Hello, my name is Kaitlyn Smearcheck and I am a 1L at Widener Commonwealth. Even though I am almost done with my first year of law courses, I have never met one of my professors in person, sat within a law school classroom, or even been inside Widener Commonwealth’s law building. My law school experience is most definitely unprecedented; however, I am thankful for all the opportunities and challenges Widener Commonwealth Law has provided me with.
When the news broke out that Widener was going online for the year, I was crushed. After speaking with a few lawyers I worked with and older law students, I was told, “Don’t start law school this fall. You’ll be missing out on the REAL 1L experience.” Many of the people that I spoke with suggested that I hold off on going to law school until the pandemic would be “over.” But like many of you reading this, I was ready to start law school after watching my first episode of Law and Order: SVU. Despite everyone’s advice, I knew I was ready for law school whether I would experience my education in person or over Zoom.
For this fall, Widener Commonwealth Law will resume holding its courses in person. But unless anything changes, I wanted to let all of you know what are some of the best practices when taking law courses online.
Invest in two screens.
Prior to this school year, I have owned the same Macbook Air since I was a freshman in college back in 2015. My computer has proved to be very liable; however, one screen was not enough. Law school is unlike any college course you may have taken where you may have had the chance to just sit back and watch your professor lecture. In law school, you need to have read your assigned materials, brief the materials prior to class, and be ready to answer any question that may be thrown at you, all the while taking effective notes of the day’s lecture. For me, I join a zoom class on my iPad, have my case briefs pulled up in a document on my computer, and I take notes in my notebook. For me, this method has proved successful. Many of my classmates use different styles of learning. It took me a long time last semester to realize that I needed to change what I was doing. But once you find something that works for you, stick with it!
After your first class, make an OUTLINE!
Outlining is one of the most important skills for a 1L. I recommend you start those as early as you can. More often than not, students will go the whole semester without outlining prior to finals. And then right before finals, the chase is on to construct and finish those outlines, while studying the material. Make your outlines right after the first class of each of your courses. And after every class, add the most important material from that day’s lecture to the outline right after you are done with class. By doing it that way, you will get the chance to review the material right after your class concludes and you won’t be stressing out before finals.
Another suggestion is to have two outlines for each course. One BIG outline and one SKINNY outline. Your big outline will be used to hold all of your class’s notes and hypotheticals. Your skinny outline will be used to hold the most important concepts, terms, and definitions of your big outline. The whole idea of the skinny outline is for you to be able to compartmentalize all the material from your big outline. Always add to your big outline right after each class. And for your skinny outline, update it after like two to four weeks.
After you speak in class, be sure to check you turned your zoom mic OFF!
Last fall, I fell victim to this zoom curse. The story is pretty funny; however, it could have all been prevented if I would have shut my mic off. Be very proactive when it comes to zoom etiquette. Even when you are on zoom, behave exactly like you would if you were in a classroom filled with fifty students and your professor.
When having class, be sure that your pet is PREOCCUPIED.
During the first week of law school, an abandoned puppy showed up at my doorstep. After discovering that he had no owner, I took him in. Even though he is the cutest and sweetest little pup ever, he loves to squeak his toys at me or nibble at my elbows while I am in class, especially when I am answering a cold call or participating in a discussion. My best advice is to pick up all the noisy toys before class time as well as ensuring your dog has a busy bone.
Get out of your comfort zone!
While taking zoom courses online, it is very easy to not interact with other students in your class. Most of the time, you get onto class, your professor will lecture, and then you will leave the zoom room. I recommend breaking that habit as early as you can. Because of Widener, I have met the most intelligent, hardworking, and considerate people I know. Even though I have never met most of my friends in person, I have still gotten to know a lot about them by reaching out to them outside of class. I highly recommend that if no one reaches out to you first, then you should most definitely reach out to others. You will find your best friends that way and I know the person that you will reach out to will be very grateful that you did.
Sign up for events, clubs, and leadership roles!
In the beginning of each semester, every club/organization holds an interest meeting. Go to as many interest meetings as you can and discover what clubs really interest you or any clubs that you believe will enhance your legal education. Your law courses will prepare you how to study the law, but joining clubs and organizations will help you get practice ready. And they are awesome resume builders and opportunities to show your potential employers that you are willing to go the extra mile beyond your courses. For me, I joined Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and I participated as an attorney and a witness for its mock trial team. For the competition, I was on a team of four people and we versed other law school teams. For one round, one person and I got to compete as attorneys and the other two people competed as our witnesses. For the next round, we switched roles. But we all competed with the same case and were judged by actual practicing attorneys and judges that gave us constructive criticism on our performances. Coming from someone that has never been a part of a mock trial team, it was a lot of work, but the experience was very rewarding. I learned how to deliver an opening statement, cross-examine a witness, how to enter evidence and submit it to a jury, and how to make objections. You will not learn any of those things during your first year of law school, so it is really cool to be ahead of the game and feel like you’re an actual attorney.
Reach out to your professors!
The professors at Widener Commonwealth Law truly have your best interests at heart and will always make time for you. When your professors host office hours, you should definitely just pop in and say hello or ask them about their legal journey. Or even just staying online at the end of a zoom lecture. Utilize that chance as an opportunity for a professor to get to know you more. By making the effort to see and talk with them, it will truly benefit you in the end and you learn about practical things that law books just can’t teach you.
As of now, many federal and state trials, hearings, conferences, or arguments are being held over Zoom. After the pandemic is “over,” Zoom will be here to stay and many of you may have to use it for your legal practices one day. The legal world is constantly evolving and we all have to keep up with it.
With that being said, I am so glad that I decided to start law school during a pandemic. Your “1L law school experience” is truly what you make it. Don’t worry about whether you got to experience something or not. If anything I learned about law school, it is that you have to run your OWN race. Don’t mind what anyone else is doing or how they are performing. Focus on you and how you can get yourself across that finish line. If you need help along the way, seek it out. And there is always someone at Widener Commonwealth Law that will help you out.