Sunday, April 30, 2023
Recently, several of my undergraduate students who are attending law school next semester expressed anxiety and uncertainty about the first year. Certainly, these feelings are normal and shared by many incoming first-year law students. But this need not be the case. Below is the advice that I gave to my students as they prepare to enter law school.
1. Don’t focus on succeeding in class; focus on succeeding on the exam.
In law schools, many professors use the Socratic Method, in which they question law students regarding, for example, the facts, holdings, and reasoning of particular cases. Many incoming law students fear the Socratic Method, worrying that they will embarrass themselves in front of the class. As such, these students often spend hours preparing for class and briefing cases.
That is the wrong approach.
At the overwhelmingly majority of law schools, your performance in class means absolutely nothing. Quite frankly, none of your fellow students care about how you perform in class. They are just relieved that they weren’t the one that the professor called on. Furthermore, don’t be impressed by the “gunners,” namely, those who talk excessively in class or ask what may appear to be incisive questions. They usually do not get the best grades – or even good grades. And your grades and class ranking, not your performance in class, are, by far, the most important factor in determining your job prospects upon graduation.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t be prepared for class. But you should be aiming for a merely average, not an exceptional performance because your time should be dedicated to far more important matters.
Specifically, from day one, you should be focused on preparing for the final examination, which in most law school’s doctrinal courses determines your final grade.
How do you do that?
First, learn how to take a law school exam. To do so, purchase the Legal Essay and Essay Writing primer, which is available at www.leews.com. This program will teach you how to draft an effectively organized and persuasively presented answer. It will teach you CRAC or, as some professors prefer, IRAC, which will ensure that your answer is structured properly.
Second, take practice exams – under timed conditions. Doing so will simulate what you will face when taking the final exam and, ultimately, maximize your chance of obtaining a high grade. Additionally, review model answers to those exams, including those written and graded by your professor, to learn what constitutes an outstanding answer.
Third, don’t brief cases. Instead, purchase commercial outlines and other instructional materials, such as Emmanuel’s Law School Outlines and Joseph Glannon’s Civil Procedure coursebook. Why? Because you need to identify the relevant rules of law that govern the resolution of particular legal disputes, and because you need to know how to apply those rules to the novel fact pattern that a final examination will present. In other words, the facts of the cases you read during the semester are ultimately irrelevant. Thus, briefing those cases is an unnecessary waste of time.
Fourth, draft an outline that concisely summarizes the legal rules for each topic that you have studied. Do not draft a 120-page outline that summarizes the facts and holdings of every case. Rather, draft a twenty-page outline that contains only the relevant legal rules because those rules are what you will need to know for the final exam.
- Don’t worry about how you perform in class.
- Purchase the Legal Essay and Essay Writing primer.
- Take practice exams.
- Don’t brief cases.
- Purchase commercial outlines.
- Draft your own outlines.
Now, many law professors will tell you the opposite in law school. They may tell you, for example, not to purchase commercial outlines. Don’t fall for it. If you follow the approach outlined above, you will improve your critical thinking skills and maximize your chances of success in the first year.
2. Membership on Law Review (or at least a law journal) matters to employers.
At many law schools, law review membership is typically reserved for students who graduate in the top 10% of their class after the first year or who gain membership through other means, such as a writing competition.
To be sure, employers value law review membership because it signals to them that the applicant is a high-quality student. Thus, strive for membership on your law review or, at least, on a specialized journal at your law school.
3. Improve your writing and critical thinking skills.
Excellent writers and critical thinkers make excellent lawyers. From day one, focus on developing your persuasive writing skills and focus on gaining experience in drafting the most common litigation and transactional documents. Law firms and clients value immeasurably graduates who can write persuasively and whose analytical skills are second to none.
4. Develop relationships with your peers and professors.
Employers are not simply looking for quality law school graduates. They want to hire good people. No one likes a jerk, an unbearable narcissist, or someone who just can’t seem to shut up.
Put simply, your reputation is critical to your success.
As such, conduct yourself with class. Be honest. Be nice. Have integrity. Support your classmates. Listen more than you talk. Don’t gossip. Don’t base your self-esteem on what grade you received in Torts. And realize that there is so much more to life than the law.
Additionally, get to know your professors. Schedule an appointment with them during their office hours to introduce yourself, to receive feedback on an assignment, or to ask questions about the practice of law. Most importantly, if you need help, ask for it.
5. Develop a strong mindset.
In law school, there will be times when you will fail. There will be times when you fail to live up to your expectations. And there may be times when, as in life, you experience unfairness.
But that does not determine your destiny. Failure is a good thing because it enables you to learn lessons that will enhance your growth as a lawyer and as a person. Not meeting your expectations can teach you what you need to do differently in the future to achieve the result you desire. And unfairness can teach you the value of justice.
Indeed, your choices, not your circumstances, determine your destiny; how you respond to adversity is critical to whether you achieve failure or success. Put simply, how you think impacts what you believe and, ultimately, what you do.
So be sure to focus on both your professional and personal development in law school. Doing so will enable you to be successful -- and happy.