I had the opportunity to sit down with an inspiring and amazing human being who I am proud to call a friend. I know that many of the readers and members are worried about starting their first year of law or even applying, so I sat down with Ana who just finished her first year of law (1L) at UBC to get some insight and her experiences for others to read. Of course, we got side tracked a few times because there was just so much information and it was a meet up that was long over due since we had both been so busy with school. So hopefully this conversation answers a few questions or will probably make you question everything about law school.
Ana M, is an incoming second year (2L) law student a
t UBC. She graduated from SFU in 2014 with a BA in Psychology. After she graduated, she decided to take a year off before going to school again. In her year off she prepared for the LSAT and took on new work and volunteer experiences including creating a YouTube channel for pre-teens and teens. In terms of law, her interest focuses on human rights, women's rights and justice but she still isn't sure on what kind of law she would like to do.
1. What made you choose UBC and Why did you choose it?
There are many reasons why people choose their perspective school. Because Canada only has so many law schools, and so the quality of the legal education you will receive is pretty much standardized. What will differ is the specific legal programs offered (UBC has an Aboriginal Law specialization) and the overall school experience. I picked UBC because I had to factor in distance and expenses but I love UBC Law so I’m glad I picked it in the end over my other top choice.
2. Tell me about the courses you took?
First year is all about foundational courses; they're basically intro courses, and your schedule is handed to you like on the first day of high school. So for example you do Property Law, Contracts Law, Constitutional Law etc… you also do a research on legal research and writing as well. In total you have 7 courses in first semester and then two of those get swapped out for two new ones in second semester. So in total, first year is 9 classes but not all of them are worth the same amount of credits. As with all schooling, how interesting or boring a course was really reflected on the professor and I liked all of my professors so it was a good experience overall. It’s very much like undergrad in a way since each professor has their own teaching style and you spend as much time learning about their style and what they focus on (and how and on what they will examine you on) as you do learning the actual material. Older students can be really helpful for those insights as well as for study notes.
3. Compared to undergrad, how is law school?
Law school is hard not so much because the material is hard – it’s actually pretty common sense – but because no one really knows how to do law school coming in. So you waste a lot of time just trying to figure out what to read and how to read it (considering the crazy amounts of reading given to us even in the first month of school.) I remember on my first day of Constitutional Law, the professor, in her characteristically calm way, told us to read the entire Canadian Constitution for next class... And the first two cases in our casebook. I remember everyone chuckling as we all thought the same thing: “Yup. Welcome to law school.” Preparing for exams is also a learning process since law exams are open-book and even with your notes right in front of you, you could end up totally blowing it. That’s something that would never have happened to me in undergrad.
Law classes are also marked on a curve so your mark reflects how well you did compared to everyone else instead of how you did as an individual. This can get frustrating because you are competing with the top 10% of applicants in your year. It’s all the top-of-the-class people, from all over Canada, in one class. And the curve system forces high achievers like that to constantly try to one-up each other on exams and papers to make themselves stick out in a positive way. It gets exhausting trying to keep up with that intensity. Despite that, people always study together and share notes so it’s an odd sort of environment: collegial yet competitive.
4. What was your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was trying to find another way to measure academic success because the grades you receive in law school, especially 1L are unlike anything you’ve probably ever received. You work so hard and stress so much and the marks may not reflect that at all. You struggle to not bring yourself down and there’s a lot of self -doubt (am I cut out for this? I think they made a mistake when they let me in here. I’m not good enough etc). It’s hard to stay positive when you’re constantly getting feedback that basically says “you suck.” Admin and profs and older students will tell you that the marks you’re getting are totally normal and fine but you won’t interpret them that way at first. It’s a blow to the ego but more seriously, your sense of self-worth and sense of self takes a hit since a lot of people at law school identify academic success as a core part of who they are. For a lot of people, it was one thing they could always control and fall back on. So 1L feels like the rug got pulled out from under you and you don’t even know who you are anymore as a student and as an individual. But the reality of a curve-based grading scheme: most people will be average (~ 76%) with some people above and some people below. Mid-high 80s is basically the cap – those who get above 90% are far and between. It’s a constant struggle of reminding yourself of that and reminding yourself that average actually is good!
5. What was your most rewarding moment?
My most rewarding moment would have to be the "Time of the Month" Initiative – an event I spearheaded with a fellow 1L on behalf of the Women’s Caucus. All the other Caucus members were busy and I was told to either handle the event on my own or to leave it for another year. It was a risky move since the event was about periods and donating feminine hygiene products for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. I was quite nervous, honestly, because I didn’t want to be known as “that Period Girl” for the rest of law school and I didn’t know how the event would be received. But it was something I was passionate about and believed in and I decided to just go ahead and do it. And it was a great success! Male and female classmates donated all kinds of things from generous cash amounts to bags of tampon boxes. I even had a professor donate which was really motivating. And next year I’m going to be Co-President of the Women’s Caucus so it all worked out!
Participating in the Law Revue comes in at a close second. It was an extracurricular activity; it had nothing to do with academics but something I did for myself, for comic relief. It saved me in 1L because after constantly feeling defeated, I had an opportunity to do something I knew I was good at and thoroughly enjoyed. We had such an overwhelmingly positive response, I remember feeling like we were a football team coming home with the trophy or something :P
6. Name some of the things you have done in 1L?
It wasn’t until I started writing up my resume, and now again after doing this interview, that I realized just how much I actually did in first year. In first semester I did LEO – Legal Education Outreach – where we partnered up with Law 12 classes in the Vancouver School District and taught a mini class on Criminal Law. It’s an opportunity for high school students to meet law students and ask questions as well as learn something new from someone currently learning the same stuff. I also got chosen to be the 1L UBC Law Blogger and write a monthly piece from the perspective of a first year. My experience with that got me hooked and I recently started my own, personal lifestyle blog! I also got involved with Women’s Caucus as a 1L rep, volunteering at their events, baking for bake sales, sending emails to sponsors, collecting clothing donations etc. The Caucus is there to help women in the legal profession since the law is still very much a “boy’s club” where even though women enter the field in equal or even greater numbers, end up getting outnumbered by the men due to issues of work-life balance that still disproportionately affects women. So the Caucus helps raises awareness regarding that and other issues specific to women in the law, it gives female law students unique opportunities to network with other women in the profession, notably, accomplished women who can impart advice and help with the job search and it engages a subset of the law community in a unique and important way. In the second semester I also became a student clinician for LSLAP(Law Students’ Legal Advice Program), where under the supervision of a lawyer we helped bring legal services through the form of legal advice and assistance to low-income clients in the community. And lastly I was part of the Law Revue which is your high school acting class meets SNL/MadTV and a ton of UBC Law-related inside jokes in the form of skits, short video clips, parodies of popular shows and songs (1L Direction…get it? ;P) etc. It was the most fun part of law school, honestly.
7. Any advice for those applying to law school or planning to go to law school?
When it comes to applying, people say to apply broadly but I didn't. I don't know what I was thinking but I only applied to two schools – UBC and UVic – and I got into both. It’s important to know not only why you want to do law school but to also know why you want to do it at that specific school and to write that in your letter with a sense of purpose and conviction. Be confident in your skills and what you can bring to that specific community – this is a great place to talk about your current or past volunteer positions in order to show your dedication to your current school and community. Then discuss what your interests are and how the school you’re applying to will help you achieve your goals. Be persistent. If you haven't heard back from a specific school by June, call them and let them know that they are a top pick and everything else is on hold until you get their response. Show them you give a damn and that you want to be there. Lastly, and this you already know, you have to have the grades. If not, amp up the community involvement or even take a few years, do some cool stuff, and apply as a mature student with tons of experiences under your belt. Law schools look for smart individuals who put in the effort (as reflected by your GPA) but who are also interesting, well rounded, and who can bring diversity to a pack of people that already have so much in common. Having people who can speak to your strengths and vouch for you is important so make those connections if you haven’t already.
8. How did you balance school and everything else?
I cannot live without my planner/organizer. There’s so much to keep track of and many of the deadlines come in multiples and overlap. It’s very easy to let law school completely devour you and your time and the experience is ruthless. It’s very rare that you will just *have* downtime so you really have to work hard to make downtime. So one thing you have to do is schedule in work outs, family time, and dates with your significant other or friends just like any other thing. And you have to be strict with yourself and tell yourself multiple times that you need this and taking breaks is important and worth it. Another thing is that I learned to study in smaller chunks. I’m a flow studier so if I could have it my way, the only time I’d be studying would be on the weekends when I have huge stretches of time to do just that. But you quickly learn that you waste a lot of time in a week waiting to find the perfect study block and that there’s always way more work than can get done in a two-day span. Remember, law school is very fast paced and exhausting and some days you just want to sleep the whole day away to simply catch up on sleep. So I learned to do all of my small me-time things like social media checking, texting with friends, and email responding on the bus on the way home from school when my brain is the most fried. I also figured out a way to read on the bus without getting motion sickness so now if I’m too tired to finish a case or it’s bed time (and I became very strict about scheduling in my bed time too), I would just leave the reading for the bus ride to school the next morning. It helped to wake up my brain and prep it for the long day ahead. The best way to juggle it all is to be on top of it: know the deadlines, stay organized and work ahead if possible. Accept that it is tough and be easy on yourself. Law school can make you doubt yourself so it’s good to do things that you’re good at and make you feel good. Having non-law friends or partners to hang out with can help distract from the stress by having conversations about something other than law school. Let the waves happen, when it gets less busy, enjoy it, and recharge for when it starts to pick up again. Don't try to sprint the entire thing – know when to slow down the pace.
9. What are you looking forward to in your 2nd year?
I’m looking forward to some of the classes I’ve chosen and having another shot at getting the grades I think I deserve. I have more paper courses so I’m hoping that my overall GPA will also increase. In general I’mjust excited to give law school another go with the experience I’ve accumulated and the things I’ve learned. I look forward to having more responsibilities as Co-President of the Women’s Caucus, as a Co-Director or Co-Producer (and actress!) of the Law Revue and as an Orientation Leader and mentor for the new 1Ls coming in!
10. Anything you'd like to add?
Some students say that 1L is the worst but others say it only gets worse so I don’t know who to believe. It’s hard because as a Type A, ambitious, and success-driven individual, I like to be in control, to know what I’m doing and what’s expected of me, and to feel accomplished as reflected by my academic success. But a lot of the time, you don’t feel in control, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and you feel like you should just drop out. That’s why having a very strong sense of purpose and intrinsic drive is so critical for this field. Law school is a very big investment of time and money (and health, after all) – it’s not something you just “try” for fun, especially if you’re someone who takes academic success personally and seriously. If you’ve never faced adversity or setbacks, you will definitely face them at some point along the way and your goals will be what you fall back on. I’ve had to learn to be flexible and adaptive, to give new ways of learning and studying a try, to master new skills, to be more persistent than I’ve ever been, and to overcome my self-doubt about my abilities. If this is what you want, do not give up. 90% of success in law school comes from being persistent. It’s hard but it’s worth it and if you choose to do this, you will have all of us cheering you along the way.
I wanted to thank Ana for taking the time to answer these questions so that we could share it all with you. Good luck to everyone applying or who will be attending first year this Fall!