First, let me make clear this has absolutely nothing to do with my usual topics; estate planning, probate, or trust litigation. And, this post is not directed at my usual markets; individuals seeking probates, wills, estate planning, I’m not going to get any clients out of this post. This is directed towards people entering law school; if you’re not entering law school, then feel free to stop reading. This is strictly advice offered by me to students entering law school, it is offered for free but I do think this is very good advice.
So, you got into law school. Congratulations. I am not going to address what your motives are in going to law school, or why you are going, or even if going to law school is a good idea. And I am not going to address whether law school is a good value; it will depend upon what you are paying, and what your job prospects actually are , i.e, not what you imagine them to be but what your chances are of getting a job that will pay off your loans.
There are a number of books detailing the ‘first year’ of law school. “One L” by Scott Turow; “Paper Chase” by John Jay Osborn, Jr. , which was turned into a film and subsequently a television program; both of which deal with the first year of law school at Harvard: One L is nonfiction; Paper Chase is fiction but both books deal with what happens when someone who was previously an academic superstar encounters law school. I have never attended Harvard Law, I don’t think I have ever been within 50 miles of Harvard Law, I can not vouch for the accuracy of the depiction of Harvard Law in those books.
However, I can vouch for the accuracy of the depiction of some aspects of law school in general.
First, for probably the first time in your academic life, you will be competing with people who are roughly your equal in intellectual ability. The first rule of law school is, there aren’t any dummies in law school. Although this country arguably has more law schools than needed, in the sense that there is an excess of law school graduates over jobs, the fact is that entry into law school is still competitive, and for the higher ranked law schools, extraordinarily competitive. Everyone who goes to law school is a college graduate; virtually everyone who goes to law school did well to spectacularly well as an undergraduate; and virtually everyone who goes to law school has done well to extremely well on their LSAT test. You simply are not going to get some slacker who graduated at the bottom of the class who flubbed their LSAT entering an ABA accredited law school. With the exception of a few “Conditional admittance” programs at lower ranked law schools, everyone there likely has both a very good undergraduate performance and reasonably high standardized test scores. My point being that there is a ‘floor’ below which certain people simply are not going to get into any law school.
Second; law schools are highly stratified in their admission. The very best students go to the very top law schools; Harvard, Stanford, what have you; the slightly less able students go to second tier schools; people of somewhat lesser ability go to somewhat lower ranked schools and so on until you wind up at your bottom tier schools. What this means is, within a given school, you are unlikely to find very many people who are substantially more able than the average student, if they were of much greater ability they would almost certainly be at a higher ranked school. There may be an occasional exception where someone was offered significantly more financial aid at the lower ranked school, but by and large everyone at a given law school are more or less equal in ability. And of course, the potential students who are significantly less able are either at a lower ranked law school or not in law school at all. If you review the various admissions data for law schools, you will see that the LSAT scores and GPA ranges usually fall within a fairly narrow range for any given law school and that law schools are highly stratified by median LSAT scores and GPA.
So, what does this mean to you? What it means is that, probably for the first time in your life, you will be competing amongst your equals. The average law student is used to being a superstar; they were top of their class in high school; they were top of their class as an undergraduate, they may have been teachers pet, they did well in college, and probably didn’t even have to work all that hard because they are smart and on the ball. The problem is, everyone else in your law school did well in high school, as an undergraduate, and were teachers pets, and are smart and on the ball.
If everyone is more or less equal in ability, what distinguishes students from each other? Work. The amount of work you are willing to put into it. And, make no mistake, law school is a lot of work. It is a lot of reading; and reading probably unlike you have done before. The rule of thumb is, you should figure on 2 hours of prep time for each hour of class time; if you’ve got a contract class that meets for 2 hours each two days a week, you should figure on preparing for 4 hours before each class meeting. What does preparation mean? Preparation means reading the cases; at least twice, maybe more. And reading critically; you will be told how to ‘brief’ cases; it can vary a bit between professors and schools but at the least you will be expected to identify the relevant facts of the case, identify the issue in the case (the question the court is answering) identify the rule that the court is applying, (the holding) and what the court decided or concluded about the facts in light of the rule. You may also be asked to identify the ‘procedural posture’ of the case as well as “dicta”; dicta is an important statement about the law that is not directly relevant to the issue in front of the court. It can be tough, initially to figure out what is the rule in the case and what is dicta; the court generally won’t say “this is the rule” (although sometimes they will say that and you should be thankful for that) and “this is dicta”. It is not easy reading cases; judges aren’t always the best writers and aren’t necessarily writing to make it easy for lawyers or law students.
But, this is the key; you need to read the cases, to spend the time briefing them, in order to succeed in law school and as a lawyer. This is what lawyers do; they spend their time reading cases and trying to apply those cases to their own cases. This is the single essential skill you need as a lawyer; to learn to read cases; to be able to understand when a case would apply to your case and when it shouldn’t; there is no shortcut learning this skill other than practice, doing it; reading the cases, critically, and picking them apart. It sounds simple enough; but you are going to have to spend a lot of time reading a lot of cases, usually more than once. You may be assigned 60, 70 pages of cases for a one hour class meeting; figure on reading, actually reading, not skimming, those 60 pages at least twice. Even if you’re a fast reader, that’s probably a couple of hours. In addition to which you need to extract the information to do your brief and write it. This is where some law students fall down; they don’t spend enough time really critically reading the cases; they’ll skim the cases, they’ll ‘book brief’ (make notes in the cases in the text), they’ll buy or download pre-prepared briefs. The problem with that is, they’re not learning to read the cases and they are not developing skills in reading cases. You need to figure out what are relevant facts and what are not relevant facts; frequently judges like to tell stories in their opinions and like most storytellers they like to keep the readers interest by putting in some background, but not necessarily relevant facts. If you’re reading a case about a dog bite, and the opinion mentions that it involved a white German Shepard, the fact that the dog was white probably isn’t relevant; the fact that it was a German Shepard probably is.
The first year of law school you are going to taking 15 hours of class per semester; 3 hours of that is going to be legal research and writing and probably 3 substantive courses of 4 hours each; maybe contracts, torts and property, or what have you. That’s 12 hours of substantive courses; figuring 2 hours of prep time for each hour of substantive course you’re looking at 36 hours a week between class and reading cases for class; plus 3 hours on legal writing plus whatever time you spend out of class on your writing assignments; figure another 5 hours there. So, do the math: 15+24+5=44 hours a week. That’s a full time job; that’s about 9 hours a day 5 days a week in class or actually working.
And, frankly, this is where a lot of law students fall down; time management. They have to spend a minimum of 44 hours a week on this stuff; that can be done reasonably efficiently if you are willing to get up, get breakfast, shower, and hit the books before you go to class; once you get out of class you hit the books, eat lunch, hit the books again, go to your afternoon class, hit the books until dinner and them maybe you have some free time in the evening. By hit the books, I mean, cloister yourself in the library, or in your dorm room on campus, and read and brief. I don’t mean, hang out with your buddies in the lounge, watch TV there, play on the internet, go out and have a two hour lunch, or watch Netflix. I mean, walk out of class, find some quiet place and read and brief the cases. If you don’t take advantage of your down time out of class in the daytime, this means you have to spend all of your evening doing the work; and I mean all of the evening; don’t think you can crack your books at 9 pm while keeping an eye on TV or whatever for a couple of hours; It’s not going to work, unless you are up till 3 AM. If you do this, you should have most of most of your weekends reasonably free; to do chores, to socialize, to relax.
Another piece of advice; live in the dorms. On campus. First, it is likely less expensive than off campus housing; but even if it isn’t, it’s faster to get to and from class. And, it’s cheaper to cook and eat in your dorm than buy breakfast and lunch and lattes at the student union; law school is expensive enough without having to buy your meals. Law school tuition is horrible; but what’s even worse is, consumer spending in law school; unless you have parents who are floating you, you’re not likely to have much income; that consumer debt will kill you. It’s bad enough to pay $4 for a latte; it’s even worse to have to pay 25% interest on that for years because you can’t pay off the credit card you charged it to.
Don’t even think of skipping class; I don’t know what you are paying for tuition but when I was in law school I worked it out and it came out to something like $100 in tuition for an hour and a half class meeting, every meeting. If I skipped class it was the equivalent of burning a $100 bill. You can do the math yourself but I can guarantee you skipping class is quite expensive; remember you’re paying for this stuff. In addition to the fact that you’re skipping class and missing out on stuff you need to know.
Law school classes; One L and Paper Chase are pretty accurate about how law school classes are conducted. They are taught by the socratic method; the teacher asks questions of the students. It is very disconcerting the first time you encounter it. The teacher expects that you have read and understood the cases. If you haven’t read the cases and the teacher calls on you, it is going to be painfully obvious that you haven’t read the cases thoroughly. The first questions will be pretty straight forward; factual; what are the facts of the case, what are the issues, what is the holding or the rule? If you’ve read the case, you can answer them; but even there; you need to read the cases with an eye to relevance. Just because it’s in the case doesn’t make it relevant. True story; we were discussing a dog bite case, professor asked what the facts were, the student parroted back about a paragraph about the dog directly from the case; it was a white long haired German Shepard who had escaped from yard with a red fence and ran down Main Street; the look the professor gave the student was withering. What’s relevant? German Shepard? Yes. White, long haired? No. Escaped from fenced yard? Yes. Red fence? No. Name of the street? Probably not absent some other facts. The point is, you need to think about whether the fact is relevant before including it in your brief.
So, the professor will initially talk about the case as decided. Facts, holding, reasoning, whatever. Then the professor will ask questions about what if the facts changed? Would you have the same result of the yard had been unfenced? A 6 foot fence? If the dog had been a little Maltese instead of a Shepard? What if this was in the country instead of in town?
If you run into problems, if you become stuck on an area of law, you might want to look at a “hornbook”. Hornbooks are one volume scholarly summaries of the law, typically caselaw; these are available at your law school bookstore but tend to be pricey; they should also be available at your law school library for free. If you are having trouble understanding a particular area, maybe you have read two cases coming to contradictory conclusions, and you can’t make sense of them; or if you have a long case discussing multiple issues and are having trouble figuring out what rule applies to what situation; take a look at a hornbook; they are indexed by case name, odds are you can find the case in it and find relevant commentary and explanation. My first two law school classes were Negotiable Instruments and Criminal Procedure; the Criminal Procedure class was taught entirely out of United States Supreme Court constitutional cases; lightly edited but with no explanatory material; about 1200 pages of cases, and both 3 credit classes lasting 6 weeks. The point is, I was swamped, overwhelmed, not only did I have to learn how to learn and read brief cases but I had to make sense of the cases themselves. In my case, I sprang for a copy of Lafave and Israel “Criminal Procedure” which discussed many of the cases I was studying; and frankly it helped me make a lot of sense of what I was reading. My point is, don’t be a stranger to the law library; if you are floundering on something an hour or two spent in the law library reading hornbooks can clarify a lot of things and help you make sense of stuff.
Be prepared to participate and discuss cases the first day of class. Some professors will spend the first day doing introduction, talking about law school, their expectations, maybe giving an outline or very broad overview of the subject. Don’t count on that. If the professor has emailed or otherwise provided you with a syllabus and it lists reading, do the readings. They will be discussing those readings. Right off the bat.
Which brings me to my next point: your class participation. Don’t speak just for the sake of speaking but if you have something relevant to say, speak up. And I do mean speak up; don’t mumble, law professors hate that, they’re training you to be a lawyer and you should learn to speak up in front of a judge. Why should you voluntarily contribute, if you have something to contribute? Because of the “bump”.
Depending on the school and the professor, most professors have the discretionary authority to increase selected students grades a half a letter grade. Law schools grade A to F, with “+” gradations; i.e, A, B+, B, C+, C, D+, D, F. A half grade bump will get you from a C+ to a B or a B to a B+. The professor will let you know if they do this the first day of class. If they offer it, go for it; the professor will likely grant about 10% or so of the class the half letter bump; it will be based on consistent, intelligent discussion and comments. It may seem unfair but it counts.
Law school exams are anonymous. You will be assigned a random number and you will write the number on your final exam; when the professor grades the exam the professor will not know whose exam they are grading; disclosing or attempting to disclose your name on an exam will usually get you automatically failed and maybe suspended or expelled; this is always an honor code violation and is considered very serious.
The exam will almost certainly be largely, or exclusively, essay; some professors and some courses may have additional multiple choice and/or fill in the blank questions; my property professor had some fill in the blank questions for definitions of property terms, but most of the exam was essay. Count on an essay exam.
How to take a law school essay exam: Typical law school exams will present a fact pattern; probably fairly complicated with multiple issues and multiple parties. There may be multiple questions. The instructions will say something like discuss all reasonably raised issues and defenses. They will almost certainly show next to each question what it is worth in terms of overall points or percentage of grade, for instance, questions 1, 2, and 3 are worth 20 points each, question 4 is worth 40 points (for 100 point total).
The very first thing you need to do is determine how much time you can spend, maximum, on each question for the time allotted. You will have 1 hour of exam time for each hour of class credit time; if it is a 3 credit hour class; it will be a 3 hour exam; 4 credits; 4 hours. In the case above, assuming a 4 hour exam time and three questions worth 20 points each and one worth 40 points, that’s 2.4 minutes per point or 48 minutes each for the 20 point and 96 minutes for the 40 point question; I’d figure 45 and minutes and 90 minutes which would leave you 15 minutes for checking your work at the end. Write that down; watch the clock; and start writing; pay attention to the clock; once your time runs out on one question move on to the next question. I mean that. If you run out of question before you run out of time, you can always come back to a question you had more to write on. But it sucks to run out of time and not at least address all of the questions; you’ll lose points. Bear in mind how law school professors typically write and grade exams; it is usually impossible to get 100% of the points in the time allotted; the professor will likely have major issues, minor issues, possible defenses and maybe mitigations. Even if you are aware of every single issue, defense and mitigation, it is very unlikely that you will have the time to fully address each and every one of these in the time allotted to you. But that’s fine; no one else is likely to do so either.
Law school exams are not baseball games; they are not about making home runs; they are more analogous to Pinball, for those of you who have ever played that game. It is about how many times you hit the bumpers; racking up a few points each time; and the cumulative points you manage to earn. So, your key is, to recognize as many issues as you can and address them in the time allotted.
Because no one is likely to get 100% of the possible points, professors typically grade on a curve; after they have scored all the exams, determined how many points each student has earned, then they draw the lines for letter grades. The top 10% of the grades, maybe 4 or 5 grades in a 50 person class, that’s where they will draw the A line. A bit below that, the B+ line, and so on and so forth. The key being, you don’t need to score every possible point; you simply need to score more points than most of the other students. And, remember what I said about the “bump”; if your professor offers grade bumps, and if you receive one, that’s a half letter grade improvement. That’s the difference between a B and a B+ or a B+ and an A.
When the professor grades your exam they are going to be looking to see how you analyzed this stuff. They are not interested in the right answer, they want to see you walk thru the analysis. You will hear about IRAC in law school; I’m not going to discuss how to IRAC, but I will say, the reason most students get marked down is they did insufficient, or no, analysis. They didn’t’ explain the “why”. Now I will pass along the best advice I ever got in law school; it was from a Harvard Law trained professor. He said, IRAC is fine, but “Because” is essential. Every single sentence you write in a law school exam should contain the word “Because”. It doesn’t lead to beautiful writing but it does lead to high marks; because it forces you to explain the ‘why” which is what the professor is looking for. “The defendant did not commit murder because he did not know the mug he was holding was actually a gun; the rule is that a criminal defendant must have mens rea or a certain state of mind to hold him criminally liable because criminal law normally only punishes deliberate acts; thus, when the defendant pulled on the handle of the mug unaware that it was actually a trigger to a concealed gun, and killed his friend, because he did not intend to pull the trigger to a gun and shoot his friend by pulling on the handle of the mug he did not commit murder”. It’s kludgy but it forces you to explain your reasoning. Every single sentence needs because in it.
Studying for exams. Nearly everyone uses “outlines”. The two keys to outlines are 1) you should do them yourself because the process of making the outline will teach you the material and 2) all other things being equal, shorter outlines are better. You need to be able to memorize this stuff. It simply is not possible for most people to memorize a 50 or 60 page outline; it is simply too much material. My outlines in law school generally ran somewhere around 20 pages or so; however, I will say that the courses that I did best in, I managed to boil down those outlines to 10 to 12 pages.
The main thing you want in your outline are rules, or holdings; something succinct, something memorizable. Keep copies of all the briefs you do; on your computer; if you go to class and it turns out you have the wrong holding or rule, make a note of that and when you get home, fix that holding and save the file. Halfway thru the semester is not too early to start outlining; open your brief, copy and paste the holding to the outline; do this in date sequence; You should wind up with a rough outline consisting of holdings from the beginning of class. Then, try to harmonize those holdings; those rules. Try to reduce several holdings, maybe, to one longer rule, i.e, if X then Y, but If W, then Z. This takes time, it takes thought, this is why you need to start this early; so you can work those rules into an outline. Simply working on the outline will help you to learn the material.
Working with other people, study groups and using other peoples outlines; Be nice to your fellow students. They are as stressed as you are. If someone is stuck on a point, help them out (the exception to his is legal writing; generally you are responsible for your own writing and are prohibited from helping others). On the other hand, I, personally, was never a fan of study groups; they always struck me as trying to reduce work; and frankly you need to work on this stuff yourself to learn it. Likewise, using someone else’s outline, you don’t know if they are right; and you didn’t learn anything if someone else developed it. Now, if, near the end of the semester, you want to have a meeting with a small group and compare outlines and maybe discuss hypothetical questions, that’s fine; sometimes someone else will see something you missed; but the primary work should be your own.
Law school exam time is stressful; I know this is going to sound strange, but you should relax before an exam. Go and see a movie; go get a pizza or Chinese dinner. If you’ve been doing as I suggest, you’ve been working and studying all semester; you know this stuff, or should. Another 3 or 4 hours of obsessing and memorizing the night before an exam isn’t going to make a difference one way or another.
Lastly, once again; key to law school is time management. You are going to have to commit to what amounts to a full time job, 40+ hours a week, during law school. Put your time in, but remember to take time off on the weekends or nights as you can. Manage your time on essay exams; remember, you’ve got a finite period of time to answer questions; allocate your time wisely; do not spend more time on one question so that it causes you to not address other questions.
Good luck. Have fun. I mean that; I know I am in a minority but I actually enjoyed law school; basically all you have to is read; and a bit of writing. It beats all heck out of working in a factory or most offices. Trust me, I’ve done both. Law school is far, far preferable to loading trucks or being a welfare caseworker.