Now That You’re Here, Relax, But Stay Engaged

Welcome to HLS! I’ve been invited to offer a few words of advice, so… [1]

First, relax.

Easier said than done, no doubt. But remember, you are here for good reason. You belong here. It may seem that some of your classmates know more about law or law school than you do. Probably you’re just being hard on yourself. In any event, it’s what you’re all going to be learning that matters.  

Second, focus.

Your 1L year is and should be about your classes and your classmates. Don’t get too caught up in other activities. You’re all hyper-accomplished, massively motivated multi-taskers. Soon enough, you’ll be spread plenty thin. For now just read, think, write, and talk about the stuff that is going in your classes.

Third, do.

The best way to learn is to do. For 1Ls, this means thinking, writing, and arguing in the mode of lawyers. How do you do that? When it comes to reading, you must read actively, “interrogating” the text.

You come across a mysterious Latin phrase. Look it up.

You can’t quite get your head around the facts of the case. Why not? Is that because you’ve missed something? Or because the opinion you’re reading doesn’t tell you something that you need to know? What is that something? Why isn’t it mentioned?

Meanwhile, for classes, being active means thinking, formulating questions, even volunteering to try your hand at some answers. It does not mean mindlessly copying down what you hear.

Finally, be critical and charitable. By “critical,” I mean careful, thoughtful, and discerning. I do not mean vicious, judgmental, or nasty. Indeed, a crucial part of being critical is being charitable.  

Law is, above all else, an analytic discipline. It provides elaborate frameworks for addressing some of life’s most complex and difficult problems. If you are going to be a lawyer, you must read, think, and write critically. You must be critical of what others say. (Yes, that goes for what your professors say.) And you must be self-critical. (Are you so sure you have things right? Are you confident you presented your argument clearly?)

And if you want to understand a text, you must approach it charitably. You must treat it as if it aspires towards coherence and persuasiveness. You might conclude that it does not meet these aspirations. Regardless, the critical conclusion can come only after the charitable engagement.

What goes for texts goes double for classmates. Approach them with charity: they are your colleagues and your friends. Sometimes they will say things that surprise, confuse, or upset you.

If you want to respond, great. Just start with a charitable disposition. Assume the best of your classmates, not the worst. I can’t guarantee that this assumption will always, at all times, be vindicated. But it almost always will be. And it’s the right place to start.

Let me conclude where I began. Welcome! HLS is extraordinary. So are you. May your time here be happy, healthy, and endlessly interesting.

[1] Welcome, also, to your first law school footnote. Warning: shameless self-promotion follows! If you want more on what to expect from law school, I’ve co-authored a book on that topic. It’s titled Open Book: The Inside Track to Law School Success. 

This piece was a part of the 2016 orientation issue. To read more, click here.

John Goldberg is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. This fall 2016, he will be teaching torts to Section 4.

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