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by Shelley Awe | July 30, 2020

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As law schools continue to finalize plans for how classes will be held this fall—online, on-campus, or a mix of both—many 1Ls are facing the challenge of not only starting law school, but doing so virtually. Returning law students at least have the experience of a partially remote semester under their belts and the benefit of having started law school under “normal” conditions. For new 1Ls, starting law school virtually means no in-person opportunities to meet and bond with classmates, no first cold call in a lecture hall, no in-person networking events, no walking up to professors to ask questions after lecture, and no library to provide a focused study space.

While virtual law school isn’t ideal, it’s the reality students are dealing with for the immediate future. The good news is that schools have experience under their belts now and have had time to transition, troubleshoot, and adjust. Since most of the learning curve happened throughout the spring semester, schools are much better positioned to launch a new school year online. Professors, staff, and students have gotten familiar with using Zoom and other platforms, working from home, and staying connected remotely. With these lessons in mind, here are a few things you can do to prepare for a virtual 1L year.  

Think it through before deferring.

If your law school announces a virtual fall semester, your first instinct might be to defer to next year instead of starting your legal career remotely. But make sure you really think it through before making that decision. For one thing, deferring could mean losing out on scholarships or other financial aid—this was likely a major factor in choosing a law school to begin with. And seriously consider your personal situation and reflect on whether it makes sense to put off law school for another year. (e.g., Will you end up incurring more debt because you’re waiting around for a year? Do you have reliable employment for another year to fall back on?) No doubt, you’ll read varying opinions about whether you should start law school this fall or defer to next year. It doesn’t hurt to read up on what people are saying, but at the end of the day, you should base your decision on what’s best for your personal situation. Virtual or not, you’ll receive the same fundamental legal education this fall.  

Set up an at-home school space.

Before the semester starts, you’ll want to create the best workspace possible to set yourself up for success. You don’t need a huge budget, tons of space, or an elaborate home office to succeed as a virtual law student. What is important, however, is having a space dedicated to your law school work. The point is to have a place that signals it’s time to get to work. Since many people have been working at home for months now, there are lots of great tips out there for setting up a home workspace. (We’ve got you covered). It does help if you have a desk, even a small one, where you can work and store your books and computer. But if you don’t, that’s okay—get creative with the existing surfaces in your home. The kitchen counter or a spot at the table can work just as well. And no matter where your workspace is, even minor tweaks can help your focus and motivation. If you can, sit near and face a window for maximum lighting. If you live with others, choose a quiet space and communicate your needs about noise levels and the importance of being able to concentrate. If you live in a small apartment, turn away from the room’s interior so you don’t have to stare at a bed or other piece of furniture. Make whatever adjustments you need to make it as easy as possible to focus on classes and studying.

Be a proactive communicator.

A crucial part of law school is making connections and building your network, which should include your fellow classmates and professors. Be prepared to start building those connections virtually. Take part in your school’s virtual orientation sessions and social activities, even if they’re optional. And don’t stop with formal school-organized events. Take the initiative to reach out to other students in your class. Start a social media group for your section. Round up some classmates to create a virtual study group. Attend virtual office hours. Schedule Zoom hangouts as a way to take breaks to chat with classmates, just like you would if you were at school. Email your professors with the same questions you would ask after class as if you were there in person. Also, make it a point to attend your professor’s virtual office hours if they offer them. And keep in mind you don’t have to wait for the semester to start to start building these relationships. Find and connect with your future classmates now. Starting law school with people you’ve already met—even from a distance—can help alleviate some stress and build a sense a camaraderie.

Don’t blow it off.

Sure, they’ll be online, but that doesn’t mean the substance or importance of 1L classes is changing. Don’t ignore conventional wisdom about how to succeed as a first-year law student. That includes focusing on your classes above all else, treating law school like it’s your full-time job, and studying with the method that works best for you. It may be tempting to think you can blow off classes since they’re just on your screen. But ask yourself: Would I be skipping this class in person? The answer is probably not. Same idea when it comes to studying: Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean there is less to learn. If your find yourself struggling to stay motivated, consider joining a study group or finding an accountability partner from your section to check in with. Come exam time, the same expectations and grading curve will apply, so don’t let the virtual modality trick you into thinking you don’t have to work as hard as you would on campus.  

Stay positive.

You probably didn’t envision your legal career starting online. But try not to let that dampen the excitement you had about being accepted to law school and getting started on the path to becoming a lawyer. You are still going to graduate with a law degree, great experience, and a professional network to carry you into your career. Law school was always going to be challenging, the challenges will just look a bit different for the foreseeable future. The good news is you have the advantage of being on notice and the ability to prepare ahead of time. So make use of the resources available to you, keep your goals in mind, and try to maintain a positive attitude.

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