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Not Your Daddy’s (or Mommy’s) First Semester

D.C., 1L

I’m just five weeks into my first term at YLS, but so far I’m blown away by how successful the school has been at fostering a friendly, relaxed and supportive environment for the 1L class. I’m usually a bit skeptical when institutions talk about “developing a culture,” but Yale has the walk to back up its talk.

Yale prides itself on being a “choose your own adventure” type of law school, with very few requirements for most of your three years on campus. The first term, by contrast, is highly prescribed – and that’s a good thing.

The school designs the first semester to take the pressure off and to let students adjust to law school in a comfortable setting. Most importantly, there are no grades first term (everyone just receives “credit”). That means we get to spend our time getting to know our classmates, exploring student organizations, and trying to figure out what the heck “quasi in rem personal jurisdiction” means without the specter of a GPA looming over our heads.

As other students on this blog have noted, the defining feature of many students’ first terms is their “small group.” Everyone at YLS takes the same four core classes the first term, one of which is taught as a seminar with around 16 students. In the classroom, you learn the subject matter and legal writing skills. Outside the classroom, your small group is a ready-made social network. Most groups quickly develop strong bonds and intense loyalties. In the past five weeks, for example, my small group has had three birthday parties, a potluck, and a sleepover at our professor’s house (complete with badminton, a cooking competition, and lots of time in the hot tub).

The school also works hard to give students time to settle in without getting overwhelmed by their options. Student organizations are prohibited from contacting new students for the first few weeks of classes, and 1Ls are not allowed to begin exploring summer job opportunities until November 1st. There are plenty of opportunities to meet 2Ls and 3Ls, as well as formal and informal mentorships set up through the school, your small group, and various student organizations (e.g., Yale Law Women, affinity groups, ACS/FedSoc, etc.).

The social environment of the school is also very open. Every Thursday night a different local bar hosts “Bar Review,” with cheap drinks and what feels like all 600 law students. Most student organizations host a social event at the beginning of the year to meet new students who are interested in their group. Non-institutional parties also get started early, and invites are often open to everyone (sometimes emailed to the all-school listserv).

In popular culture (and, I’m told, at other schools) the first semester of law school is often defined by stress and competition. Yale works as hard as it can to avoid that, and five weeks in, I couldn’t be happier with the results.