Most law prof advice is stupid and doesn’t acknowledge the central importance of legal analysis skills. They focus on dumb bromides like “eat breakfast on exam day” and “masturbating the day before an exam is not bad luck.”
Many refuse to tell you the various skills the final exam is testing you on, as if doing so is cheating somehow.
(Remember, you paid up to $250,000 to teach yourself legal skills, not to be spoon fed by a professor!)
So, anyway, like any full-of-himself writer, I complained about this in the pages of Above the Law.
I specifically wanted to call out lawprofblawg (perhaps a name selected in homage to prawfsblawg) who writes this largely insipidadvice to law students, also in the pages of ATL.
Specifically, he says to avoid commercial outlines like the plague.
An editor there refuses to publish Part 2 to an article that is entitled “Part 1.” This is probably because they heavily edited my piece at the last second, and I heavily objected. I probably could have been nicer. Too late.
One important change to my piece is that they omitted all references to lawprawfsblawg, whom I had specifically called out on his dumb advice. The ATL editor, in his words, took out “the specific references to another columnist as not vital to your point, not to mention possibly causing us completely unnecessary headaches should the other columnist be offended.”
I confess I had not realized before that sensibilities at ATL were so delicate, but, you know, life is filled with change.
Anyway, when you read Rainbow Vomit, think of lawprawfblawg. (Because I am paid by Big Aspirin and love to cause “unnecessary headaches.”)
Since I have my own blog, I will publish the unedited Parts 1 and 2 here on the pages of Larry Law Law.
I mean, I wrote them, so they must be awesome [read some irony into that, please].
(It would be strange if I suddenly declared, “HA! I was just kidding! This is all shitty advice!”).
Still, if I could leave you with just one tip, it would be this:
TAKE PRACTICE EXAMS!!!
That’s it. Sorry for shouting.
Oh, and one other thing:
TAKE MANY CRAPLOADS OF PRACTICE EXAMS.
Oops forgot one more thing:
TAKE MANY CRAPLOADS OF PRACTICE EXAMS . . . EARLY IN LAW SCHOOL.
This is it.
After years of tutoring laws students in person and watching them on my previous online prep course, this is the one thing all successful students (read: students who got As) have in common:
THEY TOOK BOATLOADS OF CRAPLOADS OF PRACTICE EXAMS . . . EARLY IN LAW SCHOOL.
Made you look!
But I hope this makes sense of my previous posts.
All of the were aimed at helping to position you to do practice exams.
You need to understand the general framework, learn to avoid doing the things that will prevent you from practice exams (briefing cases and other stupidities), and learn enough law so you can issue spot.
And that’s the key right?
Taking practice exams is the key to getting to practice issue-spotting.
ISSUE SPOTTING, my little chickens!
The skill of skills!
But it is more specific than that.
Issue spotting is a general legal skill — a critical legal skill that, in my mind, divides lawyers and non lawyers.
But your mission is more specific: to master the particular kind of issue spotting on a final exam, under the conditions of a final exam.
This is something you do on your law school exams, the bar exam, and then never again.
When you are a lawyer, no one is going to point a gun at your head and tell you “find all the issues you can in 3 hours within this strange set of facts that you’ve never seen with no access to legal research tools, just based on what you’ve memorized, do well or I will kill you, and …. GO!”
The funny thing is that despite the fact that issue spotting is critical to your life as a lawyer and is the very thing you are tested on under very difficult conditions (huge time constraints, no research tools), your professors . . .
. . . give you no encouragement to think about issue spotting ON AN EXAM until maybe November of your first semester, and
. . . give you very little guidance on precisely what to do on those exams or what they are looking for.
So let me help you with both. Let me help you with more than that. With 5 videos below.
1. Issue spotting: What is an issue?
Since practice exams, are about issue spotting, it helps to know what an “issue” is, how to spot an issue, and how to analyze an issue.
This first video — replete with shotguns and Smurfette — is helpful with identifying what I now call “issue hooks: facts that trigger legal analysis.
Another way to put it: An issue is not the same as a successful claim. An issue is basically “any fact or facts worthy of further legal analysis.”
2. Issue spotting: Think “can I make an argument,” not “can I win?”
Before I get to the next video . . . issue spotting involves a slight mindset change. Actually, scratch that. Law school and being a lawyer involve big mindset changes.
We commonly think of the law as being very clear. It is important to notice that you are influenced by the casual portrayals of the law on movies and TV. The law is usually clear (Don’t kill people! Don’t steal! Don’t have sex with that rabbit!), but the facts are a mystery (Who dunnit? Who killed? Who stole? Who, uh… Framed Roger Rabbit?).
In real life — and for your purposes, on law school exams — it is the opposite.
You are given facts (and you may have more to investigate) but you usually must give an initial legal assessment based on the few facts you do know.
And your answer will rarely be a yes/no answer.
In many instances, you have pretty certain legal answers.
But in many, many more, there are gray areas. They are gray because you are given incomplete facts (ones that do not cleanly or easily allow you to determine who has winning and losing claims and defenses). They are gray because you do not know what a judge will buy.
We as lawyers and law students — we don’t deal with certainties. Let me put it this way: If you could just look in a single book and know the answer to legal questions easily, we would be out of jobs.
Many questions are this easy. But people go to lawyers because they have problems that aren’t so easily answered.
We deal with legal probabilities. In the end an at least somewhat unpredictable human being (or group of human beings, if there is a jury trial) will decide your case.
So: do you raise only clear winners? What if your facts give you no clear winners? And yet as a lawyer you’re obligated to do your best.
So you raise every claim or defense that a judge might be somewhat likely to accept that will win your client the case.
And in planning the case and advising your client, you also anticipate and think of every claim or defense that the other side might well raise that could hurt your client. That way you can provide the most accurate advice you can to your client about whether she has a good claim and it is worth proceeding with a lawsuit (which is fun for no one, not even the person bringing it), or whether you tell your client it is probably better not to bring a claim.
Now, we lawyers and law students have a technical word for “a claim that is sort of a stretch but maybe a judge will buy it because it is at least not a laughable claim.”
Think COLORABLE when you are doing a practice exam or a real exam.
Now watch this damned video.
3. Issue Analysis: IRAC
Okay, so this is a little advanced, but you should have a preview.
This is my take on IRAC.
What in God’s name, you ask, is IRAC?
IRAC is the standard issue analysis framework you are given:
In my mind, this is more a description of what answers often contain rather than useful guidance on how to answer legal questions.
My video focus on using IRAC to follow different shifts in viewpoint, in mindsets as you work through a single legal issue (a single claim).
These mindset shifts really will help you flesh out excellent answers. And I have honestly not heard these anywhere else:
* * *
Now for some nitty-gritty. Now that you know a bit about issue spotting, a couple of videos on practice exams.
4. Take practice exams, early and often.
So we’re back to this point.
Law students are usually told to take practice exams in November after outlining. Most only start this in late November or early December, just before exams.
But this is a terrible idea if you want to be a top law student.
You must take practice exams early and often because we have to assume, ex ante, that you are not a special snowflake. Let’s go through a bit of reasoning:
All of your classmates are about equally smart and equally hard working. You are no better an no worse than your classmates. You’re in the same law school, after all. (And if you think otherwise and believe you are The Special, then why are you here, hanging on my every word for advice?).
This means that most of you will learn at roughly the same rate.
Frankly, most people eventually do understand how to issue spot effectively. It just takes time.
So question for you: If you start taking practice exams EXACTLY WHEN EVERYONE ELSE DOES, and if everyone else is just as smart and just as fast at learning things, what makes you think you will get As?
(I mentioned the forced curve, right? Only 5-7% of the class will get flat As).
So how can you get ahead of your class?
My answer: taking practice exams, early and often:
5. Take practice exams like they are real
I had a swim coach, a reasonably wise old swim coach who always told me, “Never practice like it’s practice. Always practice like it is a real swim meet.”
It took me a lot of years to understand what he meant. I had long stopped swimming.
When we practice something, we sometimes don’t give it our full intensity.
And this is understandable because it is utterly exhausting to give it your all every day.
But you need practice doing it.
Not only do you need to have practice issue spotting, but you need to have the practice of taking an exam under exam conditions — under the time pressure and physical conditions that you would face.
Did you know, for instance, that Presidential candidates usually practice in a mockup of the real venue. They try to make everything the same, including the decor, the lights, the temperature so that everything feels as natural as possible to the candidates.
You should do the same.
Impose hard time-limits on yourself (you will think at first that you have an impossibly short period of time to do these things). Wear what you might wear.
Sit in a place that is as much like a real exam as you can (like, don’t take exams sitting in bed in your Green Lantern pajamas eating Count Chocula).
And follow this advice:
Finally: Selling you on two things.
So these were my free tips. Even more will come as long as you stay subscribed to this newsletter.
I give most of my content away for free.
Look away now if you don’t like being sold on things.
I am about to sell you on two things: one is a (free but difficult) idea; the other is a (not free but easy) product.
First, the idea: My advice is utterly useless to you unless you follow it.
A lot of the tips I give you will help you, but only if you follow them.
It’s like reading a diet book. Great to have the knowledge, but if you don’t follow it, you won’t get healthier. I really want to see you excel.
So whatever you do: if you like my tips, really work to incorporate them into your law school life.
Second, the product.
But just before the product. Yes, it is very hard to follow these ideas.
This is why I created an online program to help you focus and practice the things that will lead to law school success:
It’s called Kick the Crap Out Of Law School (or “KTCOOLS” for short).
It is the product of many years of hard work and experience, trial and error. It contains the best tips I learned took many years of being as a tutor to top law students, and my previous work in running an online law school prep course.
Let me help you become a top law student.
Let me help make law school easier for you (because I would be lying if I said “I can make it easy for you”).
Let me give you a clear plan, a clear roadmap to law school success.
But it’s more than that: I don’t just point you to the path, I walk down it with you.
KTCOOLS is not just a bunch of battle-tested specific tips (it is that as well).
KTCOOLS is also the many, many, many practice exams I give you so you can get better at issue-spotting.
KTCOOLS is also the post-exam analysis, the self-scoring sheets, the debriefs, and even (at times) video analysis I do to help you tell the difference between good answers and bad answers.
KTCOOLS is as close as you can get to having me AS YOUR PERSONAL LAW SCHOOL TUTOR.
(And you get the benefit of my exam wisdom without the awkwardness of having me stand in your living room demanding milk and cookies in a shitty Batman voice.)
Sign up below to be on the waitlist for the course. We are launching very very soon, please stand by!
To be clear, the course itself is ready. The holdup is that I did a launch to a small group of people, and that soft launch revealed technical problems with my payment processors that I am trying to clear up.
So sign up for the KTCOOLS waitlist for this course below (but only if you’re not on it already!):
I promised not to be so negative, but to tell you what you should do.
This time — the third part of a five piece series — I focus on the first pillar to success: master the law.
I have got a practical video on this below.
(Yes, I did those awesome drawings myself.)
Once you are done with the video, please read the below. (It is different that what is in the video and, if anything, will make the video make more sense.)
Mastering the Law and the Three Pillars of Law School Success
Let me get even more basic for a second.
As I mentioned before, there are 3 components of studying law you must focus on to succeed in law school: mastering the law, mastering issue-spotting, and mastering your professor.
In what follows, I talk in detail about issue spotting just so I can explain why you need to “master the law” more clearly.
Now, of the Three Pillars of Law School Success, mastering issue-spotting is the most critical by far.
It is the skill, I would argue, that makes you a lawyer.
Issue-spotting, to me, can be reduced to this: a friend tells you a crazy story about something badhappened to her and asks you “can I sue?” If you can answer that question accurately, with proper care, nuance and creativity, you are issue spotting. (Honestly, if you can do that, you are a motherf-ing lawyer in my book.)
BUT – big “but” there – before you can issue-spot, you need to know what the law is.
What do I mean by “master the law”?
To “master the law” in a given subject area (for instance, “criminal law,” “torts,” “tax”) means: to memorize (1) all the major claims and defenses of a major area of law; and (2) all the elements of each major claims and defenses in that area of law.
Now, what is a “claim or defense”? (I am being a little casual here, but you’ll forgive me later.)
It is the legal basis of lawsuit or criminal charge: “intent to kill murder” or “battery” or “negligence.”
And what is an “element” of a claim or defense?
The elements of a claim are every point you need to prove with facts to win a case.
A single element is a building block of the legal basis of a law suit or criminal charge: For instance: “intent,” “killing,” “caused apprehension of imminent harm, etc.”
(This is an oversimplification, but one you need right now).
A food analogy…
Think of claims or defenses as “legal recipes” and elements as “ingredients.”
You want to win a lawsuit (you want to eat a dish of something yummy).
You have to follow the recipe and have every ingredient to have that dish of food.
Think of something simple.
A root beer float.
The recipe for a root beer float requires: (1) 12 ounces of root beer; and (2) 1 scoop of ice cream (usually vanilla, but if you want to make a mess, please, be my guest, scoop and dump that Phish Food into your frosty mug of Mug).
Now, you can have varying amounts of root beer and ice cream. But you have to have both to say, with a straight face, that you’ve got an ice cream float.
No root beer? Not a root beer float. You’ve just got ice cream. You don’t even have a “root-beer-free root beer float.” That is nonsense.
No ice cream? You’ve just got root beer. You don’t even have a “low-cal, ice-cream-free root beer float.” That is equal nonsense.
Let’s not take that analogy too far. You get my point.
To have a prima facie case (your hot dish of yummy food), a chef (lawyer) started with a legal claim or defense (recipe), and met every element (added each and every necessary ingredient).
BUT BUT BUT: Law school is not that simple.
Because with law school exams, it’s not like you study recipes, and your test is to go to the store and buy the ingredients and make the dish.
NO. It is much harder than that.
A law school final exam is like the TV show Iron Chef.
For those of you who don’t know: On Iron Chef, you are given surprise ingredients and a limited amount of time, and have to make dishes using only the recipes (claims and defenses) you have in your head.
What is going on in the head of the Iron Chef contestant at the beginning of the hour?
She is reviewing the ingredients (what do I have?) and thinking “what can I make?”
But to do that well, she needs to have lots of recipes in her head, and she needs to be able to use them actively. She is not holding recipes in her hand to go shopping. The shopping has been done by some asshole TV produces.
She has to mentally review the recipes in her head and think: what combinations of individual ingredients allow me to create what dishes?
What am I going to make?
Seth Rogan, A Bong, and What It Means to “Master the Law”
So let’s use a non-food example.
Pretend for a moment: Seth Rogan looks me in the eye, swings at my beautiful (Bat-masked) face with his 6-foot tall glass bong, and makes contact. I am bleeding. Badly.
(But please, don’t mind me. Keep reading. I’m fine.)
Can I sue? Would I win?
How do I know the answers to those questions?
In casual conversation, we might think he owes me some kind of money. The dude hit me. The worst person in the world hit me.
How would a lawyer treat this?
A lawyer would not let me go to court and scream, “Waaaaaaaah, the star of The Interview hit me in the face with a bong and I am bleeding, GIVE ME MOOOOOONEEEEEEYYY!!!”
No. I have got to speak the language of the law. A court hears me say that and hears a toddler’s babble: “Gah goo goo blah boo boo MOOOOOONEEEEEEYYY!!!”
My lawyer has to present a dish, identifying a recipe and presenting each and every ingredient required by the recipe. to mix metaphors, my lawyer must say something to the court that is complete according to the rules of legal grammar (at least subject and verb, let us say).
Seth Rogan’ physical violence here is only the beginning: it starts us on our search for legal theories (claims) that we can win on and that a court can recognize.
So, my lawyer starts like the Iron Chef contestant, in search of a claim to
apply (issue spotting), and then we need to apply it (issue analysis).
Sounds like . . . well, what torts deal with hitting someone?
Assault? No, under the law, assault is “almost hitting someone or pretending to hit someone.”
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress? No, that’s not it either.
Negligence? Maybe. Hitting is sometimes involved. You know, the State Farm commercials seem to involve a lot of stuff being wrecked. Maybe people. Gotta think more about that.
Battery? Yes, that sounds more like it. Battery is “hitting someone on purpose.”
Now we know we need to do issue analysis.
Analysis means seeing if we can identify facts (or make factual inference) that match each and every element of the claim.
But we need to know what every element of battery is to do this analysis.
We need the “recipe.”
And not only that, but we need enough recipes to find the right one.
(By the way, I realize you are pretty chill and probably stoned, but if Seth Rogan’s people are reading this, SETH ROGAN NEVER HIT ME IN THE FACE WITH HIS BONG. I SHOULD BE SO HONORED. THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION – CRAPPY FICTION – WRITTEN PURELY FOR PEDAGOGICAL ENDS THAT YOUR FREAKS AND GEEKS PERSONA SHOULD SURELY APPRECIATE. OR NOT. DIDN’T WATCH THAT SEMINAL SHOW. YES, SETH, I SAID “SEMINAL.” JACKASS.)
So here is a simple definition of battery, which has five elements:
“A battery is (1) an intentional (2) offensive (3) impermissible (4) touching (5) that caused harm.”
There are other formulations of battery – just as there are sometimes different recipes for even simple dishes. When you are in school, use exactly the definition your professor gives you. But this will be pretty close to what you learn.
Each element may seem clear, but we should discuss each one further.
And after that explanation, let’s see how the facts (or inferences I can make) fit the elements of law:
Definition: “Whatever you did, you did it on purpose, not on accident.”
Facts: Seth Rogan eyeballed me [fact], which is strong evidence that meant to hit me [conclusion]. If it were an accident, maybe he wouldn’t have looked at me [factual inference].
Definition: “This thing you did is generally recognized as not so nice as we normally understand it.” (Super technical, right?” Not a light pat on the back.
Facts: This is easy, no one thinks getting hit with a ridiculously oversized “I am compensating for something” bong is nice.
Definition: “You did not have permission.”
Facts: In the facts as given, I did not turn to Seth Rogan and say “please hit me with your bong” or even “I don’t mind if you hit me with your bong.”
Definition: means “made physical contact with me.”
Facts: I am a human being, and Seth Rogan’s bong made contact with me.
(5) That Caused Harm
Definition: this means “it hurt me in some way” (but the law of battery recognizes some dignitary harms that don’t require broken bones or blood being drawn). Spitting on someone is sufficient harm, as is an unwanted grope in an erogenous zone (no harm to the tissue, but clearly unwanted and terrible for the person).
Facts: Yup, that hurt.
Note: Sometimes this is an optional element for proving liability. Sometimes the extent of harm goes to how much I can collect in damages.
Now, if I am missing proof on any of these elements, I can’t even make out a case.
In a full trial, if Seth Rogan can prove that I am simply wrong about a fact I offer as to just one of these elements – JUST ONE – then I lose the claim.
If I lied, and in fact, I told Seth, “No, please, hit me really hard with that bong, Seth Rogan!”, then I lose.
Just as a root beer float is not a root beer float without root beer and ice cream.
Recap: Why You Need To Master the Law
We need to know claims and defenses (defenses – like intoxication or self-defense – have elements and must be proven just the way a claim must be proven).
So let’s back up.
You need to master the law so you can master issue spotting, the very skill your law school grades depend on.
Specifically, you need to know enough law so you can pick out facts that are “issue hooks” that would trigger a deeper look at a particular legal claim or defense.
Once you decide you need to look deeper at a set of facts to see if a claim or defense matches the facts, you need to know all of the elements of the claim or defense to do the analysis.
Then, repeat this exercise until YOU BECOME THE IRON CHEF!
Next time: Part 4 on Mastering Issue Spotting.
Also: I am having some technical difficulties. I do plan on opening up sales to my course, Kick the Crap Out of Law School in my next post.
(As embodied by the weirdo White Walker/Gandalf snowman guy above. Or this guy.)
Fear is the dominant emotion for many law students before and during your first year in law school.
Law school is at least a bit scary. Maybe a lot.
Maybe you don’t want to admit it to others, but at least admit it to yourself.
Fear isn’t so bad — it is an evolutionary response to perceived danger.
But in law school, fear can hurt you. You will waste time if you do not manage your fear and channel it properly.
But you can. And you will. I will give you the tools — specific tips — to help you manage your fear and protect your time in law school.
Because protecting your time is so, so incredibly important.
Your time and focus are incredibly limited resources. Every moment you spend on the wrong thing is a moment you are not working towards your goal of getting good grades (so you can get a dream job, which is why you went to law school in the first place, right?)
But before I give you those very specific tactical tips, we need to talk about the psychology of the first year law student and how fear can lead you down the wrong path.
You really need to understand this before the tips I offer will be useful to you. (In fact, if you don’t understand the psychology of law school, you might reject the tips that I offer you as incredibly stupid.).
So, let’s do it.
* * *
1. Why is 1L year scary?
Let’s look at this. What precisely is scary about your first year?
Well, when I talk to law students I have tutored, they mention two big fears:
1. Getting bad grades.
2. Being humiliated in class like this (or check out video below).
It is the law school equivalent to the “I’m in class naked” dream.
Neither nightmare is fun.
But only one of these nightmares is permanent.
Bad grades can follow you for a long time, stop you from getting work, leave you unable to pay your law school debt… and on and on and on. I don’t want to repeat what others have said better, but this is serious stuff.
A bad day in class, on the other hand, may feel terrible for a day or two. Or if you are like me and would do almost anything to avoid being called out in public, you might obsess for weeks about sounding stupid in front of your classmates. Your feelings of embarrassment might come back at any time in your head for years.
Unlike bad grades, a bad day in class will pass.
Do you agree with me on this? Say it aloud:
“Bad grades are a million times worse than a bad day in class.”
So here is my question: Why do so many law students seem to organize their law school lives to avoid #2 (a bad day in class) rather than to avoid #1 (bad grades)?
This question is less judgmental than it sounds. It is, honestly, kind of a mystery. But this is what I’ve learned:
Let’s take the typical law student, you.
You are smart. You work hard. Maybe you are a perfectionist. (And maybe you feel incredibly imperfect).
So you wouldn’t pick a study plan that would lead to bad grades, right?
Not if you knew it would lead to bad grades, right?
But many people do.
So what is going on? A combination of factors:
1. Most law students get mediocre grades because law school grades are on a vicious curve. At many law schools, only the top 3-7% of the class gets an A, and maybe the next 5-10% of the class gets an A-. And Cs are rare now in law school, so it means everyone else basically gets a B+, B or B-.
2. Law school pedagogy is totally messed up. Your grade in a class depends entirely on your performance on a final exam. But your final exam performance depends on a skill (issue spotting) that your time in class does not teach.
3. But — hugely important point here — law school as a whole is set up to appear like a test of legal knowledge rather than the reality: law school exams test a single, specific legal skill called “issue spotting.”
4. Consider: You are assigned tons of reading in class; some estimates say you read between 20-30 hours a week. You will spend your 12-15 classroom hours per week discussing these cases. Those two activities are already a full time job. This full time job does not help you with issue-spotting, the skill upon which your entire legal future is based.
5. Indeed, all the social pressure in law school focuses on making sure you read and are prepared for class. If you are not prepared to discuss these cases, a professor is standing by to make sure you feel like an idiot. Thanks, Professor Brewster “Angry Asshole” Kingman. And other scared law students reinforce this pressure. They will keep talking about understanding cases and preparing for class and briefing cases.
6. No one else will notice if you are learning how to do issue spotting, if you are really preparing for final exams, if you are really looking out for your own best interest. No student or professor will say, “Hey, dude, you are an idiot for not knowing issue spotting!”
7. Indeed, professors will tell you that all you have to do is read the cases, come to class prepared, pay attention, do a little outlining and practice exams (which they give you absolutely no guidance on ), and you should do fine. According to professors, there is no difference between what you need to do to avoid classroom embarrassment, and what you need to do to avoid bad grades. They don’t think so, and I think most professors truly believe this. (More on this in a future post).
8. You must be thinking: Your professors would not possibly pull the old bait-and-switch (see also: switcheroo, switcherooney, the switch-meister, switchy-switch-switch-switch), right?
They would not tell and make you learn a bunch of things while testing you on something almost completely different, right? You are spending a giant crap-load of (probably borrowed) money to go to law school.
There are beautiful buildings, smart professors from prestigious law schools and immaculate resumes. They are nice, honest-seeming people. They are neatly dressed. These people wouldn’t be tricking you, right? Right?
9. You haven’t heard of any clear alternative to doing what the professor says to do to get good grades AND avoid social embarrassment, other than what you have heard from professors. You have heard from other law students, but what do they know? Everyone has a competing and maybe compelling theory on how to dominate in law school. Also, they are competing with you. Maybe other students are telling you one thing so they can go off and do another thing they know will lead to success?
10. In this confusion, you think about your college success. In college you got good grades by being smart, working hard, and doing exactly what the professor asked you to do. Why wouldn’t that work now? So you start
So how do you, a typical and rational law student, react?
You are scared. You fall back on your old habits. You do what the professor says. You do what others are doing. Everyone else is furiously doing the reading. Everyone else seems incredibly prepared for class. Everyone else is briefing cases, putting a ton of work into legal writing assignments, doing moot court, etc.
So you do the same. You read and re-read and read cases again. You brief cases — partly because some law schools tell you that you must (but they’re not checking if you do them). You work until late on legal writing. You join moot court, APALSA, Amnesty, Federalist Society, whatever.
And you don’t want to be that girl or that guy in class.
So you Work. Really. Hard.
That is your strategy.
Day to day, you still fear being called on in class, but you are prepared.
It feels good to get through lots of material and master those cases and feel like you have really gotten into the details of a case. You know it cold by the time you get to class.
That professor won’t make a fool of you. You’ll look good in class! You’ll look smart!
But — and I am speaking from experience, from students who had this happen — before you know it, a semester has flown by, and finals are coming up.
Everyone else is outlining and taking practices exams.
So you are on the same schedule as everyone else.
You have to prepare for exams. But you still have to keep reading, keep briefing cases, AND do legal research papers AND extracurriculars you signed up for (because you want to look well-rounded and others pushed you into joining moot court, and you want to get real skills…).
So you get to your exams. You didn’t outline everything, you took a practice exam or two, and you didn’t sleep well before exams.
You are nervous, maybe more nervous than you have ever been.
You start taking the exam and it feels . . . awkward and foreign. You studied the law, you think, but this exam is different.
You aren’t seeing the issues right away.
Other people around you are typing away furiously. They seem to know what they’re doing.
You stare at your screen (or paper). You can’t think of anything.
You see the time. Only 2 hours left. You start writing something. It seems stupid, but you have to write something. You keep writing. You remember some things. It seems easier.
Time. You turn in (or submit) your exam. You have a gnawing feeling that you did terribly, but you still have a little hope. Your classmates also seem shellshocked (some seem cocky, but you ignore them), and so you are hopeful.
How well do you think this story turns out?
Do you think, under this scenario, you end up being pleasantly surprised by your grades?
With a grading curve, if everyone is pretty smart, and everyone else works hard, and everyone else does the same kind of work, what is the chance that you will get the A?
Maybe you are The Special (watch The Lego Movie sometime, it’s on HBONow) and you just get law school in a way that others don’t. You’ll get the A.
And maybe not.
You get your grades back: definitely not special.
If you think I am making this up, I am not.
This is just what I have seen with students I tutored.
This precise series of things happened to many of the law students who came to me for tutoring after their very trying first semester.
And I can tell you that most of the law students who came to me for advice before law school, heeded this cautionary tale, followed my advice below, and avoided this fate.
* * *
2. 4 Specific Tips to Protect Your Time And Kick Ass In Law School
Let’s be clear: You do not need to be “the special.”
Just assume — as is frankly the truth — that you are no smarter than your already smart classmates.
If you follow these tips, you will be on a different path from most of your classmates.
You will be clearing up your time to avoid time-wasting activities.
You will be able to protect your time.
Of course these tips are just a start. I am not suggesting you clear up your schedule you so you can just party. (Don’t avoid parties, by the way, in my view. The valedictorian from my law school class went out a lot.)
You are clearing your schedule so you can channel your fear and your hard work towards those activities that will actively help you get good grades.
Also: these tips are simple and easy to implement. Mostly, I am telling you things NOT to do.
But they may be hard to keep doing (or not doing).
These tips seem simple. But initially they may involve you having a struggle in your own head with your fear, with peer pressure, and between intense short term pressures and long term goals that are more important but exert less pressure on you day to day.
That is, it is easy for me to give you these tips. It is hard — because of psychological reasons I mentioned above — to follow them.
This video, that I made, tells you what you need to know about briefing cases. Basically, do not do it. At some law schools, (ahem, Wash U Law School), the dean (I am reliably told) tells students that they must brief cases. Even so, don’t do it.
Protect Your Time 2: Don’t overprepare for class in any other way
This is a corollary to Point 1. That is, maybe while you might not brief cases, you might be doing other things to prepare for class. Maybe you are frantically re-read cases 4-5 times to memorize the details. Maybe you read way ahead.
Do not do it. Now notice, I am not telling you NOT to do the reading. Do the reading. But do not over do it.
My recommendation is: read the cases the night before class. Scribble notes in the book or type a couple of key lines. You will never be tested on the teeny-tiny obscure details of the case. You may be ASKED about them, but so what?
Also, as I mention elsewhere, class time should never be the first time you learn about a part of the law. If you pre-study the law, you won’t be frantically reviewing cases to understand what is going on. (But more on that later).
I gave you my recommendation, but do what works for you. Just make sure that thing is consistent with strictly limiting how much time you spend reading cases.
And remember that if you are over preparing for class, you are forgetting that (1) classroom performance does not matter for your final grade (and is not even a sign of how well you get the material); and (2) every minute you over-prepare for class you are not preparing for your exams.
Watch the video below, but in short: Extracurriculars — with only 2 exceptions — will not help you in law school. Focus on going out and bonding with law students socially.
In short: DO NOT add work to your life. Do NOT add work-like obligations to your already cluttered life. Maybe you managed it in college, but this is your first year in law school.
Don’t give yourself work when you don’t yet know what it takes to succeed in law school.
Protect Your Time 4: Do as little work as possible in your legal writing.
I will say more on this later, but your legal writing (sometimes “legal research & writing” or LRW”) class is another potential time suck.
LRW is a class that is not focused on a single subject, but teaches you the mechanics of practicing law. Things like drafting legal briefs, researching cases, writing client memos, etc.
Sounds important and super practice, right? Except you do it for a bit your first year and never come back to it.
Also, unfortunately, law school is not where you get real training for work. (I am not saying this is a good thing. But it is more or less the truth.)
So my advice is different than the other 3 points above and depends on whether LRW is pass/fail or a graded class for you.
If LRW is pass/fail, do the minimum possible to pass. Trust me, if you at least hand in something semi-coherent, no one will fail you. But getting a “pass” in LRW is not going to help you get a job. So don’t over do it. You will feel some pressure for your instructor because, unlike with other professors, he or she will give you feedback. And if you put in only the minimum amount of effort, that feedback will not generally be friendly. DO NOT give into temptation and put more energy into LRW. It will not help you with your grade.
If LRW is a fully graded class, my advice is a little different. Sit down and spend time calculating how much LRW factors into your grades. Then figure out how much time you actually have to study.
Be realistic. Start from 168 hours, and subtract 8 hours of night for sleep — don’t skim on sleep! — class time, meals, exercise and maybe going out. Then multiply by percentage . Let’s say LRW is 3 credits and you have 15. Don’t spend more than 20% of your available study time on it.
Because even if LRW is graded, you should not treat it as if it were more important than other classes.
This sounds like common sense, but I have watched students plow a disproportionate amount of time — like 30-40% of their available study time — into LRW. It is tempting, because you want some kind of A. LRW seems like a good way to get that A.
Legal writing is different from your other main classes in that you get graded on multiple papers and so this is an A you can control, so you work REALLY HARD.
But this is a dangerous illusion.
First, if there is a curve for LRW, remember that your classmates have the same incentives. They will also plow a ton of work into LRW. So your chances of getting an A may not be higher.
Second, even if there is no curve for LRW, you can lose critical study time for your other classes — the “real” classes that most employers and judges and other law schools (if you are thinking of transferring) look at.
Many employers, judges and others do not value LRW highly.
That is, if you get an A in LRW but no other As, you will not stand out. You might not get your foot in the door for an interview.
They can, however, accept the converse: If you get A’s in torts and contracts and crim, but you get a B in LRW, you will get the interview. You may be asked “what the hell happened in LRW” but that is a much easier problem to deal with (“I was too busy kicking ass in my other classes and had to make choices about what to work on, so I am showing you I can prioritize well and excel where it matters.”) than NOT GETTING THE INTERVIEW.
And, in the end, isn’t that what law school is about?
You are not trying to kick ass in law school for its own sake.
You are going to law school to make a difference in the world, to help your family, to better your situation.
All of these things are more closely within your reach if you can manage your fear and protect your time.
If you know what works — and just as importantly, what does not work — in law school to get you good grades, those skills stay with you.
(Just like, this one time when I was at Starbucks, and someone dropped an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie — wtf, oatmeal and chocolate chips? — and my ninja training took over, and I nearly caught the cookie before it shattered into a million sad little pieces.)
The right training — that builds muscle memory, or what feel like automatic reflexes — lets you perform well, even when you take exams under conditions that are not ideal.
But you have to develop these skills in your first year of law school.
The wrong training will mean that you will spend years frustrated — no matter how hard you work at the WRONG THINGS.
(Like, without ninja training like mine, you would have had no chance to catch that oatmeal chocolate chip cookie at Starbucks that I almost caught but didn’t, but either way, my non-catching was more full of ninja-like reflexes than your hypothetical… but I digress.)
In fact, that whole semester — spring of my 2L year — was not ideal for me.
I had what I felt were overwhelming responsibilities on law review.
I was the designer and writer of the horrible law review write-on competition, in addition to editing each and every student-written note.
I was a teaching assistant.
I was a research assistant.
And — not having been terribly cool in college, or high school for that matter — I liked going out a lot.
But I survived — and got good grades — because of the skills I learned my first year.
(And what I want to do with Larry Law Law is to pass on these skills to you.)
Before I tell you what happened, or why I got an A- (and why I am disappointed I got an A-), let me take a step back.
You might be asking yourself, what is so special about getting an A-?
Well, most people who go to law school got excellent grades in college.
But there is a forced curve in law school.
Not just some, but MOST people who were A-students in college end up becoming B-students in law school.
That is by design. Law school is sort of harsh that way. Only 10-15 percent of people are supposed to get an A or A- of any sort in any given class.
Yet weirdly, to the victor go the spoils.
Many smart, hard working people never get As at all.
Law students who in theory should have been at the top of my class — they got into Harvard and Yale law schools but came to my only somewhat less prestigious law school because they got full ride scholarships.
These students were consistent B-students. (Don’t worry, they are all fine now.).
Meanwhile, some other group of students were grabbing all the As like teenagers grabbing candy from toddlers trick-or-treating.
Now, if you haven’t gone off to law school, or are super confident about repeating your awesome college academic performance, you might be thinking “Pfffffshaw! I got As all the time! Drinking, asleep, whatevs. I am awwweeessome!”
OK, so what I am going to say is not you. The other guys or gals are going to eat the Bs, not you.
But read on if you are a little worried about law school. (Also feel free to read on if you are not the kind of person who say things like “whatevs” and “I am awessooomme!”)
I wouldn’t call what happened a miracle — it was basically a lot of panicking while drunk and hungover.
Basic problem was that I picked up my 72-hour take home exam at 3pm on a Friday and went to the Law Review office to work on it, just as a dozen or so 3Ls had just finished their last exams of any kind, ever.
They kindly invited me to have a beer or two with them, then a margarita or five, and suddenly I woke up the next day, still drunk, face down on the couch in the Law Review office instead of my bed.
I had vague memories of dancing badly in a really dark, but colorfully decorated Mexican place in Turtle Bay.
And then almost screamed when i woke up and realize that I’d slept though much of the exam.
(Looking back, I wish I’d had less to drink in law school. My dear first-year roommate — who had lived above a beer factory during his Mormon (Latter-Day Saints) mission in Germany — was incredibly kind and tolerant of my behavior, but he did say I would be a cautionary tale to his future children. He managed never to lose his cool even when I peed on his bedroom door one night.)
Two frantic days and nights (I didn’t sleep the last 24 hours), and the exam got done. (During that sleepless 24 hours, a friend — who I went on a food run with — sighted Alicia Silverstone, and I did not, at 4am on our way to a Korean bodega to get potato chips).
Why did I STILL get an A- despite being drunk?
Okay, slight cliff-hanger here. I won’t be able to articulate it all at once. I will post more on this point in coming days.
For now, I leave it to a video to give you an overview of the skills I focused on way, way before getting drunk before my con law exam.
In short, there are three basic pillars of law school that I focused on. As the video will tell you. And subsequent blog posts (or emails if you are getting this by email).
Why was I disappointed that I got an A-?
Basically, because under any other circumstances — had I not gotten so drunk — I would have gotten a flat A in.
One advanced tactic — once you have mastered the basic skills of learning the law itself and issue spotting — is to get inside your professor’s head.
My con law professor was the same guy I had for first-year criminal law, a class I got a flat A in. I became his teaching assistant for criminal law the year after.
I knew him — I really knew him, how to write for him, what he liked, what he didn’t like. His exams were famously difficult — this was no easy A — but there was a curve, and I had the benefit of knowing his mind very, very well (compared to other students, anyway).
But in one respect, law school is fair — exams are graded blind.
My exam got the treatment it deserved. I wrote a good, but not outstanding exam, even though I had every means of writing one of the best. This happened because I drank away 33% of my allotted time on my exam (and marred the remaining 67% of my time with a horrendous hangover and — how you say? — and upset stomach.).
Thanks 3Ls: You helped me level the playing field to my disadvantage.
Who am I kidding? I did that to me.
Thankfully the inner law school ninja kicked in.
NEXT TIME: More on the three pillars of law school, and how buy yourself time by avoiding time-sucks.