I don’t even know what I don’t know.
This was my mantra my entire 1LE year… and maybe even for a few of my 2LE classes.
Law school is essentially a process to break down and rebuild the way you think and analyze information. As a 1LE, one of the first things you do is to spend hours pouring over the Bluebook, the citation reference guide for legal writing, trying to figure out how to cite cases that you hope are applicable to the paper you are writing. You also spend hours reading lengthy, wordy, Scalia dissents that have no bearing on the major takeaways from the case you’re reading, but that will be helpful to know down the line. More than likely, you are also in the throes of trying to figure out the different elements of ‘negligence’ and why a word that once seemed so simple, suddenly seems so complex. There’s also the added pressure to know those elements before Monday, because you’re on call and will need to answer questions in front of your accomplished classmates.
If you are an evening student, you’re doing all of this while spending your weekdays at a job where you are expected to perform the same tasks that you did before you were inundated with what feels like a mountain of homework.
Law school will feel overwhelming some days, especially during your first year. In that first year, you’re still trying to understand the big picture of what lawyers do and why they do it. I would venture to that say that all evening students could describe a day where they just felt like they didn’t know how they would finish everything they had to do, but somehow they did it – and they continue to do it every day. Do not make it harder on yourself by not asking questions. That took me a while to learn, and, in my opinion, is the most underrated takeaway from law school.
Superficially, this seems painfully obvious, right? If you don’t have an answer – ask for one. But I can’t tell you how many times I saw people make things more challenging than they had to because they were afraid to ask. It can take some time to get comfortable with this, because it can feel embarrassing to ask something that feels obvious. If no one else is asking about something, you assume that you’re the only one who doesn’t understand it. In my experience, however, it is almost never just you.
I was once talking with a classmate about how to pronounce “certiorari”. We had Googled. We had YouTubed. We had asked other classmates and gotten all different answers. In the middle of our Torts class, I finally raised my hand and asked, “How do you pronounce “certiorari?”
Sure enough, as the Professor was answering, my classmates started breaking out into side conversations about how they had no clue how to say it either, but everyone was afraid to ask. If no one had asked the correct pronunciation of that word, we might have gone out into the world as attorneys who didn’t know how to say it properly – and why? Because we were afraid to ask. (I’ll let you look up what certiorari is or you can just wait until the fun begins to find out!)
I’ll give you another example. One night, our Contracts professor was doing his best to explain the “Mailbox Rule” and it wasn’t clicking at all. I knew I wasn’t alone this time because I looked down and saw that a classmate had texted me that they too were confused. Once again, I raised my hand to get myself and my classmate some clarification. When the professor called on me all I said was, “I don’t understand.” Eager to help, he followed up with, “OK. What specifically don’t you understand?” I just blurted out, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.”
While I am sure this wasn’t what he was expecting, he took it in stride, cocked his head to the side thinking for a second, and bless his heart, he took the lesson from the top while drawing a timeline on the board this time so we could visualize it. Wouldn’t you know it? It actually made sense after that. As I was getting my books together to leave at the end of class, several of my classmates came up to me and thanked me for asking that question. After that, I asked questions whenever I wasn’t 100% sure and this whole law school thing got a lot easier.
I started asking questions outside of class too. This was maybe the hardest for me personally, because I was not someone who generally made a habit of asking near-strangers a barrage of questions. I started asking upperclassmen, who I barely knew, the hard-hitting stuff I had been agonizing over, but didn’t know how to find the answer. Where are the best parking spots? Where are the best dinner spots? Where are the lockers? How do I print in the library? People were so responsive and eager to provide insight. The more I asked, the more people I got to know, and the easier (and more fun) it all became.
Eventually, I became so passionate about getting answers that I even decided to become president of the Evening Program student organization, The Committee of 51, with the hope that I could help to strengthen the Evening student community and build resources for the part-time students.
You are supposed to have questions. If you had all the answers there would be no reason for you to be in law school. Use your resources, because more than likely, they are there because someone before you had those same questions, and many more after you will have them too.
Get comfortable with not having all the answers, but never get comfortable with not searching for them… and if you ever see me around campus, don’t be afraid to ask me anything!