SUMMER STORY: The pros and cons of starting law school early

My favorite stories to cover as a journalist always came on the crime beat – talking to the cops, suspects and attorneys and sitting through the trials. I loved standing next to the police at the perimeter of a crime scene as the officers broke down the door to a house, or listening to the pleas of innocence from a suspect accused of embezzling thousands of dollars (spoiler: she wasn’t innocent, and did it again before confessing) or the story of a man who was jailed after a confession was beaten from him in 1970s Chicago (he probably was innocent). From that, I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to go into criminal law. But I still kept my options open as I entered KU Law.

My first classes as a summer starter were Property and Torts, each crammed into five-day-per week sessions starting in late May that at once inundated those of us in the class and gave us an idea of exactly what we were getting into as law students. They were great classes taught by excellent professors, but easements and property transfers didn’t grab my attention the way criminal law does. It wasn’t until the middle of my fall semester – just a few weeks ago – that I really cemented my plans to become a criminal lawyer. That revelation came from my Criminal Procedure course. It’s a class focused on search and seizure and the rights guaranteed by the 4th, 5th and 14th amendments. It’s also a course I wouldn’t have been able to take my first year if it weren’t for being a summer starter.

The summer starter program allows students to begin their first year of KU Law early and knock out 8 credits of first-year courses before the fall semester begins. It’s an intense program that compresses both the material and the study time available. It also forges the type of friendships that come from a shared endeavor. Those friendships have lasted well into the year – but more on that in a minute.

For the official rundown, check out http://www.law.ku.edu/summerstart. But I wanted to present an unbiased view of the program, with its pros and cons, so I asked my fellow summer starters what they thought of the program. The responses from my classmates roughly fell into a few categories:

The best parts were that we got to go through four classes and finals before fall semester, giving us a taste of different test formats and teaching styles. We also became friends and had a built-in support group by the time fall classes started.

The downsides are that we lose the summer directly after graduation; we may lose the sense of wonder from starting class by the time courses start in fall; and, well, law school can be a little cliquish.

My classmate Dani Onions summed it up when she wrote, “I think the summer start was a great idea because it allowed us to start with just two classes (albeit two very intense and concentrated classes) instead of juggling five courses at one time and not knowing until five months later if you really know what you’re talking about.”

Law school grades, with a few exceptions, hinge on the final at the end of the semester. By taking four finals during the summer, we get a better handle on whether our studying styles are effective. Sara Fevurly, another classmate, added that the different test styles provided by our four professors (from one long essay to short answer and multiple choice) gave us a variety of challenges. “It took a lot of the mystery out of the fall, and the stakes are a lot lower,” she wrote.

It also tends to be more popular for nontraditional students. SueZanne Thibodeau, a fellow nontraditional student, commented that compared to the fall starter class, we appear to have more nontraditional students per capita. Partly there’s no allure to keeping the summer free, she said. Assistant Dean for Admissions Steve Freedman said it appears that it’s more popular for nontraditional students to start early. He also noted that the classes are capped around 20-24 students in order to keep the summer class size manageable, so students who are interested need to make sure to get on the list.

The downside is that by hanging out with the same people every day over the summer, when the fall rolls around, there’s less incentive to meet the other new students. I know I’ve been guilty of hanging around with the summer starters instead of branching out. But that’s not all bad either. Travis Holbert wrote, “We got familiar with the building, a lot of the faculty, [and] we had friends to count on when the fall started.”

Addison Polk noted that it’s not impossible to find those new friends if we try. “A con I was warned of is that it is hard to integrate with the fall class, but I think you integrate as little or as much with the other 1L students as you choose, despite (your) status as a ‘summer’ or ‘fall’ starter,” she wrote. “I will say it was pretty nice walking into the building on the first day of the fall semester and seeing 20 friendly faces!”

That has proven true as the semester rolls on because we share at least one class with the fall starters and begin to see more and more of each other at social events.

Overall, Travis said that he doesn’t see a downside but starting in the summer is also not a guarantee of academic success.

“Essentially, it puts you at as much ease as you can be,” he wrote. “I don't believe any of these things help or hurt your performance, but it calms your anxiety.”

There’s plenty of anxiety in law school. Any chance to reduce that seems like a good choice to me.

Zach Fridell is a first-year law student from Manhattan, Kan., and a KU Law Student Ambassador.

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