OWL Anxiety: Confessions of an Older, “Wiser” Law Student

It’s been nine years since I graduated from undergrad, seven since I’ve been a student. During my first few days at NYU School of Law, one persistent thought pierced my psyche: Was it worth it?

Vanderbilt Hall
Law students of all ages can climb these steps.

Like many of the other OWLs (so-called “older and wiser law students” who begin law school at 30 years and older), I had placed a stopgap in a long-term career to pursue a passion for law. For myself, this meant putting aside seven years of work in foreign policy for the opportunity to learn how to mesh my international experience with an interest in civil rights, social justice, and democracy. I knew that pursuing this route would mean starting over professionally, which at times feels exciting. Yet the gravity of the decision to start law school and, in consequence, shed my old professional persona didn’t fully hit until the first days of class.

In the working world, not having the right answer (much less consistently not having the right answer) is a shortcut to having to find a new job. In law school, it is a necessary evil of the learning process and becomes your new norm. Being stumped on a question of personal jurisdiction, strict liability, or some other legal doctrine will be as common as it is infuriating. At the worst of times, this frustration is coupled with the self-doubting soliloquy, Was it worth it? At every stumbling point, this voice emphasizes that one could have stayed a working professional, climbed the career ladder, and lived a successful life doing what one already knows how to do. It shouts the obvious, that choosing to attend law school was a risk. It loses no opportunity to remind you that you were once lauded in the professional world and are now simply a confused student. Being an OWL is about not letting this voice win.

Law school is an exciting time, in every sense of the phrase. Yes, there are (many) moments when you will walk into class confidently prepared, and subsequently exit the same class stunned at how you could have been so underprepared. Yes, your mind will occasionally go blank when the professor asks you to define the Latin phrase you looked up over and over again last night but suddenly forgot just as she calls your name. And yes, “Bluebooking” is as tedious as it seems. Yet these are all attributes that define the 1L experience and mark the excitement of learning something new. Law school compels you to set aside whatever knowledge you have accumulated from your professional experience and instead start afresh. It is a daunting demand, yet one with unparalleled rewards. Little else compares to the mental high of gaining some clarity on Pennoyer v. Neff, or when you catch glimpses of the seemingly separate doctrine in each course intertwining into something that actually makes sense. These intellectual victories alone are reason enough to quash whatever uncertainties may exist.

Still, it is normal to have doubts about returning to the academic setting after an extended absence from the classroom. Over the past few weeks, I’ve adopted a few techniques to deal with my own trepidations.

First, do what works for you. Most students didn’t have laptops when I went to college (and any laptops you did see would be considered full-sized computers by 2014 standards), so I’m used to writing my notes by hand. If you also are in this category, you’ll find that you are not alone. Many other students prefer writing out their notes as well.

Second, whatever strategies you used in the working world to relieve stress, apply those to law school. If you are the type who is unable to sit still in an office for eight hours without taking periodic coffee breaks or strolls about the premises, then don’t expect to be able to slug through long stints in the library without similar breaks. I try to get up and move around every hour or two for a few minutes. It does wonders for my concentration.

Finally, remember that law school is new for all the 1Ls, whether they are “K-JDs,” “OWLs,” or some designated term in between. Everyone is partially bewildered and a bit on edge, and that’s part of the fun of it all. This is an amazing time when 450 people of incredibly diverse backgrounds can come together and equally be lost. It’s like we’ve all been dropped into the famed Labyrinth and have been told to make it to the other side… in the dark… while wearing ridiculously heavy bookbags. We are all equally in the dark with equally heavy bags.

OWLs have spent years in the working world honing skills in specialized areas of professional expertise. Law school summarily shatters those prior efforts as if they were unattended sandcastles. The key is to let go of the sandcastle. Embrace the experience. Smile throughout.