How to Start Law School: 'I Know Kung Fu'

I love to welcome students to law school. There is such enthusiasm this time of the year. Here is what I shared with our incoming 1Ls at UC Hastings.

When I was a kid growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I was a stutterer. Back then, the treatment for a stammer included forcing you to do speech and debate.

That explains how I ended up in law school. But if I can stand in front of an audience, then anybody can. There are always moments of anxiety and self-doubt in an intense experience such as what you have signed up for. It's important to know that others have done fine and made it through.

Law professors usually make three points.

First, you are joining a profession. It is customary to say that happens when you matriculate, not when you graduate. But there is another aspect that was not once uttered to me when I was a student, twenty-five years ago. It's about the nature of the profession.

Law is a service profession. You serve others. That's the meaning of representation. You act on behalf of your clients and not yourself.

You also are an officer of the court. That requires that you advance justice.

I always thought when I finished my education, I would be an expert: I would be entitled to tell people what to do.

As soon as I was working as a lawyer, I was disabused of that notion; it's the other way around. Someone else's interests are always above your own self-interest. There are no hermit lawyers.

You are joining a community. That is what makes a law school great. More than the research and the teaching, it is the sense of belonging. Look to your right, look to your left. These are future clients, law partners, the judges before whom you will appear. For some, the individual seated there is your future spouse or partner.

Second, you get out of this what you put into it. Education requires engagement, It is not a product to be purchased, but a process to participate in.

When I work out -- you heard I'm preparing for another half-marathon -- I always end up a bit more lackadaisical than I intended when I requested a session at the gym. As the trainer tells me, I need to exert effort on my own initiative. She is there to encourage. But it has to be me expending energy.

Third, I will say what I say every year. Students always ask for advice. Here is what I will say: "Sell your television."

When I started teaching -- to my chagrin, I am no longer mistaken for a student -- it was enough to say that. Now, I have to add due to technological change, cancel your streaming services, digital subscriptions, and so on: Netflix, Hulu Premium, however you receive video content.

I say that not because I dislike television. Just the opposite. I'm waiting, like many around the world, to binge watch the next season of Sherlock. That's why.

It's too tempting to have a program running in the background. It'll distract you. My suggestion is a test of your commitment. I'm not talking about giving up your favorite show forever -- it'll still be there when the semester is over. My colleagues point out the need for balance; I agree -- I just recommend what is active rather than passive.

I envy new law students. I am reminded of the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. (Never mind the sequels.) When Mr. Anderson becomes Neo, he sees the code that makes up the reality around him. That's what law school will do. You'll wake up and say, "I know kung fu." You will perceive the law that constitutes society around you.

If you have ever enjoyed arguing, there is nothing like the exhilaration of starting law school.

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