Here is an important question: Why is law school so confusing?
It seems easy in concept:
Read case book.
Go to class.
Take the exam.
But in practice it makes very little sense. It’s more like this:
You read a bunch of stuff. It is terribly written and makes no sense.
You go to class and hope that your prof will talk about this stuff that makes no sense.
Instead, your professor asks questions of students who make no sense in trying to make sense of the stuff that makes no sense.
You then take an exam that makes no sense and appears to have nothing in common with the stuff you read that makes no sense or that your professor asked questions about that made no sense.
So why is law school like this?
Understanding the mystery of law school — and why it is confusing — will help you understand how to make it un-confusing.
Law school used to be simpler.
Years ago — like over 100 years ago — there were a number of ways to become a lawyer.
You could go to law school, apprentice with a lawyer, or even study yourself (looking at you, Abe Lincoln).
Everyone studied books called treatises that collected bodies of law and clearly described the law. (Lincoln studied Blackstone’s Commentaries.)
All that changed in 1895.
A jackass named Christopher Langdell, who became dean at Harvard Law School despite being a totally unremarkable lawyer, decided law school was too easy.
Langdell thought students should learn how to think about the law, whatever that means.
So he scrapped the old method (actually teaching students the law) for a new one: make them figure it out for themselves.
More specifically, under Langdell’s new method:
Students read real court cases (from a case book, not a treatise) in which the law is applied but not explained.
Professors ask questions about the cases.
Students magically learn the “legal reasoning,” supposedly learning general principles of law by reading specific cases.
Under this method, the professor should not tell students what the law is.
Nor do professors teach students how to apply the law to new situations, even though that skill is exactly what final exams test.
If Langdell’s method sounds crazy, it is.
For more than 100 years to this day, every law school in the U.S. has taught Langdell’s way.
When students take bar review courses (like BarBRI), they are going back to the pre-Langdell way of studying law.
These prep courses do two things:
They actually teach you the law, rather than make you figure it out from cases (. In bar prep, law school professors (the same ones who spend the school year not teaching you the law) actually teach you the law (i.e., “the elements of murder are A, B & C”). Insanity! CHAOS AND INSANITY!!!!!
They also (kind of) teach you how to apply the law. Not a lot. But they try. UNLIKE in law school, bar prep courses give you some instruction on exam writing (maybe a lecture on IRAC, see my videos on here and here), and some feedback on exam writing. That’s it. (And it costs about $5,000, which your employer often pays for.)
To top it off, the bar exam is much harder than law school exams.
A law school contracts exam calls for contracts issue spotting.
On the bar exam, anything goes: contracts, torts, evidence, civ pro, your mother, anything.
So, a recap: law school exams and the bar exam both involve applying black letter law to an issue spotting fact-pattern essay exam.
But law school takes the annoying scenic route to your destination by making you figure out the law yourself by reading cases.
Bar prep courses take you straight to the same destination. No detours.
Now, isn’t that interesting?
Do you see what I see?
The Solution: 3 Shortcuts Inspired By Bar Review Courses
By comparing law school with bar prep, we can see a potential “hack” or shortcut to studying in law school.
Treat law school like the bar exam.
You can strip away the unnecessary and get a simple recipe to law school success (simple in concept, anyway):
Avoid case-related busy work.
Study the law directly. Practice issue spotting daily.
Do three things – follow just 13 words! — and you will get better grades and feel more relaxed than 90% of your classmates!
This is simple in concept but harder to execute.
You have to be willing to do things that other students aren’t doing, and that maybe your professors won’t like (if you told them).
I am stuck in a mantra-rut if you haven’t noticed. It goes like this:
Getting a good job requires getting good grades in law school.
Getting good grades in law school requires killing it on your final exams.
Killing on your law school exams requires you to master the skill of issue spotting.
But wait, Larry Law Law, what the hell is issue spotting?
What the hell is an “issue,” for that matter?
Lucky, I will show you instead of telling you. Two videos for you today.
The first video concretely describes what an “issue” may look like on a law school exam (including my own drawings of Smurfette and Papa Smurf with beer and a shotgun.)
The second video explains the subtle threshold for identifying an issue. Before law school, the law seems like a black and white thing, like a science. But in law school, you recognize shades of grey (ha ha), and that law is more of an art. (Certainly, on law school exams this is true.)
The key word — almost guaranteed to be new to you if you have not gone to law school, and absolutely guaranteed to be important — is colorable:
Here is a question I get pretty frequently from my readers:
“Can I succeed in law school even if English is my second language/I am a bad writer?”
Here is a more specific example of this I got a couple of weeks ago:
Apparently, a lot of Larry Law Law readers are not from the US.
Actually I address two questions.
First, if English is your FIRST language AND you were/are a terriblewriter in college, I would say two things:
Your writing can always improve with deliberate practice, i.e., someone giving you feedback, and you working hard to respond to that feedback; BUT
You are facing an uphill battle. If you are a terriblewriter — or worse, hate writing — why you are pursuing a career in the law, which is entirely based on expressing complex ideas with writing?
Second, I have different things to say if you are worried about your writing because English is your second language (and you are otherwise pretty bright), OR if you are a native English speaker but you rate your writing ability as just so-so — not terrible, but not awesome.
Here is the key and the good news.
Legal writing is its own thing. And law school exam writing is even more narrow and specific.
Law school exam writing has its own rules.
If you understand those rules and can apply them — or understand those rules faster than other students in your class — you will do well in law school, even if you are just a so-so or not-great “general” writer.
On the flip side: even if you are a very good“general” writer, if you do not learn the rules of law school writing, you won’t do well.
* * *
Law school exam writing gives life to the late Justice Scalia’s recital of an old aphorism about legal writing (which is expressed in the form of an SAT-like analogy):
“Legal writing is to writing as military music is to music.”
What he meant was: legal writing follows its own narrow form and logic.
No piece of legal writing will approach the beauty or lyricism of The Master and Margarita, Ulysses, or The Great Gatsby. Or A Song of Ice and Fire, for that matter (since I am obviously obsessed with Game of Thrones).
In fact, it is beside the point if you do.
Literature is art. Maybe a particular book has a purpose (exploring the ultimate ambiguity or simplicity of this life, shedding light on social issues, entertaining, uncovering the absurd, etc.). Maybe it is an end in itself.
Law school exam writing is functional. It is also not art.
Law school writing has a different purpose from general writing or even professional legal writing by lawyers.
The purpose of law school exam writing is to persuade your professor that you have spotted more legal issues, more thoroughly and creatively, than 90% of the other students in your class.
You must write well within these confines to get a good grade.
This is bad news for good general writers who don’t take the time to know what the confines of good law school writing are.
This is great news for anyone who is a mediocre writer or does not speak English as her first language.
IF you master the confines, the unspoken rules of law school exam writing, you will do well in law school.
Even if you make grammar or usage mistakes in English.
What might be unacceptable for literary writing or even normal legal writing — some level of typos, grammatical mistakes, unexplained or uncommon abbreviations — can be tolerated by law professors (“Professors are used to typos and grammar mistakes.”)
Want some proof?
Enter D., a law student at Berkeley Law. She was not born or raised in the United States (I won’t say where she grew up. I can say, confidently, not Mauritius). She did go to college in the U.S.
D. started KTCOOLS the summer before she started law school. She finished almost all of the hypos for several subjects before she went to law school.
When I had issue-spotting contests ($20 Starbucks cards as rewards), she won one contest and was runner up in another. (A lot of Starbucks gift cards I gave away…).
She won even though her submissions had some syntax or grammar mistakes that a native English speaker would not make.
But it did not matter. Her answers were superior to those of other students because she was absolutely fluent in the specific language of law school issue spotting and exam writing.
And her professors evidently felt the same way I did.
I caught up with her after her first semester, and this is what she wrote:
Think about that.
D. did well in her courses — and she had the second best grade in her whole class in torts.
She did better in torts than all but one person in a room full of students born and raised in the United States.
Now, she is off to a Vault Top 10 law firm in New York for the summer. (Actually, it is a Vault Top 5 firm, but who’s counting?)
D. was prepared, and excelled despite not being a native English spaker.
* * *
So, why is law school like this?
(And is this bad news if I am an excellent writer?)
Oooh, I feel another analogy coming on!
Think of the sports ice hockey and water polo. Both sports combine a variety of skills, but each has a single foundational skill. Meaning, there is one skill you have to at least be competent at to play at all:
You must be able to skateto play ice hockey.
You must be able to swimto play water polo.
But these foundational skills just enable you to play at all. If you are an awesome skater or awesome swimmer, it helps, but it’s not the point of these sports (Aren’t there separate sporting events dedicated to just skating and just swimming, right?)
You only need to swim or skate well enough to score goals:
Wayne Gretsky, the greatest hockey player ever, was not the fastest skater (orbest shot, or biggest, toughest player, for that matter). He skated well enough.
Despite having played water polo myself, I can’t name a single famous player. There is the Hungarian Men’s National Team. No famous swimmers amongst these players. Yet these guys swam well enough to win nine (9!!!) Olympic Gold Medals.
Meanwhile, Michael Phelps — the most decorated swimmer ever — may or may not be a great water polo player. He might beat everyone else to the ball, but what can he do with it? Will he score?
It is the same with law school and writing. Writing is a foundational skill, but not an end in itself:
You must be able to write to do well in law school.
But you don’t need to be the best (general) writer in your class to grab all the As.
You just need to write well enoughto show you can spot issues better than everyone else.
* * *
One other story, in the opposite direction, about an awesome law student who was a terrible writer in other contexts:
I became the Senior Notes Editor of New York University Law Review late in my 2L year.
I had to edit the student notes (academic law review article written by a current law students who are on Law Review) of both 2Ls and 3Ls.
One unnamed 3L was ranked, if memory serves, in the top 10 students in his class (not 10%, top 10, Mitch McDeere style).
He was headed to a super prestigious Second Circuit appellate clerkship. He had attended a top-3 Ivy League college.
And oh, boy could he write well for his law school exams. (His class rank and clerkship showed that he was absolutely awesome at that.)
But when I got his student note, it was . . . at best profoundly confusing.
I had to work with my best editor to untangle the confused 100-page hedgerow of a word-collage, only to ultimately publish a somewhat-less-confusing melange of purported-English-language sentences.
To this day, I STILL do not understand how he did so well in law school.
But he did. And if the note was a fair sample of his writing, that boy could not write.
But he got As.
To my eternal confusion.
* * *
TL;DR version: Not-great writers can kill it in law school.
Even non-native-English-speakers can be top law students.
IF they deliberately practice the right thing: law school exam writing and issue spotting.
So, what is the law school equivalent of “stick ’em with the pointy end”?
If I could reduce law school success to a single word, it’s this:
I cheated. This is an acronym made up of 6 words:
Take APractice Exam ADay.
That is it.
Say it out loud.
It sounds like “tapenade”, or maybe a portmanteau for “a tapestry that you see at the French business school INSEAD” (Tap-EAD?).
If it helps (for those of you who think visually), imagine — to lock this in your head — yourself naked, covered in olive TAPEAD, while speaking business French and casually leaning on a tapestry that you are totally ruining because of the tapenade.
I won’t draw that for you.
So, TAPEAD: Take APractice Exam ADay.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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 hourgoing 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:
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.
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?
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, here, here, 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!
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 goodin 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).
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.
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 astarting 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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.