Navigating the Gothic Castle of 1L

Make a List

Many law students are surprised to discover that the law is not as settled as they thought it would be. As it turns out, the law is an ungainly and ever-changing accretion of precedent, opinions, rules, and custom, not entirely beholden to context and personalities but also not independent from interpretation and ideological bents. Much of what you study requires an understanding of things you have not yet studied, but because you cannot study everything at once, you are always operating in an incomplete, contingent state.

Sounds unappealing, but consider Blackstone’s quite positive spin on the situation. Comparing the common law to a Gothic castle, he wrote: “We inherit an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry but fitted up for a modern inhabitant. The moated ramparts, the embattled towers, and the trophied halls, are magnificent and venerable, but useless. The inferior apartments, now converted into rooms of convenience, are cheerful and commodious, though their approaches are winding and difficult.”

How can new law students find their way through these winding, difficult passages? Blackstone had an answer: “Whenever in doubt or distress, make a list.”

Actually, Blackstone didn’t say that, but it is nevertheless good advice. Making lists is an easy way to manage your time and tasks more proficiently. It is a practical tool for navigating the abstract, heady concerns of legal study. Consider making lists for the following:

What you have to do

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the first year, given that you will be shouldering a heavy workload while adjusting to Cambridge and the law school. Use lists to keep track of your daily or weekly assignments and reading. You also may benefit from keeping track of non-homework items like household maintenance, relationship responsibilities, self-care, employment-related tasks, study group meetings, and anything else you want to be sure to do. A well-made list can create order out of chaos, and even a half-hearted effort can provide some structure to the multiple and often competing demands on your time and energy.

What you don’t understand

While you are reading or sitting in class, keep a list of anything that doesn’t make sense to you. I have had many students come to class perplexed about the day’s reading — which is completely normal, especially in the first year — but are unable to state what they found problematic. Remember that you are exploring a castle with secret doors and dead ends. You must be vigilant about identifying and then addressing what you do not understand. Look up unfamiliar terms. Ask your classmates or your professors about confusing parts of cases. And remember that having a list of questions can be a helpful, low-stress way to participate in class.

Why you are here

List-making is more than just managing time and tasks, however. You may have heard that legal training is transformative, and indeed law school will teach you to think and write in new ways. My own feeling is that this is usually a good thing, but many students worry that they will lose some authentic piece of themselves in the process.

With this in mind, consider creating a different list of your goals, values, and priorities. Put it on the refrigerator or pinned to the bathroom wall. Check in with this list from time to time, to remind you of who you are and why you came here.

Welcome to the Gothic castle! I look forward to walking the corridors with you.

Jennifer Reynolds '07 is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is visiting HLS for the academic year, and will be teaching Civil Procedure for Section 7 in the fall and courses on mediation, negotiation, and alternative dispute resolution throughout the year.

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