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Heather O’Connor is a 3L. After a seven year marriage and three kids, Heather went through a divorce that left her questioning what to do with her life. She decided to become an attorney and has never looked back since beginning the long journey. She entered a local community college after...

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Relationships in Law School - To Have or Not to Have - That is the Question

Posted by Heather O'Connor on 02/22/2011 at 12:17 AM

A few of the big questions coming into law school are "Will my relationship last?" or "Should I date while in law school?" Each person and situation is different so there is no answer that is going to apply to every person. A lot of this depends on the commitment level you have towards that other person and their commitment level towards you; that really seems to be the key to making or breaking your relationship during law school. Law school is a lot of pressure and it takes up a lot of your time, as do relationships. So what did I do to help answer this question? I contacted different people that have gone through law school or that are currently going through law school about what advice they have to share in this area of interest. Hopefully, you will find some advice that works for you, but I hope you at least get an idea of why people that are there or that have been there feel relationships can or cannot work out. So here we go: 3L: "DON'T DO IT! lol Well, at least do not start a new relationship in your first two years of school. We simply do not have the time to put into a relationship during those two years. If you are already in a relationship, then that is probably a little different since the foundation is there; hopefully anyway." 2L: "I was in a one-year relationship while in school. My advice is DON’T DO IT." 3L: "I truly think the best advice I could give is to try to understand what the other person is going through and where they are coming from. Communication is extremely important. For the law student, this means try not to take your stress out on your boyfriend/girlfriend (though inevitably, it will happen). Be upfront with the non-law student about your stress and frustrations. Although they may spend a lot of time with you, it might be difficult for them to understand the rigors of law school, so be straightforward and patient with them. For the significant other, patience and understanding is also key. Your boyfriend/girlfriend is probably going to be a tad stressed out and may end up taking it out on you. Don't take it personally; just try to keep in mind where this sudden attitude is coming from. The non-law student person should appreciate the time and effort that law school demands and respect it. Your boyfriend/girlfriend will be pretty busy for the next three years (and probably for the rest of his/her career). That being said, the world is not over. Each week or every few days, pick a time to do something fun together - just the two of you. My boyfriend and I pick a TV show or a movie to watch together, cook together, go out to eat, go to the movies, play a video game, etc. It doesn't really matter what you end up doing or where - the point is that this should be alone time. You will always have some time, however brief, that you can spend together. And if you think, "This week is just too busy," at least take a second to do something nice for them or simply remind them that you still care." 2L: "As someone who came to law school already in a relationship, I will be the first one to say that it is difficult to maintain a long distance relationship during your first year. This is particularly true if your relationship is a new one prior to entering law school. It is challenging because you don't get to see the person as often, and because the stress and experience of law school is not only new to you, but to your significant other as well - especially if he or she is not in law school him/herself. In addition, it's also a challenge because law school rigors and demands on your life come into play that he/she may not be understanding about (again, this is because he/she isn't experiencing the law school life and stress that comes with it). That said however, it IS POSSIBLE!!! Yes, it will take a lot of work, but as long as you keep your communication open, do not let law school change you as a person, and keep a good visitation schedule where you see each other at least once a month, then it's safe to say that your relationship doesn't have to end. A big part of being able to make it work is trusting each other and also understanding and being there for each other, even if you are miles apart. Your relationship will get stronger as time goes on, but just warn your significant other about finals. During finals time you will be so stressed out that you will not want to be bothered about relationship things. A lot of my friends in relationships have broken up literally right before finals began or during finals, and both I and they will tell you that the law school stress definitely played into it. So long as you both care and love each other and support each other though, you will be able to make it through. It will not come without bumps and bruises while you are in law school because of the adjustment you will both have to go through, but you will make it. I still am in the same relationship I was in when I entered law school." 3L: “During my three years as a student, I’ve taken one full day off to spend with my husband every week. For that one day, we were able to enjoy each other’s company and ignore the demands of law school. This required me to spread those hours I’d normally spend studying out during the week, but it was worth it!” Post Law: “I have two pieces of advice for couples, one conventional and one not. First, a little about my experience: I went into law school straight after college and three months after getting married. My wife was also a graduate student, so we shared the graduate school experience for two years. My conventional advice: make your relationship a priority and spend time together, even if it means staying up a little later or neglecting your work. While law school should be a priority, don't take it too seriously. After a few weeks of classes, you will learn how to read efficiently, and how to prepare for each Professor's particular teaching style. Active listening and participation in class (i.e. not surfing the web on a laptop) are equally, if not more, important than reading cases and taking notes. And the unconventional advice: take some personality tests together. This is a habit I picked up from a friend. Law school has the potential to exacerbate conflicts in a relationship, and knowing how your partner operates can help minimize tension. My favorites are the Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram tests. There are free online versions and books -- if you can, I recommend books as they offer better analysis and explanation. I have found the tests helped me better understand myself, my wife, and the rest of the world. Answering questions about how you think and feel can begin a discussion. It can also help you realize that people operate in very different ways.” 3L: “During my three years as a student, I’ve taken one full day to spend with my husband every week. For that one day we were able to enjoy each other’s company and ignore the demands of law school. This required me to spread those hours I’d normally spend studying out during the week, but it was worth it. =)” 2L: “DO: be sure to date someone who understands the concepts of independence, flexibility, support, and understanding. DON’T: date a law student AND sit next to that person in every single class . . . it WILL be awkward if/when you guys break up. DO: maintain a healthy life balance with your significant other – that means having private time for studying while also making time for the other person’s needs; remember, you are not the center of the universe. DON’T: date another law student while spreading around all of your relationship dramz . . . because guess what? Everyone knows everyone which means everyone will know your business, take sides, or feel uncomfortable trying to remain neutral. DO: be conscientious of you and your sig. other’s commitment levels. If you both can’t handle long-distance, then don’t. If you both can’t handle living together (or break the lease/cover the whole rent yourself in the event there’s a breakup), then don’t. DON’T: air everything out about your relationship on facebook. Just don’t. DO: date someone who is low drama and doesn’t get jealous easily . . . because even though you’re likely to always talk about the gunner, study group buddy, or bff from school, you could never, ever, ever envision being “with” that person. You just don’t have anyone else to talk about. DON’T: forget to have fun and enjoy the ride, regardless of who you are or aren’t dating. :-)” 2L: “I came into law school engaged to my high school sweetheart, and was so confident in what I planned to do in law school and where I planned on taking the Bar Exam in order to work together with his military life. We didn’t live together my first year of school, mostly because he was stationed overseas, but also I was adjusting to a new life/school. It was tough being apart, but we were making it work. The breakdown of your relationship revolved mostly around his inability to understand the demands of law school, and not understanding the time it took for me to read and be prepared for my class load. Law school is far more demanding than college was, so he didn’t have a point of reference to understand what law school was like. Truth be told, in hindsight, I probably didn’t do a very good job at communicating the stress and workload in a way he could understand. We decided to live together after my first year, while I was taking summer classes and the beginning of my second year. This was really the final straw, as it became too much of a strain on the relationship with the amount of time and work I had to put into school. If I had to offer my advice to someone coming into law school with a relationship, even though mine didn’t ultimately work out, it would have to be patience and communication. The person you care about will not understand what it is like to be a law student, and while there’s not much you can do to give them the experience, it’s important to remember to be patient with them. It’s ok to set aside time for your significant other without risking your law school experience, but also communicate the goals you have for yourself in law school, and what you need to do to accomplish those goals (even if it means camping out in the library for hours!). If you’re patient with your loved one, and encourage open lines of communication, it may still be possible to come out the other side of law school with your relationship intact.” 2L: “If I could give any advice to anyone in law school (or otherwise) it would be to be flexible, be able to compromise, and recognize what really matters. I think in any relationship you have to be able to let go of a lot of things that bug you. The person you are with is not perfect, and neither are you (although we all think otherwise), however, you may be perfect for each other. For everything that drives you nuts about your mate, know that there is something about you that makes them equally crazy, and you have to be able to overlook the little things that don’t matter and focus on why you are with this particular person. I think it is also important to schedule time for your mate. Law school is pretty tedious and time-consuming, so it’s easy to do nothing but work and push everything else to the back burner. Going on regular dates (at least once a month) will help to strengthen your bond and will give you a much needed break from school work. It is easy to get so caught up with school work that you forget to take a break, and going out for dinner or a movie will help you to stay balanced, focused, and will make your mate feel important. Lastly, while the grind of law school can make anyone a little on edge, it is no excuse to act badly toward others, especially your mate. Always treat the person you are with as you would want to be treated, and if you are so stressed out that you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” 3L: “I went into law school in a relationship (at that point it was about a year or so and it lasted until February of 2nd year – for reasons having nothing to do with law school). But it lasted through the hell of first year and almost to the end of second year. My case was a little unique because she was in school also, so what worked for us was doing work together on weekends. A few things that I think work are trying to include that person in law school, telling them about it, etc, so they know what’s going on – but without being condescending about it, or ONLY talking about it. A relationship in law school is absolutely doable, but what I found worked best was setting aside at least one weekend night where you are devoting your night to that person, even if you have to plan it ahead of time. But making sure to set aside time just for them is crucial so they don’t think law school has taken over your life. And obviously, the more supportive they are, the more likely the relationship will succeed. Another tip I would have is to be very, very careful about taking any sort of stress out on them. They should be a release from stress, not an outlet where you just take it out on them. I know some people would set rules like, “I can’t speak to you before 9 p.m.” I never did that. I called, texted when I could, definitely made a phone call every night when not seeing her in person, but it was a flexible schedule and if I couldn’t talk much, I said so. But little contacts throughout the day make it easier to say, “Hey, I have to study all night, I can only call for a five minute chat.” Exams in my situation were unique because she was studying for exams at the same time and we had studied together all through college, so it just continued with law school and it worked for us. For anyone entering law school in a relationship, they should know that it’s absolutely doable, but both parties have to discuss it and be open, but also be flexible until a schedule is found that works for both people.” Post Law: “Asked my wife for her input on the question, and she quickly answered, “Don’t take it personal.” Which is easier said than done for the law school spouse/significant other, and something that I do not know that I could have done as well or as gracefully as my wife did over my three years of law school. What likely helped us was that law school was a decision we made together, and so we were two mules pulling in the same direction. It is a team effort. And I walk away from law school wholly convinced that no one – and I mean no one – does it alone. The people around us whom we love and who love us make sacrifices constantly, and the vast majority of the time these sacrifices are not recognized. Giving full credit to the loved ones in our lives for any and all “accomplishments” attained isn’t the worse thing a law student – in the process or upon graduation – can do. Lastly, I think it is hugely important to make the psychological and emotional commitment (and then put it into action) that our “free time is owed” to whoever it is that has been signed onto the law school experience with us – and this surely will be different for everyone. Such an attitude makes easy some choices that might otherwise be very difficult.” 2L: “Normally I wouldn’t suggest dating a fellow law student because the stress will inevitably increase exponentially. Since my boyfriend and I met at the beginning of 1L, however, we have been extremely fortunate to be in each others’ lives. Someone is always around to bounce questions and ideas off of, and the support of having your partner know exactly what you’re going through has been extremely beneficial. It doesn’t always work out, but luckily for us, it has!” 3L: “Relationships are tricky. Relationships in law school are even trickier. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a relationship with someone who himself had already been through graduate school – long nights, grumpy mornings, tears when your printer stops working 45 minutes before a paper is due (maybe he wasn’t prepared for all of the tears). I think the key is communication. Especially when you’re living together and your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband is not a law student, it’s so important to always keep them apprised of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. It’s really easy to take out your frustration on your loved ones, so rather than wait to blow up at him for something insignificant, just come home and tell him that you’re tired and that your professor made you look like an idiot in class. Being upfront about it usually goes over better than flipping out, having a huge fight, and then eventually explaining how it had nothing to do with him leaving the top off the toothpaste, but that you’re just stressed out about school. Another source of frustration can be the long hours. Sometimes two hours of reading turns into four, and before you know it, you’ve’ not only missed dinner, but you’ve also missed Jersey Shore. Try to always communicate when you’ll be home and call if you’re going to be late. For a relationship with a civilian (non-law student) to work, he’ll need to understand that you won’t always be home when you think you will, but at least if you give him a heads up, he won’t feel like he’s your last priority.” 3L: “It is hard for a non-law school student to hang out with your law school friends. It doesn’t matter how social your partner is. They don’t take contracts nor will they get any of the corny contract jokes someone will make at the bar. Law students spend a huge block of time studying the law. Your partner doesn’t. They will be the odd man out, so it is incumbent upon you to make sure you are not always in an exclusively legal social network. Which really brings me to my next point: Make time for them. Law school has a funny way of eating time. Not just class and homework, but you eat meals here, go to the gym, hang out with kids after class in the bistro, internships, clubs, etc. Don’t forget to purposefully make time for your partner. I did this. I would block out a Friday or Saturday, and no matter what party was going on that weekend, I would just take her out. I cannot stress how important date night became for our relationship. Don’t talk about the law all the time. Law students do this to everyone, not just partners, but it is particularly trying on your significant other. Be realistic with them. Make sure she or he understands how much time law school eats up. Especially early on. As 1Ls or 2Ls, you just won’t be able to go to her friend’s birthday party or some other event. You can make time for a wedding, but some weekends, there just won’t be time to go and visit her brother an hour away. The best way to combat relationship fatigue during law school is to be very disciplined during the week. Get as much done as you can Monday – Friday. This obviously goes for every student, but for some one in a relationship, you really need that time on the weekends. When I was a 1L, my girlfriend was still in school in New York. It was a six hour drive. I only got to see her once every three weeks. Turned out the appellate brief was due the Monday after one of those weekends. Keep in mind I had to drive six hours to get there so I had to leave by the afternoon on Friday. What that meant was that I handed my brief in on Thursday, four days early. I worked late everyday for two weeks making sure the brief was still as good as I could make it.” 3L: “From what I saw, relationships a law student brings with them generally end within five months. Relationships that survive law school suffer horribly. My best advice for those in a committed relationship is for both people to know it’s going to get rough, and for the significant other to realize that law school is not like high school or college where the student can just blow off working whenever they want or whenever the partner wants. It’s a horribly time consuming and stressful process, and the law student will desperately need understanding and support from their partner. Likewise, the law student needs to realize that they are not the only person suffering through law school. The partner is stuck there too and will need some recognition for their sacrifice.” 3L: “1. Maintain space, but still be a couple. You don’t need to sit together, study together, eat together, and spend free time together. It is just too much. 2. Don’t be competitive with grades or accomplishments. Be supportive of the other, but don’t be jealous or envious. It’s hard when law school is so competitive by nature, but just be happy for each other. 3. Find things other than law school to talk about. 4. One person in the relationship should consider dropping out to avoid sooooo much debt. 5. Don’t necessarily take classes together. That doesn’t mean avoid each other, but don’t plan on taking them together. 6. In my experience, studying together can be rewarding, but also very trying. Finals get stressful and when you mix a relationship fight or tiff with the pains of studying, it really gets ugly. With all that being said, I thoroughly enjoy my law school lover. It’s definitely doable.” 3L: “I would say that your ability to persevere through the stress of law school is directly correlated with how good you are at dealing with adversity in your relationship prior to starting law school. In addition, I tried to bring up potential issues before they actually arose. It was easy to problem solve issues before they arose because we weren’t yet angry and emotional about things. I asked my non-law school fiancé what he thought. He said that the law student should communicate fully how much time they are going to be dedicating to law school so it’s not a surprise. He also felt it was important to make sure to continue to spend quality time with one another. Finally, he suggested that it might be a good idea to have a hobby.” 2L: “Maintaining a relationship while in law school is very difficult because, for most people, it requires more commitment than anything else you have ever done in your life. This can take its toll on all relationships, whether your significant other is a fellow law student or not. The best way to leave law school in a relationship is to make sure you leave some time to spend together. At the same time, your significant other needs to be supportive and understand what law school entails, because you simply will not have as much quality time together as you used to. Despite all of that, it is doable, and many law school couples survive three years. My boyfriend also adds, “The only way to last all three years of law school is to get married because legally forcing yourself to stay together is your only hope.”” 2L: “I was married for two years before I came to law school. My husband and I had only dated a year before our marriage, so total time in the relationship was three years. Before starting law school, everyone was warning me that I would be divorced by the time I graduated. I’m not close to finishing my second year and there is no divorce on the horizon. I would actually say that our relationship has continued in its natural progression as any other marriage relationship would. We are just as close as ever and generally happy (aside from the fact that law school eats up my life). What has helped us maintain this relationship? Probably a number of things. We both strive to spend time together, we eat as many meals as we can together. Also, my husband does nothing related to law school (he’s a tennis coach), so turning to him at the end of a long day of legal analysis is like a breath of fresh air.” As for my own experience, I met my boyfriend on our tour of the school and we started dating at the very beginning of 1L year. Due to the stress not only of law school, but then also of having three kids that I take care of, we have had many ups and downs, but I could not have gotten where I am today without him. He was extremely supportive of everything I did and everything I was going through. It was nice to have someone there that could understand the stress that law school throws upon you, whether you’re ready for it or not. Of course, the stress of law school also added to stress in our relationship. I wish I had been able to read some of the above advice prior to my relationship because I would have changed a few things. But echoing what has been said above, communication is so very important. Most people go to law school because they like to argue, however, that is not the best quality to have while in a relationship. Keep that in check. Try not to argue about the little things just because you want to be right or feel like you won. In the long run, holding on to things that you should let go of will just bring failure. The one thing that is hard about dating someone also in law school is that you do not really get that “break” from law school, even when you’re with that person. I think it is important to take that time together and make a conscientious decision to NOT talk about anything law school related. Enjoy each other for who you each are, not just the situation you are in. And law school is NOT everything, although it can really seem like that while you’re in the midst of it. Even though you’re going through a process that is extremely important in your life, make sure you let your significant other know just how important they are to you as well. It’s often the little things that mean the most, so don’t forget about them. Law school relationships can work. You just have to stay grounded and look at the big picture instead of the instant moment. Law school eventually will be over, so don’t let it take over the important people in your life with it as well. And if you’re still reading, good luck to you in the future!