Sarah Bakstran (SB) from Massachusetts and Paige Britton (PB) from Maryland finished their first semester of law school in summer 2020. We asked both students to reflect on their experience and offer any advice they have for 1Ls starting in the fall.
What has it been like starting law school online?
I had been working remote for the six weeks prior to the start of school, so I was already very familiar with online meetings and virtual collaborating. As far as online school, that was definitely new to me; I did not even have Blackboard in my undergrad experience. I would say the orientation leaders did a great job introducing Blackboard, explaining the other online resources, and reassuring the students that we would work through this process together. The professors seem remarkably prepared and equipped for virtual learning for having such little preparation time.
Since I was totally new to Zoom as a platform, let alone Zoom classes, I was concerned that I’d still be floundering with it when classes began and I was supposed to show up on time. So, I took advantage of a couple of Zoom meetings offered by the DiveIn and Career Strategies crews, both for the content and for connection with people, and also to get a little experience with the camera and mic. (I learned where not to sit in my house, and I got over being camera shy!)
How was orientation and your first few weeks of classes?
I think it has been very overwhelming, but in a good way. If anyone thought law school was going to be a breeze, they have been set straight by the current students and professors. For someone like me, who really was unsure what to expect exactly, but knew this was going to be a serious challenge, I think they reassured me that I was correct: This is going to be incredibly challenging. I would say you could be scared in the first week by the massive workload outlined, essentially learning a new language, and navigating it all alone from your house; but everyone in orientation went above and beyond to reassure [you] that you are not alone and every bit of stress or confusion you are feeling, someone (or everyone) in your class is feeling it, too.
Orientation week was exhausting. Everything was so new, the days were packed with formal and informal meetings, and we had homework to do. The faculty and staff and returning students made an awesome effort to keep us informed, trained us in what was expected and how to use the technology, and made up silly games so we could get to know each other.
Probably the most challenging thing about this has been having to learn both the technological platforms and the distinct expectations of four different professors for preparedness in class, participation, and turning in assignments.
Another challenge has been knowing how to participate in the online classroom setting. If a professor isn’t inclined to call on people, I find that it takes courage and quickness to jump in with a virtual raised hand or an open mic, more so than I would need if I were sitting in a classroom and making eye contact. “Cold calls” are actually a relief, because then it's not up to me to shoulder my way blindly into the conversation.
Do you have a sense of community in your cohort?
I think this is the hardest part of online learning. Building a support system of peers and friends is definitely difficult when you can’t sit down next to someone in class or meet someone in the hall. I took a bold approach and reached out to a classmate on the second day and said: “Listen, this is awkward but I need a friend, interested?” and she was thrilled and relieved. Just like they predicted in orientation, everyone is feeling the same way that you are about navigating this. After that first friend, I made another through a breakout group in one of the classes. Now the three of us have each other to help answer homework questions, go over class topics and support each other. Even after only a few days of classes, I can’t imagine getting through this without them.
The staff has been supportive in a few ways, lots of breakout groups and social ice breakers in orientation and at least two classes have used breakout rooms to help the students collaborate in class. Also, the academic skills workshop is setting up “accountability buddies” for anyone interested.
I definitely feel a sense of camaraderie and care for each other among the students, and I’ve liked the couple of breakout sessions that I’ve been a part of for class assignments, because that has let us have some conversation around the edges of the shared task.
The faculty has made themselves available by email and in virtual office hours from the start, and everyone has been super supportive. I feel that if I needed to talk to someone about a question or a problem, they’d be approachable and helpful.
If you could go back to your first day of law school what would you say to yourself?
SB: You can do this, seriously. It is going to be really intimidating and exhausting but you will actually make it to finals and still be excited about the next semester.
PB: If I could go back to the first day of school in May, I’d tell myself that friendly connections with other students would surely happen, just on a slower timetable than if we'd met each other in person.
Is there a resource that you wish you had known about earlier in your first term?
SB: Don’t be afraid to reach out to the upperclassmen you are introduced to and the dean's scholars (DS) for non-material related questions and concerns. Meet up for a virtual coffee with a DS to talk about living in Philly, navigating the social flow of being back in school, or tips and tricks for each professor; it can be a huge stress reliever and even a good networking opportunity.
PB: There have been a couple of times when I would have liked to have a 2L or 3L around to give me some perspective, and of course we don't cross paths very much when we're all in separate Zoom rooms. It would have been smart to get the names and emails of those who were involved during orientation week. The students I reached out to with questions during the semester were always super gracious and helpful.
Do you have any advice for the 1Ls starting in this fall?
SB: Keep up with the reading, you won't have time to go back and finish it “later.” Outlining is all about personal learning style and how you best absorb information. I was desperately looking for answers from the Dean Scholars about how to make the perfect outline, but they were all correct in reminding me that there is no such thing.
I think the best thing I did for myself and my mental health this past semester was to make a schedule and keep to it; it is all about organization and discipline.
PB: Advice for the new Zoom Nuggets:
- Do a couple of awkward things:
- Speak up in class on camera at least once in the first week, if you’re going in feeling uncomfortable about that. It gets easier as you go along, trust me! But you've got to make yourself take that first awkward step, or you maybe never will.
- In the first three weeks, drop by office hours of your least intimidating professor just to say hi and introduce yourself and ask for general wisdom about being a law student. It might feel awkward, but it's worth it in the long run!
- It’s harder to stay on top of deadlines in the online circus, because your professors will have widely varying ways of communicating about assignments. Make it a habit to check what’s up on BlackBoard each day.
- Take advantage of any social media connections and extra study groups so you can get to know your cohort outside of class. This made all the difference in our isolated learning situations!
- Good luck and have a blast! Hope to meet you soon!
These interviews have been edited and condensed.