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:
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.
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?
Most law prof advice is stupid and doesn’t acknowledge the central importance of legal analysis skills. They focus on dumb bromides like “eat breakfast on exam day” and “masturbating the day before an exam is not bad luck.”
Many refuse to tell you the various skills the final exam is testing you on, as if doing so is cheating somehow.
(Remember, you paid up to $250,000 to teach yourself legal skills, not to be spoon fed by a professor!)
So, anyway, like any full-of-himself writer, I complained about this in the pages of Above the Law.
I specifically wanted to call out lawprofblawg (perhaps a name selected in homage to prawfsblawg) who writes this largely insipidadvice to law students, also in the pages of ATL.
Specifically, he says to avoid commercial outlines like the plague.
An editor there refuses to publish Part 2 to an article that is entitled “Part 1.” This is probably because they heavily edited my piece at the last second, and I heavily objected. I probably could have been nicer. Too late.
One important change to my piece is that they omitted all references to lawprawfsblawg, whom I had specifically called out on his dumb advice. The ATL editor, in his words, took out “the specific references to another columnist as not vital to your point, not to mention possibly causing us completely unnecessary headaches should the other columnist be offended.”
I confess I had not realized before that sensibilities at ATL were so delicate, but, you know, life is filled with change.
Anyway, when you read Rainbow Vomit, think of lawprawfblawg. (Because I am paid by Big Aspirin and love to cause “unnecessary headaches.”)
Since I have my own blog, I will publish the unedited Parts 1 and 2 here on the pages of Larry Law Law.