Student Post: How Law School is Like Living in A Foreign Country

Marcella ’18

I am here to say that the first semester of law school will be an unnerving, thrilling and often stressful experience. At times this mirrors the many emotions and frustrations you get from traveling abroad. As a person who has done both, I can earnestly say that the two are uncannily similar. So pack up your bag (surely overflowing with casebooks!), map out your flight plan (the fastest route to coffee during your 15 minute break!) and be prepared for a total immersion 1L experience.

New People, Novel Experiences

Your jaw will drop when you meet your peers and you realize how many exciting life experiences they have had – some that you thought could only occur in a movie or Special Report on Dateline. The girl with the perfect hair coif on my right? She uncovered ancient relics in Greece for six months in an archeology expedition. The guy in the front row with stringy brown hair? Curator of an art museum in Milwaukee. The curly-headed blonde person in front of you? Just came back from doing humanitarian aid work in West Africa when the Ebola virus broke out.

(NOTE: If you sit towards the back of the lecture hall you will inevitably pay undue attention to people’s hair – whether it’s curly, frizzy, blonde, short, spiky, or red.  For the first few days you may only know these people by the back of their head. So choose your seat wisely, and learn that a person is not the sum of their hairline)

The only way that I can describe the satisfaction of being surrounded by people that have done so many amazing things is the feeling you get when you visit Paris for the first time and realize that you are in fact standing in front of the Eiffel tower that is featured in every rom com you watched as a teenager.  It’s like reading Joyce’s descriptions of Ireland’s green hills and then going there and seeing that the grass is really that green. It’s a really exciting time to meet people that have done things that you only dreamed about. They have lived these experiences, worked hard, and have succeeded to get where they are today.

The Law is a Foreign Language

As confident as you are with how much you’ve done to get here, you will likely have some anxiety about how you will perform in school. For me, this came in the form of reverse culture shock and adjusting to being a student again. I had just spent the past two years working in Belgrade, Serbia for a conflict resolution and mobilization group, and was still adjusting to being back in the US. I was legitimately worried that I didn’t remember how to study after taking some time off for work. Luckily for me, learning the law is quite similar to learning another language. Despite the fact that legalese may look like English, it is something else entirely.  Here are a few legal terms to illustrate this point:

Non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel: When I first saw this phrase I remember thinking, “I see that there are letters.  I see there are spaces. So these must be words. But that’s all I got.”

Fee Simple Subject to a Condition Subsequent: a concept in Property. It’s not simple.

Quasi in Rem Type 1 Jurisdiction: Is this an incurable disease? Do I have it? Is it terminal?

Trespass to Chattels: Can someone explain what a Chattel is? Is it like, a medieval food? chains? A chatroom dating site?

Color of Title: hint: It has nothing to do with red or blue or the name of your favorite book.

Discovery, mortgage, condemn, take, contract, lease, brief, memo…

Anyone who has studied another language is familiar with the phenomenon of “false cognates,” which are words that seem like they mean one thing, but actually mean something else (i.e. in Spanish the word “éxito” does not mean “exit” even though it looks like it – the real word for exit is salida). Well, bad news, the above words are false cognates. They don’t mean what you think they do, so get ready to relearn. You come to law school thinking you understand something about English.  Get rid of this notion right now. It will ease the pain.

Sometimes Legal Research and Writing and Torts is Like Dealing with a Foreign Bureaucracy

The first time I had to renew my visa in the Balkans was a nightmare. I was initially shuffled between the offices of Marija and Jadranka, who told me that I filled out my forms incorrectly, but then began to argue over whether they should accept it on the sole basis that they liked my handwriting. To settle this debate, they sent me to their boss who told me that I needed to get a special stamp, and the only person who had that stamp was located in another city. When I came in two days later, the office was closed because of a massive soccer match with Croatia, which might as well have been a national holiday. I was completely in the dark about what I should do and didn’t know who to turn to or who I should listen to. I could research the right way to fill out the forms, get a translator, wait all day for an appointment – but what can you do if it’s subject to change based on something as unforeseeable as a soccer match or nice handwriting? And as many questions as I asked to ensure I was following procedure correctly, I had to face the fact that I was just going to have to learn to go with the flow, and do my best even when I was unsure that I was going about it correctly. In these moments I was required to use my instincts and persistence, and be confident that I was doing what I could to the best of my ability, despite understanding that no experience in my background could have prepared me for the circumstances.

Studying law can feel similar. It will feel bizarre the first time you make an IREAC in your Research and Writing Class. You will mix up the rule with the issue, and be vexed by the Bluebook. You will forget some facts when you are cold called about respondeat superior claims in torts. You will not understand why you are studying Rule 42 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure before studying Rule 1, but here you are, studying up on required joinder and you don’t exactly know why. You will attempt to make sense of why you are doing a certain assignment, only to realize that it doesn’t make sense, and the past three hours of work you put in feels like nothing more than grasping at straws in the dark.  You will have to learn not to beat yourself up and that you won’t get everything right 100% of the time. Quite frankly, you don’t have time for that.

When traveling to a foreign country, you are placed in a vastly different culture with a different worldview, and until you get used to it, you will feel like the rules that govern it are arbitrary and incomprehensible. But of course there is a sense to it, and over time you begin to understand the contours and expectations of people in a certain culture, just as you begin to make sense of legal work. There is an internal consistency that will make sense eventually (i.e. don’t try to get anything done during important soccer matches. Follow the IREAC structure because it’s what any attorney or judge expects to see).

Everybody says that the first semester of law school is the hardest – and everybody is right. The language is different; your peers are different; the assumptions about right, wrong, justice and what someone can and cannot do are challenged. And the only way to make sense of it all is to simply do it, and go through it, at times without having a clear and concrete sense about what you are doing, but doing your best along the way regardless.

Your peers will carry you along: NUSL students are fiercely competitive but not cutthroat. Instead of this competitive spirit being directed at one another, we direct our competitive spirit towards the outside world, and towards maximizing our own achievements. I think that NUSL students know more than most that in order to succeed in the job market; working collaboratively is a vital skillset. Knowing how to work in a team can often help you get things done in a more efficient and effective manner than is possible alone. Lord knows that I would probably still be in Serbia if I wasn’t able to get Marija and Jadranka on my team. They eventually decided that my impeccable handwriting meant that I was worthy of being in the country.  I became friendly with them over time. I learned the quirks to the system, and that it wasn’t impossible to navigate. It just took a while.

And Finally…..

At this point, you understand the metaphor about how 1L is like living abroad. But sometimes NUSL is not figuratively like living in a foreign country….it actually involves living in a foreign country. The amount of co-ops and opportunities that are available outside of the U.S are astounding. From PHRGE’s program in New Delhi, India, to working with International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, there are many options for people interested in going into international law.   Better yet, there are public interest stipends, such as CISP, for many of these programs.

You are going to have a great experience, even when it is challenging. And when you come out the other side you will realize that you are stronger, more capable, smarter, and ready to take on whatever comes your way. Also, you’ll know a few more facts that surprise you. For example:

  • offensive (and defensive) collateral estoppel is the strategic use of issue preclusion
  • a fee simple is an ownership claim over real estate
  • a chattel is a non-real estate piece of personal property
  • a color of title problem occurs often when an adverse possessor holds a deed
  • quasi in rem claims have been significantly diminished since the Supreme Court ruling of Shaffer v. Heitner

So don’t worry – you’ll get the hang of it. It just takes some time and familiarity to get used to.

Safe Travels!



Marcella is a public interest law scholar at Northeastern University School of Law. She is interested in international human rights, and the intersection of new media, technology and its influence on international policy. Feel free to reach out to her or follow her on Twitter @lawschoolautocorrect



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