Top tips to successfully finish the first year of law school in a pandemic
Jamie Hwang and Connor Cohen, 2Ls at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
As guinea pigs of Zoom law school classes, we learned—the hard way—what it’s like to be first-year law students in a world battling COVID-19. As 1L section mates, we supported each other through an unprecedented finale to our first spring semester at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.
In March, our classes went remote, and final exams switched to a credit-or-no-credit system soon. Through months of frozen dinners and studying in our studio apartments, we adjusted to Zoom life.
This fall, incoming 1Ls will begin their law school journey from home, as most classes will still be remote—but now with letter grades.
After the spring semester, we continued our Zoom education with letter-graded summer classes on top of our 1L summer jobs. Along the way, we got used to the new normal: Two minutes before each class, we sat at our desks, turned on our MacBook computer cameras and swiveled our monitors around at different angles, checking our backgrounds for anything embarrassing.
We practiced our “Share Screen” Zoom presentations on expert witnesses with each other to make sure we didn’t accidentally share our emails or personal screensavers when we later presented to the class. We often forgot to mute or unmute during classes or had to quickly close text and email notifications popping up in the corner of our screens. At first, we lived in constant fear of a humiliating virtual slip-up.
But with each day, we got better at Zoom classes. We found ways to stay focused and to get the most out of our law school experience, despite the circumstances. While we had no idea what to expect, incoming students can prepare to maximize their remote law school experience from the beginning. We want to share our key tips for surviving the first year of law school on Zoom.
Tip 1: Avoid distractions
Let’s be real: Law professors are not the laptop police. In normal times, professors trust students to use their laptops responsibly during class. And those of us who might want to shop or send memes during class would normally have the option to take notes by hand—avoiding all temptation. But now, you can’t attend class without your computer.
Some professors will insist that you keep your camera on as part of your participation grade. Others may be indifferent. We suggest you keep it on in every class. Note: Do not take your class with you to the bathroom. Keeping your camera on will hold you accountable during class. Putting yourself out there with a fun and appropriate virtual background is also a great way to show your style and sense of humor to your class. Remember that virtual networking is all we have now.
Every 1L has that subject—yes, that subject—that makes them second-guess their decision to attend law school. Trust us: Paying close attention to a lengthy Zoom lecture is much harder than in real life. But your professors are learning and adapting, too. Some of our professors took advantage of cutting-edge Zoom features such as screen-share slideshows, polls and breakout rooms.
The breakout rooms are the best. They help make longer classes manageable, and you get the chance to share your thoughts outside a high-pressure cold call. You’ll also get to know your classmates a little better. If you’re lucky enough to end up in a breakout room with a friend, you might spend the first minute complaining about what just happened in class or introducing your puppy.
A word of caution: Try to stay on track during breakout rooms. Your professor and teaching assistants may suddenly pop up in your Zoom room. You don’t want to be the one explaining your Tiger King theory when the professor joins the conversation.
Tip 2: Balance school and fun at home
Many students come to law school thinking that doing the first year right means putting the rest of your life on hold. Some incoming 1Ls probably know about the prelaw school classics like Getting To Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School and Law School Ninja: An Unconventional Strategy for Outsmarting Law School.
These books offer intimidating strategies such as briefing every case in every class or taking practice exams months ahead of finals. But gunning for law review doesn’t mean that you have to give up on the hobbies that keep you sane.
Now, more than ever, the line between work and play is thin or nonexistent. When our law school went remote, our classes switched to a credit-or-no-credit system soon afterward, which took the pressure off learning the law during a global pandemic.
While the new crop of 1Ls will not be getting a traditional law school experience, fall semester finals will be graded on a brutal curve—at least at Northwestern.
In other words, Zoom law school will still be very competitive. Spending all day indoors, slouched at your desk, staring at a screen or a casebook is not so great for your stress levels.
So take the time to do things that make you happy. Get outside, take a virtual ballet class, lift some weights, try a new banana bread recipe, read a novel for fun, draw a picture, walk around the block or call your grandma.
While Netflix is good in moderation, stepping away from your screen may be best. You’ll definitely be getting enough screen time this year. But no matter what you do to unwind, don’t guilt yourself over it. A happy 1L is a productive 1L.
For extroverts, remote law school may be especially tough. Try planning virtual study groups and happy hours with your new classmates. And sign up for some student organizations to make friends with 2Ls and 3Ls. They have the advice and outlines you need to thrive.
Tip 3: See the silver lining
A remote 1L year will be especially hard. Luckily, online law school has some advantages.
Even on Zoom, tradition-loving professors will put you on the spot for a cold call. When you are suddenly on call for a case that you forgot about, there is no need to ramble. Take a deep breath and press “Control + F” or “Command + F” in your notes or online textbook to quickly find the answer, whether searching for the facts from a key constitutional case or the elements of trespass to land.
You can also bond with classmates during class by cracking jokes and sharing links to articles in the Zoom chat. Be sure to check whether you are sending a private message or blasting the whole class though. Plus, for those who don’t like to speak up in class, the chat function allows you to silently rack up participation points: Many professors pay attention to the chat during class.
Professors are also stuck at home, so take advantage of their extra free time. They probably want a new face to talk to as much as you do. Try to drop in during their virtual office hours or set up a time to chat with them one on one.
It’s easy to forget, but professors are people, too—and often great ones. And sooner than you think, you will be asking your professors for letters of recommendation. You want them to get to know you.
We all hope that law school will resume in person by next semester. But realistically, some or all classes may still be remote in the spring. Brace yourself: Zoom law school is a virtual marathon—not a virtual sprint.
Jamie Hwang is a 2L at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and a member of the Northwestern University Law Review. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Hwang’s previous works have appeared in the ABA Journal, the Huffington Post and Chicago Magazine.
Connor Cohen is a 2L at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and a member of the Northwestern University Law Review. He graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he received his bachelor’s degree in dance.
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