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Monday, August 15, 2005

First Day of Law School

This week, about 180 first-year law students will arrive on the campus of Notre Dame.  A few days later, I'll meet about 60 of them for their first law-school class (Criminal Law, in my case).  I'm curious -- for those readers and bloggers who are, or have been, law students, is there a "big picture", "here's what it's all about" point that you remember your professor making, or that you now wish your professor had made, on your first day?

Rick

Posted by Rick Garnett on August 15, 2005 at 12:53 AM | Permalink

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» PrawfsBlawg: First Day of Law School from Greyhame: Law and Law School
What to tell students on the first day of law school? Obviously, I have no idea yet. But one of the comments by the readers struck me, and I wanted to reproduce it here, for any soon-to-be 1Ls reading:... [Read More]

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» 1L of a decision from f/k/a
Although Prof. Yabut is on sabbatical, he asked us to post a few of his customarily-crusty sentiments for the edification of new law students. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2005 9:10:10 PM

Comments

I suppose I remember two points that my professors gave me on my first day of law school. The first was that law school is designed to teach you to think like a lawyer (as opposed to teaching you what the law is) and that the important thing is to focus on the process rather than solely on the final outcome of a particular case. The second point had more to do with life as a law student. My professor told us that in law school, the work will always be there. He said not to let relationships with our loved ones fall by the wayside because homework will always be there- we can set it aside for a few hours and it will be waiting for us when we return. Our loved ones, however, may not be there if we ignore them in favor of homework all the time. Those are two points that have stuck with me through the past year. I hope they might help your students.

Posted by: Alison | Aug 15, 2005 1:17:33 AM

Lots of my professors opened and closed their courses with loads of preachy, self-righteous banalities. Thinking like a lawyer, remembering the big picture, being a good person, and saving the world were their nauseating favorites. I hated that stuff then, and I don’t do it in my own classes today. I just tell my students why they all should understand Contracts law, whether they are planning to become public defenders, securities lawyers, or policymakers.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Aug 15, 2005 2:23:58 AM

Having just graduated from law school, there are several things I wish my professors and the school administration had told me.

1. Make time for friends and family. My relationships with friends and my wife suffered because of school. Now that I have graduated, I am spending more time mending relationships rather than enjoying the fruits of having a little more time for friends and family.

2. The study and practice of law can be isolating. As soon as people learn you are a law student or a lawyer, they act and speak differently to you. They are always asking for legal advice (whether you can give it or not). Knowing this in advance can be of help.

3. If you attend class regularly, take notes and do the reading, chances are you know too much to fail. Law school exams are notoriously stress inducing. Many of my brightest classmates and myself could have used this. The truth is (in my experience) that students who get A's on exams don't necessarily know a lot more law than students who get C's, they can analyze better and write better under pressure. That is all.

4. You will never stop learning the law. Accept it and move on.

Posted by: Matt Johnston | Aug 15, 2005 8:58:51 AM

The dental school is right down the street. It may not be too late to transfer.

Posted by: alkali | Aug 15, 2005 10:00:05 AM

I offer "big picture" comments as asides interspersed from time to time throughout the semester, but don't offer any on the first day. Students are sophisticated enough to see them as platitudes, and I think the best way we can respect them and their intellectual abilities is to jump right away into the assigned readings.

Posted by: lawprof | Aug 15, 2005 10:01:54 AM

I second what Kate Litvak said generally. More specifically, I tell first years that the first year is the hardest because they are learning *both* substantive rules of law and how to be a law student/how law school works. The latter includes how to brief cases, how to outline, and how to understand and make the basic forms of legal arguments (I'm loathe to say "think like a lawyer" because I find that term both vague and pretentious). I also make sure to tell them that although we will be discussing policy and theory, most first year classes test almost exclusively on applying rules to facts -- because they deserve to know how they will be evaluated. I tell them it will be hard, but it will get easier, and that they can do it. Then I quote the immortal words of former pro wrestler Dusty Rhodes: "Let's stop taking about it, and let's start doing it." Well, I don't always say that, but I think it.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 15, 2005 10:42:15 AM

Something about getting off the treadmill?

Posted by: Randy | Aug 15, 2005 10:44:34 AM

Steal a page from Google? "Don't be evil."

Or, perhaps more relevant to a slightly broader class of lawyers: "Don't be neurotic."

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 15, 2005 11:10:32 AM

Just do what you're doing. As a former student, it's so apparent that you care about the students, the school, the Church, the law, family, justice, and happy balanced personal lives for those around you. If anything, it might be helpful to give the anti-message that no one person can really tell them "Ya know, the thing about law school is..." Because there is no one thing. The students are at different points in their lives (some married, with children, with work experience, some not) with different backgrounds and expectations. While a certain amount of diligence is necessary to keep afloat in law school, students will ultimately have to decide for themselves how relatively important grades are versus time to exercise, play with children, keep up with other hobbies and interests, etc.

Posted by: Alex T | Aug 15, 2005 11:51:11 AM

I tell them kind of the opposite of Kate Litvak. I tell them that they're now members of a profession, and that the next 14 weeks -- the first semester -- should be a time of intense concentration. If you were a football player in minicamp trying to make the team, or a gymnast getting ready for the Olympics three months away, your friends and loved ones would understand that you've got to put everything else on hold. If your job transferred you to Australia for three months, they'd understand that you wouldn't be able to hang out with them. Any relationship that's worthwhile can last for a semester apart, and loved ones who demand constant attention while the student should be studying are putting their own interests ahead of the student's. Plan a big romantic weekend or a vacation splurge after the semester's over.

This advice has to be taken with some salt by those who have children, who trump everything. But for most students, the best thing they can do is concentrate full time for the first semester, and resume their social life when the semester ends. You only get one chance at the first semester.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Aug 15, 2005 12:31:07 PM


One of my professors said (as best I can recall), "For the first time in many of your lives, ninety percent of you won't be in the top ten percent of your class." That caught my attention.

Posted by: tim zinnecker | Aug 15, 2005 12:38:43 PM

In the middle of a semester, one professor, while admonishing a student to speak up so the class could hear him, noted, "I might not be able to teach you the law, but I can teach you to speak up." (He said this was an observation one of his teachers had made.)

Along those lines, I think law professors should explain why it matters that students talk in class. Even if you don't use the Socratic method much, surely you ask students questions, and they respond. I think it bears explaining that when students talk in class, they are practicing a skill that they will use throughout their careers -- the skill of speaking clearly, with confidence, and sufficiently loudly. You can't learn to play the piano by reading books, and you can't learn to speak like a professional without doing it. Too many students mumble their way through law school, perhaps because they don't realize that they're supposed to be learning how to talk like a lawyer (a more meaningful concept than the cliched and contentless "think like a lawyer").

Posted by: Bobo Linq | Aug 15, 2005 2:29:44 PM

This is a little sappy, but ...

Ask your students to write a note to themselves wherein they explain why they went to law school. What did they want out of the experience, etc.? Have them seal the letter. Tell them that when they're wondering whether they're making the right career choice, to open the letter.

I did something similar on my own, and was amazed (depressed, actually) how much I had strayed from my ideals. Reading the note reminded me what I was about, and kept me from making some "bad" career choices.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 15, 2005 2:56:24 PM

I rarely take class time for this stuff, but I've been posting about it over the summer:
Some Things That Incoming Students Should Know. As classes get rolling, I'll be posting a few tips for getting the most out of law school.

Posted by: Mike Madison | Aug 15, 2005 4:50:16 PM

Two things come to mind:

* Nobody should ever be intimidated by a law professor. The most that he/she can prove, in response to even a ridiculous response, is that he/she knows more about a subject that the student is trying to learn than does the student. Whether Socratic or lecture (or whatever), the professor cannot prove that he/she is a better human being--or even all that much smarter--than the student; instead, the professor can prove greater experience with a particular set of analytical skills. I was fortunate, in that my first-year professors (with one exception) acknowledged this; of course, since I was a second-career lawyer, and nobody was shooting at me, it would have been hard to intimidate me in a mere classroom anyway!

* Most law professors try to tell students how important their own class will be to the student's ultimate success as a lawyer. However, there's one class--at many schools, an ungraded one--that every lawyer uses every day in his/her practice, no matter what that practice might eventually be: Legal Writing. Although pragmatically grades matter a great deal (if only to the students' self-confidence), a student who blows off Legal Writing for more time to study the arcana of the Rule Against Perpetuities is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, given the poor quality of writing and research prevalent in the profession, it appears to be a pretty common one. I wish more professors would at least acknowledge that that Legal Writing class--frequently taught by a non-tenure-track faculty member--is as important in the long run as any other first-year class.

Posted by: CEP | Aug 15, 2005 5:45:53 PM

My 1L contracts prof told us that if we had to be "friendly" in the next 10 months he would suggest doing so with a fellow a student. His theory being that when "ya'll are done you can skip the pillow talk and talk about contracts."

Posted by: Carrie | Aug 15, 2005 6:01:08 PM

Start cold-calling without so much as a word of introduction and scare the piss out of all of them. Dress someone down for not being prepared just to show them who's boss. Flash some anger anger, condescend a whole lot, and telegraph the message that nothing they can say will ever measure up and that you are 1,000 times smarter than they could ever hope to be.

Is there any other way?

Posted by: anonymous | Aug 15, 2005 8:35:30 PM

The "big picture", "here's what it's all about" point that I remember my professor making on my first day of law school was his inability to read my writing. That has defined my entire life with autism, my communication disability, and struggle for equal opportunity to be a member of the legal profession I fought so hard to enter as a single mother, now more than 15 years after my graduation from law school and more than 8 years since demonstrating I can meet the "essential functions" of a lawyer by passing the California Bar Examination, I am still fighting blatant disability discrimination, irrational prejudices, and outright exlusion by the California and Florida Bar Examiners who will do anything to exclude an autistic disabled person from ever becoming a lawyer. Virgil Hawkins, move over, I am about to break your record of State Supreme Court challenges and United States Supreme Court challenges and decades it took you to achieve your bar admission because the Florida Bar refused to let you in 'until you turned white' or the 'KKK rode out of gainsville.' The first day of law school, the hopes and dreams, and the begining of a journey. It is something to remember.

Posted by: Mary Katherine Day-Petrano | Aug 15, 2005 8:45:22 PM

One of my favorite law profs (pipe smoker Charles Donahue) did us the favor, throughout the first semester, of regularly asking us what we thought was REALLY going on in a given case -- how the parties got into the positions they appeared to be in, what they really wanted from each other, etc. I've since found that to be a very helpful skill in understanding caselaw. I also liked the way he used to refer to dissents as "that subversive material at the end of the opinion." (Don't know if that was original with him.)

Also, now that I've been practicing for 7 years, I have two pieces of advice I would give to first years, if they would listen:

1. Don't be unnecessarily rude to anyone, especially your classmates. Someday down the road you will have to ask a favor of someone whom you weren't very nice to in school. It won't be fun.

2. The way to be happy as a lawyer is to live beneath your means.

Posted by: Guest | Aug 16, 2005 12:34:53 PM

1) You're spending the next three years with those you see now. Befriend them. Law school can be competitive without ignoring your classmate or not giving them notes for a class they mssed.

2) Take a deep breath and relax. There's a lot of work, and while some of it is difficult, the time crunch is the main obstacle. But if you take a step back and take a broad view, set up a schedule and stick to it, you'll do fine.

Adam Steiner

Posted by: Adam Steiner | Aug 16, 2005 3:24:13 PM

... is there a "big picture", "here's what it's all about" point that you remember your professor making, or that you now wish your professor had made, on your first day?

I don't think there's a point to this. Law students don't listen. Ask them about mens rea, let them realize how little they understand it, and then be mysterious and wave your hands.

Seriously, I don't think there's any big point that can be made on the first day. It takes a whole year to make that point, and they won't understand it until they come to it themselves.

Posted by: Tony the Pony | Aug 16, 2005 6:50:44 PM

My first professor in my first class on my first day of law school arrived about twenty minutes late and his first words were:

"Mr. Oman, state the facts in Gordon v. Steele."

Posted by: Nate Oman | Aug 19, 2005 10:55:43 AM

"Big picture?" The first week they need practical advice. Tell them that the phrase "I don't know" is to be surgically excised from their vocabularies, to be replaced by "it depends . . . "

Posted by: Fall Downstairberg | Aug 20, 2005 12:45:33 AM

"You've already done things harder than law school. Relax."

Posted by: H. Davies | Nov 28, 2005 2:45:48 AM

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