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Outside the Law: Take a Hike! Rachael Willihnganz's Law School Survival Guide

Despite the messaging from many sources that law school must be a soul-sucking, exhausting experience in order for a law student to perform well, my 1L experience taught me the importance of maintaining school-life balance. Although it may appear contradictory, my advice to law students is to study less, and play more. To have the energy and mental clarity to do your best work, you have to be fulfilled in the other elements of your life. This means closing your laptop or textbook, and intentionally carving out time in your schedule to be present with the people you care about, to get outside, and to do things that are completely non-law school related.

This past year as a 1L with mostly online classes, getting out into nature with friends and family was essential to managing my stress. Last fall, I went on my first backpacking trip in the 10th Mountain Hut Division with a group of friends. We carried all our own food, water and supplies, and trekked a few miles to our overnight destination. We laughed, told stories, watched the sunset, and enjoyed both snow and eighty-degree sunshine in typical Colorado fashion. Coming back from that unplugged weekend, with fresh air in my lungs and sore legs, I was reenergized to finish the semester strong. The challenges of perfecting the 1L memo, sorting out my outlines, and keeping up on my readings transformed from all-consuming projects into doable tasks that could be accomplished through focus and my best effort, just like the hut trip.

The combination of spending time in nature, moving my body, and being completely unreachable by email has become a foundational way I take care of my mental and physical health as a law student. Now I practice stress management by getting outside for a hike, skiing, or walking to a coffee shop at least once a week. I am inspired by fellow DU law students who commit to a similar practice, whose adventures are often shared on the DU Law Outdoor Club Instagram page.

I remained grounded and focused as a 1L in a global pandemic because I kept perspective of what was important to me as a whole human being. Rather than allowing law school to completely dominate my life and steal my joy, I made time to be with my friends and family, to go hiking and skiing, and even to do a puzzle while binge-watching The Crown. I was an objectively successful student and was proud of the work I did, but most importantly I walked away with my mental and physical health intact.

My best tip for incoming 1L law students to succeed in law school is to make time for the people and activities that give them life. The habits built in law school, good or bad, are likely to follow us into our professional lives. If we want to be happy, well-rounded, and balanced lawyers, it is crucial to develop a healthy work/school-life balance as law students.


Rachael Willihnganz is a rising 2L and Chancellor’s Scholar at the DU Sturm College of Law. She is a Denver local and a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. Prior to attending law school, Rachael was a Legislative Aide at the Colorado General Assembly, where she passionately worked on criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and public education legislation, and supported her community by providing resource assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is interested in exploring civil litigation and poverty law during her time at DU, with the ultimate goal of becoming a public interest lawyer.

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