A single word to prepare for law school success

When it comes to law school success, easy-to-remember advice is the best.

It is the only advice we act on.

For instance:  Jon Snow’s sword-fighting advice to Arya when he gifts her the sword:

First lesson:  stick ’em with the pointy end.”

That’s it.

That is the essence of sword-fighting.

Of course, sword fighting is more nuanced than that.

But at the end of the day, what do you do with a sword, when you can’t remember anything else?

Ned Stark — no slouch with a sword — agrees with Arya when she repeats what Jon said: “Stick ’em with the pointy end” is the essence of sword fighting.

And this general advice points Arya in the right general direction.

I mean, 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:

TAPEAD.

I cheated. This is an acronym made up of 6 words:

Take A Practice Exam A Day.

That is it.

TAPEAD.

Say it out loud.

Silly right?

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 the “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 of TAPEAD is the essence of your law school success.

Law School and Parental Pride: My Dad and My Business Cards

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.)

Law school success, immigrants, and the American Dream

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.

If Your Law School Grades Sucked, You Must Face Vader

Short TL;DR version: If your law school grades sucked, even if it makes your upper or lower GI tracts quiver a bit, you must face your law professors for feedback on your final exams.

That’s it.

Now, the longer version for people who as kids would have done well in the Stanford Marshmallow Test:

As I write this, it’s cold.  Where I am.  And in most places where you are reading this.

(Or what passes for cold if you go to law school in California or Arizona.  Or Texas or Florida…).

And maybe you feel . . . terrible.  And that’s compounded by the cold.

Sorry for that.

Most everyone in law school (except maybe the top 3 people in the class), at some point get some grade that they didn’t like and didn’t expect.

(And even number 2 and 3 in a law school class have an axe to grind with some professor or other for not being number 1).

This post is not about what to do differently in law school.

Not yet.  (I have lots of thoughts on that elsewhere.)

Later, in another post, plenty of tips.

For this moment, Kleenex and active listening, for you and for me.

First tell me what’s on your mind:  larrylawlaw at gmail dot com.  (I read every email.)  Or tell someone what you’re thinking and feeling.  Talk it out.

Along with that, here are other healthy, well-recognized ways to cope with the painful feelings you’re having:

  • Go for a vigorous run (or swim or bike or whatever).
  • Cry vigorously.
  • Go to vigorous therapy.  (Find out why you went to law school, while you’re at it.)
  • Have sex.  Vigorously.  (With someone you vigorously like and care about and are vigorously attracted to.)
  • Meditate.  (Vigorously.)

Kudos to the non-existent over-achievers who did ALL FIVE at the same time, with bonus points for juggling chainsaws and baby seals!*  (Vigorously.)

*(No baby seals were hurt, even in my imagination, as I drafted this.  So please relax.)

(And here is an incomplete list of unhelpful ways to cope:  drinking, recreational drugs, overeating, 12-hour video game sessions, 12-hours of “not being the master of your domain” sessions, liking pictures from 5 years ago on your ex’s Facebook albums, binge-watching crappy shows, getting in twitter fights with basically anyone, etc.  I’m not Nancy Reagan by any means — and it depresses me that I feel the need to include this link to explain the reference — but please trust me, guys, from personal experience, those other things don’t help you cope in the long term.)

Give yourself a little time.

Treat your feelings about law school like grief.  It is.  You are mourning the loss of something — the hope top grades and everything that may have meant to you (your identity as a perfect student, the pride of your parents and friends, being future Supreme Court clerk, whatever that might be.)

Mourn that lost optimism.  (It’s OK to say goodbye to it.  It was blind optimism.)

Then (and here’s the hard part):  Once you’ve digested those painful emotions, get ready for more painful emotions.

Once you can look at your grades and your past semester with less (but not zero) pain, talk to your professor.  

You must face Vader.  

(Please tell me I don’t have to explain that reference.  Darth Vader is not Nancy Reagan.*)

*(I am extremely proud of this borderline meaningless sentence.)

What I mean is:  you must face your law professors in ALL the classes you did not do well in (and, frankly, if you want to kill it in law school, I suggest visiting every prof who did not give you and A or A-).  And maybe even, to top it off, go to the profs whose classes you did ace.

BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR REQUEST FOR HELP.

Ask why you got the grade you did.

Ask in great detail about what it was that your prof liked and didn’t like.

Ask ask ask.

Ask to see your own exam answer, especially if it is marked up.  (Few people do this.)

Ask if you can see a model answer.  (Almost no one does this.)

And if your professor doesn’t give you a model answer, ask why you cannot see a model answer.

[Watch your professor faint or have his jaw fall and shatter on the floor.]

Now, for some of you (if you are a sensitive flower like me) this will be difficult.

But to be clear, do NOT:

  • Complain about your grade or about the class.  I have never heard of anyone succeed doing this.
  • Complain about the professor; or
  • Complain, come to think of it, at all.

And do not fool yourself (and you are the easiest person to fool):

Do not passive-aggressively ask questions about your exam while arguing that you did get everything your prof asked for.

So, I knew this guy (“This Guy”) from law school.  A year behind me.  This Guy was unhappy with his Civ Pro grade and went back to no less than to his professor, The Arthur Miller, and did this.

This Guy asked to see his exam.  The Arthur Miller spent one hour going over This Guy’s entire exam with This Guy.  This Guy kept arguing each point with him until The Arthur Miller blew up.

(To be clear:  The Arthur Miller is the legendary former Harvard Law Professor, now at NYU Law, who helped shape the modern Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  He is not the playwright who married Marilyn Monroe, but maybe he wishes her were.)

To be clear:  This Guy gets an A++ for balls.  No fear, apparently, in badgering The Arthur Miller.

But This Guy gets a C- for having a growth mindset.

It’s funny that This Guy went for such small stakes — get a single grade changed — when he could have spent time learning from a master how to ace a law school exam.

Now, let’s be clear.  Even if you don’t take This Guy’s approach, and instead focus only on learning, you should ask and ask and ask what a good exam looks like.

BUT your professor may get angry with you anyway.

Grading feels subjective to them, I think, deep down in their bellies.  It does not feel super comfortable to decide the future of students in this way.

I do believe — much as I often crap on law professors — that they try to be fair.

But to come in to their offices with earnest questions, well.  If they get upset, know that you tried. And there is little most law professors can do to you.

(Did This Guy’s grade in Civ Pro get worse because he badgered The Arthur Miller?  No.  Was he going to get a recommendation or anything else from The Arthur Miller?  Nope.)

In any case, the point of this exercise is to learn.

To paraphrase Ramit Sethi, the point is for you to go from anger and disbelief and move to curiosity.

But you still have objections to facing Vader:

  • It’s awkward.
  • I’m too shy to do this.
  • Isn’t this weird?
  • The Arthur Miller has razor-sharp teeth and will EAT ME because I am a ginger.

Okay, except for the last, totally healthy and rational fears.  (I am not a ginger, so I’m safe!)

Let me be brutally honest:  do you want to excel in law school?

(Maybe — I am not being facetious — the answer is no, you don’t.  Maybe law school wasn’t your idea at some level.  But that story of law school as default option and subconscious sabotage is for another day.)

Even if you want to excel, it can be terrifying to see your prof.

You don’t have to deny or repress your fear, but you do have to face it and still perform.

(In fact, some recent research suggests that fear can help you.  There is an great new book on this, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (affiliate link), which helped me recently.)

And here, all “perform” means is summoning the courage to ask your professor for feedback on your exam and seeing, with clear eyes, the quality of your exam.

Maybe this is the first time you got anything but As.

If you choose to rabbit-hole (a new verb I learned of that means “avoid your fear by living in denial” something that I have done more times than I can count myself.), then that’s OK do that.

But there is a meta-skill to be learned here.

Great lawyers perform despite feeling deeply uncomfortable (or maybe, as Kelly McGonigal would say in that book, because they were uncomfortable).

Most actual being-a-lawyer situations are anything but uncomfortable.

And you might as well get use to it as early as you can.

Think:  if you can’t ask a professor about your exam, how are you going to …

  • Give bad news to a client (when that case is critical)?
  • Face off against opposing counsel on a deal or a tough case?
  • Face angry questions from a judge — questions upon which your case depends?
  • Get a delinquent client to pay a bill?
  • Interview hostile witnesses when they have information that could make or break your case?
  • Interview friendly witnesses who you are pretty sure are lying to you?
  • Push back on a job review where a partner is lying about you?
  • Push back against a senior associate who is trying to throw you under the bus?

All of this stuff happens.  (I can say that because I went through most of the above as a practicing lawyer.)

Even more, situations like these not only involve the ability cope with uncomfortable emotions and anger from other people.

These situations involve another critical skills that all great lawyers have:  having a realistic understanding of situations.

How can you give your client good advice if you don’t know all the facts, good and bad?  How are you going to deal with opposing counsel and avoid being blindsided unless you know all the angles?

So you might as well start learning the skills of managing discomfort and getting a realistic and precise understanding of what your professors were looking for and why you missed that.

Also, let me flip this around:  What is the worst that could happen to you if you ask?

Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes it hurts to ask.  (“Hey, it’s me. Friday night, I was thinking we could have the Johnsons over for some light couple-swapping… Honey? Hello?”).

Nothing happened, in the end, to the guy I know who went to Arthur Miller.  There is no invisible blacklist for people who were obnoxious with a law professor once or twice.

And here, your grade is already in.

It won’t get worse if, worst case, your professor gets angry at your for asking why you got the grade you did.

(It won’t get better, either.  Again, please be respectful and don’t complain or argue for a better grade).

But it is your choice:  Will you let your fear and desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings stop you from getting the very information you need to correct course in law school?

And, if so, are you reinforcing a habit for your future legal career, in which fear and a desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings will stop you from doing what you need to do for yourself and for your clients?

Rainbow vomit, violent ejaculation, and law professor advice (original version)

Larry’s Note:  As I mentioned before, the following piece was originally scheduled to be published in Above The Law.  Ultimately they published only half of it, as they had a problem with some content (which was, I admit, a bit over the top). 

So what follows is a complete version of the text I had written (they only published part 1 of the 2 pieces I sent, ghosting me after that).   This is not original text as I’ve scrubbed it a bit since I sent it ATL.  I took out some (not all) of the profanity (who says I never admit that I’m wrong?), but I re-included links to the posts of a particular anonymous law prof  whose milquetoast advice inspired my piece. 

Original Title: Rainbow vomit, violent ejaculation, and . . . law professor advice

Hey, 1Ls and LLMs:

So, . . . confused much? Having fun yet?

Not to worry, law profs are here to the rescue!

Recently, at Above the Law, an anonymous professor, styled “lawprawfblawg” offered pearls of wisdom on law school success here, herehere, and here.

These pieces – summarizing quickly  – contain the normal bromides on how to succeed in law school from law profs:

Go to class! Brief cases! Make your own outlines (don’t use commercial outlines)! Make love not war! Sleep! Fart quietly and blame the least attractive person sitting closest to you! Have a life outside of class!

Sweet Christmas, as Luke Cage would say, that’s great advice . . .

Great advice . . . for me to poop on (to mix video metaphors).

To be clear:  This is not just another “law-professors-are-good-professors-for-me-to-poop-on” piece.

And lawprawfblawg’s pieces are not particularly obnoxious compared to other victim-blaming classics in the law prof advice genre.  (Some of lawprawfblawg’s advice is even good in my view: e.g., I totally agree 1Ls should start outlining at the start of the semester, and not towards the end.)

But I am going to poop a little bit.

In short, law professor advice on how to study in law school is useless, for two reasons:

1. The professor conflates his expertise in judging good exam answers with expertise on how to study so you can write a good exam. Of course the professor is an expert in what he likes on exams, as he grades them. But how do you know he knows how to study to write an exam he likes? Law profs are, in the sense, like food critics: Just because you’re good at judging how food tastes does not make you an expert in how to cook food that tastes good.

2. This situation is exacerbated by the central incoherence in law school teaching (usually unacknowledged by law profs in their advice):

  • Almost all in-class instructional and intended outside study time in law school is spend on doctrinal analysis (reading appellate cases and arguing outcomes where facts and laws are given and known).
  • Most exams assess a wider range of skills – attempting to identify which laws studied apply to completely new facts. More than application, you are graded on how well you analyze the application of law to new facts, and your judgment in coming to conclusions that are probabilistic rather than certain (“It depends on the meaning of what “is” is.”).

Let’s deplore the sin and love the sinner here: Lawprawfblawg, I love you, whoever you are.

But I adamantly and solidly poop on (most of) your study advice.

*   *   *

Brief interlude: Why listen to me?

My side hustle is tutoring law students. Mainly 1Ls. From the gamut of schools: top law schools (HLS, SLS, NYU, CLS, Chicago, Texas, Berkeley, etc., but no YLS, UVA or Michigan), next-20 schools, regional schools (almost all NY), TTTs, and even online schools (suck it, Concord; you too, Northern California).

Point is, I serve individual students, not whole classes. My students want to do well. If they don’t look good, I don’t look good.

In my work, I’ve seen thousands of practice exam answers, lots of outlines, and hundreds of students in person and online. I talked with many about precisely how they study and prepare for exams. (Average law prof sees 200-400 exam answers a year, no? Some, more.)

I’ve seen many of their results.

I’ve begged and cajoled students to do more practice exams.

I’ve begged and cajoled them not to brief cases and to avoid other stupidities.

So that’s my perspective. I am not a law prof, but I’ve worked with a lot of students and see things more from their perspective.

*   *   *

Part I: Law professor as food critic (not a trainer of chefs)

Painful analogy: You’re in a cook-off. Something like Iron Chef. Two people offer you advice:

  • Gordon Ramsey, he of the three Michelin Stars and anger management issues, screams at you: “This kitchen is a fucking mess, you’re burning the skate, just burning it!!!; no, now it’s raw!!!”(throws skate at your head), etc.
  • Anton Ego, fictional food critic voiced by the late Peter O’Toole, hisses advice at you on how to prepare skate, and the best skate he ever tasted, and things like that.

What do we know?

  • Gordon spent his life in kitchens, cooking for tyrants, and teaching cooking. He is an expert in reproducing excellent taste consistently and teaching people the same (even if they need years of therapy after working with him).
  • Anton judges meals. He is the greatest (fictional) arbiter of taste in the food universe.

And incidentally, Anton Ego is the sole judge of the cook-off.

So who do you listen to?

False dichotomy, right?

Of course, since Anton’s the judge, you cook to his tastes. You listen when Anton tells you what he likes and doesn’t.

But why would you listen to Anton over Gordon when Anton tells you what pots to buy, how to set up the kitchen, how to cut celery, how much butter to use?

Does his good taste inform those mechanical questions?

So that’s the analogy. Imperfect and pedantic!

My point: Your prof is the Anton Ego of exams. He is an expert in judging exams. Listen carefully for what he says, openly or impliedly, about his tastes.

But, weirdly, law schools don’t have Gordon Ramseys, really.  There is not an expert to explicitly teach you the mechanics of answering issue spotting law school exams. (Sometimes TAs, and sometimes profs in review sessions.)

Here’s my argument, more straightforwardly (but still rambling a bit):

1. The law professor is the only person who grades your exams. (Obvious point.) He alone decides who gets the all-important A, and who does not. He is — by definition — an expert in what he likes on an exam.

2. The law professor grades your exam blind. By design, he does not know (at the time of grading) who he is grading while he is grading, so he can focus on the quality of exam answers themselves.

3. I do not think law professors know, in any systematic or near comprehensive way, what their students do to study and prepare for exams. A practical way to prove this is the following challenge:

  • To law profs: if you have this data, please send it to me or (if you don’t want to share) write me to tell me you have it (larrylawlaw at gmail dot com).
  • To law students: This week, go to office hours to any prof and ask “How do your students study?” Politely interrupt when he tells you what they should do, and repeat your question: “OK, I get what they should do, but what do they actually do?  Especially your top students?” Write me if your prof gives you an answer.

I am not sure that most law professors have the time or means to find out how their students study, even if so inclined. Career advancement is based on “publish or perish.” Great teaching reviews don’t help.  They have even less incentive to find out how students actually study and whether those study methods correlated with good exam outcomes.  Doing that advances none of their career goals.

4. Combine 2 and 3, and it is clear that most law professors have no comprehensive basis for saying what study methods produce superior exam outcomes.

5. So, when law professors give advice on study methods, what is that advice grounded in?  Three sources, I think:

  • Anecdotal evidence:  inferences they can make on the text of exam answers themselves (hint: bad ones stand out; good ones fit the prof like a glove)
  • Anecdotal evidence:  self-selected students show up to office hours AFTER their exams to complain about their results (I had only one good student show up after his exam to ask his professor why he did so well on the exam.).
  • Anecdotal evidence: Law profs’ own study methods that let them succeed in law school.

But I think this anecdotal evidence, based on the travails of struggling students, skews law professor advice to the general population.

Example: Standard law professor advice is not to use commercial outlines; lawprawfblawg argues this (who, to be fair, he or she has more intricate advice on this point, but this is the crux): “Unless you have a commercial outline written by someone whose name your professor recognizes, then, in my opinion, you should probably avoid it like the plague.”)

Some profs I have read or spoken with give this advice because they graded terrible exam answers that clearly cribbed from Emanuel’s or Gilbert’s.

Law professors who tell students “don’t use commercial outlines” believe that those who use them do so to the exclusion of going to class, listening to the prof, or doing the reading.

But the causal questions that goes unexplored:  Did commercial outlines cause student failure?

Or (leading question here), is the obvious (meaning, apparent to a law professor on reading an exam) use of commercial outlines, made apparent on an exam, a symptom of study failure?

Ooh, here comes another terrible analogy!

Suppose you are starving to death.

It’s your fault. You haven’t left the house for weeks to shop for food because of, I dunno, Worlds of Warcraft, or something even less seemly.

You are so weak that you can’t leave the house. You ransack the house and all you can find that is close to food is a bottle of Flintstones vitamins, and a big bottle of Vitamin E.

You gobble them down and pass out.

A medic later finds you vomiting rainbow-colored sand and violently and copiously ejaculating.

You jack-knife on the floor, retching from both ends, to borrow from Cervantes.

(Note: Wikipedia tells me bizarre or horrible things are more memorable. You’re welcome)

When you wake up, the medic berates you: “Dude, Flintstones and Vitamin E are not food!  Bad you!”

But Dr. House arrives and berates the medic: “Of course they’re not food! He ate Flintstones and Vitamin E because there was no food, dipshit!”

To be even more pedantic:

  • Flintstones and Vitamin E are supplements, which help people when used properly. Similarly, Emanuels or Gilberts are supplements which help law students when used properly.
  • Flintstones and Vitamin E are not food replacements. Similarly, Emanuels or Gilberts are not replacements for going to class and preparing properly (I won’t say “preparing as your prof asks).
  • People who use Flintstones or Vitamin E correctly are hard to spot because they do not walk around in broad daylight, vomiting colors and nutting violently. Similarly, law students who use Emanuels or Gilberts correctly may be hard to spot — they may write good exams tailored to the prof and know well enough not to crib from commercial outlines or apply law never studied in class. (And others — such as my law prof friend Eric Johnson — have advocated ”>the use of commercial outlines as a starting point to understand the law before turning to cases.

6. On top of all of this, law professors themselves had law professors who believed that legal analysis is a gift from God/Crom/Ctuhulhu/Chuck Norris.

The corollary of this is: legal analysis is a God-given gift cannot be taught.

This is self-validating for professors, but a destructive, self-fulfilling prophesy that excuses professors from teaching the precise skills that result in exam success. Maybe not to the small number of people who would get it in any case, but what about everyone else?

Consider this quick, assholish fake FAQ I wrote on behalf of law professors:

Q: Who has two thumbs and kicked ass when he went to law school?

A: [Thumbs pointed inward.] This guy!

Q: Who has two thumbs and is teaching at a law school because he kicked ass in law school!

A: [Thumbs pointed inward.] This guy!

Q: Who has two thumbs, is teaching at a law school, and kicked ass in law school because he worked very hard to master teachable methods that can be reproduced by diligent students and that I would now like to share with you!

A: [Droopy thumbs + cough] Wait, no, I’m a natural, dude! Like my professors before me!

If you believe in innate specialness, well, you can’t teach what you think is simply given. (See: Babe Ruth, John Holmes.)

And in a way, I think this is the legacy of Christopher Langdell, who first created the muddled, bow-tie, cold-calling, some-students-are-special-snowflakes-and-all- others-get-Bs system we have now.

I turn to that now.

Part II: Bait and switch

A lot of what I say above sounds like it is vilifying law professors. It is a little.

But deeper down, what my assholish comment mask is my own belief that law profs are generally good people coping with a messed up system.

Perhaps not coping well.  But maybe there are no good ways of coping with something messed up.

Fundamentally messed up.

The underlying problem with professors giving advice is that they do not acknowledge (or, worse, may not be aware of) the central incoherence of how law school has been taught since Langdell:

Nearly 90-95% of your time in law school is spend on doctrinal analysis – reading cases and analyzing what outcomes should be given known facts and known law.

BUT

100% of your grade on final exams is based on an assessment of a wider range of skills, of which close case analysis is but one. And none of the skills other than doctrinal analysis that you need on an exam are explicitly identified or taught, really, in your core law school classes.

Professors advise you — in late November(when it’s too late, in my view) — to take practice exams. Most don’t say more than mentioning IRAC (Issue Rule Analysis Conclusion) on how to do issue spotting. Most don’t teach how to spot issues, which you need to apply IRAC in the first place.

But your grades — and your professional future — rides on you acquiring those skills somehow, despite this minimal or non-existent guidance.

Let’s dig deeper.

During and outside of class you:

  • Read cases and try to understand them without guidance (you know now there is no textbook explaining the law; you figure it out on your own).
  • Answer questions on the facts of the case to make sure you did the reading like good
  • boys and girls: “Mr. Hart, please recite for me the facts of Hawkins v. McGeeeeeee!”
  • Answer questions about procedural or other aspects of the case.
  • Answer questions about whether case outcomes are correct in light of controlling or persuasive precedent.
  • Sometimes argue different sides of a given case.
  • Listen to windbags (sometimes professors, always gunners) bloviate.

These case analysis skills involve assessing case outcomes, with set facts, laws and arguments.

Maybe you debate the propriety of outcomes given the facts or previous cases. Maybe you’re asked to develop your own arguments based on facts and law. And sometimes you’re asked about outcomes on hypothetical facts not far removed from the case, but still fanciful (“OK, same case, but here a giant robot molests an emu attacking Mr. McGee? What result?”)

On the final exam you must:

  • Identify colorable issues, i.e., laws that may colorably apply to specific facts that you have never seen before and that may be incomplete.
  • Create arguments: once you identify issues, you make the best arguments you can on both sides, filling in gaps with common sense or inferences based on the facts. (This is harder than rearguing appellate issues that you might do in analyzing a case in class.)
  • Apply objective case holdings to offer probabilistic conclusions on which arguments you created: You offer even tentative conclusions based on objective holdings of cases you’ve read.
  • Exercise legal judgment: This is more than coming to correct legal conclusions. It is a “meta” skill that shows the professor that you can sort wheat from chaff that involves all sorts of other inquiries:
    • How certain were you about a conclusion?
    • Should you have been less certain given the complexity of the facts?
    • Did you spend too much time on an easy issue?
    • Not enough on a hard issue?
    • Make a totally insane argument?
    • Neglect a glaringly relevant fact? Suggesting filing useless motions in civ pro?
    • Fail to raise colorable claims, but focus only on clear winners (that everyone else noticed, too)?
  • On exams, facts are completely new to you. They are not completely given (you have to fill gaps). Laws are not given to you. Or that is, the laws you should apply are not clearly marked – – you might have an open book exam and get to bring your outline, but the prof does not tell you in advance which laws apply to particular facts – you decide that.

This is a big gap, between what professors spend most of their time teaching, and what you are actually graded on.

And class room discussion can be confusing — what with the hypos involving giant robot and emus, how can you discern what your prof is going to do with something that crazy?

In fact the professor does care that you know actual case outcomes and there is a more or less objective way to apply them to say if a given claim (that you constructed from scratch) would likely to succeed or fail.

More contrasts:

Class and study time is for criticism and close reading of cases. Important skills.

Exams test your ability to create and objectively assess your creations: to spot issues, construct legal arguments, and resolve them in reasonable way (in the prof’s eyes) in an insanely short amount of time. Important skills.

SO where was the class time dedicated to teaching those important skills?

How fair is it to students — or the professors that implement this insane regime — to test skills not taught in class?

To have grades and, not to be dramatic, future careers depend on how well students can navigate the tension between what is taught and what is tested?

Two sets of thoughts to leave you with:

1. For self-interested students:

The gap between what is taught and what is tested creates an opportunity to get good grades by deciding not to follow standard law professor advice on studying. The herd will follow that advice and do nonsensical things like brief cases, avoid commercial outlines, etc. By choosing an alternate study methods aimed at exam taking rather than case analysis, you can get top grades. I’ve seen it.

Still, listen carefully to law professors when they tell you (wittingly or not) what they like on exams:

  • When engaging in Socratic dialogues in class, what types of arguments do the like and dislike?
  • What are their pet theories? (I once got an undeserved A in crim pro just by repeating the phrase “representation reinforcement” a million times on an exam.)
  • What specific phrases do they prefer or hate? (Ex: My crim law prof wanted you to use the shorthand phrase “Leningrad Drunk” or “LD” — a reference to a crawling-on-all-fours, black-out night he had as a grad student — rather than “the intoxication defense”).

2. For law professors:

No one of alone you can fix the system, but do any of you (other than Eric Johnson) find this whole system insane? Is there no other way than The Paper Chase in the 21st century?

More specifically:

  • Why bait and switch students? Why teach cases but test issue spotting (and not even acknowledge that these are not the same thing)?
  • What is the pedagogical value of making law students — from day one — figure out the law on their own from reading the holding of appellate cases?
  • Why suggest to students that briefing cases is important? What do they get out of this stupid text-dissection exercise?
  • What is the long-term value of making students outline? What does that accomplish that just giving them an outline and lots of practice or real exams doesn’t do?
  • Why only one final exam? Why not several through the semester? No educational theory says the best way to assess students is give one exam and disappear forever.

On the other hand, nevermind. I am arguing against self-interest here.

Without this insane set up, I would have no customers. Keep it up!

PS. No, dammit, in the end, I change my mind.  Those better angels of my nature win.

Law profs: please fix this fucking system. For the sake of your students.

No, don’t ask me how.  I’m not that bright.

You all (law professors) are, though.  You are the best and brightest.

So please do something about this insanity.

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