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Zero L: Getting Ready for Law School Law Ambassador Zoe Speas '25L offers her advice on what incoming students can do to prepare for the law school experience.

zoespeas-800x533 Zero L: Getting Ready for Law SchoolZoe Speas ’25L

Zoe Speas is a member of the Class of 2025 at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Prior to law school, she traveled the country as a Shakespearean actor and musician, and she continues to participate in the theater community as a playwright and adapter of classical texts. Zoe is an Executive Editor of the Washington and Lee Law Review, a Legal Writing Burks Scholar, a W&L Law Ambassador, and a faculty Research Assistant in various topics including Tax and Property Law. In 2023, Zoe served as a judicial intern in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, and she looks forward to joining Jones Day for their 2024 Summer Associate Program in Washington, D.C. In her free time, Zoe enjoys NYTimes crossword puzzles, lap swimming, and the antics of her corgi‑at‑law, Bertie Woofster. 

Did you happen to take an intro art class in high school or college? If you did, you might recollect a perspective drawing assignment. The goal was to learn how to visually represent distance on a two‑dimensional medium (paper). First, you draw a horizontal line across the page. Then, you place your pencil in the center and draw a diagonal line towards the bottom left-hand corner. Draw another line from the center to the bottom, this time veering to the right. In the middle of that shape, in the triangle you’ve created, add dashes perpendicular to your horizontal line that get shorter in length as they approach the apex of the triangle. Voila! You’ve drawn a road, and your original line is the horizon.

That perspective drawing is a snapshot of any moment in a long, cross-country drive, facing an endless interstate highway with a vanishing point ahead as your destination. Drive all day and all night, and you still won’t reach it. The only indicator that you’re making progress is the occasional mile-marker. You start to crave those mile-markers and set little mini-goals by them to make the journey seem less daunting. When I hit 222, I’ll open that bag of Twizzlers. 357, I’ll call my mom. Lunch at 89. Pit-stop at 3. Detour to visit the Hershey Museum at Exit 46B (I looked that up just for this). You know you’re headed somewhere, and you’ve committed to the long road to get there, but you need the goalposts to keep you sane along the way.

If you’re reading this, you are someone who has chosen a career in pursuit of the vanishing point: something just out of reach that is worth a lifetime spent chasing. You’ll chronicle that journey through a series of mile-markers. Look behind you right now and you can see the ones you’ve already sailed past. High school. College. The LSATs. Applications. Some life events/fodder for personal statements peppered in there, too. Congratulations on casting your high beams on the next one down the road: starting law school. That’s huge. Massive. That’s finally seeing the “Welcome to Arkansas” sign after traversing the state of Tennessee (that state has some girth, friends, sheesh).

Now, I warn you: the stretch of road between acceptance and orientation can be a bumpy one. That next mile-marker feels both so far away and unbelievably close at the same time. I was hit with a giant case of “I don’t know what to do with my hands” and wicked anxiety in the weeks after I submitted my seat deposit. I didn’t know how to wean myself off of the months’ long adrenaline rush that was the application process. I mean, I had stuff to do, of course. There’s a ton to take care of before classes start. Figuring out student loans, the housing search, moving plans, etc. I found that having a low-stress summer job helped—save some money, keep busy. But compared to the intensity and emotionally fraught rollercoaster ride of applying, I found myself unmoored and fidgety and frankly terrified of the mile-markers up ahead, including, um, becoming a lawyer.

One of the most common questions I get asked as a W&L Law Ambassador—that’s someone who has the privilege of serving as a resource to prospective students—is, “What should I do to prepare in the summer before law school?” I’ve developed a second answer to that question because my first answer, the truth as I know it, elicits grumbles when I say it, and I get why. Let’s start with the grumbly answer first: What should you do to prepare? Rest. Sleep in. Visit loved ones. Rest. Go to wherever is your happy place, if you can (mine’s Ocracoke Island, North Carolina). Oh, and rest, did I mention rest? If you’re somebody who reads for pleasure, read the good and the bad with abandon before you’ve got to read like your job depends on it (because it will). First-year law students are called “1Ls” and second years, “2Ls,” etc. There’s nothing you should do in this “0L” summer to get ready for law school because (1) you never will be ready and, at the same time, (2) you already are.

Annoyed? Cool, let’s turn to answer #2, in which I pretend the question was, “What can I do?” Lots of stuff, so long as what you’re doing makes you feel better, rather than making it worse. I promise you that throughout law school, your success will be a result of your well-being, not the six years you did or did not previously spend as a legal assistant (dude, I was an actor. Here’s me in Constitutional Law, week one: “Oh, that’s what Congress does? Cool cool cool.”). All that being said, here’s what I did, because I also asked the question, got the grumbly answer, and needed to do something or else I’d go nuts:

Reading. I like to read, so if you don’t, skip this.

  1. Between the World and Me and “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The first title is a short nonfiction work framed as a letter from the author to his fifteen-year-old son. The second is an essay for The Atlantic about redlining and discriminatory zoning policies in America. It’s easy when studying the law to feel as though the questions and policies therein represent nothing more than a thought exercise adjacent to the ultimate goal of passing the bar exam. Texts like the ones I recommend here reminded me that the law is a living creature that saves and damns in equal measure. As law students, we study the law to practice it. How we do so will determine the outcome of our clients’ lives. Start grappling with that reality now and don’t ever stop.
  2. “One L” by Scott Turow was fun. It’s an account of his first year at Harvard Law School in 1975. Reading it felt like I was doing something productive, so it went in the “feel better” column rather than the “making it worse” column. I can’t tell you whether it accurately represents the law school experience because now, hurdling towards my 3L year, all I see is my experience and all I remember of the book was that I enjoyed it and that it got me through the summer.
  3. Someone recommended “Getting to Maybe” by Jeremy R. Paul and Richard Michael Fischl. The “someone” was a lawyer who said his law school buddy read the book and aced all his exams. Naturally, I was intrigued. Pros: now that I’ve taken many law school exams, I can say the book is pretty accurate. Cons: as a pre-law student, all it did was stress me out about law school exams. Doing practice tests (your professors will provide them) trains you for that experience. Nothing else will. For me, this went into my “making it worse” column, but I’d bet good money it would fall into the other for some of you, so I put it out there.

Talk to lawyers. Lawyers love to talk about becoming and being lawyers. They are incredible resources. You all are more than capable of coming up with your own questions, but if this one isn’t on your list, I strongly recommend it: “What do you love most about your job?” I find it’s best asked in person or in a video conference setting. Watch the lawyers’ faces while they think about it. They’re exhausted (obviously—lawyers work a lot), and you see that exhaustion first as they mentally scroll through the epic list of “to-do” items waiting for them on the other end of the conversation. But then, there’s this spark. It’s fantastic. Something lights up in their voices and faces when they tell you what makes it all worth it. Their exact answer doesn’t matter. It’s listening to someone describe a vocation. Not a job, not even a career, but a vocation. More than anything I did in my 0L summer, I am glad I talked to lawyers. I don’t come from a family of lawyers, either: I just poked around and reached out, so don’t be afraid to do that. Speak with folks who have gone through what’s coming your way and absorb what’s useful to you, but mostly just take a look at your future. See what you like. See what raises questions. Start getting curious about everything. And I mean, everything.

Zero-L Online Courses. I bet there are others like this, but W&L offered me a chance to enroll for free in a prep course and I took it. I didn’t finish it. But I fiendishly watched the videos for a while because they walk you through the basics of law and government, which alleviated some very present insecurities about coming into law school already behind (I wasn’t, you aren’t). Note: this will not give you a single leg up. But it fell in the “feel better” category, so here you are.

Create and maintain your support network. Whether it’s financial or emotional support, you’re going to need it. I started law school at 31. I, being all “adult” and whatnot, thought I was past needing help. LOL. Nope. The hardest nope. I had a Contracts professor say to our class in the first weeks of school, “Congratulations! You’ve officially passed the point of being able to talk to civilians about the law.” He was referring to the learning curve. It’s steep. You very rapidly shift from knowing nothing about the law to wielding highly specialized knowledge. Law school is a three-year program on the other side of which you’re representing people, not hypotheticals, and, very quickly, you’re going to start to feel isolated from the members of your network not going through what you’re going through. Stay in touch with them. And for the ones (bless them) with the patience to listen to you recount what you learned, get good at “watering down” the material in such a way that they understand it. That, other than taking practice exams, is actually my Number One Piece of Advice for getting this stuff down pat. Explain it to people, then be effusive in your thanks for hanging in there while you did so. But honestly, folks, this is a hard road. Whether it’s family, friends, significant others, mentors, found family during law school, you name it, you’ve got to keep that support network thriving and involved. Just because this process can consume all of you doesn’t mean that it should. Even if it’s just a text now and then, talk to your people.

Conclusion. I’ve (more or less) made friends with the vanishing point. I embrace that it’s forever out of reach and that I can forever rely on it to drive me forward. Talk about a long-term relationship. In the years to come, you’ll throw yourself at the next mile-marker while squinting ahead to the one just beyond your high beams, but no matter what, you can always look up to the promise of a destination—which, because physics, doesn’t exist. As long as you want to chase it, it will be there. And by chasing it, you will grow, and discover, and break down, and rebuild. I haven’t even left the haven of law school yet, and I’m discovering daily that I am more and less of the person that I thought I was before I came here. Distinguish your “feel better” from your “making it worse” choices this summer and in school. But know that you are enough, that you are plenty. Stay open, be curious, keep one eye on the horizon. And welcome to W&L Law.