Help! I’m Miserable and Hate Law School!**

Happiness
just is.  It isn’t
something you have to
earn, look for, or wait to
receive—it’s always there.  To
find it, simply stop looking and become it.

Law school can be a source of great anxiety and stress for many students – especially during the all-important first year.  The more you can keep your perspective, the more you can appreciate your circumstances and allow the stress to fade away.

Here’s something I tell my students before final exams (the time students are most disillusioned): At its most fundamental level, life always boils down to two perspectives – “Get To” or “Have To.”  Everything you do can be compartmentalized into these two categories.  The more you choose to place your perspective in the “get to” column, the better your attitude will be, and having an “attitude of gratitude” will carry you a long way on your path to law school success.

Remind yourself that you don’t “have to” study – you “get to” study because you are afforded the opportunity to see, to read, to understand, and to have this law school experience.  Those who didn’t get into law school (or those who have flunked out or withdrawn) would likely say you “get to” study (while they do not).  Law school is a privilege – one which you had to trudge through many years of education to earn. The more you appreciate this fact, the more balanced, focused, and disciplined you will be – all keys to maximizing your mental health and law school success.  Smile – I’m sure you have a lot to be thankful for.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile;
but sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.
– Thick Nhat Hahn

Although you may not currently enjoy law school, you can take great solace in this fact: other than your legal writing class, law school is nothing at all like the practice of law.  After all, it’s a law school, not a lawyer school.  Most likely, your ultimate legal job will in no way resemble most of what you go through in law school, so don’t think that you will be unhappy in the legal profession just because you are unhappy in law school.

Moreover, most students find that the second and third years of law school are much better than the first year.  After your first year, you get to pick your classes and your schedule, so most students find the subject matter much more engaging.  As an added benefit, most upper level classes aren’t as heavy on the Socratic method, so the classroom experience is usually much less stressful.  If you can get through the first year, your level of happiness will almost assuredly improve.

Happiness is
a how, not a what;
a talent, not an object.
– Hermann Hesse

Below I have pinpointed some of the specific reasons why negative moments might creep in, and I offer advice (couched in Zen philosophy) as to how to maintain your balance and move forward on your path to law school success.

Negative Feeling: Fear of failure/doing poorly

Fear debilitates.
When we’re scared,
we stand like a deer caught
in the headlights: not able to move
away from the very thing that frightens us.
To escape fear, all we have to do is keep moving.

Fear of failing in law school (whether failing means literally failing out of school or failing to achieve your goals) is a common thought that is bound to creep into your vibration at some point.  Acknowledge the fear, accept it as natural, and move on.  Don’t become paralyzed by the fear and feed its appetite; keep moving along your path.  If the fear of failure becomes particularly intense, I suggest moving along with a subject you like and know well.  Return to studying one of your best known subjects and get a little of your confidence back.  Remember – all you have to do is keep moving along the path.

Negative Feeling: I don’t “get” a particular subject

Be
thankful
for anyone in
your life who’s a
problem. They’re your
teachers, for they show
you where you truly stand.
A great saint once said to a disciple
who came to him complaining about someone
else: “He is your greatest blessing. In fact, if he were
not here, it
would behoove
us to go out and
find one like him.”

Be thankful for the subjects that you “don’t get” or “can’t stand.”  Everyone has at least one of these subjects – and oftentimes more than one.  These are the subjects that will push you, challenge you, and give you the opportunity to evolve and know your true self.  Remember: the harder you push against something, the harder it will push back.  And this piece of advice goes double if it is a particular professor that you “don’t get” or “can’t stand.”

Hard practice that evades the unknown
makes for a weak commitment. So an
ancient once said, “Help hard practice
by befriending every demon.”

As a matter of practical advice, if you have a particularly difficult subject, start with the basics.  Figure out what are the most commonly tested issues from past exams.  Use that as your starting point.  Next, try a study aid.  Hornbooks are great for immersing yourself in a subject and getting a feel for how concepts are interrelated.  Of course, you can also ask your peers or law school professors for recommendations on specific sources.  Sometimes, talking through it with someone who has a good grasp on the subject can make things click, too.

Two other pieces of advice: first, don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on a subject you “don’t get.”  Don’t neglect the subjects you know well.  All of your grades go into figuring your GPA/class rank, and you don’t want to spend considerably more time trying to “get” one subject to the detriment of other subjects.  As Nietzsche so famously said, “If you look too deeply into the abyss, the abyss will look into you.”  Instead, try the opposite….

Become
as a little child,
seeing all things for the first time.

Stop telling yourself that you “don’t get” property (or other subject) because this simply reinforces your belief (and will make it more difficult to overcome).  Instead, try to approach the subject as if you are experiencing it for the first time.  Oftentimes, students will tell me they have a hang up about a subject because of a professor whom they don’t like or “don’t get.”  If this is the case, try another way to learn the material (hornbook or study group) and try to view the subject as if a little child – see it for the first time through enthusiastic eyes.

If the clean slate approach doesn’t work for you, and you still find yourself “lost” or feeling negativity about a particular subject, change your thoughts about it.  Instead of saying you “don’t get property,” say “I’m glad property is challenging because I’ll feel that much better when I do get it.”  Or say, “Property is challenging me right now, but I will get it.”  Remember Daniel Levin’s poignant question I mentioned earlier: why do we think that it’s only the things we do that matter and not the things we think?  Your thoughts matter; they are the only thing you can control – so be aware of them and choose them wisely.

Negative Feeling: Other people are studying way more than I am

If you
see the Buddha
on the road, kill him.

The quote above is a famous Buddhist quote that has been interpreted in many ways over the years.  To me, the quote has always meant that one should not have a preconceived notion of what it means to be an enlightened being. “Enlightenment” is different for everyone – and so is the path.  You are your own Buddha, and everyone must take their own path to find his or her nirvana.  Trying to emulate someone else will never bring you your own enlightenment.

Accordingly, as it pertains to law school success, don’t try to emulate the study habits of someone you think is “on the right path” to doing well.  Be your own Buddha.  Someone else’s study habits may not be right for you.  Don’t concern yourself if Joey Joe-Joe is studying twenty hours a day and has five different outlines for each subject.  (And, trust me, there will be at least one person in your law school class who will spend twelve or more hours a day in the library every day of the week.)

When we
forget what we
should be, we find what we are.

Do what works for you and don’t focus on how much others are studying.  Besides, it truly is about quality over quantity.  What does it mean to have “quality” study sessions?  A “quality” study session is one where you are completely present, completely mindful of what you are doing.  We are all different learners and have different avenues for studying most effectively.  Follow your own path, and do not be influenced by what others are doing.  You are your own Buddha!

The
river flows,
the mountain
remains motionless.
The river can’t remain
still, nor can the mountain flow.
Is one right or wrong? Our dharma (duty)
is to do what’s ours to do, not to be like others.