Sunday, July 1, 2018
Law school is different from most prior educational experiences because it is a professional school using different learning and testing experiences than what undergraduate and graduate education use. Students who treat law school just like undergraduate school are frequently disappointed in their first-semester results.
First-year students need to adapt to the new learning environment if they want to achieve the level of grades they have the potential for in their studies. Here are several ways that law school is different than past educational experiences and what those differences mean to the approach needed:
- You are learning relevant skills for your career in each course. In prior education, we often had courses that had no future impact on our lives: general education courses, interesting but unrelated electives, majors that we did not intend to use after university. In law school, each course is providing you with one or more skills needed in the daily practice of law: analysis of case precedents and statutes; legal reasoning skills; analysis of both sides of a legal problem; precise/concise legal writing; policy arguments; judicial reasoning; procedural rules. The skills in each course build on the skills in previous courses and ultimately determine one's readiness to practice law upon graduation. In addition, much of the content from required courses is tested on the bar exam after graduation. Time spent in successful law school learning (as opposed to short-term studying) pays off in the future in major ways.
- What you do in class each day is important, but is not what you need to do on the exams. Law school exams focus on applying the law that you have extrapolated from reading appellate cases/statutes for the topics and subtopics in the course. In class you look at cases/statutes to understand what the actual law is and why that is the law. You learn how to tear apart cases/statutes to understand the law, how courts analyze the law, and how lawyers argue the law. On exams you typically are asked to solve a new factual scenario by applying the law and analyzing the arguments for both sides of the dispute. You need to synthesize the law (make connections across the "black letter law": rules, variations of rules, exceptions to rules, policy arguments, etc.) for topics/subtopics and apply that deeper understanding of the law to the analysis. As a lawyer, you will read and analyze cases/statutes every day and then apply that law to construct arguments to solve your client's legal dispute.
- Your professors expect you to prepare thoroughly for class and will not spoon feed you. Law students often tell me that prior professors told them exactly what to learn for the test so that they did not have to learn any material independently. They just copied down notes and memorized the material to regurgitate on the exam. In law school, professors expect you to not only read the cases carefully, but also understand how those cases fit together before you come to class. They will hit the highlights and make some connections (again that idea of "synthesis"), but will not tell you exactly what will be on the exams. You need to synthesize (again that word!) what you learn each class into the larger topic/subtopic and understand how to use the material to solve legal problems.
- Memorization of the "black letter law" is essential, but only the beginning of your learning for exam success. Law students often think they just need to memorize the law to succeed academically. You must know the law well so that you can to spot the legal issues in dispute ("issue spotting") and accurately state the law that applies. However, you then need have the higher-learning skill of understanding that law (why it works the way it does; when variations or exceptions come into play; when policy arguments might be appropriate, etc.) to gain points on the exam. Application of the law to the new scenario facts and analysis of the legal arguments are major skills for exam success. Evaluating the arguments for both parties to state a conclusion is needed - but the application and analysis are where the big exam points typically are.
- Exams are typically comprehensive over all of the 15-week semester's material. Many law students relate that they never had a comprehensive exam before law school. They had four or five tests over a semester that covered pieces of the course, but never put the entire course together at one time. They did well on those partial exams because they could cram a limited universe of knowledge, dump it on the exam, and forget it afterwards. Because law school exams tend to cover all of the course material, law students need to review the material and practice applying it throughout the semester; there is too much material to cram everything at the end and have enough time for applying that material to practice questions before the exam.
- Important study steps (outlines and practice questions) are needed beyond daily class preparation. It is very easy to get caught up in class preparation and not include other important study steps in your weekly schedule. Because synthesis, application, and analysis are critical to exam success, law students have to manage their time carefully to allow time for regular synthesis and regular application. Outlines flip your thinking from individual cases to concepts and inter-relationships within subtopics/topics that support analysis. Practice questions after review allow you to apply the law to varied fact scenarios and practice analysis and evaluation before the final exam.
You are not alone in trying to make these adaptations! You have a number of people who are there to help if you take advantage of the resources offered to you. However, you need to use the resources to gain the benefits.
Many professors will initially help students in class to see how to analyze cases and synthesize them into topics/subtopics. They may offer fact-scenario questions so that students can practice application and analysis. Professors are available to answer questions outside of class. The academic support/success professionals at your law school will offer workshops on a variety of study skills that lead to academic success. You can also request individual appointments with those ASP folks. Many law schools have upper-division teaching assistants/tutors to supplement your first-year classes. Many law schools also offer writing specialists or writing centers to assist you.
You can successfully adapt to the different law school educational experience by being aware of the differences and then seeking assistance as needed. (Amy Jarmon)