My Concern

Navigating law school culture

It may seem unusual to be surrounded by so many people with the same career interests, yet feel so alone. The thing is you’re absolutely not alone — many law students feel this way. Law school attracts high achieving students. That desire to excel doesn’t go away once you’re accepted. You’ve probably noticed that the legal education system is not at all like other academic institutions you’ve attended. Because of the grading curve, methods of evaluation and job recruitment processes, law school can bring out anxiety and a belief that a competitive spirit and drive is necessary for success. This can make for a pretty lonely and unsettling experience, but yours doesn’t have to be that way.

I don’t feel like I fit in with my peers

It may feel like many of your classmates have internalized law school culture. They may openly share how much time they spend preparing for classes and when they began compiling their summaries. It’s natural if you begin to question your own study habits and feel the need to hide your vulnerabilities in response. It can feel lonely when those around you appear competitive instead of supportive and collaborative.

Here are some things to consider:

Take a look at your peers and ask yourself if you feel good and comfortable in their company. If the answer is no, it might be time to seek out new relationships in law school that allow you to be yourself. Think about creating some inner boundaries to buffer yourself from the behaviours and attitudes of others that leave you feeling uncomfortable. Your relationship with your peers and the roles they play in your life can, to a large extent, be defined by you. And don’t forget your life outside of law school. Your non-law school friends might be just what you need to feel grounded and supported again.

My first year of law school was, without a doubt, the worst year of my life. I don’t really think I could even begin to explain how tough I found the course materials, in combination with the social pressures to participate in an emotionally exhausting Orientation Week, in combination with being away from home or any support systems. Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014
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I can’t stop thinking about grades

Evaluation methods and grading curves at law school may be increasing your feelings of stress and anxiety. You were accepted into law school because of your strengths and potential, but your place on the grading curve might cause you to question whether or not you have what it takes to succeed in this profession. How you perform on exams can become an overwhelming focus, especially when your grades do not reflect your capabilities.

Here are some things to consider:

Remember what brought you to law school in the first place. Most students are here because they want to do something that matters to them, even if there were also compelling, practical reasons to go to law school. Achieving that is about so much more than just your grades. Exams are not a measure of your ability to practice law or the kind of lawyer you’ll be. Give yourself permission to value your abilities and success in different ways. In your upper years, for example, choose courses and extracurricular projects that match your interests and make connections with people who work in the areas in which you hope to practice.

Finally, but not lastly, ask for help. Law students admit it is tough to do, but the faster you deal with your concerns, the more likely you are to feel better during law school.

I remember receiving one of my very first midterm grades in law school. It was Property. I got a ‘C’. I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. “Did I really deserve that grade?” “How do I expect to do well when I have started off on the wrong foot?” resounded in my head. Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016
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I feel marginalized

Your feelings of isolation or anxiety at law school can be particularly pronounced if you do not see yourself in your peers and professors. You may, for any number of reasons, feel on the margins at law school. You may also feel that your classmates’ relative positions of privilege put you at a disadvantage: financial pressures and limited professional connections in a field that seems to rely on networking are just two of the concerns felt by some students. On top of that, you may feel that your school’s course content and discussion lack inclusivity and that critical discourse about traditionally marginalized groups is absent or tokenized.

Here are some things to consider:

Seek out those who reflect or accept your culture, orientation, beliefs and interests. If this isn’t possible in your law school class, look to other years and even beyond law school to your university as a whole for formal and informal support. There’s no one-size-fits-all here; there is diversity within diversity, so you may find yourself connecting to various people and organizations that reflect pieces you can relate to. Also consider reaching out to student services and administration staff whose responsibilities include equity. You might also try the Member Assistance Program; they can connect you with a practicing lawyer who has gone through some of what you’re experiencing.

I succeeded at law school by being myself and sticking to what I believed in. I made my priorities and where I want to go (end goal) the focus and aimed at achieving that regardless of what others were doing. I also stayed away from drama, focusing on the positive and my own goals. Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014
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This isn’t what I thought it would be like

Everyone arrives at law school with a set of expectations and vision of what it’s going to be like. Often, though, the reality is something different. It can be both the best and the most challenging experience of your life. Feeling unsettled and even a bit misled makes perfect sense in the context of what you’re going through as a student. If you’re not on the path you thought you had chosen, though, you’re probably not feeling very happy.

Here are some things to consider:

Navigating law school is a process and, despite what you may be feeling, you do have the ability to influence it. Chances are, you fell into the path you’re now on early in your first year with little thought or knowledge about what you were even doing. Make a conscious decision now to surround yourself with new people who share your interests, values and vision of law school and law practice.

Focus on taking care of yourself by taking real, meaningful breaks away from law school and making physical activity, connecting with loved ones, personal interests and self-reflection a priority. These small shifts might be enough to leave you feeling more balanced, confident and in control of your life. If things are still not falling into place for you, seek support from a trusted friend or a counsellor.

In many ways law school has been beneficial for me; in terms of the education I’ve received, the career opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of, and some very wonderful and like-minded people I’ve met. However, in other significant ways law school has changed me from a person who was relatively healthy to a person who is unwell. Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014
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