This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
The Record: What is the first thing you would want an incoming 1L to know before they start?
I. Glenn Cohen: You belong. There is a huge tendency to self-discount and to feel ill at ease. You come from probably being the most successful person in the milieau in which you grew up or in which you went to college, to suddenly being surrounded by a huge number of other high achievers, and for me, I feel this pretty acutely. I’m a first-gen student myself. Neither of my parents finished high school. I remember feeling hugely intimidated when I walked through the doors of this place. The fact of the matter is our admissions office is amazing. They truly do pick amazing people with something to contribute, and there are a million different ways to contribute. People tend to be at their worst when they are feeling the anxiety of not belonging or measuring up, and at their best when they feel there is a vibrant community to support them.
R: Is there anything that you think that 1Ls can do to circumvent the information gap between people whose parents have a legal background and first generation students?
IGC: I think the law school is heavily invested in providing resources, whether it’s introducing people to different areas of law, the orientation, the new reading group system, which serves as a kind of advising for the field of law you want, and this is the first year we’re having a first gen orientation. I think the law school is going to put a lot of investment in that, but this is the place to make your mistakes. A lot of the mistakes that you make here, whether it’s at a clinic or in the classroom, are things that are not detrimental like making mistakes in practice for a client is. Fail early, fail often, and we recognize there is gonna be a significant learning curve. The first few weeks you’re gonna feel like you’re treading water, but the good news is that there’s nothing all that significant that happens in those first few weeks. My philosophy as a section leader is to keep people comfortable with the shallow end of the pool before we get into the deeper end. The way the law school sets things up is a set of gates where we’re slowly exposing people to more and more on their plate, and I think that’s a very sensible way of doing it. 1L fall, in terms of what to worry about, the nice thing is law school is a new experience for everyone. Even though not everybody talks about it, everyone feels the imposter syndrome at some point.
R: Do you have any study tips for 1Ls?
IGC: People spend too much time on the front end of prep for class and not enough time on the back end after a class is done. Students over-invest in being prepared, and they should be prepared, but the anxiety of being cold called causes people to spend more time with the material before class where they hit the curve of diminishing marginal utility, and that soaks up the time for after class that can be spent zoning in on what you didn’t understand and potentially updating an outline. Briefing cases is not a particularly good use of your time. I teach Civil Procedure, and it’s difficult for 1Ls because it’s all so foreign no matter what your background is. Reading a case or a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure on the front end is different from how you read it after class because you’ll understand what you need to really hone in on after class. Once you understand the progression of what was important, the way in which you can process the information in the case or the rule is just so much better.
R: How much would you say grades matter?
IGC: It depends on what you want to do. If you’re gunning for a Supreme Court clerkship, the idea that grades don’t matter is probably inaccurate. I tend to think about it like having a stock portfolio, where good grades are a blue chip and you always want them to keep going up in a good direction, but it would not be the only thing that’s part of a portfolio. There are things that can make a difference in terms of getting jobs and experiences, like a great clinical experience, great summer experience, getting to know a faculty member, doing some writing. Somebody vouching for you is hugely important, and the students with the highest ambitions do all of these things at an excellent level. I’ve seen many students who got grades they disliked as 1Ls who really shot out of the water and did well, especially after 1L Fall. Elena Kagan is my favorite example.
R: How quickly would you say people need to start solidifying a life plan?
IGC: Treat each of your summers as a kind of opportunity, plus clinical experiences and outside practice opportunities, as ways of eliminating possible life plans. When I came to law school, I thought I wanted to do international criminal law. I didn’t like being at the genesis of a system of case law, and living abroad was not how I imagined large portions of my life. Then I went to a large law firm, and I wasn’t particularly excited about the work. Then I clerked for a judge, and the judge told me he thought I’d really like the DOJ. I got a job with the civil division, and I loved it and couldn’t imagine a better place to have started my legal career. At some point, I missed the writing and the more constructive parts of action. People at HLS told me there was a new center, the Petrie Flom Center, of which now I’m a faculty director. This is exactly right, this is what fits for me. I think it’s totally correct not to have any idea whatsoever what you want to do at the beginning. You start thinking domestic versus international, civil versus criminal, and there are further divisions, private versus public, federal versus state. Once you create these boxes, you can start working through and thinking about how to spend your summers.
R: People are under a lot of stress at HLS. How should they cope with that?
IGC: My 1L year was both the most intellectually stimulating year of my life and probably the year that I partied the most. I encourage my students to take a lot of steps to make sure they’re in the zone of mental health. You really want to force yourself to get seven or eight hours of sleep. If you’re only getting five or six, chances are it’s not worth it in terms of the loss to learning from sleep deprivation. I encourage people to spend more time in Boston. Especially now, the city is so amazing that getting out of Cambridge is good for the psyche.
I strongly recommend regular exercise. I highly recommend guided meditation just to reset yourself midday or in the evening. The more you can treat law school like a job with set hours, the better off you’ll be, but it’s a struggle because law school, in theory, could expand to fill the space that it’s in. Set limits and make sure to carve out time for yourself. It’s very important to connect with people outside the law school. Emotions are a powerful guide and our bodies are a powerful guide to our mindset. If you find yourself lagging, slow, or tired all the time, or if you’re self-medicating a lot, these are all signs that you need to take a step back and rethink things.
This is the kind of thing you should feel free to talk to someone about. We’ve got great resources and we’re really committed. After 11 or 12 years of doing this, we’ve seen everything before, and we have a wealth of experience to know what helps and what doesn’t. If you can nip problems in the bud in the early stage, you’re much more likely to be able to turn them around than if you wait until it’s too late.
R: If you do things correctly, should you be building an outline all semester?
IGC: Adapting an existing outline is a much more time-efficient way to master a course. You can focus on what needs to be changed and refined, not the basics. The late Dan Meltzer was a wonderful man. When I took his course, I updated the outline, and this outline had this amazing history. The solicitor of labor at the time was on the outline. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if there’s already a good outline. But I would recommend before November 1st or 10th is where you should take stock of where you need to be to get through finals. I’m only speaking for my experience, but the best use of your time is looking at old exams. Professors are highly predictable, and if you understand how they test things, it makes it easier to understand how you ought to learn the material. Many of my colleagues feel differently.
R: For people who are thinking about politics and current issues, how would you suggest they balance that with trying to be a good law student generally?
IGC: I tend to think of the classroom as a free space to experiment with different viewpoints. Whenever someone says something in class, there should be a very strong degree of charity. People rarely put things the way their best selves would put something. We have an incredible diversity of students. My own feeling is that politics are important, and people have their own views coming in, but if law was just politics, I would have a very different attitude towards teaching in the classroom. It’s a matter of understanding where people are coming from in terms and how things come about historically and also through philosophy and logic. I would hate to see people get strung up on what someone said in a particular moment. As a professor, we are always kind of pushing buttons and pulling strings, especially in courses like criminal law. What you’re seeing play out is most people’s true selves in a deep way. We should look at each other with love, good feeling, and community. That’s what I love about the section system. We’re really trying to create a community. Somebody who was one of my sectionmates passed away on Facebook. She had cancer, but this hit me so hard even though we only spent one year in an intense experience and two more years here, we had still built this community and I was bowled over by it. The idea that we can build communities of deep caring and affection for one another is what’s special about this place.
R: Anything to add?
IGC: Just breathe. When you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, count to ten, let it out, and move on. Every day carries both joys and tribulations. When you leave this place, I hope you find that this was not only an educational opportunity, but a meaningful opportunity that let you grow as a person.