The 1L Guide to Surviving Cold Calls

Jacob Jones ‘21
Events Editor

The dreaded 1L cold call. It’s a moment dramatized by Legally Blonde and Other Law School Movies I Should’ve Watched by Now. You will never forget your first cold call.[1] I remember mine like it was yesterday. There I was, enjoying mom’s spaghetti, when suddenly my professor calls my name. I panicked, my spaghetti fell on my sweater, and everything was off to a terrible start. Don’t be like me. Do better. Learn from the mistakes of your elders, mostly by reading this column.

Do: Take a deep breath. You read the case (hopefully). It’s all in there. You’ve got your notes, maybe your seven highlighted portions of the text, and your casebook. That’s all you need. Nobody who’s stupid gets in here. You can do this.

Don’t: Cry. At least during the cold call. It’s hard sometimes.

Do: Accept help from classmates. This doesn’t help as much if you’re in the front row, but if you have no idea what the answer is, the answer whispered in your ear by a classmate is better than nothing. And remember to help your classmates too! If you’ve got the Quimbee notes, slide them on down.[2]

Don’t: Let your guard down after the cold call is done. The professor may come back for you for a comparison on the case you were just grilled on. It may be months until this happens. Remember what the point of the case was, because you’re not in the clear.

Do: Be honest if you are completely unprepared. Life happens, and even the best students sometimes come to class without having done the reading. Unless you are one of the ultra-geniuses that live among us who can figure out everything on the spot,[3] it’s going to be a really awkward ten minutes of you bumbling through the case. And that doesn’t help anyone. It will be painfully obvious you didn’t read. So, for the sake of yourself and your classmates, admit your unpreparedness,and promise to do better in the future.

Don’t: Say I don’t know without taking your best guess. Sometimes you can make an intelligent point even if it’s not what the professor has in mind. Most of the time when professors were looking for a different answer, I found the “wrong” answer a student gave on a cold call really insightful. Sometimes giving a wrong answer will result in a professor pointing you towards the right answer.

Do: Remember your professor wants to hug you and tell you you’re doing great deep down inside. But as a legal practitioner there’s going to be people who grill you on topics, and some of those people are not out to hug you.[4] So your professor has to do her best to play the part of a stern judge, or law firm partner, or whoever, because that’s how they help you. And you can help yourself by remembering that, and keeping in mind that you’re playing the role of someone as well. You can think of yourself as the witty lawyer before a judge, a master Jedi being questioned by the Jedi Council on Coruscant, or whatever image of yourself that makes you think of someone who is calm, cool, and collected.

Don’t: Just start reading large excerpts from your casebook. Reading smaller parts of cases may work if they’re actually relevant and you need time to stall. But make sure you’re cooking up a point in the back of your mind while you read a small and relevant portion of text. We all know what’s in the casebook. Your job is to extrapolate, not xerox.

Do: Encourage your classmates even if they didn’t do the best job. I remember feeling terrible about a few cold calls, but having friends say I did great made me question my terribleness.[5] To this day I have no idea whether I bombed out or just did okay, but without encouragement I definitely would be sitting here today telling you all about the terrible job I did.

If all else fails: Make a joke. It will make you feel better to make everyone laugh even if you feel like you’re not doing great. Maybe your professor will even laugh.


[1] But other people will forget.

[2] If you are a professor reading this, this is a joke and no UVA Law student uses Quimbee ever, for any purposes, and we all read the cases seven times.

[3] Those people are just the worst.

[4] Have you ever seen an old judge’s wig? Those things just scream “don’t hug me!”

[5] Something something UVA Law collegiality.