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From Briefs to Breakdowns : The Chaotic Truth of The First Year of Law School 

Written By : Nurul Adriana Hadirah Binti Mohd Haslin 

Edited By: Suhana Kabeer

Elle Woods, our generation's leading fictional idol of being a feminine icon in the legal world, once said, “What, like it's hard?” in response to her acceptance into Harvard Law School. The first time I heard that, it inspired something in me. At that moment, the naïve and innocent little girl in me was still oblivious to the absolute horrors awaiting me at the gates of legal studies. 

With the confidence cultivated by multiple fictional icons and the array of encouragement from people who claim to know me best, I walked into my first day of Law School with the single goal of being the star student I thought I could so become. It came from a place deep inside me that craved academic validation more than anything else. 

'All I need to do to ace this semester is to read, and reading is what I do best.'

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the first of many instances when reality slapped me in the face with a wake-up call. 

If anybody ever tells you that all you need to do to get through law school is to find new materials to read, they are wrong. The idea of reading, at least for me, is something that I would thoroughly enjoy. Reading keeps me up at night until I hear the birds sing and the single rays of the sun pierce through my window. They did not prepare me for 'reading' that included legal jargon that I could not, for the life of me, understand. The Latin terms such as 'expressio unius exclusio alterius' and 'ouster clauses' were thrown around daily, as if I had prior knowledge of the language. To read all of this is one thing, but the time you have to invest in order to understand and make sense of the law subjects which are so new is another thing entirely. You have to put in the effort to make your case summaries based on what you have understood because, during the exam season, the examiner's expectations are different. They only want to see the relevant facts of the case concerning the argument that you are constructing. Do not even get me started on reading journal articles and figuring out how to cite them without getting penalized for plagiarism.

My first semester was like an obstacle course getting through; you never really know what's around the corner. For the first few weeks, I was on top of my game. From experience, I knew I worked at my highest capacity when I had a schedule to go by.

I did what I did best: I planned.


I set everything out straight, from planners containing weekly tasks to tackle to study schedules to keep me on track. It seemed like a good plan, but the one thing I did not expect was how this inflexible method of studying, which had worked for the better part of my life, caused the worst case of burnout I have ever faced. By Week 5, I was barely functioning under the pressure to keep afloat. Around that time, I missed a lot of classes just from pure exhaustion and the inability to get out of bed in the morning.

The worst part is that when everyone around you seems to manage just fine, and suddenly you feel you're drowning in the middle of an ocean.

Entirely, utterly, and so terrifyingly alone. 

When I went to class and saw everyone else look like they had it all under control, it made me toe the line of quitting. A part of me yearned to reach out for help, but there was something innate in me—something that has always valued my image of being unshakeable—that prevented me from doing so. It was, in fact, yet another one of my failures.

If only I had a little more courage in just saying the words 'I need help' I would realize that most of the people around me were struggling too. They might look fine, but that is how perfectly trained we all are in masking our problems. The idea that law students always had their ducks in a row was a romanticized idea. If I had just taken that one step, I might not have felt so alone in my first semester.

Despite the multiple breakdowns I had halfway through that first semester of law school, I pulled myself out of the slump right around the designated study week. From there on, I learned a few valuable lessons about how to survive the rest of my first year. The first was something I learned from my mother, who was not a law student. She is someone that knows me down to a tee. She understood the pressures of being the eldest daughter in an Asian family and the weight of not to be a disappointment in the family.

"When you feel tired, do not force yourself to do anything else. It is futile work."

It was a piece of simple advice, but it carried a ton of worth. The schedules and checklists I created were a necessary method of making sure I knew what needed to get done, but they were not supposed to be something I strictly adhered to, to the detriment of my mental health. A tip that I live by now is that when my body feels tired, I take an hour-long nap, but not long enough to hit deep sleep. If I feel mentally exhausted, I will take a break and talk to my friends. Your body sends you a signal when it needs something, and you need to recognize these signals to avoid overworking yourself.

My best advice to get through reading materials is to read them at least twice before attempting to pull any points from them. Take your time to understand the journal articles and refer to student notes that are available on the internet for reference. Find the most suitable way for you to retain information. For me, I write everything down in my own words and carry out the blurting method with a whiteboard and multiple-colored markers.

The most important thing to note is that 'never be afraid to ask for help' no matter how much you think it will make you look bad. You are here to graduate, so speak up and approach your peers. It took me some time to ask for help when I was in need of assistance, but it contributed to a much better understanding of my syllabus. The legal world is brutal if you are going to do it alone, so find your support system. Like most things in life, it takes a village to get through your first year of law school, let alone graduate.

With all things said, on some days, I still have doubts about whether I can carry through with this course, but I think it is okay to feel that way sometimes. As long as you remember not to be too harsh on yourself, everything will work out in due time; you have to have the patience to see things through. Remember that even though Elle Woods said that it is not that hard to get into law school, she still struggled to get through it. Yet she persevered.

We can make it through, I believe it. 

Here's to seeing all of you on the other side.

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