The Top 5 Pieces of Advice for 1Ls

5. Read Footnotes and Disclaimers

Disclaimer: I cannot claim credit for this clever footnote advice, as I shamelessly appropriated it from Professor John Goldberg’s advice for last year’s 1Ls.

We have been conditioned, by years of wanton Internet use, either to ignore fine print and boilerplate language or to attempt a reading, only to find that our mind has long since wandered by the time we hit “I accept.” When it comes to legal materials, important information is often buried, not obvious, and difficult to detect, whether by the authors’ accident or design. Read it all, and then sort it out.

4. Facts Still Matter

While we are on the subject of careful reading, you will soon be introduced to the world of case law, full with unfamiliar Latin terms, “holdings,” “policy considerations,” and much more. Yes, look up the Latin terms.

Yes, find the holding (generally where the court says “we hold . . .”). Yes, understand the logic (or illogic) of the holding and the import of the policy arguments. But do not short shrift the facts.

“Socratic” dialogue (more on that in number 3) regularly commences with the professor asking for “the facts.” Student responses are often at one of two poles: Reciting virtually verbatim the facts section of the case or giving a one-sentence soundbite. My advice is to actively engage the facts and determine which ones were critical to the holding, which were thrown in for dramatic effect, and which just don’t matter. Remember, “issue spotter” exams are in large part an exercise in identifying facts that matter.

A final note on reading: Read the syllabus.

3. You Are Not The Mooch

Over the years, I have noticed that a major source of anxiety for students, particularly those inclined to energetically engage in Socratic dialogue and class discussion, is the worry that other students will regard them as “that person.”

Media coverage about the character of 1L Neil Gorsuch or Anthony Scaramucci’s HLS exploits can only heighten this sense of anxiety. You may wonder, “What will my classmates say about me in twenty years?” Well, having just attended my 20th (!!) HLS reunion this year, I can say with confidence, “not much.”

Your friends will remember you fondly, and the rest of your classmates are highly unlikely to dwell whatever exchange you had in civil procedure. More to the point, if this concern resonates with you at all, you are already safe.

3. Make Friends in High(ish) Places

I am all for visiting office hours and using professors and other professionals as mentors. However, my 1L students have often told me that upperclassmen, and particularly 2Ls, are invaluable sources of information, and such comments are very consonant with my own experience at the law school. There are many opportunities to get to know your classmates, whether through membership in student groups or at social events. And, yes, you have time to go to social events.

2. You Will Not Fail

Or even get a bad grade.

1. Enjoy it

For many of you, your three years at Harvard Law will be the last time you are in a university setting, with the accompanying stress, but unparalleled opportunity to for creativity, accumulation of knowledge, bonding, friendship, and even true love. Enjoy it.

Many critical writers reflect on their experience of first year law school as one of utter depersonalization, if not dehumanization – a Langdellian boot-camp in which the student-soldiers suppress their individuality and sense of justice in favor of cold calculation, legal objectivity, and the tools of hierarchy reproduction.

But I do not feel that way.

To replace the hackneyed military analogy with some others, I regard 1L year more like dance classes or practicing piano scales. You learn the discipline of the law, and train your brain to have muscle memory at things like reading cases and statutes, deductive and inductive reasoning, and various doctrinal and philosophical “moves.”That training can, in turn, immeasurably enhance your ability to express the humanity, sense of justice, and individuality you brought here. The experience you are about to have is amazing in so many ways, and it is yours.

Aya Gruber

Aya Gruber '97 is a Professor of Law at the University of Colorado School of Law. She is visiting Harvard Law School for the fall semester, when she will teach Criminal Law to Section 4 and a course on feminism and crime control.

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