How do you structure your answer to contracts exams? Simple. Break it down into the three general types of contracts problems: (1) contract formation; (2) contract breach; and (3) damages.
I get this question frequently from my readers:
“Can I succeed in law school even if English is my second language/I am a bad writer?”
More specifically, here is an actual email I got a couple of weeks ago:
Apparently, a lot of Larry Law Law readers are not from the US.
Actually I address two questions.
First, if English is your FIRST language AND you were/are a terrible writer in college, I would say two things:
- Your writing can always improve with deliberate practice, i.e., someone giving you feedback, and you working hard to respond to that feedback; BUT
- You are facing an uphill battle. If you are a terrible writer — or worse, hate writing — why you are pursuing a career in the law, which is entirely based on expressing complex ideas with writing?
Second, I have different things to say if you are worried about your writing because you think your English sucks because English is not your first language language (and you are otherwise pretty bright), OR if you are a native English speaker but you rate your writing ability as just so-so — not terrible, but not awesome.
Here is the key and the good news.
Legal writing is its own thing. And law school exam writing is even more narrow and specific.
Law school exam writing has its own rules.
If you understand those rules and can apply them — or understand those rules faster than other students in your class — you will do well in law school, even if you are just a so-so or not-great “general” writer.
On the flip side: even if you are a very good “general” writer, if you do not learn the rules of law school writing, you won’t do well.
* * *
Law school exam writing is its own language
Law school exam writing gives life to the late Justice Scalia’s recital of an old aphorism about legal writing (which is expressed in the form of an SAT-like analogy):
“Legal writing is to writing as military music is to music.”
What he meant was: legal writing follows its own narrow form and logic.
No piece of legal writing will be beautiful like The Master and Margarita, Ulysses, or The Great Gatsby. Or A Song of Ice and Fire, for that matter (since I am obviously obsessed with Game of Thrones).
In fact, it is beside the point if you do.
Literature is art. Maybe a particular book has a purpose (exploring the ultimate ambiguity or simplicity of this life, shedding light on social issues, entertaining, uncovering the absurd, etc.). Maybe it is an end in itself.
Legal writing (by lawyers) is not art. It is functional. It has one purpose and one purpose only (“We’re gonna do one thang, and one thang only — killing Nat-zeesss….“): to persuade a decision maker (judge or jury) to make a particular decision within a framework of competing arguments.
Law school exam writing is a narrow type of legal writing. It is functional. It is not art.
Law school writing has a different purpose from general writing or even professional legal writing by lawyers.
The purpose of law school exam writing is to persuade your professor that you have spotted more legal issues, more thoroughly and creatively, than 90% of the other students in your class.
You must write well within these confines to get a good grade.
This is bad news for good general writers who don’t take the time to know what the confines of good law school writing are.
This is great news for anyone who is a mediocre writer or does not speak English as her first language.
IF you master the confines, the unspoken rules of law school exam writing, you will do well in law school.
Even if you make grammar or usage mistakes in English.
What might be unacceptable for literary writing or even normal legal writing — some level of typos, grammatical mistakes, unexplained or uncommon abbreviations — can be tolerated by law professors (“Professors are used to typos and grammar mistakes.”)
Want some proof?
English can be your second language as long as law school exam writing is your first.
Enter D., a law student at Berkeley Law. She was not born or raised in the United States (I won’t say where she grew up. I can say, confidently, not Mauritius). She did go to college in the U.S.
D. started KTCOOLS the summer before she started law school. She finished almost all of the hypos for several subjects before she went to law school.
When I had issue-spotting contests ($20 Starbucks cards as rewards), she won one contest and was runner up in another. (A lot of Starbucks gift cards I gave away…).
She won even though her submissions had some syntax or grammar mistakes that a native English speaker would not make.
But it did not matter. Her answers were superior to those of other students because she was absolutely fluent in the specific language of law school issue spotting and exam writing.
And her professors evidently felt the same way I did.
I caught up with her after her first semester, and this is what she wrote:
Think about that.
D. did well in her courses — and she had the second best grade in her whole class in torts.
She did better in torts than all but one person in a room full of students born and raised in the United States.
She went to a Vault Top 10 law firm in New York. (Actually, Vault Top 5 firm, but who’s counting?)
D. was prepared, and excelled despite not being a native English speaker.
Your English just needs to be good enough
So, why is law school like this?
(And is this bad news if I am an excellent writer?)
Oooh, another analogy!
Think of the sports ice hockey and water polo.
Both sports combine a variety of skills, but each has a single prerequisite skill.
Meaning, there is one skill you have to at least be competent at to play at all:
- You must be able to skate to play ice hockey.
- You must be able to swim to play water polo.
But these skills are just prerequisites to play at all.
If you are an awesome skater or awesome swimmer, it helps, but it’s not the point of these sports (Aren’t there separate sporting events dedicated to just skating and just swimming, right?)
You only need to swim or skate well enough to score goals:
- Wayne Gretsky, the greatest hockey player ever, was not the fastest skater (or best shot, or biggest, toughest player, for that matter). He skated well enough.
- Despite having played water polo myself, I can’t name a single famous player. There is the Hungarian Men’s National Team. No famous swimmers amongst these players. Yet these guys swam well enough to win nine (9!!!) Olympic Gold Medals.
- Meanwhile, Michael Phelps — the most decorated swimmer ever — may or may not be a great water polo player. He might beat everyone else to the ball, but what can he do with it? Will he score?
It is the same with law school and writing. Writing is a foundational skill, but not an end in itself:
- You must be able to write to do well in law school.
- But you don’t need to be the best (general) writer in your class to grab all the As.
- You just need to write well enough to show you can spot issues better than everyone else.
Weirdly, some great law students are bad writers.
One other story, in the opposite direction, about an awesome law student who was a terrible writer in other contexts:
I became the Senior Notes Editor of New York University Law Review late in my 2L year.
I had to edit the student notes (academic law review article written by a current law students who are on Law Review) of both 2Ls and 3Ls.
One unnamed 3L was ranked, if memory serves, in the top 10 students in his class (not 10%, top 10, Mitch McDeere style).
He was headed to a super prestigious Second Circuit appellate clerkship. He had attended a top-3 Ivy League college.
And oh, boy could he write well for his law school exams. (His class rank and clerkship showed that he was absolutely awesome at that.)
But when I got his student note, it was . . . at best profoundly confusing.
I had to work with my best editor to untangle the confused 100-page hedgerow of a word-collage, only to ultimately publish a somewhat-less-confusing melange of purported-English-language sentences.
To this day, I STILL do not understand how he did so well in law school.
But he did. And if the note was a fair sample of his writing, that boy could not write.
But he got As.
To my eternal confusion.
* * *
TL;DR version: Not-great writers can kill it in law school.
Even non-native-English-speakers can be top law students.
IF they deliberately practice the right thing: law school exam writing and issue spotting.
To prepare for law school success, easy-to-remember advice is best.
Like Jon Snow’s sword-fighting advice to Arya when he gifts her Needle:
That is the essence of sword-fighting.
Of course, sword fighting is nuanced. But if you panic in a fight and can’t remember the nuanced stuff, what can you do? Stick ’em.
Ned Stark, no sword-slouch, agrees that “stick ’em with the pointy end” is the essence of sword fighting.
Good gravy does Arya follow Jon’s advice.
So, what is the law school equivalent of “stick ’em with the pointy end”?
If I could reduce law school success to a single word, it’s this:
I cheated. This is an acronym made up of 6 words:
Take A Practice Exam A Day.
That is it.
Say it out loud.
It sounds like “tapenade”, or maybe a portmanteau for “a tapestry that you see at the French business school INSEAD” (Tap-EAD?).
If it helps (for those of you who think visually), imagine — to lock this in your head — yourself naked, covered in olive TAPEAD, while speaking business French and casually leaning on a tapestry that you are totally ruining because of the tapenade.
I won’t draw that for you.
So, TAPEAD: Take A Practice Exam A Day.
Simple advice. Easy-to-remember advice.
Why will this lead to law school success?
If you take a practice exam every day, you are actively exercising your issue-spotting muscle, the one skill upon which your grades depend (but that law school does not teach you directly).
If you follow this simple, easy-to-remember advice, you will survive law school. (Meaning: everyone passes, but you will do well.)
Now, TAPEAD does not contain every nuance on law school success.
When to start? When is “every day”?
Well, as soon as you can. Maybe starting the summer before law school.
In any case, no later than September or early October of your first year — do it every day.
I set out “the essence of it” in the video embedded below (I don’t call it “TAPEAD”, but you get the point):
Remember: even Jon Snow (who knows nothing) says “you have to work at it every day.”
Which is why the daily practice — to take a practice exam a day — is the essence of your law school success.
It may be weird, just after Mother’s Day, to write about my Dad.
But I’m gonna write about Daddy. (After Father’s Day, I’ll write about Mom.)
I used to tell a story — even in these pages — that I thought was funny about my Dad.
He used to hand out my business card to complete strangers playing poker at a casino. (He may still, for all I know.)
I always joked about an expected a midnight call from a complete stranger, going like this:
Complete Stranger: “Hi, Larry? Complete Stranger here. Your Dad says you’re a fancy pants lawyer and gave me your card. So, I, uh, think I killed someone. Not your Dad. Now what?”
Larry: “ . . . ”
There is a bit more to this story, when I think about it.
And when I think harder about it what it meant for my Dad to hand out my business card, I feel bad making fun of my Dad. (But only a little.)
So here is my deeper set of thoughts on this.
* * *
In casino poker (compared to private games with friends), you sit with strangers (maybe some regulars) for hours and shoot the shit.
The poker table is a chance to meet people from different walks of life.
And every time you meet a stranger, you listen to their stories.
You tell your own life story.
So that’s interesting. When we meet someone new, what story do we tell about ourselves?
What details do we think significant enough to share with someone we don’t know and may never see again?
What about his life did my Dad want to tell strangers?
For him, there is a whole lot of life to talk about.
To Americans, and I suspect even Koreans, my Dad’s life story was very interesting.
Born in Korea before the end of World War II under Japanese colonial rule.
Grew up speaking Japanese. Couldn’t read Korean until he was older.
WWII ends, his family flees North Korea to get away from the Communists.
The Korean War begins; more fleeing (south, to Taegu). The black smoke of war. More chaos for years in refugee camps. Separated from his family then reunited.
Before, during and after the armistice (the war isn’t technically over, you know), hunger.
Right after the war until my Dad left in 1960 for the States, Korea was a nation of drunk farmers.
The future looked bleak to my dad when he left. (How could he have known it would become the land of K-Pop, cellphones, Korean dramas, KAIST, etc., etc.?)
He got a scholarship to study in the U.S. and . . . starved again, for a while.
He was a busboy in Sinatra’s Cal-Neva.
He talked to Frank; he shook his hand.
He once saw Marilyn Monroe staggering around, a bit drunk.
He met and married my mom (of course I called her!).
He had some kids (I’m one).
He grew several businesses, sent his kids to Ivy League schools, lost it all on the stock market (several times).
Now lives in some comfort — my mom, golf, WWE and poker being the pillars of his life — but not quite as nicely as he would have liked to live his retirement.
* * *
And those are the few details that fascinate me that I actually know about. (Aziz Ansari’s Master of None has an awesome episode on knowing your parents’ backstories.)
It’s been a roller coaster ride.
Every time I talk to him, I try to pry another fascinating story out of him.
Here’s one he told me recently that seemed cute, then more significant the more I thought of it:
After the Korean War, he worked on a U.S. Army base shining boots and cleaning tents to help his parents . . . not starve. An American soldier gave him his first chocolate chip cookie and his first orange. Later my dad stole some cookies from a soldier’s care package because he was starving. The soldier noticed the missing cookies and asked my dad, “Did you take those cookies?” He confessed. The soldier then shouted, “Well, save some for me!” and never mentioned it again. Maybe this is why my dad came to the U.S.).
* * *
The “my son is a lawyer” routine is like this — a “cute” story that is more significant the more I think of it.
What of his amazing life details does he share with the complete strangers at the poker table?
Maybe he says he’s from Korea.
He was in the bar business.
He has kids and grandkids.
And his son is a fancy-pants lawyer back in New York City. (Back when I was in New York.)
Then, on cue, he hands out my business card.
One other detail.
In many societies you are a big deal because of who your parents are. The Kardashians have their own fame (is “infame” a word?) now, but when younger, they were “the kids of a lawyer to O.J. Simpson.” (I hear the show is amazing, but I have no desire to relive that time.)
This is a bit inverted in Korea (not entirely, but a bit). Once you have kids in Korea, people stop calling you by your name (which is rare anyway), and start calling you “Larry’s Dad” or “Larry’s Mom” (if your kid is named Larry.)
So, Larry’s Dad’s is the father of a fancy pants lawyer. (And here is the business card as proof.)
That is what Larry’s Dad chooses to tell a complete stranger at poker.
Korean Dads are famous for not being able to express themselves to their children.
So, since I’m from a newer generation:
I love you, too Dad.
I’m proud of you, too, Dad.
And thank you for everything.
Stick out that chest when you hand out your card.
(But the flowers were for Mom; wait until Father’s Day for yours.)
A change of pace today.
A lot of Larry Law Law is about how — how to kill it in law school, become a great lawyer, etc.
But this post is about why, and weirdly, wherefrom.
(Yes, I just made up a word. Put that in the Dictionary of Modern Usage, Bryan Garner!)
I like to think that Larry Law Law is about more than just law school and legal careers and what not.
I like to think that this site is a bit about the American Dream as well, and how each of us can help improve — ourselves and others — in pursuit of that Dream.
(I have Canadian students as well. Insert “Canadian Dream” where you see “American Dream” and we’re not far off. Except much of your country is colder and has better gravy-smothered French fries.)
I say this because many of us — myself included — are the children of immigrants.
Many of you all (my students) are children of immigrants, or immigrants too, having gotten to know many of you.
(Of course, many of you are not children of immigrants, but your grandparents or great-grandparents or someone at some point was an immigrant, so bear with me.)
Education is a big deal if you are the child of immigrants. It’s a way out of the limited circumstances of your immediate life.
My family was never exactly poor, but frankly education was the only way I was going to get the hell out of Reno, Nevada (great question: what Koreans in their right minds settle in Reno, Nevada? No one, that’s who. My parents were obviously not in their right minds.)
I wasn’t going to be able to get out of Reno as an athlete or poker player or model (although my feet are pretty, I would say). There was just school.
Funny, isn’t it, how excelling on something mundane like an exam or standardized test can be almost magical in how it can transform your life?
I’m not saying that we live in a complete meritocracy. We don’t.
But under the right circumstances, killing it in school can make all the difference.
(If you didn’t feel this way, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
Mostly, it means more choices — more money, yes, but more experiences, more travel, more connections, more interesting people in your life — in short, more of a chance to make the world a little better and your parents proud.
Becoming a lawyer — already a difficult academic task in itself — in an immigrant family can mean status and pride if your parents come from a country where lawyers are respected, and practically can mean being able to navigate tricky stuff (taxes, lawsuits, immigration issues) that otherwise are frightening.
Sidenote: In my case, “status and pride” meant that my dad would handout my Big Law business cards to complete strangers in the casino poker room where he used to hang out daily.
He would — I am not making this up — actually puff his chest out, hand a card to said drunk complete stranger, and boast “My son is a lawyer!”
Thanks, Dad. I’m still waiting for a call from a drunk stranger in jail. End sidenote.
Still, when I said that killing it in school makes all the difference “under the right circumstances,” what are those “right circumstances”?
Well, basically, in my view, even if you’re smart, you don’t make it on your own.
You also need people rooting for you, helping you up the ladder, helping you to make good decisions.
I went to Harvard as an undergrad. (Hold on — I’m not saying this to impress you, I’m saying this to tell you what an asshole I was.)
I once visited a finals club — those exclusive social clubs for rich private school kids. (A finals club is briefly shown, in exaggerated fashion, in The Social Network, an execrable movie, but whatevs).
These finals club kids had connections — their daddies or daddies’ friends got them fancy internships on Wall Street. They had help — paid tutors (like me) when needed. They had files at their clubs filled with old exams and essays (I saw this with my own eyes).
And at worst, their parents would support them financially if they messed up completely.
They had every tool, every means of keeping up good grades and getting jobs.
My reaction — when I visited the club, and every time I heard of some rich kid getting some fancy internship that I applied for and didn’t get — was defensive disdain:
“That’s not me. Look at me, I worked hard, Daddy didn’t help me at all — he has no network and speaks Mr. Miyagi-like English (sorry Dad). I got into Harvard all on my own without all this added help that these rich babies seem to get.”
But take a closer look at what I was thinking.
Only looking back can I see the terrible attitude, born of a scarcity mindset and envy.
Of course I wasn’t a rich kid like they were.
But in my moments of envy, thinking those bitter thoughts, I had utterly, horribly, ungraciously, ignored and forgotten every single person who helped me along the way.
My life was filled with mentors and people willing to help. They steered me, encouraged me.
There were teachers, but there were other, older students who had been there. Many of them (not all) were also the children of immigrants, but they had been there before.
I got into Harvard because of hard work, sure.
But it wasn’t just hard work.
I was lucky, too.
I went to a public school where there were older students who got into good schools (rare though it was), and those older students befriended me.
They were role models and advisers. They made me see that it WAS possible to excel, even at a public school in Nowheresville, Nevada. They gave me tactical and strategic advice and real encouragement. And they gave me friendship without strings.
Even at Harvard, though filled with assholes (like myself), there still were many, many other friendly older students who were more than happy to give advice and and help me get better.
Even before and in law school, my life was crawling with mentors.
I did well in law school, I am positive, because a high school friend who had gone to Harvard Law forced me to have drinks with him.
He brought his BARBRI Conviser Mini Review book to the bar, shoved it in my hands, and told me to pre-study the law, to never write case briefs, to start to look at real exams when I arrived at school . . . does some of this sound familiar?
I am positive without my friend’s intervention that I would have, like, briefed cases (gasp!) or some other dumb thing in law school that would have resulted in bad grades.
And when I got to law school, there were other students, upperclassmen, always willing to help me or answer questions or make me think what I wanted to do was possible. To me this is the key.
So, sure, I didn’t have the exact kind of network or benefits or riches that those finals club guys had.
But I did have my own, different networks and riches.
Many, many people helped me.
Any success I’ve had in my life was somewhat attributable to smarts and more to hard work, but a huge amount of it was luck in having people willing to help me — the right mentors to find me, guide me, and encourage me.
It was luck. I could have received the wrong advice. While I sought out mentors, I didn’t control which mentors would help me and if they had any clue what they were talking about.
Weirdly, in this narrow sense, we may have more control over the luck of others than the luck we receive.
That is, once we actually know what we’re doing, we may be better placed to bestow luck on others, to mentor those younger than us.
So, if I could leave you with one thing in this post, it is this:
Attain some success — in law school, as a lawyer, in life — and pay it forward, as soon as you can.
Once you have some success in something and can convey know-how that is useful to someone else, become a mentor and make luck for other people.
And pick mentees who can use the help — those who don’t have a network, don’t have riches, but have the desire and ability.
I feel like this is a great way to make a difference in life.
You don’t have to do it on a big scale or create an institution.
(And if you can help in a big way, do! Save the world! We need help!)
But, if I could ask you to do one thing, it is to be a mentor to someone else.
Answer questions, meet people for coffee, and help someone who can use it.