In this episode, Mike interviews law school strategy coach Angela Vorpahl about some of the most common mistakes that 1Ls make and how to set yourself up to get great grades. Prior to starting her own firm to assist law students, Angela graduated from law school in the top 1% of her class, clerked for a federal judge, worked in biglaw, and practiced as a human rights attorney.
Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school admissions, law school—which means today we're joined by the perfect guest for law school. I am with Law School Strategy Coach Angela Vorpahl, who graduated top—not top five, not top three, not top two—but top 1% of her law school class, during the Great Recession I should add. She clerked for a federal judge, then she went on to biglaw as an associate, and was a human rights attorney. And now she runs a firm, and we're going to link it in our blog, that helps law students succeed in law school across multiple dimensions, but particularly in getting good grades.
What I love about this podcast is, we talked about Angela's top five mistakes that new law students make. But then we add on a sixth, because I ask her about the biggest mistake she made, and it reminds me so much about admissions, where sometimes what you think because of what you've been told throughout sort of the mythology of how to be a good law student, is actually the exact wrong advice of what you should be doing to be getting great grades and a job. And Angela's the expert here, so I'm just going to hand it over to Angela, and we're going to demystify some of this process. So, without further delay, here's Angela and me.
I am joined today with Angela Vorpahl, who's going to take us through the top five mistakes new law students make. I don't know this for a fact — I'm going to guess maybe Angela made one or two mistakes in her life.
Angela: One or two with a couple of zeros behind.
Mike: Okay. No, let's even go back before then, Angela. When did you apply to law school?
Angela: So, I applied to law school in the famous year of 2008. So, just months before the Great Recession hit, of course unbeknownst to us at the time, that was all going to go down. So, when I applied to law school, I was in college in Austin at the time, and I was going straight through. At the time, I didn't know anything about rankings. I didn't know anything about job opportunities. I had no clue about sort of the law school industry or the law school animal at all.
And I was a first gen law student, so, I didn't know any lawyers and didn't have any lawyers in my family either. So, my thought, the lesson that was sort of instilled in me from the beginning was
“be really fiscally responsible, be fiscally conservative.” So, the thought for me was, okay, I'm going to apply to law schools in Texas. And that was it, like, that was the extent of the thought process.
And so I applied to probably four or five, and when I – I'm trying to think through getting acceptances back and kind of what that looked like. But I remember that I got waitlisted to University of Texas, which was my top choice at the time. I got, I think, a full ride to Baylor, and then I got into SMU, and those were kind of like the top three law schools in Texas at the time. So I really was trying to figure out, how am I going to make this decision? Do I wait? Do I go ahead and accept?
And around March, I think it was, I wound up getting this letter in the mail about a scholarship opportunity at SMU. And so — this is so tangential, but I wound up applying for it late because I got the letter late and I was freaking out and I thought I had totally blown the opportunity. But it wound up they accepted, the application went through the process, and I got that scholarship, and it was a full scholarship. So at the time in my brain, I was like, “Decision made. There's just no question here.” And so that's how I wound up going to SMU, and I pulled myself off the waitlist at UT and didn't really look back from there.
Mike: Yeah, it's so interesting. I was just re-listening — I've interviewed one of my two mentors, his name is Jeff Chapman — he's the global M&A lawyer at Gibson Dunn — in the podcast, which I would really encourage people to listen to, Jeff is the coolest friend, so I can say this. Jeff is very elitist. He's elitist about education and biglaw, you know, Gibson Dunn. But the point he kept driving home in the podcast, which is a beautifully elegant point that he made is, “I don't really differentiate between school #2 and 14 when I hire people of Gibson Dunn, and the best lawyer I know —” and trust me, I've known Jeff for 20 years, he never compliments other lawyers, he's very particular; he's like, “The best lawyer I know went to SMU.” You can go to SMU or Texas A&M, which was when you applied Texas Wesleyan, and you can do exceptionally well at biglaw. Please don't stress so much about prestige. Please do keep in mind debt, and things like that.
Angela: Yes, and that's so interesting too, because again, I didn't know this at the time, but there are definitely these unicorn law schools where they are situated in a city that has an insanely strong legal community and legal industry. And at the time SMU was the only law school in Dallas. And so all of the partners had graduated from SMU and all of the connections were with SMU. And so these pipelines into these big law firms and federal judicial clerkships and things like that, those relationships were already in place, and there was just no other competition around.
And so going to a law school in Dallas or going to a law school in Houston with these crazy strong economies was inadvertently a really good decision on my part. But I think as new law students, we don't really think about that because a lot of us don't have visibility into, “Well, how strong are these job markets, and where do I rank competitively to get these positions?” And sometimes it's a whole lot higher than you think it is.
Mike: You bring up Houston. People rely way too much on arbitrary U.S. News & World Report rankings where, if I was allowed to speak publicly about the private side of their rankings, people would realize how unaudited and arbitrary this is. But Houston — energy corridor.
Angela: So strong.
Mike: Unlimited potential to be a lawyer, Dallas transactional law. I mean the M&A market there is huge.
Mike: We'll shift gears. I'll stop driving home “don't worry so much about the rankings.” So, you went to law school. I know you're going to give us the top five mistakes of new law school students, but is there any mistake you made, not in your top — coming top five — that stands out?
Angela: Yes. And it's so funny because it didn't even — when we were talking about this, it didn't even occur to me as a top five because I didn't even touch it. And so it's usually not something I even talk about, and it's not intentionally networking. And I know that is such a buzzword, and I know it's so cringy to talk about, but because I didn't know how to do it. I didn't really know what it was, and no one told me how important it was. I didn't touch it, not even in law school, but intentionally networking during my whole career at a law firm until I started coaching. And I started reaching out to other coaches and I started getting more active on social media. That's when I started making intentional relationships with people. So, it was 10+ years out of law school.
And so this idea, I think of intentionally having conversations with people, if we can break it down and make it more accessible is just, it can be so crazy powerful. And you hear story after story after story, like what we'll talk about and what I coach around is the law school grade strategy. But in terms of getting a job and in terms of building a law firm, if that's want to you want to do, and lateraling and all of these different opportunities, it's so palpable how important these relationships are. And I think that now there's finally starting to be some resources of how law students can do this and start small and work their way up. But at the time I was so intimidated by it. I didn't even go talk to my professors. That's how nonexistent it was.
Mike: I have actually two tricks for networking. So, for a large chunk of my career, for two of the three law schools I was at, I was an Assistant Dean with the title ‘External Outreach’ in my title, which meant really I was the school's networker.
Angela: Oh, nice.
Mike: Right, I mean, that was the sort of, that was my job mandate, go make connections. And I learned hundreds of things, but I'll give two. Number one is, no one likes to network, and no one likes small talk. The sooner in the conversation you can elevate from “how's the weather” to picking up small clues about what that person — I'll give you an example.
I went to, his name was Greg Shumaker. He was the global firmwide hiring partner for Jones Day, the largest firm in the world as far as hiring. So, I went to DC, and I walked into his office, and I saw all these Notre Dame football helmets. So within seconds we were talking about Notre Dame football when we were talking about, “How was your commute through DC?” And we were talking about something that he was passionate about. So, you elevate the small talk to relatable larger talk, and it's no longer networking. It's fun. And next thing I know Greg and I are having lunch.
The second trick about this is, when I first started visiting law firms — and I visited, Angela, if not hundreds, thousands of law firms. When I first started visiting, I had this bright idea, I was going to bring faculty who were experts in the area of the hiring or managing partner. So, you visit environmental law firm, and I bring in one of the world’s, you know, foremost academics in environmental law. And I thought this was a great idea, because they would connect over that. It was a horrible idea. So, these are really busy lawyers, and I could always tell just by this, just luck or whatever, the second they checked out of the conversation and started thinking about other emails and clients. But the faculty member never could tell that. It never went well.
Angela: Oh no.
Mike: Right. So, my second networking thing is, particularly early on when you don't know the person, their mind is going to be on you for X number of minutes, maybe 20, was about how long I always thought. And then they're going to check out, and it is so important to know when they're all of a sudden not interested and just say, “I know you're busy. I'll follow up over email.”
Angela: Oh yeah, no, that's good. And I love your point about being a human. I mean, I think that gets so lost in sort of the elevated idea of networking, and I agree like any and all the relationships I've made, it started with just being a cool, nice human, because that's who people want to talk to. They don't want to talk shop. They don't want to talk small talk. And so being able to connect on a human level, I think is really, really powerful.
Mike: Okay. So, I don't want to ever disclose publicly that I've ever been a cool, nice human. I try be nice at minimum. What were we working on? So, you're in law school, you didn't network, that's classic. You didn't network with your faculty. That's even more classic, I mean, that’s just as classic. We won't hammer this home, because I feel like for much of my career I've talked about the importance of networking, and I'll end on this point. I would say to a thousand students — I was responsible for a thousand students at WashU and I would say — “I'm going to say this whole hour spiel on networking, and the ten of you that actually do this are all going to get jobs.”
Angela: Right. Well, that's the thing is like, we know we should do it, and so many of us, myself included, don't. It feels intimidating, it feels nebulous, it doesn't feel like there's anything concrete to hold onto.
Mike: Tell us what you do now and how you help law school students now.
Angela: Yeah. So, I'm a law school strategy coach. And so I help law students take control of their grades to start their career on their own terms. And so I primarily work with 1Ls. because that's the time of law school when you first start where you have all of these incredibly overwhelming learning curves and demands on your time, and you're trying to figure out how to navigate everything, and everything is uncertain and scary and overwhelming and stressful.
And so that's my favorite part, to sort of be able to step in and coach and help people create a time strategy, a study strategy, a final exam strategy, to use your energy and your natural abilities to really set yourself up for the grades that you want. Because that, again, for new law students, is the biggest sort of black box. The biggest question mark is, “How in the world do I wrap my arms around the grades piece?” And so that's what I focus on.
Mike: So, I'm guessing, if you got a federal clerkship and then biglaw associateship during the Great Recession, I'm guessing you did pretty well grade-wise at SMU?
Angela: Well, yeah. But that's the thing is, I did. I wound graduating in like the top 1% of my class, but I keep going back to this point of, I think people think that you have to be the smartest person in the room in order to get good grades in law school. And what I have consistently found is that's not true. It's way more about intentionality and strategy. This is a bit of a game, and like, learning how to play it makes a huge difference.
Mike: As much as I'm proud of some of my accomplishments — I hate talking about them out loud — but I took one law school class at Vanderbilt Law as part of my PhD program and got a A+.
Angela: Okay, yo!
Mike: Yeah, it’s a 4.3! And I walked in there with all 3L and 2L students. I wasn't even a 0L. I was a non-L. It was just on Higher Ed and my doctoral program was in Higher Ed. And I guarantee you, I was, if not the least intelligent person in the seminar, in the bottom two or three. Right. So, maybe there was some poor soul with fewer neuron synapses than me, but I sort of doubt it. But I had a strategy. I had a plan for that class. And basically, my plan — I don't know if this would work or not — but was — this is like in 2000 — I took down copious notes, and on the final exam, which was a 100%, I told the professor back what I had figured out they wanted to hear.
Angela: Oh my gosh. You’ve already — yeah, like we don't even need to have this conversation today — I mean, that's so much of it. But yeah. I mean, no, that's a great strategy, and I know we'll dig into it a little bit more, but I'm a huge fan of both of those things.
Mike: Let’s just dig into your top five. I believe there’s top five things that new law students shouldn't do or mistakes they do do, bring it on.
Angela: The first mistake that's most prevalent is, that so many new law students think of law school as college 2.0. And so this is more of a mindset shift than anything, but it's sort of an interesting paradox, because so many of us who continue onto law school do that because we did so well in undergrad. And so the thought is, you know, we're really strong students, or we like school, we're good writers, whatever the case may be. But so many of the students that I work with come to me and say, “I did really well in undergrad, but I didn't really have to work that hard.” They got by on memorization skills, mental horsepower, cramming at the last minute, and so what happens over and over and over is that people who are used to doing really well in school will come in, try to do that same thing in law school, and then be incredibly devastated by their grades, because those sort of approaches and that non-strategy doesn't work, doesn't translate to law school.
It's a bit of a mindset shift, but just having this understanding and respect for the beast that law school is as a different level of mental endurance, a different level of self-discipline, a different level of work than most of us are used to. And kind of going in with that respect instead of more of a flippant attitude of like, “I've got this. This is going to be a cake walk.” And then just drowning, starting on week one.
Mike: Yeah. So, and what you say — I've heard other experts like you say before, which is — “you're not getting an advanced BA or BS. You're getting a JD; that's completely different.” I guess my personal analogy would be, I was a philosophy major undergraduate. And then before I went to my doctoral program, I went to business school. In philosophy you write these pedantic, 50-page essentially dissertations, and in business school, it's a one-page executive summary with bullet points. So, I had to quickly — and this was a struggle at first for me the first couple weeks — I had to quickly shift from how do I wax poetic, to how do I put in bullet points?
Angela: And it's such a good thing, I know it sounds very sort of high-level now, but it's such a good thing to internalize early, because again, it's not just law students. Just speaking with other lawyers who have been out 3, 5, 10, 15 years. Most of us, including myself, were in the same mindset of, “We did well, how much different could it possibly be?” And then like trying to approach it the same way and just getting railroaded.
Mike: That's super helpful. Number two!
Angela: Number two mistake I see all the time is being leaky with your time. I say this a lot to my students, but the time strategy in law school is everything. If you're going to take a student who does really, really well and a student who is disappointed with how they do, how they spend their time is going to be 100% the difference. And so being really, really intentional about what you're doing, how you're doing it, what these different spaces are taking up.
Because one of the things I've heard that I love as a really good description of law school is, law school is like a gas, and it will absolutely take up every space and crevice that you give it. And so being able to sort of tap into these really intentional like grade steps, strategy steps is everything.
And so what will happen is sort of the way that we walk through, how we kind of build this thing out — time strategy is first, and I'll have students come to me, they’d say, “I'm so glad you laid out what a day, like just a day of studying looks like. Like a 10- to 14-hour day of studying. What are we doing, and what does that look like? Because I was walking into this thing thinking it was going to be, you know, we go to class, study for a couple of hours and then go to bar review on the weekends.”
It kind of helps in two parts, not only being really intentional about the time when you study, but being aggressively protective of that time when you're resting too. It's not that you have to be working all the time, but you do really have to know where that time is going, or you'll lose it, and that's where that competitive advantage lies is how you're spending your time.
Mike: This is under the umbrella of, if I could give life advice, the best life advice I could possibly give is, the most important resource we have on this planet is not money or anything, it's time.
Mike: And it's always interesting. I've brought this up before, but I think people just have to learn over their careers. If I'm emailing with a college freshman versus a biglaw partner, and if you were to put the two emails chains side by side, it would seem like I was emailing with a human being and then someone from a different planet because the emails are so different. The ones with the biglaw partners are one sentence long. And then the ones with the college freshmen — understandably! — are four pages long.
Mike: When we say ‘yes’ to something, we're actually just saying ‘no’ to a lot of other things, or conversely, and this is an important point. If you say ‘no’ to something in law school, or as a lawyer or just in your life, you're actually enabling yourself to then say ‘yes’ to something.
This actually affords me the ability to apologize to everyone on Reddit and Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram who send me messages. I have days where I can — they're rare — but I can get to some. But on many days, I apologize if I don't respond to your chat. I get about 350 messages a day, so it is just impossible. So, I apologize.
So number two, leaky with your time, makes more sense to me. I mean, even at the just life level, but certainly in law school, there’s a lot of people trying to grab your time.
Angela: Yeah. And also, it's interesting because like you said, everything's an opportunity cost. And so people will come to me when we're talking really granular study strategies and you know, one of the most common questions I get is, “Should I be in a study group?” I'm hugely, hugely adverse to study groups, but the reaction is, “Oh, well, isn't that helpful? We're reviewing the material.” And the thought is, just because there's so much material in law school, there's so many steps to take and there's so many different steps to getting yourself ready for final exams, it's really not even enough to just kind of think about it, “Is this helpful?” We really need to take the next step and think, is this the most effective thing I can be doing with my time? Because yeah, if you're kind of walking through something with friends, it's not that it's not helpful at all. It's just, are you going to get the same amount of return on your time investment spending three hours in a study group or spending three hours creating an outline or doing a practice exam? And so it needs to get that intentional of not just, is this a thing I could be doing. Is this the best thing I could possibly be doing?
Mike: Yeah. I'm guessing that, if people find your website, which we’ll link, and you have other stuff out there about your aversions to the study groups, and it's funny because going into law school, it's, you know better than I do, even better, but it's all about like what study group are you in?
Angela: The answer is none. The answer is, don't do it. It's a ruse.
Mike: That's a podcast in of itself, but that's your arena. I just try to get people into the best law schools and give them the best advice.
Mike: Number three on your list?
Angela: Number three is not going straight to the horse's mouth. What I mean by this is, like, the horse in this scenario is your professor. And so it's so interesting, because when you take a look at 1L courses across the US, in law schools across the US, everybody is taking the exact same courses. And so everyone's taking criminal law and civil pro and torts and property and constitutional law, and so you would think they're all created equally. But when you go into a class, yes, the substance is important, but arguably from a strategic perspective, even more important is exactly how your professor is presenting it. The exact words they're using, the exact structure they're presenting. There are a few things to keep in mind, but basically kind of the overriding idea here is that everything that's coming out of your professor's mouth is gold. Because this is the human who is writing your final exam and the human who is rating your final exam. And so if the priority is to maximize grades, we want to get the information exactly as your professor's presenting it.
Mike: That's why you — I could see you light up when I talked about how I was able to do so well in that one course.
Angela: Well yeah, so when you're talking about — so for example, what you mentioned earlier, writing down everything. This is a very unpopular opinion in probably academics, but law school for sure is this idea of transcript-style notes. I am a huge transcript-style note fan, for the exact reason you mentioned before. If you write down everything the professor is saying, which by the way, they're reading from an outline that they created that they're then going to use it to create a final exam.
Mike: It’s what they want, right?
Angela: Yeah. That's what they want. They're telling you exactly what they want to hear. They're telling you exactly how they want you to present the information. So what a lot of new students will do is kind of treat class almost like a passive activity. Like they'll go, maybe they'll take notes. Maybe they'll kind of listen. Maybe they'll check some emails and maybe they'll check social media. And it's like, taking class notes is the most underrated step of the study process, because you are getting gold out of the mouth of your professor, and you want to capture all of that so that we can use it, review it, work with it, apply it on practice exams, all of those things.
Mike: I can even double click on it more. If you think about it from my perspective, I was in my early twenties, and I was going into a 2L, 3L law seminar and I wasn't a law student. So, think about, literally, Angela, I had to have a strategy. I didn't have the first-year curriculum. I didn't know what a tort — I actually still don't know what a tort is.
Angela: Do any of us?
Mike: You have tortious interference —
Mike: So, if I didn't have a strategy, I would've bombed that class. I had to have a strategy. My strategy very quickly was, okay, after two or three classes — we met three days a week — so maybe even by Friday of week one, I was like, I think this professor has something that they prefer, and I am going to hone in on their teaching method, their strategy, their preference, and I will know what's coming on the final exam before it comes.
Angela: Yeah, no, that's such a good point. Two thoughts came to mind when you were saying that. I'll have students tell me like, “Oh, in class today my professor told me they disagree with this holding of the Supreme Court case, or they're a really big fan of this concurring opinion.” And I'm like, “Oh my God, write that down. Bold it, underline it, asterisk it.” Like if you can bring that up on a final exam, holy cow, that professor is going to get so excited.
So, any indications of importance, but also their preferences or their views on something. I'm not saying you have to use it as an argument that “this is the law.” But if you use an argument or a counterargument that says, “some disagree with the fact that this holding is accurate,” and you pulled that from class notes.
Mike: “Some rightfully disagree.”
Angela: “Some rightfully disagree,” exactly.
Mike: I could talk about this all day, because it's just me reliving one moment in time. But what's number four on your list?
Angela: So, number four is a little bit harsh, but it's listening to every 2L and 3L out there giving law school advice. I don't mean to hate on 2Ls and 3Ls. I think as lawyers, we really, really love to give advice, and that makes sense. And it's not even just 2Ls and 3Ls; it's anybody. It's — professors in my opinion, don't give great study advice. Academic advisors and things like that. And what I would love to be able to say is, when anybody gives you advice, you want to run it through your own filter of, “Do I believe this person? Do I think this would actually work for me? Does this resonate with my own sort of study preferences?” But the problem is that when you're a new law student, you don't actually know what you're supposed to be doing.
And so there's this very common piece of advice that everybody gives, which is, “Do what works for you.” And I can't tell you how irrationally angry that advice makes me, because I remember when I was starting 1L year and I didn't even know what I was doing. I was like, a good studier from undergrad, but I couldn't run through a tape of, here's the strategy to use to get the grades I want. And so it's really difficult to kind of put that expectation on new law students of, “run these things through your own filter,” because until you've done it once, done it twice, done it three times, your filter actually isn't strong enough to be able to decipher what is good advice and what is bad advice.
Where my mind goes with this is, when you are listening to advice from people, one, take it with a grain of salt because not everybody is going to be giving good advice. And number two, and again this sounds harsh, but if you can figure out if the person that you're getting advice from got the results that you want to get — this is tough because some people are not very forthcoming with how they've done in a class, and some people are even untruthful about how they've done in a class — but if you are going to take advice from somebody and you're trying for As, take advice from somebody who got an A in that class. Because there are tons of different study strategies, you cannot physically do them all in a 24-hour period of time or in a semester time. So, you want to be taking advice from people who got to where you want to go.
Mike: I think I have two podcasts on discerning bad advice in admissions. I can be equally upfront. Every week there's a thread on Reddit, “Do I need an admissions consultant?” And many people don't, to be very clear. If you're going to invest one sum of money, invest in your LSAT score first, admissions second. But in these threads, it's pervasive that people say, “No, the Reddit community can supply you with all the admissions information.” Well, 60% of things said on Reddit are factually inaccurate, wrong, and that would be malpractice-like advice if they were claiming to be professionals in the arena.
So, one of the first things they teach you in med school is, for any intervention — we'll say a pharmacological intervention, of medicine — there's an X% chance that the patient has a paradoxical effect. So you give them whatever to calm them down and they get hyper. I mean, I know someone who gets super hyper on Benadryl, that’s called the paradoxical effect. Benadryl makes most people sleepy. They and their sister get super hyped up.
In admissions, yeah, maybe this person got into this law school saying because they wrote their personal statement on their great accomplishment as a paralegal, but what they're not saying is they had a 180 and a 3.9, etc. The personal statement actually might have been the exact wrong topic, particularly if they didn't connect the dots and balance it out and titrate their application in many ways. So similarly, in law school — and again, I understand that people like to give advice, particularly lawyers like to give advice more than anybody on the planet — but just because the 2L or 3L is saying what worked for them, what you're saying is, that doesn't mean it's going to work for you.
Angela: Exactly. It's not necessarily going to work for you. And in order to, like, begin deciphering — and again, like, to be able to start building that filter for yourself — first if you can get information about how they did in a particular class. Because if they got to B- but that's not the grade that you're shooting for, then you want to be a lot more picky about what you are taking in and internalizing and what you're not.
Kind of to your point, same with me. If you are not resonating with the advice I'm giving, you definitely don't have to listen to me either, but I do give a ton of free resources and free advice on different social media platforms. And if that does resonate with you, and sort of my trajectory is something that you're aspiring to do, then it might be a really good fit.
Sort of a last piece here that I see happening a lot, which is really confusing for new law students is, like, listening to your professor's advice. Because professors have a very biased view of what a goal is for them. And so one of the most common pieces of advice professors will give is to volunteer in class, raise your hand, talk, be vocal. And that's great for them because they want a really lively class. But what that does for new law students is that now they think, “Oh my gosh, I have to come to class mastering the material. I have to spend all this time reading. I have to spend all this time preparing,” when actually that's the least effective way and least efficient way to study. And so, just, the takeaway here is just to think through like, where is this person coming from? Where did this advice get them? And then start to build that filter for yourself.
Mike: I have a movie analogy, tell me if I'm right or wrong, but I love movie analogies. I think it’s — the movie is Memento, and it goes backwards. It starts at the end and goes — right. So, I think maybe what you're saying is, the end goal is to get the best possible grades in your class. Start with that end goal, don't start with, I am going to be the person raising their hand. That's not necessarily equivalent to the end goal of having the A+ in the class.
Angela: Totally. And here's the thing, I'm not saying I'm against people volunteering in class. If that's something you want to do, if that's a step outside of your comfort zone you want to take, more power to you, but it can get really harmful in the sense that, exactly what you said — people think that is the goal. And the goal is the grade at the end of the semester. Working your way back to reach that is really what we're going for, and what you'll tend to find as you make your way through law school is, the people who tend to be really quiet in the back are at the top of the class, and everybody's surprised because they never speak. And it's because they have their head down doing the things they're supposed to be doing day in and day out. And they don't put a lot of emphasis on being really visible and being really seen.
Again, that doesn't have to be you, but just kind of, when you're balancing time and priorities and intentionality, making sure that all those dots are connecting to the goal you actually want to achieve.
Mike: Yeah. It sort of pings off of advice I've given before, which is, if you even want to step back from grades — you're not in law school to get A+s. Of course, if you book every class, we called it ‘booking’ — then it's going to help you. But no one cares when you're 30 years old — even though I just told my law school GPA — no one cares when you're 30 years old what your law school GPA is, but you gotta get to that point when you're 30, where they care about all the clients you're bringing in or the work you're doing. At the macro, 30,000-foot level, your goal, the day you walk into orientation, you're a professional adult. And your goal is to become a professional adult with a job you want.
Mike: And that pulls off of the networking component.
Angela: Totally. Well, here's what's interesting. Yes, you go to law school — and again, when you're really young like I was and you're going straight through, even that most basic thought didn't enter my mind. You know, I heard one lawyer describe it as, “I went to law school to be a law student. I didn't go to law school for a job.” Even though yes, ultimately, that's what it was for, but that wasn't even, that didn’t even enter into my consciousness. And so yes, law school is an investment and you are investing in this law degree to get you this job and usually higher earning potential and more opportunities on the back end. And where I go and kind of why I focus on coaching around the grades piece is because one, all year that is the only thing you have on your plate. If you can get that grades piece in place and get that strategy really rock solid, then you can just rinse and repeat it, turn it on, turn it off, go as hard as you want each semester going forward. Focus on things like internships and networking and job applications and things like that. But that first semester it's like, as long as you're going to be putting in late nights and weekends and time away from family, friends, and hobbies, may as well do it and optimize it as much as you possibly can.
Mike: You see, this is a whole another conversation, but it's so important, I want to bring it up. When I was a Dean — I was also a Dean of Career Services — and when I was a Dean of Career Services, there were all these NALP guidelines about when firms could contact students and stuff. And all of that is getting — I don't know if it's being washed away completely, but it's getting pushed forward as you probably know. So firms are contacting students earlier and earlier, and there's pre-OCI and all this stuff. What direction, globally — concisely — what direction are we headed in? Is there a scenario where, like, you better button up your conversational interviewing skills because even the grades aren't a component?
Angela: Oh, that's so interesting because I think pre-OCI from my understanding is at the end of your second semester. But I've heard of firms starting to interview people as early as October, November of their first semester. So, like, getting that early with it. So, in terms of strategy, I think it probably — and you would know this better than I would, but — probably breaks itself into those national law schools and then kind of everybody else. Like I went to a regional law school, and so I would almost think that the national law schools are where those conversational skills, interview skills might even arguably be more important than the grade skills, because you don't actually need to get that high in your class in order to make yourself competitive for these positions. And so making sure that you're able to make connections might actually be a better investment of your time, unless you want to do both, of course, and you want to try to apply for a US Supreme Court clerkship or something like that, or a professorship.
But in the everybody else’s category, our grades coming from regional law schools totally matter. They absolutely are the most powerful thing that they will look at going into 1L summer and 2L summer. And so, again, not to say you can't have an amazing job and an amazing career if you don't get the grades that you want. But again, as long as we're doing the work, we may as well position ourselves as best as we can, because that's going to be our strongest marketing ammo as new law students trying to get our first job.
Mike: Number five on your list?
Angela: Number five is another bit of a tough kind of ‘come to Jesus’ moment. And it's this belief that learning the law is enough to get As. And I see this happen over and over with law students, where they get their grades back, they’re disappointed with them, and they come to me and they just say, “I don't understand. I don't understand how I couldn't have killed this exam. I knew the information backwards and forwards. I had everything memorized and I just understood it so well.”
And the reason is because — and this sounds so crazy because 90% of the time you're spending during the semester is learning the law, is learning the material — but the big bridge between knowing the information and getting grades that you're excited about is how to write that final exam. And that is a totally different skill set than learning how to internalize the material. This piece here, it is big and it is different, and it's, these law school exams are things that most of us have never seen before, but it is also a skill, and it's learnable, and you can practice it, and you can perfect it, and it's repeatable.
I kind of want to put that out there as a PSA, because I think what happens is that people get so into the weeds of the material because it's dense and it's confusing and it's overwhelming. And then they kind of keep putting off the writing a final exam skills piece until it's too late. And then for some people, that final exam, which is a 100% of their grade, is the first time they've ever seen an exam. The first time they've ever actually put pen to paper, or typing it — you should never put pen to paper — but typing your exam answer. So I have three thoughts, basics, things to keep in mind for the final exam piece.
Okay, there's so many nuances to it, but I love — the first thing I love to tell law students is — when you're walking into a final exam, you need to remember that there is no right answer. Because so — I say so many of us, all of us have been conditioned in undergrad and perhaps in grad school as well to learn the information and then give it back to the professor, because there's just like this concrete, black and white, right and wrong. And law school exams are the first time where most of us have ever experienced getting rewarded for recognizing that there's no right answer and then explaining why.
On a final exam, how you go deeper, how you get those extra juicy points is by presenting arguments and counterarguments. And I think that mindset shift — I mean, this like goes hand in hand when we talk about thinking like a lawyer, but rather than looking at a fact pattern and being like, “I got it, it's this thing and that's the answer,” going at it like, “Okay, if I were this party how would I argue it, and if I were this party how would I argue it?” And you get points for doing that.
Mike: Gosh, can I plug being a philosophy major? I mean, our typical exams were, “How would Descartes criticize Kant?”
Angela: Amazing. Well, they say philosophy majors do really well in law school.
Mike: Yeah, there are all kinds of data. So, there's two others, right?
Angela: Yeah. So, we're getting a little bit into the weeds here, but again, as you guys start the semester, I just want you to keep these things in the back of your mind. The little word “because” is very basic. It is very powerful. What a lot of new law students will do on final exams is — you guys will hear this acronym a lot, but IRAC, Issue Rule Analysis Conclusion is sort of like the basics of how you format a final exam answer. And what tends to happen is people will go directly from Issue, Rule, to Conclusion. And they'll just leave out the, all of the analysis, which is where you get all of your points.
And so, this word “because” really helps trigger your mind to go back to the fact pattern and actually bring in facts that are supporting the argument that you're making. So, for example, if there's an issue about battery, a lot of new law students will say “Is D liable to P for battery? And battery is the intentional touching with harmful or offensive contact. D made harmful or offensive contact with P, therefore there's a battery.” And they skip all of the juicy inner work of, D swung a bat and he missed, but he hit the jacket, and P's jacket is an extension of himself. And all of the reasons so — in your mind, it's almost like they say showing your work in math, right? You know why you got to the conclusion you got to, but that “because” word helps trigger bringing in literally all of the facts that supported the conclusion you came to.
Mike: Love it. Again, I'm not a trained lawyer, but I could totally see that. Send us out on the final wonderful last one.
Angela: Yes. This is a big one, and we sort of touched on it earlier, but if you want to do really well in final exams and hone that skill, you have to take practice exams before you're ready. Because the deal with law school is that you will never feel like you have enough time to do all of the things. You will never feel like you're 100% prepared. You will never feel like you are ready for any of these steps. But unfortunately, we only have 14 to 16 weeks to get through all of it. And so being able to force yourself to start things when it's uncomfortable ¬— that's including outlining, that's including strategy talks, that’s including networking, and in this case, it's including practice exams — forcing yourself to do it messy, do it imperfect. Doing it before you're ready will allow you to sort of flesh out all of the kink so that on exam day, you do feel confident. You do feel calm, and you do feel ready and clear walking in. And so that's another — kind of like you said — like a lot of people will hear it, very few people will actually do it. But if you can force yourself out of your comfort zone and take that step early, your future self is going to absolutely love you.
Mike: Well, even at the nth degree, Angela, there's so much research on state dependent learning. So if you can set conditions when you're taking that practice test so that you feel, to the extent that you can, so that you feel the same level of anxiety. Like we tell our clients, we're not an LSAT prep firm, but they ask us, “I'm about to take this LSAT,” and we say, “Take it in the exact same conditions. Have your parents screaming at you from downstairs or give yourself two minutes less on the practice exam so, it'll feel two minutes longer on the real exam.” Which is, I guess, the opposite state-dependent learning. I was a psychology minor. And the first time I ever heard the phrase state-dependent learning, the professor said that people who drank a beer or studied with a beer or two took the test better with a beer or two. The answer is no, don't do that. But set conditions such that as you're studying, as you're taking these practice tests, the same condition is as when you're taking the real test.
Angela: I think that's such awesome advice. And it's interesting because a lot of people will describe law school as a marathon, not a sprint, right? Well, if you're thinking about training for a marathon, so if the final exam is the marathon, usually marathon prep programs and training programs are four months long. So, you can kind of think of the semester that way, where yeah, you're going to start off and everything's going to be exhausting. Everything's going to be hard. Even like, getting through the first week is going to be tough, but you will start to develop that endurance muscle and you'll be able to go longer, and you'll be able to study and focus more in-depth for more time.
And so, if you feel incredibly overwhelmed that first week, that's okay, that's normal. You're going to get stronger and you're going to be able to do it, and same thing with practice exams. Those first few are just going to melt your brain, but keep going. You're going to get better at them, and you want to have that sort of buildup process in place, so that on the final exam, it feels like marathon day. It feels like race day, and you feel ready.
Mike: Yeah. We'll end on this analogy, because I'm a former runner and I've wrecked my ankle and foot so much so I can't even walk now. But when I ran competitively, if I was going to run a 5K, you would start off with running a mile, and then running a mile and a half, and then running two miles, and then increasing both the distance and your time.
Mike: But you would also, if you wanted to win the 5K, you would run a 7K before the 5K. You would actually increase mileage, pass the mileage. And then before race day, you would go back to 5K times. And then there's something called “the hays in the barn,” which is a running expression we used to use where — and maybe this is a great note to end on — the day before your final exam, there's nothing you could do. And very similar for LSAT takers, the day before, just get away from life, go watch Interstellar, my favorite movie. Everyone out there, go watch Interstellar the day before your final exam.
Angela: Right. Then it becomes rest and it becomes energy and it becomes mindset. And then it shifts into those intangible pieces of getting in the race mindset of doing well.
Mike: Right. So, we have podcast on rest and energy and renewal and mental health, we’ll link one at the bottom of this. It was great to catch up again.
Angela: Yeah. This was such a great conversation. Thanks for having me, Mike.
Mike: I feel like it triggered future podcast ideas. Thanks Angela.
Angela: Yeah. Thanks so much, Mike.