SOLDIER: Seven Things I Learned in the Army that Helped Me Succeed in Law SchoolDavid Thompson | Communications Outreach Director for Veterans’ Advocates, Washington and Lee University
No doubt about it: Law school is challenging. With the scare stories of 1L, 1L of a Ride, and similar books, a lot of law students work themselves into a frenzy before classes even start. There’s reading and rereading, outlining, cold calls, learning new vocabulary, learning a new style of writing, a lot more reading, and exams. The stress and pressure causes some students to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to go over every detail of each case. Sleep, nutrition, hygiene, and anything that gets in the way of spending those extra few minutes studying goes by the wayside. But there’s hope. The good news is that by changing a few parts of your day, law school can be a successful, enjoyable process.
What made law school seem different to me was a different perspective gained through military service. I applied some of the soft skills that I learned in the military to my daily routine in law school. You can learn some of these same skills just by continuing to read this article, thus skipping over 8+ years in the Army. Add some or all of these recommendations to make your school or work experience successful and enjoyable.
To make it easy to remember, use the acronym SOLDIER.
S- SLEEP: Get Adequate Sleep
If you only implement one thing in this entire article, let it be this one: Get adequate sleep. Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night allows me to be fresh, mentally alert and engaged throughout the day.
In the Army, there are times when we only received minimal amounts of sleep for weeks or months at a time. We conducted field exercises for a month at a time receiving minimal sleep each day. Some people learned how they can continue to work despite little sleep. I think the real lesson should have been how performance standards diminished as sleep deprivation accumulated.
Law school is full of Type A personalities. In fact, I call most of them Type A+ because they are so driven that nothing will get in their way—even themselves. I’m amazed at how many students pride themselves on how little they sleep under the assumption that they’re too busy. They’re an incredibly bright bunch, and they continue to persevere despite only getting 2 to 4 hours of sleep a day. The problem is that this lack of sleep causes hypertension, which can make people lose sight of the big picture.
In a TED Talk, Arianna Huffington highlighted the importance of sleep. Some NFL teams began monitoring players sleep because they notice improved performance with increased sleep. Sam Ramsden of the Seattle Seahawks’ staff said, “Some of the best players on the team are the best sleepers.” If the only thing you add from these suggestions is to get 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep a day, you’ll notice improved performance throughout the rest of your day. Get in a dark room with no cell phone or television in bed, get adequate sleep, and watch the results.
O- OWN Your Bed: Make It
This one seems stupid to some, but I find a lot of value in making my bed every day. In military training, we’re forced to make our beds to perfection every day. It seems mundane compared to a lot of the other soldiering skills like shooting, assaulting objectives, and jumping out of airplanes, but drill instructors everywhere ensure that service members make their beds to perfection every morning.
For me, making my bed is a simple task that gets my day started. I complete it as soon as I wake up, which let me check one thing off of my to-do list. In the evenings, I come back to something that I accomplished, which lets me end the day on a positive note.
As Admiral McRaven said, making your bed is a small accomplishment to get your day started off right and one that you can come back to at the end of the day. Self-help guru Tim Ferriss also discusses the importance of making his bed as part of his morning ritual.
L- LIFE: Reflect On It
It’s easy to forget why we started. It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal when the day-to-day tasks get too busy. Every morning, service members stand outside to salute the American flag. This time provides a few moments of personal reflection on why one decided to join the military, the importance of the mission, reflect on those that came before to provide us the opportunity, and set some goals for today.
I have a couple books I read each morning to help provide clarity and perspective. I’ll change them up every so often to maintain a fresh outlook. My recommendation is to find something that gives you a few minutes of quiet reflection, challenges your views, and inspires you to achieve greatness. It can be a song, book, poem, or whatever works for you.
When was the last time you reflected on why you want to pursue this education? Why did you start? Has your perspective changed since you began? If so, why? What have you come to realize that you didn’t know at the beginning? How does what you’re doing right now help you achieve your goals? A few minutes reflecting a day helps to ensure that you don’t lose sight of the end goal amidst the day-to-day tasks.
D- DON’T Neglect Fitness
It’s common knowledge that service members are required to exercise. Every morning (and again most afternoons), I exercised with my team. Working out provided us a way to deal with the stresses of work and ensured we could physically handle any task.
The body carries the mind from place to place, and the mind will not function as well if the body hurts. I find that my classmates and professors that exercise regularly perform better than those that do not get regular exercise. I enjoy working out in the morning when the gym is mostly empty because it allows me to focus and decompress.
Your exercise does not have to be that of a soldier or marine. Hiking, rowing, yoga, lifting weights, and sports all provide a great way to accelerate your heartrate. I’m not going to prescribe any particular methodology, but I’ll say that you’re more apt to continue doing something you enjoy. Find a workout that is fun and challenging.
I- INTEL Update
Before every mission, I made sure to have the latest intelligence briefing because I wanted to know what was happening inside and outside my area. Additionally, I read the local newspaper so that I knew what locals were discussing that day.
In law school, it’s easy to become entrapped in casebooks and briefings, thus forgetting about the world beyond the library. I spent a few minutes every morning reading the news to know what has happened in the world beyond school. Reading the news helped me apply what I learned in the classroom to real-world events. Furthermore, it helped provide some relief because I had topics to discuss with people other than my torts casebook.
A lot of websites provide daily updates directly to your e-mail. Find an objective news source that helps you maintain perspective on what is happening outside of your immediate environment.
E- EXPAND Your Perspective
This one may seem counterintuitive to having a productive day. How can you be more productive by adding something unrelated? Part of the benefit I received was the mental break from my day-to-day studies. The other part was finding best practices in an unrelated field to see if I could implement them in my work.
In the military, the job can be overwhelming if you don’t have a hobby outside of your day-to-day work. A service member can easily burn out if he or she doesn’t have other interests.
During school, I would take a mental break most evenings. My favorites were listening to TED Talks or podcasts (favorites here, here, and here), reading a magazine, or watching a few innings of a baseball game. These outlets helped me expand my perspectives to learn something new and interesting.
Feel free to use one of my favorites or find your own. Knitting, baking, movies and sports can be healthy mental breaks.
R- REFRAIN FROM BURNING OUT: When to Call It a Day
In the military, as in academia, there’s always more work to do. In the military there’s an endless amount of contingency planning, preparation, rehearsing, etc. that can happen. In law school, there are more cases to read, cross-reference and analyze, secondary sources to review, and more. At some point, you just have to put the books away for the day so that you are fresh enough to start again the next day.
I treated school like a job. I arrived around 8:00 AM and left around 6:00 PM. If I was still working around 6:00 PM, I’d start to wrap-up my work to go home. At some point, the law of diminishing returns would settle in. If I kept reading the same pages over and over but failed to grasp what the court said, it was time to do something else. By treating school like a job, I maintained clarity throughout the day for the long-haul.
A lot of students are used to working nights from their time in undergrad. I find this to not be the most effective method because they’re dealing with more work than they had in undergrad. Additionally, it is important to start establishing effective work practices. Working late at night also disrupts the primary lesson from this article, getting adequate sleep, because classes are during the day.
Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Your Learning
You may have noticed that of the seven things I discussed, only one directly relates to school. I have to take care of all the surrounding things so that when I’m at school, I’m ready to succeed.
You may find that you can’t implement all of these tips every day. That’s perfectly fine. Some days you may have to study a little later. Some days you may only get six hours of sleep. If you can regularly add a few of these lessons to your schedule, you’ll notice improved efficiency.
Take the lessons I learned in the military that helped me succeed in law school, then apply them to your own schedule. Get ready for success.