Mid Point of the Semester and How to Survive the October 1L Freakout

Mid Point of the Semester and How to Survive the October 1L Freakout

Something's in the air, and it's not just the crisp beginning of autumn. It's time for the collective October 1L Freakout. Yes, this is a thing.

I was reminded of it recently, when a couple of different 1Ls furtively told me that they'd unexpectedly burst into tears while talking to professors. The look of "This doesn't happen to anyone else, does it?" was clear.

Well, put your mind at ease - it's quite normal, and there's a very good reason for it, I think. I'll get into my theory about why this happens soon, but first a story.

The Story of My October Freakout (aka Why I Don't Do Public Interest Work)

Being pretty Type A, by early October of my 1L year I was becoming convinced I'd never be able to get a legal job. (Today this concern might be a bit more reasonable, but in the boom years of the mid-2000s, I assure you it was stupid for me to waste time worrying about this.)

Since I wasn't allowed to talk to the official Career Services people about my concerns until the first of November, I decided to discuss the situation with the public interest career office, which was a wholly separate entity.

I made an appointment for one Friday afternoon, went over with my résumé and a vague plan about wanting to do something good for the world, and got ready to explore my options. I wasn't feeling especially stressed out or anything (although, given that I once came down with shingles when I wasn't feeling especially stressed out, I'm not sure I had a very good handle on what I was feeling at that point).

So there I am, feeling pretty good about things, ready to seek career guidance, and it all falls apart.

The woman I was meeting with turns out to be just awful. She basically told me there was no possibility I'd ever get a public interest job, and that - this is a quote - I should just go work for a large law firm and donate money to a church if I felt guilty about how much I was making. Having been raised Catholic, suffice it to say this was NOT an option I found very appealing.

For a few minutes I try to probe for other options, and then - out of nowhere - I totally lose it. I'm sniffling, then sobbing, and eventually I just grab my résumé, say something along the lines of "Thanks, this has been very helpful," and run out of the building.

When I get back to my apartment, my roommate is there with a 2L friend. I'm still in tears, although I'm trying to hide it. My roommate, naturally, flips out:

"OMG, are you okay? What happened? Did someone die?"

"I'm fine."

"No, you're not."

"Yes, I am."

Our world-weary 2L friend just looks at me calmly and says, "Oh, right, it's that time of year."

"WHAT?!? You don't even know what happened! Don't tell me this is some 'normal' thing! I don't want to hear it."

Eventually I calmed down enough to listen to him, and he says that, yes, almost everyone he knew as a 1L had some sort of October meltdown (including him). Whether it was losing it going over a hypo in office hours, flipping out about job stuff, or not knowing the answer in a study group and bursting into tears, it's pretty standard behavior.

His prescription: Take the afternoon off and go on a long walk.

I really didn't want to do this, since I had a to-do list a mile long, but my friends wouldn't let me off the hook. They insisted I stop working until at least the next morning, and do absolutely nothing for the rest of the day.

So I did. And, ironically, walking around New York City on that crisp fall afternoon is one of the few very clear memories I have from my entire 1L year. Much of the rest is a blur, but that walk is a crystalline moment in time, where I thought about nothing at all, and just walked, and walked, and walked until it got dark. Then I came back, went to sleep early, and - shockingly enough - by the next morning everything looked a lot more manageable.

Why Does the October Freakout Happen?

What's going on here? Why is the October 1L Freakout such a thing?

Here's my theory. As we discuss in the Law School Toolbox course, each semester of law school is a four-part process:

  1. Absorbing
  2. Pondering
  3. Practicing
  4. Performing

For the first month or so, all you can really do is absorb the material that's coming at you. Where are your classes? What's stare decisis? How does the Rule Against Perpetuities work?

If you do everything you're supposed to do, you'll find you have a bunch of pieces of legal trivia - definitions, multi-part tests, case decisions, and so on - in your head. At a certain point (usually October) these bits and pieces get overwhelming, and your brain rebels.

What's the big picture, and how does it relate to what you'll need to do on an exam? You have no idea.

When you hit the point of complete and utter information overload, a meltdown occurs.

Ironically, however, this is actually a GOOD thing. Why? Because it's what moves you to Step 2 of the process: thinking about the material and starting to assemble a coherent, usable picture for yourself.

Until you go through the meltdown phase, you're not sufficiently motivated to start the hard work of distilling your understanding of the material into something that's usable on an exam.

So, don't flip out about your freakout. It's normal, and a sign of progress.

Just take a few deep breaths, take some time off (even if you're convinced you can't afford it), and know that you're moving into the next phase of the process. Better things await!

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process. 

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