Staffer Writes the Book on Law School Success

Posted September 21, 2005 at 4:33pm

Within his first few weeks of law school, Capitol Hill staffer Chris Yianilos remembers being so stressed that eating half of a grilled cheese sandwich was more than enough to satisfy his appetite. At that moment he realized that amount of stress wasn’t healthy.

“Each student is assigned a mentor,” Yianilos said of his alma mater, Washington and Lee School of Law, in Lexington, Va. His mentor was a third-year student who he said was “really stressed out, worked constantly and still wasn’t doing that well.” One day they were talking and the mentor said to Yianilos, “Sometimes you just have to sit back in life and enjoy life just a little bit. See that bird over there? Sometimes you have to feed the birds.” Yianilos said his mentor then broke off a piece of bread from her sandwich and threw it toward the birds.

In addition to being full after just half a sandwich, watching his mentor throw bread at birds in an effort to “enjoy life” was a wake-up call for Yianilos.

“I thought, ‘Man, I’m working so much I’m not going to have a life. I’m going to feed the birds for my fun time,’” Yianilos said. That’s when he decided he was “going to work hard, take time for myself and let the chips fall where they may.”

Apparently taking the time to work out and watch the Washington Redskins to alleviate stress was beneficial for Yianilos, who, despite doing poorly on his LSAT, graduated in the top 10 percent of his class in 1997.

So Yianilos compiled the advice gleaned through his experience into the book, “The Law School Breakthrough,” which hit shelves in May.

The idea for the book came from his then-girlfriend (now his wife) who suggested that Yianilos write the book since he was helping “mentor” other Capitol Hill staffers with law school tasks.

“I didn’t ever sit down and write it all at one time,” Yianilos said about the book, which was picked up by Career Press in April 2004. “I sat down a lot of different evenings and weekends and put together different chapters. Basically the bulk of the book was already in my head, so it didn’t take that long to get it out on paper.”

Yianilos said balancing work and play is crucial to success in law school. And “you have to be very efficient in your time management,” he said.

“If you go too far [in taking time for yourself], you’re never going to be able to grasp the material — there’s so much work. If you work too hard, you’re going to be on information overload. You have to find that right balance for yourself.”

Before finding his balance, Yianilos said he thought about dropping out of law school every day. “The stress for being someone who was used to doing OK academically and working and not having any feedback along the way, I kept thinking, ‘Why am I doing this, I don’t even want to be a practicing lawyer,’” Yianilos said.

But Yianilos isn’t a quitter. While he said he was “woefully unprepared” for law school, it “would’ve been hard for me to drop out; when I take something on, I complete it. That would’ve been admitting failure.” Also, from his student loans, he was “already several thousands of dollars in debt,” and he couldn’t turn his back on that.

Yianilos said he heard over and over again that people who don’t do well on their LSAT don’t do well in their first year of law school, and he said this is a “self-fulfilling prophecy for a lot of folks.” He said people can do well and succeed by “learning the system and knowing how to excel within the framework of the system.”

Whether you’re thinking about law school, preparing to go to law school or currently in law school, Yianilos said his book is applicable to a variety of people. For those who are interested in law school, Yianilos said the book gives them “a very realistic idea of what law school is like. I’ve heard all different suggestions of what law school was like, and they were all really wrong. It’s intellectually rigorous and draining emotionally and physically.”

The first part of the book is mainly focused on what law school is like, what to expect, and how to try to maintain a balance between time for yourself and school. This section of the book might even interest those who are not looking to attend law school but have a son, daughter, relative or friend who are, Yianilos said.

The second half of the book gets into details. Yianilos said this is the part of the book that tells people “what to do” in law school. Within these pages, Yianilos unveils “tangible points of how to succeed throughout the semester and throughout the school year,” including how to prepare for classes, brief cases, outline and study for exams. And even if you’re a second- or third-year student, Yianilos said the book could be helpful, unless “you’re acing all your classes, [then] you already know and don’t need my advice.”

Yianilos went to law school right after graduating from Virginia Tech. He said he knew going into law school that he never wanted to be a practicing lawyer, but almost all of the people who had the type of careers he wanted had law degrees.

In “law school, everything pushes you toward working at a firm,” Yianilos said. “It’s not going to focus you on how to be the best Hill staffer you can be. It’s really important to stay focused on your goal … the money that will be coming at you and your professors will really push you into firm life.”

Yianilos stuck to his desire to work on Capitol Hill, and he has been a Hill staffer for six and a half years. While he currently works as counsel to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), it wasn’t easy to get in the door. In fact, while Yianilos was in college, he was rejected twice by Warner for internships before he was finally given a chance.

“I joke with him now, ‘You know, you rejected me twice before you took me on as an intern,’” Yianilos said, adding that he had to interview four times with Warner before being hired onto staff as counsel.

“I wouldn’t ever rule out going to a law firm, but it’s not what I want to do at this point,” Yianilos said. “I’m really grateful that I didn’t drop out [of law school] because even though I’m not in the traditional practice of law, my degree helps me immensely in my job.”