What to Do If You Bomb a Law School Cold Call
Published: Aug 20, 2020
In your 1L contracts class, you may read (or remember reading) a nineteenth century case called Hadley v. Baxendale. No, it’s not quite as famous as the case of the hairy hand, but it’s a case commonly used to teach about damages. The Hadley court decided that when the defendants were delayed in delivering a piece of repaired machinery called a crankshaft, the plaintiff’s lost profits due to the delay were not reasonably foreseeable—so the defendants were not liable for those lost profits. Simple enough, right?
… Apparently not when my contracts professor called on me to recite the facts of the case. For starters, I couldn’t remember the word “crankshaft,” so that didn’t exactly set me up for success. I started muddling through the facts by describing “some weird piece of equipment they used in mills in the olden days”—and after that, it was all downhill. I definitely couldn’t remember phrases like “reasonably foreseeable” and “lost profits.” What exactly I did end up saying is something I’ll never know. All I remember is that I left class beet red and never wanted to return.
After some thought, I realized I didn’t have a great back-up plan, so I did in fact come back to class the next day (albeit reluctantly). To my surprise, nobody laughed and pointed at me when I walked into the lecture hall. In fact, I went on to get an A in my contracts class. And eventually, I graduated law school, passed the bar exam, and got a job as a BigLaw associate. All of this after my terrible cold call!
I share this story because if you’re a law student who just bombed a cold call and you can’t stop replaying it in your mind, you might be thinking all sorts of panicked thoughts about whether you’re cut out for law school. But I promise you, even though it might feel like a big deal now, you’re not a law school failure for messing up a cold call. So you don’t exactly shine when you’re randomly called on to recite obscure, unfamiliar information in front of dozens of your peers all being graded against you on a curve? Welcome to the club!
That being said, I know it’s not easy to “just move on.” So here are some reminders and tips to help you get over the cold call and feel better prepared for the next go-around.
You’re your own worst critic and the only one who will remember.
No matter how badly you think your cold call went, just remember there is nobody who thinks it went worse than you think it did. And to be clear, it almost certainly didn’t go as badly as you’re thinking. (After all, if you’re like most Type A law students, you probably hold yourself to a very high standard.) And think about what you do when a classmate slips up: Do you sit there and ruminate about their mistake all day, or do you keep moving along with your own life? For that matter, do you even notice when they make a mistake? I don’t know about you, but when I was in law school, I was too busy trying to keep up with my notes to dwell on or judge my classmates’ responses. The same is likely true for you—and it goes both ways. Within approximately two minutes, I guarantee your classmates will have forgotten about your cold call. They’re too busy trying to understand what the professor is saying, worrying about their own prospects of being called on, or checking the clock to see if it’s almost lunch time.
Strategize for future cold calls.
After feeling like you didn’t perform your best, it can be reassuring to create a game plan for next time. Would you have felt more confident if you had prepared for class differently? You might try changing the way you read and brief cases—if you normally book brief, try writing out a full brief, or vice versa. Did you miss context of the question because you were distracted? You can work on paying attention in class by limiting distractions on your laptop and in your immediate surroundings. Did you pay more attention to watching your classmates’ reactions than directing your response to your professor? Next time, focus on speaking to your professor when you’re called on. (If your classes are on Zoom or another virtual platform, try focusing only on your professor’s window while speaking.) Of course, sometimes a bad cold call just happens, and it has nothing to do with your preparation or focus. Accept that you may have done everything you could to prepare, but the cold call still might not have gone perfectly.
Remember that your grade is based on the exam, not cold calls.
Aside from classes where participation counts as a small percentage, your classroom performance isn’t going to factor into your grade. (And even then, a bad cold call won’t be held against you—unless it’s clear you didn’t even try to read the case.) In most law school classes, grades are going to come down to one final, written exam. So it’s a much better use of your time to make sure you understand the material covered in class, work on your outlines, and dedicate ample time to studying and practice exams. A cold call is just a blip on the radar. Don’t waste time that could be used to improve your final exam performance on over-preparing for cold calls or worrying about how the last one went.
Do something to take your mind off it.
If you find that you can’t stop thinking about the cold call, you might want to step away from law school for a few hours to clear your mind. Do something that will put you in a good mood—squeeze in a workout, schedule a phone call with a friend, take a walk around the block, or watch a few funny TV episodes. If you can distract yourself for a while, you’ll find that when the cold call comes to mind again, it won’t feel as recent and embarrassing. And reminding yourself of another great part of your life will also help you put the cold call in perspective—it’s really not a big deal!
Sure, it would be great to rattle off perfect answers every time you get called on in class. But for many of us, that’s not realistic, and that’s okay! Chalk it up as a learning experience and move on. Plus, think of the story you’ll be able to share in the future—embarrassing law school stories will be a great way to bond with your future colleagues.