In It to Win It: Overcoming Competitive Law School Environments

How exciting for all of you starting your 1L year! The first few days are usually a good mixture of excitement and dread. The dread comes from many places—not knowing what’s happening, waiting to be called on, and dealing with the weird situation of making friends but also knowing these friends are also competitors.

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That sounds overly-dramatic. I mean, yes, you’re competing for rank and grades but it shouldn’t be as high-stress as some law school communities make it. But law school is horrible like that—it creates an environment where you have to be all about your self-interest and that leads to some really dick-ish experiences. We’ve all heard the urban legends of people hiding books and making fake outlines (lol who has the time?!).  For the most part, I think a lot of environments have settled down and transformed into something more communal.

…Is now a good time to ponder about the fact that back in the day when it was such a cut-throat culture, law school students consisted primarily of one type of homogeneous group…ahem. I guess a post for another day 🙂

Anyway, hopefully your school is not dysfunction and the competition is healthy, not abusive. But even if it’s not out of control, you are still competing and that can create extra stress in your life.

What can you do to overcome law school competition?

The number one rule is to worry about yourself and compete with only yourself. Work on creating better study habits; on increasing your networking group; gaining more confidence to speak up during lecture. Make yourself better.

This also means that you ignore the noise. The beginning of law school is filled with lots of people that act like they know what’s up. And maybe some do—maybe some have been guided by parents, siblings, friends that have really given them a step-up. Others don’t know what they’re talking about, but have always showcased a façade of know-it-all-ism that has worked out for them. How do you differentiate between the two? You don’t. Just because John Smith seems to always have the answers doesn’t mean you have to be intimidated by him or feel like you’ll never live up to his standards.  I recall very specifically a classmate that seemed to know everything—was never scared to be called on and would even initiate the discussion.  So much confidence. And for a while it felt like, “ugh this guy is so sure of himself and how can I compete?” Until during one lecture—over a topic I actually knew very well–I realized this guy didn’t know jack shit and just was used to hearing his own voice. All that time I had been worried for nothing—time, I should have spent on making myself better. So ignore the noise and bravado of others.

And of course to overcome a competitive environment make an effort to buck the trend. Meaning, don’t be an asshole. No one shares notes when a classmate is sick because everyone fears losing an advantage? Share your notes. First, how badass confident will you look that you don’t even mind helping a classmate because you’re so sure of your own capacity?  And two, by refusing to play these weird mind games you are making the environment better (for others, but also for you). I would even venture to say there’s a third benefit of ensuring future colleagues remember you as a positive part of their law school experience, which goes a long way in our small legal community.

I share this not to scare or to add more stress to your experience. Instead use this as a reminder that as small as your law school bubble feels, as weirdly competitive as it can be, as dramatic as some people behave that this is a moment in time and you only need to worry about your own self-improvement.


Was your law school experience competitive? Mine felt pretty chill, but even without people hiding books there was still petty behavior left and right…