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Monday, August 18, 2008

once and future 1Ls

Morning everyone.  The start of the new school year is close (next week for us) and I was tapped to speak to the 1Ls about how to succeed in law school. I know this is a topic that has been covered before, both on this blog and others, but I thought now might be a nice time to reopen it.

Incoming 1Ls: Is there anything you want to know that you feel hasn't already been covered in the blogosphere or that you wouldn't feel comfortable asking in a small group setting (but would feel comfortable posting to the internets. . . )

Past 1Ls: Any gems you'd like to share? Anything you'd like to tell your past self that you know now but didn't then?

Posted by Lesley Wexler on August 18, 2008 at 08:31 AM | Permalink


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1. Look at the US News and World Reports Rankings. Find your school. If your school is Stanford, Harvard, or Yale, congratulations! Develop a hobby, like whittling or an intellectual interest in the law, anything that bears no relationship to your future career. You won't need it. If its Chicago to Texas, decide whether you want to have a career like the kids who end up in the bottom of the class at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. If so, try and finish in the top quarter of the class. If you just want to make a decent living, relax and attend class and read the odd case. If you attend the rest of the top 50, be very afraid. Decide if you want to make a decent comfortable living or if you want to spend the rest of your life scrambling to make a buck. If the former, try and finish in the top 25% of the class. Try not to worry about the fact that we are defining "decent" and "comfortable" loosely. Otherwise, enjoy the last three stress-free years of your life before spending the rest of it chasing ambulances and writing wills or locking up or setting loose bad guys. If your school is outside the top 50, drop out, take the GMAT and go to business school, or become a plumber or electrician.

2. Remember that your professors, unlike every other academic discipline, have no training either in their profession or as educators. They were just the best students at Stanford, Yale, and Harvard. Also keep in mind that their performance is evaluated almost purely on the basis of writing obscure articles that literally dozens of people read. Try not to casually remark to your Dean about this new discipline called "economics" that could explain the resulting skew of incentives observable in faculty behavior.

3. Don't listen to any of your classmates. They are at best ignorant, at worst malicious. Most are simply naively stupid.

3. Try and find the best outlines from 2Ls and 3Ls. Make friends with people who are in suits and are looking through firm prospectuses. Outlines from conspicuously friendly people in surf pants aren't always the best. You shouldn't have to trade sex for outlines, but use your discretion. Use the examples and explanations books for torts and civil procedure. Ask 2Ls and 3Ls for recommendations on the best books for property, contracts, and all that other crap. Chemerinsky's Con Law book is extremely good, assembled through the sweat and tears of small woodland creatures and Duke law students.

4. Think actively about the steps that go into legal doctrines. However, at the end of the day, its best to simply regurgitate as many pointless steps and utterly improbable scenarios as possible on the exam. Law professors have very little confidence in their ability to fairly evaluate exams. As a result, they place their faith in pseudo-objective procedures like tallying up the number of "points of law" that you barf back. Ironically, this means that Rain Man would do much better in law school than Tom Cruise's character.

5. Read over this list. Laugh at how cynical the author was. Come back a year later and gloomily wish you had followed the author's advice.

Posted by: Law School is a Scam | Aug 19, 2008 10:47:42 AM

Similar to the above comment on writing, I would say you need to have a tough skin and be prepared to let comments roll off your back. I've heard many a person (lawyers, professors, students) say that non-legal writing is bad, unfocused, misses the point, etc etc. If you come in as a writer, just ignore. Don't try to defend. That's probably good advice just in general. It's pointless trying to argue with a lot of legal people, because arrogance comes along with the profession. Argue points in class, yes, but never suggest that there might be another profession that has any insight above and beyond that of the law.

Posted by: Judith | Aug 18, 2008 4:17:52 PM

I enrolled at UT Law School ignorant of the fact that in TX (as well as in AR, MA, MD, NC, PA, SC and TN) you may not become a lawyer if you do not believe in god. Nor, of course, would any right-thinking person want to swear allegiance to a state constitution whose words explicitly required such belief.

If I'd known that at the time, I might well have opted for pursuit of some other advanced degree, such as an M.Div., so as to become a Unitarian Minister, which does not require a practitioner to believe in god, or an MBA or M.Econ., where some of my fellow students would at least have a clue about science and math, which few law students or professors have.

So you atheists, free-thinkers, and scientists beware: you are preparing to enter a profession in which, especially at the top, there is the prerequisite that you believe in God and be almost totally unschooled in science or math.

Posted by: Jimbino | Aug 18, 2008 2:23:32 PM

The advice by "Matt" above seems to me to be pretty good advice, and I don't want to counter it, but just to say that I normally comment here (and other place) just under my first name, which is also "Matt", but that the "Matt" above isn't me.

Posted by: Matt Lister | Aug 18, 2008 2:22:44 PM

As a newly-minted JD, let me offer my advice.

* Do the reading beforehand, really *actively* read it -- follow the judge's reasoning the whole way, write questions in the margin where you disagree or need clarification, etc. Then bring up those points in class.

* Don't be afraid to stick around after class to ask the professor questions if you are still curious or confused. I am not exaggerating when I say that the several minutes after class that I spent with the prof and a few other interested individuals, were often more enlightening than the 90 minutes I had just sat through.

* You will get confused. At times, you will have no idea what's going on. This is perfectly normal. But if you want really understand the material (and get a good grade in the process), you MUST set aside some time every few weeks to really figure things out, and see how things fit together. Go back over the cases you've read and learned about in class, try to see the big picture, and contact the prof with questions if you are lost. Don't just hope that everything sorts itself out by the final. This will only happen if you actively make it happen.

* Study groups can be helpful but they're not necessary. It is perfectly possible to succeed as a "Lone Wolf." The only "study group" I participated in my first year was an impromptu gathering of a few friends in the days before the final, where we would do essay questions from past exams, and then go over our answers with each other.

I was *not* a good student in undergrad. But using the above advice, I ended up doing so well that I was accepted for transfer to Georgetown. Good luck!

Posted by: Matt | Aug 18, 2008 1:45:09 PM

As a former adjunct who taught 1l's, here are my six cents of advice:

1. Write everything with precision, clarity and brevity. Every paragraph you write should begin with a strong topic sentence and end with a strong conclusion or transition to the next paragraph. Write this way on your memos, briefs and exams.

2. # 1 will be very hard for many of you. Your first law school experiences will be tough criticism of your writing. This does not mean you are not a good writer or won't be a good lawyer. It means that you are adjusting to a much more disciplined method of writing and analysis. Some make this transition more easily than others.

3. Most of you will experience greater disappointment in law school than you have ever had in your academic careers. What you do after the disappointment matters more than what led to it.

4. Be open to new things. Some of you who think you are terrified of public speaking might love the intellectual challenge and competition of moot court.

5. Remember why you came (and if you haven't decided yet think about this carefully). Law school is a barrage of tasks and pressure, and responding can easily push you away from larger goals. Keeping goals in mind helps prioritize and puts things in perspective. No one wants a D in property, but getting one doesn't mean the end of what you went to law school to achieve(trust me).

6. Make friends and have fun. You'll be with a lot of very talented people, with a wealth of life experiences to share.

Good luck!


Posted by: Charlie Martel | Aug 18, 2008 1:03:50 PM

My advice, if excelling is the goal, is to listen, think, and participate in class rather than transcribing.* Active in-class participation** creates interest and context for the legal concepts you are learning. Interest and context are important to success in 1L and beyond. For one thing, interest and context can help stimulate information retention and later recognition and recall of legal concepts, cases, and rules. Further, interest and context can actually help foster motivation to read and digest assignments. Law school can entail a good amount of reading, but there are actually more than enough hours in a day to do ALL the assigned reading, mandatory and optional, if you are interested in it.

*In my experience, in-class transcription via laptop is the quickest and most sure way (short of actually skipping class) to fall out of step with both the "big picture" and the subtleties of a legal subject. Importantly, casebooks, syllabi, review sessions, and classmates provide ample alternative (i.e., non in-class discussion) sources to compile black-letter rules for your outline.

**Note that this does NOT require you to actually participate vocally beyond being called on. While you should think critically and answer EVERY question the professor asks, you can (and should) answer most of these questions in your head (at least in the large lecture classes that predominate 1L).

P.S. Get to know your Bigelow. Hi, Lesley!

Posted by: BDunne | Aug 18, 2008 1:01:12 PM

How about a line or two about not being afraid to get out if you find law school isn't for you? This is incredibly important advice for the 5% or so who need to hear it but no one at the law school will ever say it.

Posted by: past 1L | Aug 18, 2008 11:16:53 AM

I think the best advice I got my first year was, when studying for exams, don't think about grades. Push them from your mind and try as best you can to forget that you're being graded. Instead, concentrate your energy on learning the material.

It seems like kinda obvious advice, but at one point while studying torts the first semester I started to freak out thinking "what if I get a B, what if I get a C! Ahh." I realized that if I was thinking about grades, I wasn't thinking about strict liability, cause in fact, proximate cause, etc. It also helps to not think "well, I'll shoot for a B+" and instead to just learn the material to the best of your abilities. You have more fun engaging with the material when you're doing just that, rather than trying to hit some target you can't see.

Posted by: hoosier | Aug 18, 2008 9:34:07 AM

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