Planet Law School II, by Atticus Falcon (Book Review)

The Best Book on Law School Success

To me, Planet Law School II (affiliate link) is the gold standard of a law school book on, well, law school success.

If someone pointed a gun to my head and said ”only one book on law school success,” this would be it.

(Don’t just buy one book for your law school prep by the way. Buy everything you need!)

I recommend this book to every law student I tutor.

I have mostly praise for PLS, and only a few criticisms, as I set out below.

But honestly, no other book currently on the market comes close to being honest about the law school game and how to beat it.

Planet Law School: The Good

The author, Atticus Falcon (obviously not his real name), provides a clear-eyed, thorough, and well-articulated critique of the entire law school system. 

No one describes in more rich and convincing detail the pathology of law school. Like, all of it: the dumb use of the Socratic method in class, and the bait and switch of it all (that you spend all your time out of class reading cases, all your class time watching your professor make the law much more complicated than it is, and then you’re tested on things you were supposed to have figured out on your own from this mess.)

Only Planet Law School, of all of the books I’ve read, puts together such a readable retelling of an ancient history (how over 100 years ago, Christopher Langdell came up with the method used to teach law school everywhere in the U.S.) that has such relevance to the lives of law students and that so few in the legal academy wants to revisit.

Why is it important to know the history of law school? 

If you know, before going to law school, how arbitrary and insane the curriculum actually is, and how far removed it is from actual legal practice, you will approach law school with the proper perspective.

You can detach emotionally from your instinctive and unthinking sense of obedience to do what the professor wants, and do the opposite–that is, do exactly what you need to in order to ace law school.

To do well in law school, you need to be at least a little bit cynical about law school. Once you have read Mr. Falcon’s history of legal education, you will never be the same again.

Just as you never want to sausage again after reading The Jungle, you will never again trust another law professor after reading PLS.

Planet Law School isn’t just full of history, however.

Most of it is extremely practical, actionable advice, most of which I agree with. For instance: 

  • Atticus Falcon recommends pre-studying, using commercial outlines, because the Socratic method/case study method does not make any sense in terms of mastering the black letter law which you are actually tested on law school.
  • Planet Law School also recommends not briefing cases because it is a giant waste of time.
  • PLS also emphasizes taking as many practice law school exams as possible.

Planet Law School: The Bad

I have a couple criticisms of this book. None of them prevent me from recommending this to law students, but you should be aware. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Disorganized. The book is refreshingly quirky in tone and in substance. But I wish it were not so quirky as to form. The chapters are not named in a straightforward way. I appreciate the literate and clever references (the chapter on the law school bait and switch is titled “The Walrus and the Carpenter”). But it is annoying to navigate this book to find the advice you want fast.
  • WAAAAY too long. Planet Law School weighs in at 800 pages, almost doubling the size of the original book, Planet Law School I. Many chapters should have been cut from the hard copy of the book. They could have been put in an online supplement for people who want to read more.
    • For instance, there is a whole chapter addressing criticisms of the first addition of his book. Why? Who, other than Atticus Falcon, cares? Certainly, the arguments are convincing. They become arcane and presume the knowledge that the student seeks to obtain. Too much detail that aimed at defending the methods set out in the book, but they quickly add to the student’s information overload.
    • In short, there is too much of a good thing. But while the book could be more reader-friendly, you might better view the book as a heavy reference volume (like a dictionary or encyclopedia) instead of a handy, quick start, “how to do law school” action guide.
  • Not a one stop shop. At 800 pages you would think that Planet Law School II would include everything you need to succeed in law school. It doesn’t. Atticus Falcon specifically tells you to buy other books so you can do well in law school. I’m fine with this, though, because I think you should buy everything you need. He recommends law school primers. Cool. You really should, as he said, buy them because they are important to your success in law school.
  • But you would think that PLS itself would contain enough methodology–concrete steps on how to do well on a law school exam. He recommends that you buy LEEWS, as well as books by John Delaney. Those are great resources, but he could have offered help with this.
  • In short, it would have been nice if Mr. Falcon had provided more specific, usable tactics on how to write a good issue-spotting law school exam. This would have been nice. He does, however, go through an exam in detail, which is nice.

Overall assessment

Despite my criticisms, and they are minor, I highly recommend this great book if you are about to start law school, or even after you start. If you find yourself at all lost or alienated by law school, but still want to do well, please get this book.

I have asked that most of my tutoring students purchase this book.

Most of them have found this idiosyncratic book eye-opening and helpful.

Law School Success Tips, Part 1 of 10: Why Is Law School So Confusing?

Here is an important question:  Why is law school so confusing?

It seems easy in concept:

  • Read case book.
  • Go to class.
  • Study hard!
  • 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.

Got it?

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.

That’s it!

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).

Next time we’ll look at each short cut in detail.

Law School Exam Tips: What Is Issue Spotting? What Is An Issue?

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:

In short:  welcome to the mind of a law student.

A single word to prepare for law school success

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

It is the only advice we act on.

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

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

That’s it.

That is the essence of sword-fighting.

Of course, sword fighting is more nuanced than that.

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

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

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

I mean, good gravy does Arya follow Jon’s advice.

* * *

So, what is the law school equivalent of “stick ’em with the pointy end”?

If I could reduce law school success to a single word, it’s this:

TAPEAD.

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

Take A Practice Exam A Day.

That is it.

TAPEAD.

Say it out loud.

Silly right?

It sounds like “tapenade”, or maybe a portmanteau for “a tapestry that you see at the French business school INSEAD” (Tap-EAD?).

If it helps (for those of you who think visually), imagine — to lock this in your head — yourself naked, covered in olive TAPEAD, while speaking business French and casually leaning on a tapestry that you are totally ruining because of the tapenade.

I won’t draw that for you.

So, TAPEAD: Take A Practice Exam A Day.

Simple advice.  Easy-to-remember advice.

Why will this lead to law school success?

If you take a practice exam every day, you are actively exercising your issue-spotting muscle, the one skill upon which your grades depend (but that law school does not teach you directly).

If you follow this simple, easy-to-remember advice, you will survive law school.  (Meaning:  everyone passes, but you will do well.)

Now, TAPEAD does not contain every nuance on law school success.

When to start?  When is the “every day”?

Well, as soon as you can. Maybe starting the summer before law school.

In any case, no later than September or early October of your first year — do it every day.

I set out “the essence of it” in the video embedded below (I don’t call it “TAPEAD”, but you get the point):

Remember:  even Jon Snow (who knows nothing) says “you have to work at it every day.”

Which is why the daily practice of TAPEAD is the essence of your law school success.

If Your Law School Grades Sucked, You Must Face Vader

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

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

Sorry for that.

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

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

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

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

Later, in another post, plenty of tips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give yourself a little time.

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

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

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

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

You must face Vader.  

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

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

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

BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR REQUEST FOR HELP.

Ask why you got the grade you did.

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

Ask ask ask.

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

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

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

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

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

But to be clear, do NOT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT your professor may get angry with you anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you still have objections to facing Vader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here, your grade is already in.

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

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

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

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

Why law school advice from professors is stupid, Part 1

If you really listen to law school advice from law professors, you would think their job is a giant act of tough love rather than, um, f-ing TEACHING.

Exhibit A:  an excerpt from this Journal of Legal Education article:

“This article accepts the now-common assertion . . . that law professors should make explicit the analytical skills their students must learn.”

Okay, let’s unpack this:

  • Is it even a point of debate that law profs should teach the skills they want students to know? Meaning, is the default belief that profs are not teaching students the skills profs want them to know?
  • This idea is only “now-common”?  Meaning, only recently did some law professors accept this idea.
  • Also:  this is merely an assertion.  Meaning, actually teaching legal analysis skills is not something these law profs believe they actually do.

To be fair, the article I linked to is a step up.

Most law school advice by profs is just stupid.

It does not acknowledge the central importance of legal analysis skills.  

It focuses on dumb bromides like “eat breakfast on exam day” and “masturbating the night before an exam is not bad luck.”

(Wrong: it is.)

Many profs refuse to tell you the various skills you must apply on the final exam–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 crappy law school advice from profs in the pages of Above the Law, as a guest blogger.

I specifically wanted to call out an anonymous author, lawprofblawg (perhaps a name selected in homage to prawfsblawg), who writes several largely insipid bits of so-called law school advice to law students, also in the pages of ATL.

Specifically, he says to avoid commercial outlines like the plague.

As I said before, I disagree.  Commercial outlines can enhance your understanding of the black letter law that you must know for your exams.

Especially because law profs hide the ball on what the black letter law is.  (You are supposed to glean it from the cases, dummy!)

So I submitted a post to Above the Law.  The piece (which ATL edited, as I’ll explain) is titled Rainbow Vomit And Law Professor Advice Part 1 Of 2.

On the other hand, looks like that’s my last piece for ATL for now.  And likely forever.

(Despite my other rousing pieces on online law schools, and how getting a sex change is easier than quitting law school.)

An ATL editor refused 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 should have played nice but . . . too late.

ATL omitted all references to lawprawfsblawg, whom I had specifically called out on his dumb law school 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.

Anyway, when you read Rainbow Vomit, think of lawprawfblawg.  

(Because Big Aspirin pays me the Big Bucks, and I love to cause “unnecessary headaches.”)

Since I have my own blog, I have published the unedited Part 1 with the unpublished Part 2 all in a single post here on Larry Law Law.

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