Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Whether we're ready or not (we mostly are), classes start tomorrow for West Virginia University College of Law. Orientation for new students started last week, and I had the chance to teach a group of our new students. I had three sessions with the group where we discussed some cases, how to brief a case, and did some writing exercises. It's been a while since I worked with first-year students, and it was a lot of fun.
In addition to the assigned work, I answered a lot of questions, in and out of the classroom. Questions focused mostly on how to succeed as a law student. Although there's plenty of advice on the internet, and whole books dedicated to subject, and even my own blog posts. Last year, I provided my Ten Promises For New Law Students to Consider. This year, I had enough similarly themed questions, that I thought I'd add some detail to my basic advice for new law students.
1) Do the work.
Some students ask -- if I work law school like a job, is that a good idea? As with everything, it depends. I don't know how you work. If you work regular hours, every day, where you focus on the task before you, then it can work well. If you're someone who sits in front of a computer doing everything but your work until a deadline is looming, it's not so likely to work for you.
So, if you work it like a job where you are the boss, and you have no employees. And the work absolutely has to get done, then yes. There will be days when you can work a normal 8 to 5 with a lunch break and get your work done, and there will be times when 80 hours a week is insufficient. If you work until the job is done, you'll be served well.
1A) Doing the work does not mean looking at the cases.
Reading for class is not about checking the box. There may have been times when "looking" at all 40 pages that were assigned would do the trick. Maybe as an undergrad. Of course, I was a mostly terrible undergrad, so I didn't even do that often enough. But law school is about figuring out what matters. That means you need to read the cases more than once. I have seen twice as the rule of thumb, though I think three times is the right place to start. It's not just about recognizing that something happened. It's knowing what happened and what that means, in the context of the case and beyond. And that requires time and careful reading. And, by the way, class is far more interesting when you know what's being discussed. Seriously.
2) Be a good classmate and be the best possible you.
You can be competitive without being a jerk. Your competition is really with yourself. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden always reminded his players to be the best they could be -- not to try to be better than someone else. If you always use someone else as the bench mark, you may be holding yourself back, even if you do better than them. Try to remember that. There will be people who are better than you, at some point, at everything. Be the best you that you can be. Good things will follow. And if it doesn't go as well as you hoped, if you did the work the best you could, you will still be okay. (See 1 and 1A above.)
3) Most people aren't cheating, but if they are, turn them in.
Every once in a while, I hear some students who are convinced that there is rampant cheating. "Some people worked together on their memo." Maybe, but usually not. "Someone's (uncle/sister/cousin) who is a (prosecutor/M&A lawyer/judge), wrote their memo!" Probably not. Most lawyers understand the ethical problems with that. And who wants to write another law school memo after you passed the bar exam? It would take a pretty odd combination of work ethic and lack of basic morals to make that a common occurrence.
But even worse -- give us some evidence if you do know something. Or some names, and we will investigate. I hate cheating, and I want it stopped. I went to law school with my wife, and we didn't even leave out any of our legal writing materials in our home. The rules matter. And you need to practice following them from day one. That said, I don't think most of my students are or were cheaters, and they have rarely given me any reason to doubt their integrity.
More than once over the years, I have also heard students say, "well, I don't want to hurt anyone's career." First, what? If you know someone is not following the rules, they need to be turned in. Lawyers have such an obligation, though I think it is one that is not often enough fulfilled. I have heard of attorneys who had opposing counsel forge their signature, and the attorney still did not turn them in. If we allow it, it continues.
In addition, I have also heard students say, "I can't prove it, but I KNOW they are cheating." If you can't point to facts that show it it, you probably don't KNOW, anything. Your strongly suspect. And might be wrong. Don't forget, lots of people posture when they are stressed or fearful. Focus on your work, and good things are likely to follow.
4) Everything is harder.
I wonder if poor grades are sometimes the reason some students decided others are cheating. I suspect it is sometimes. The numbers suggest that most of our students are used to getting good grades, so a B can seem like something went wrong. But law school is the next step up. I often use a sports analogy -- law school is like an athlete going from college to the pros (or the olympics). The competition is better because everyone at the next level has a better skill set. If there is a curve (and there usually is, official or unofficial, in the first year), then students are being compared to one another. It's not just how well did you do -- it's how well did you do relative to others. That may seem unfair, but those are (usually) the rules. Be prepared to work hard, and know others will be, too. There is room for everyone to succeed, but not everyone can be at the top.
5) You are not your grades.
Don't let a grade define you. Your paper may be a C+. But you are not. Your A* (which was how the highest grade in the course was noted when I was in law school), doesn't make you an A*, either. Your work can be a reflection of you, but it is not you. Sometimes things don't go well. Sometimes you might not have worked hard enough. Sometimes you're sick. And, yes, sometimes the professor's view of the world is flawed. Other times, a student might have studies three things all semester. And it's the three things tested on the exam. You can only control your work and your effort. You must react and respond to the rest.
So, I know I am biased. I loved law school. It's why I do what I do. Not everyone will feel that way. But give yourself a chance. Prepare. Engage. Ask questions. Be wrong. And learn.
Have a great year! Oh, and by the way, take Business Organizations before your graduate. It's pretty much essential.