Successful Navigation of the Law School Corn Maze

Successful Navigation of the Law School Corn Maze

Growing up in the Midwest, each autumn I looked forward to spending a Saturday afternoon going with my family to a nearby pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin, run a corn maze, and enjoy hot apple cider.  Though the tradition ended several years ago, last fall I found myself in a new type of corn maze: I was a 1L.

In corn mazes, everyone starts in the same place and basically knows where they'll end up, but no participant can see far enough ahead to differentiate the correct way out from the paths that are dead ends.  Even though every person is equally uncertain about where to go, though, there's still an impulse to look over your shoulder to see who's following you or continue behind the person ahead that confidently chooses one path over another.

At the beginning of law school, my classmates and I were all clueless as to how to run the maze of law school, but the temptation was still great to look around and see what others were doing in an attempt to find the right way.  No decision was too small to cause stress-inducing comparisons: how should cases be briefed, when should outlining begin, is it really necessary to talk every day in class, will a journal take too much time or give an edge for law review? 

Even though some classmates exuded confidence that they knew exactly what to do to ace the exam and get the class prize on their way to a Supreme Court clerkship, the truth was that no one had ever been to law school before, gotten a law school grade, or found a legal internship for the summer.  Furthermore, each step of the process requires a separate set of skills, so even if a student excelled at inventing complicated hypotheticals in class in an attempt to impress the professor, that doesn't mean he could spot issues on an exam; even if a student earns good grades, that doesn't mean she will be an effective lawyer.

Fortunately, there are important differences between the law school labyrinth and the maize maze.  Even though no classmates had ever attended law school before, we have all been students for many years, so we already have some reliable intuitions about what study strategies have been effective for us in the past.  Even more important, unlike the corn maze, there is neither one right path in law school, nor is there one finish line for everyone-the "right" path for one person may be a disaster for another.

Now looking back on my first year of law school, I wish I had spent less time worrying about what others were doing or how I might be going wrong.  It is probably a good idea to consult professors and friends for suggestions along the way, but the best strategy is to trust your navigational instincts, put your blinders on, and choose your own course until you find the path that takes you where you hope to go.


Holly Ragan is a Standford Law School Student and member of the grassroots organization, Building a Better Legal Profession,