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The Most Important Thing to Do Before Law School Bar None

If you have the problem I had before I became a serious student—the sitting still five minutes problem I have been writing about—You need to do it exactly like I tell you. Unless there is something wrong with you, it will solve your sitting problem, and you will be able to do what law school requires. If there is something wrong with you and this doesn’t work, I am sorry. Withdraw from law school before the tuition refund rate starts going down.

My guru had been to law school, and at the time he was pursuing a Ph.D. A real smarty pants. He told me that he had the five-minute problem before he went to law school. Someone had told him what he was telling me.

“Here is what you do. Get a book, any long book you would like to read. Make sure it is not a simple book. No pictures. Go to the Library when it opens tomorrow. Take nothing else with you.”

“Then find a spot in the library where you are going to sit. Make sure it is reasonably comfortable, but make sure it is an ordinary chair and table. No padded chairs or cushioned seats.”

“Then sit down and read that book, every letter, for eight straight hours. Do not skip anything. Not the preface, not even the acknowledgments. Read every line of the table of contents and the index.”

“Don’t get up except to use the restroom or to spend a half an hour at lunch. Drink coffee if you want, but no food. Call me when you go home for the day.”

At the time, I thought his plan was a little crazy, a bit draconian. But I had a lot of miles with this guy, and I trusted him. So, I did it. It was painfully hard. Every inch of me rebelled against it for eight hours. But I did it.

I called him in triumph. “Jim, I did it.”

“Ok. Now, go back tomorrow, and do the same thing. And then go back again the next day.” “What?” “You need to do it three days. If you do it three days in a row, exactly as I said, you will be able to do it forever.”

And you know what? He was right. Dead on. It was like magic. I went to the library the next day. I took with me Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I committed to sitting there just as he said, for three days, reading that book, and doing absolutely nothing else.

And you know what? After three days, years and years of bad habits were gone, washing off me like a layer of filth in the shower. I was a new man.

What I found out was that during the three days everything about me was being retrained. It was like a boot camp for me. My mind was being retooled, sure. But it was not just my mind being reformed; it was my body as well. I found that on Day two, or three, as I was walking to the library, and then towards my table—the same table and chair every day—as I did this over and over on those days, I felt my body and my mind gearing up to study. It began to feel right to sit down in that spot, and it began to feel wrong to get up. Not just wrong, actually; morally wrong.

It sounds crazy now, but eventually when I entered the library, my mind, my body, everything began to crave sitting down in that spot and getting to work. My desire to get up and mill about faded, and more quickly than you might think. I started dreading it when someone I knew started heading my direction to interrupt my reading. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone.

I also found that the quality of my concentration improved. The Gulag is a great book, and terribly important. But it isn’t exactly a trip to the children’s zoo. What I found was that I began to challenge myself to the mental discipline of more closely reading the text. I don’t know if you have this problem, but when I used to read about some concept that was new, if the explanation of it wasn’t immediately clear or compelling somehow, or if the argument was theoretically complicated, I would have a tendency to gloss over it.

I liked to read past the difficult parts, to move on without really understanding the point I had read, assuming that I would figure it out later, or that it wasn’t important. It was another form of intellectual laziness. I was doing the reading, but I was tempted to just shrug when a hard section appeared.

So, in day two of boot camp I started demanding more of my concentration. I was going to read every word. No. I was going to understand every word. If I read something I didn’t immediately understand, I forced myself to back up and read it again. Again and again I stopped myself from glossing over difficult concepts or paragraphs, and literally forced my mind more deeply into the text until I mastered what it was saying.

Early on I would sometimes reread a sentence or a paragraph a few times before I understood what the author was conveying. But I found that over time, my concentration and intellectual capacity to understand even the most diffi  cult concepts the first time improved dramatically in those three days. As the immediacy of my comprehension improved, my reading speed also accelerated.

I started this boot camp with volume one of the Gulag. But I was reading so well and enjoying making these great strides in my capacity to work that I decided to just keep coming back to the library until I had read the next two volumes of it as well. I ended up finishing all three volumes of it—about 2100 pages— in six days. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t that hard.

This was my pre-grad school boot camp. Do it. You do this for three days, and you will change your academic life.  You will walk around the halls of law school and realize that most everyone you see is a chump, who could never pull this off . Tell yourself that these chumps will be backfill for the curve on every exam you are going to take for the next three years.


  1. Sine Metu
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    This seems to jive with a lot of research coming out that discusses “deliberate practice”, not just repetition, as the way to improve most effectively — the painful (at first), reflective, and disciplined grind. I will be doing this before heading off to 1L this fall to conquer the five minute problem. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Gary Young
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Let me know how it goes –


  3. Marina
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    thanks! my friend in law school sent this to me. . .i’m @ UChi but not for law school, sitting in Regenstein procrastinating! But no more comfy chairs! Hopefully this article did not come too late. . .if you have any tips on how to write an essay while on a computer connected to the internet help a sista out. . .

  4. Gary Young
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    The Reg! I remember it well. When I did my 3 day turn to full week drill, I was in the library near Bond Chapel and next to the Div School. I remember the spot I sat in well. Glad to hear it helps — On the internet? Just unplug it! Save the wifi for your after study time and hit Starbucks. Have a cafe vanilla lite frappacino for me –

  5. S. Shellina Trujillo
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I was listening to a podcast about how to prep for law school and I heard this, so I googled it and found your blog post on it.

    I am afraid this is exactly what I need to do although it sounds incredibly painful. I got good grades in undergrad with barely studying but I know I need to be so much more focused for law school.

    Focus is a problem for me. I had my husband change my facebook password to something I don’t know, however the problem isn’t facebook, the problem is within me. Even right now, I am googling things, listening to a podcast and “working”. I don’t feel great about it.

    I have to train myself to focus because I start school in a few weeks. It was great to come across a possible solution. I’m going to give it a try. Thank you!

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