwork, and the brother had to sit through a five-hour examination where he was at best thoroughly humiliated. It’s something to get used to, because…

2: You need to learn to keep a straight face

This is harder and more important than you might expect. Judges will reprimand you for rolling your eyes, no matter how justified the eye-roll may be. Although you will inevitably face ridiculous statements and situations, disrespectful facial expressions can be disruptive and are essentially a way to say something without words, thus circumventing legal procedure. If someone is saying something truly absurd, the judge will pick it apart on his or her own. Even if they don’t, that “you have to be kidding me look” will not help, ever. Don’t do it.

3: Get used to being confronted with mind-blowing stupidity

As George Carlin once remarked, “think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of [all people] are stupider than that.” In the legal profession, you’ll run into people who make that average person look like the offspring of Einstein and Marie Curie. Even extremely good lawyers struggle to grasp the full extent of human stupidity. I’m going to tie this into my next tip because the best examples I can think of would violate confidentiality rules, but suffice it to say you shouldn’t be surprised if you get into criminal law and find out that your client killed someone for less than you spend on a night out. 

4: Get used to people telling ridiculous lies to your face, even after they’ve been caught lying

I’m not even sure where to start here. Long before I started practicing for the LSAT, I was the file clerk/heavy lifting specialist at an insurance defence firm, and when I got bored I’d read the examination reports. During these examinations, a party would often tell obvious lies that blatantly contradicted the documentary evidence they knew the examining lawyer had, and would continue to lie long after their credibility had been thrown in a dumpster and set on fire. While working as a court reporter, I once watched a woman claim she owned no jewelry when she was wearing a gold watch and gold necklace (she covered the latter with the former). To some extent, doubling down on lies seems to be some botched calculation whereby the liar thinks that the microscopic chance they might get away with the lie trumps the embarrassment of admitting to it, but that’s the sort of shoddy math that convinces people to buy lottery tickets. Regardless, try to keep a straight face.

5: When someone swears to God or on their mother’s life, they’re lying

This one becomes painfully obvious very quickly. Admittedly, I’m bringing it up because it always struck me as a weird thing to say before a lie, but if someone says it during an examination or interrogation, it’s safe to assume they’re lying. I guess the reasoning behind it is that you can repent your act of blasphemy or that your mother doesn’t have to know about it. Also, I do remember it working once in awhile on the playground, but in real life, it’s a tell. Keep an eye out for such things.

6: Come to terms with being average

This is something I was told about before getting into law school. Working at a law firm, I had a lot of conversations with lawyers as I waited for the coffee to brew, and that piece of advice stood out. Average students don’t make it to law school. Except in extremely rare circumstances, you don’t get into law school unless you beat at least sixty percent of A students on a standardized test that’s basically an IQ test designed by psychopaths (the LSAT). This is not to trivialize your achievements, just don’t freak out when you see a C for the first time since high school gym class. That was apparently an earth-shaking revelation to a lot of people in my year.

7: Don’t screw around 

I am personally guilty of this one, and not coincidentally am less surprised to see Cs than other people. That said, there’s stuff even I won’t do. If you miss a class, listen to a recording. Take notes from every class. Do your readings. If you can’t find a summary, make your own. Show up to classes where they mark attendance. You may be thinking “no duh, dumbass”, but a lot of people will tell you that they didn’t do their readings or take notes, and while they passed, it’s not a risk you should take. Some people can screw around and make it, but never assume you’re one of them.

8: Get yourself out there

This is something I should have done more of, and I’m writing this tidbit from a position of regret. I flirted with dropping out in first year, and the only reason I didn’t miss out on useful tidbits about summaries and on-campus interviews is because a number of people reached out to me. Admittedly, I didn’t do OCIs for reasons that weren’t very good, but the point is that you can miss some really important events and programs if you don’t know people. A lot of stuff flies under the radar, and the job market isn’t great right now. Go to a couple of pub nights, play some sports, chat in the lunch line, whatever your trip is. Just don’t be a ghost.

9: Familiarize yourself with mental health and student support programs

Full disclosure: I have mental health issues, and I wouldn’t have gotten through first semester were it not for Osgoode’s Student Success and Wellness Counselling. I would have dropped out without this service (and the unsolicited support of some classmates – if you’re reading this, thanks again), and its facilitators are more than happy to help you arrange extensions, therapy sessions, whatever. There’s also the Osgoode Peer Support Centre, and Osgoode has a counselling page covering pretty much anything you might need (http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/my/jd/counselling/). If I’m in the Obiter office, I’m no counsellor, but I have ears and beers.

10: Have a well-rounded life outside of Osgoode

Well, try to, at least. School will eat up a lot of your time (unless you’re screwing around, and as established in tip #7, don’t), but everyone needs hobbies. I write, play hockey and tabletop role-playing games, and sing karaoke. The previous editor-in-chief was very active in Mock Trial. Osgoode has so many student clubs I don’t even bother keeping track of them. If nothing else, hobbies look good on a resume. Might I suggest writing for Obiter?

And with all of that said and done, best wishes to all of you! Almost everyone here wants you to succeed, and if they don’t, spite them with your success. Better things have been done for lesser reasons.Ian Mason - Dilbert