The pounding of your heart jolts you from your notepad. Your palms feel sweatier than normal and your throat is suddenly parched. Everyone is looking at you expectantly. But maybe you misheard? You hear your name again. “Ms. Craven? How does the ideology of the court affect this case?” Tough luck, you’re on!
At this point in the semester, most students know the feeling of a “cold call”. Cold calls—when professors call out specific students to question during class—are one aspect of law school that most students did not experience in their undergraduate programs.
Thus, cold calls tend to fuel a certain degree of stress among students.
Each professor handles cold calling in a different way. Some professors call students completely at random each class, some work their way through lists or rotations of who they will select, and some set limits for the number of times students will be called during the semester. Cold calls may be one question, one case, or the call could last most of class. As law school progresses students work out strategies to handle cold calls with different professors and generally become more confident with the system. Still, we have all had our share of anxiety-ridden and semi-embarrassing cold call moments to reminisce over later.
I get really nervous for cold calls which is strange because prior to law school I could perform in front of thousands of people without batting an eye. During 1L year I was not able to remember anything that was asked or that I had said immediately after my cold calls ended (my brain was in survival mode) and I always had to ask someone else for notes. This year I have gotten a lot better at taking my time to answer, which has helped my memory, but I certainly still mess up. I am kicking myself for a cold call this semester that ended up being a lesson in preparedness. One of my professors assigns reading that doesn’t end at specific page numbers but depends on how far we get in the discussion. We ended up moving really quickly through the material, and with five minutes left in class, we were discussing the last case I had read through. I thought I was in the clear since class was almost over. I was wrong. I ended up muddling through a case I hadn’t read when I probably should have passed on answering. Thank goodness that whoever had my textbook before me took great notes in the margins!
First year, first semester, first Civ Pro class. Our professor was lecturing us on something fascinating and important about the rules and standards that courts must follow when adjudicating civil lawsuits. But I was more interested in what my classmates looked like. Then I heard the professor call out “Mr. Lee.” I perked up, raised my hand and answered “Yes.” After maybe four or so horrifying rounds of the Socratic back-and-forth, I recalled that the professor had circulated a first-day call list in advance via email. That’s when it struck me—I was NOT ON THE CALL LIST. At that point, I kindly interrupted him and asked whether he meant to call on “Mr. Li” (spelled with an “i”) instead. I can now admit that (1) oh my god, I thought the veins in my eyeballs were going to pop when I heard my last name, and (2) I would not have been able to answer any of the questions the professor had asked “Mr. Li.” Good job, Li. You’re a smart man.
I knew it was coming, and that almost made it worse. My professor would announce at the start of class the ten people who were on call that day. Before class started, he would peer down onto his seating chart, find one of the ten names he had chosen, and peep up to see where they were sitting. He looked up and made eye contact with me. I had done the reading, but that didn’t make it better. A minute later he confirmed my fear and called out my name among those who were on call. For the next hour I worried the people sitting near me could hear my heart thumping. I didn’t take any notes, and instead tried to read a few pages ahead of where we were in the class discussion. About halfway through class he glanced down at his seating chart again and I knew my time had come. He asked me to describe the facts of a case, and why it had come out the way it did. I have no idea what I said, but within a few minutes he had moved on to someone else and I felt like I regained consciousness. I took a breath and emailed a friend for the class notes.
I haven’t had a truly bad cold call yet. I also haven’t had any particularly good ones. I’ve fumbled words, forgotten simple concepts, and blurted out “I don’t know” half a dozen times. I’ve also frantically scanned a case I didn’t remember seconds before being asked to share, been “on call” without being called, and have had a case I was well-prepared to discuss STOLEN from me by a professor who decided to do it himself. So far, no horror stories, some luck that has gone both ways, and a sneaking suspicion that the worst is yet to come.
Cold calls are a reality that every law student must face. At the end of the day, cold calling prepares young lawyers for the working world but not much more. Still, whether you are excited to show off your intellectual prowess or are shy to get questioned in front of your peers, cold calling is one part of law school that you are unlikely to forget.
2L student Erika Craven loves hearing from Impact readers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.