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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here; Or, My Advice to First-Years

I enjoyed Lyrissa's advice to the first-years and, since I was giving just this advice to my advisees the other day, thought I'd try my hand at it here.  

1) The Economy is Terrible.  This one seems obvious, but the contretemps of the other day has convinced me that we would be better off starting with the bad news so that law students can make some smart and tough decisions at the outset.  One hopes it will be in a different place in three years, but for now we can all agree that many students have a lot of debt, no clear route to a job, and think they haven't much else.  In the past I would have felt confident saying that no matter how tough the job front is for the first year after graduation, people do find positions and their training ends up being about their second, third, and fifth job, not just the first.  But I would rather be pessimistic than optimistic for now.  What can you do about it?  Reconsidering law school is one possibility.  Budgeting, to the extent possible, with the most pessimistic assumptions is another.  You might also look at the cover story in this week's ABA Journal, co-authored by William Henderson, and think a little bit about opportunities in the new legal economy.  Below I try to give you at least one other.

2) You Are Enrolled in "Job-Hunting and the Law."  

This is advice I've been giving my own students for a while now, and it seems especially apt in light of #1.  It's easy to put the job hunt last after a long list of other duties and to work at it lackadaisically.  I recommend instead that you treat the job hunt as one of your principal enrolled courses.  Set aside the same amount, every week, that you would set aside for any other enrolled course, including class time and reading and study time.  Devote yourself to particular long-term tasks every week.  Getting your resume in order is obvious.  Searching out data about where your school's graduates work is another good idea.  Most professors right now are focused on networking, and for good reason.  I encourage you, especially if you know where or in what practice area you'd like to work, to meet as many people as you can.  The key (and I learned this back in journalism school) is not to ask them for a job.  People who will make no time for job-seekers may well make time for a student who says, for example, I'm interested in environmental law and you're an alumna who practices in that area; I'd love to buy you a coffee and find out about your job, and perhaps even tag along one day on your work.  Do this 70 or 80 times and, even if that person doesn't have a job to offer, they may introduce you to someone who does.  In the meantime, you may learn a lot about the place or practice area that interests you.

3) It's Your Money and Your Degree.  By this I don't mean the kind of thing I get sometimes from more consumer-oriented commenters, ie. I paid good money for this and if I want to spend three years not talking in class and surfing on a laptop instead, it's my business.  I mean that if you're going to spend three years and a good deal of money in law school, it's up to you to make the most of it.  Just about every law school offers a surprising amount of great resources; just about every law school does so more passively than actively.  Some students will go through law school feeling ignored.  Others will attend events and speakers, talk to their professors after class and during office hours (I am startled by how many students never visit, no matter how much they are struggling, and how much the few students who do visit me regularly feel that they are getting a lot out of law school), visit the career services office without being invited, volunteer, get practical clinical experience, and so on.  Whether their grades are stellar or not, they will feel as if they got full value for their time in law school.  It's up to you to decide to be one of those people.

4) Nobody Gets Hurt, Nobody Gets Arrested.  Something similar goes for talking in class.  Of course you can say, why bother; it's my degree and if I want to spend it clammed up, that's what I'll do.  On the other hand, what happens if you talk in class and say something incorrect?  Well, you may learn the right answer, and you may learn something in the meantime about how to talk and argue like a lawyer.  The downside is that you may feel like an ass in front of your classmates or get pegged as a gunner.  BUT: Your client will not fire you in disgust.  You won't lose the case.  No one will go to jail as a result.  You won't get disbarred.  And so on.  Talking in class, and other ways of throwing yourself into the mix, is a terrific, bad-consequence-free way of actually starting to practice at being a lawyer.  Take advantage.  (Although, of course, if you have nothing worthwhile to say at all, don't feel the need to pop your hand up every time; those are the students who really annoy their colleagues.)

5) Stop Worrying About Competitive Advantage.  I had a no laptop policy in one of my classes a couple of years ago (and will again this fall), and many students insisted that they absolutely learned best by using a laptop.  Yet, when I gave them the opportunity to take notes in class on a laptop provided they shared those notes, they declined.  Why would you decline to take advantage of the learning method that you believe works best for you?  Because these students felt they would be losing a competitive advantage over their fellow students.  Similarly, on class websites some students lurk rather than contribute because they're afraid of giving anyone else an answer; and some students don't talk in class if they have the right answer because they believe they'll gain a competitive edge over the competition.  I've been teaching long enough to say with confidence that this is 95% illusion, and that students who think this way are actually losing an excellent opportunity to gain a competitive edge.  (And to not be jerks or alienate their classmates, but that's a different story.)  If you can carefully and clearly explain some legal problem, you are at least two-thirds of the way toward mastering the material and being able to put it down in an exam in a way that will make you stand out as a top-performing student.  Teaching others is a great way to learn; it helps you put the material together, it helps reveal questions you didn't know you had, and it helps you learn how to communicate that material.  The "edge" you lose by helping others is minimal compared to the "edge" you gain in mastering that same material by teaching it.  So go ahead and cast that bread on the waters.

6) Legal Research and Writing is Your Most Important Class.  That's true not just in the sense that you will use the skills you gain in that class more than you will use, say, basic contract law doctrine on a given day at work.  It's also true in the sense that a good legal writing memo -- clear, concise, stating the issue accurately and then moving on to analysis, pointing out forking paths of analysis that may change the result, describing particular rules or questions but also deciding that they are relatively easy or unimportant and then allocating more time to the central issues, reaching a conclusion but in a way that allows the "partner" reading the memo enough information and analysis to draw his or her own conclusions -- IS A GOOD LAW SCHOOL EXAM ANSWER.  Professors want students to state the issues clearly, offer analysis without jumping to conclusions, consider alternative arguments and outcomes, prioritize and spend more time on major issues than minor ones, use clear headings, topic sentences, and other devices that allow the grader to see easily where points should be allocated, and do it all in a clear, understandable, concise way.  In other words, they're looking for good legal memos.  A good law school exam answer is just a good legal writing memo under conditions of absurd time pressure.  The more you've internalized this form and made a reflex of it, the more time you can spend on an exam focusing on the issues rather than trying to learn how to write.  In my view, as far as exam success is concerned, this one piece of advice is as good as you can get.

7) Find Your Own Way to Find Joy in Law School.  I felt rather out-of-place and miserable in my first semester of a law school, for various reasons.  In my second semester, I remember starting to feel quite different about it.  One reason was that, most nights, I burrowed away in the bowels of the sub-basement of the Columbia Law Library, a frightening place at night but utterly private.  On the shelves were many works of legal history, judicial biography, and somewhat light or meta-legal theory.  I have a somewhat narrative frame of mind, and those books, which I plucked at random for relief from studying (and, in fact, sometimes read to the exclusion of my casebooks), ended up offering me a way in to loving the law, a way of absorbing my profession and making me feel a part of it, and of legal education.  After that, I found my classes themselves much more enjoyable because I felt like a stakeholder.  For others, the same experience will come from something else.  They may discover that tax law is like an elixir to them; they may do clinical work; they may find that Lacanian analysis of the law has changed their outlook on life; they may discover that they love to argue, or hate to argue.  Whatever it is, with any luck not only will you have found something in particular that you love about law school, but you'll find yourself bringing that renewed sense of energy, purpose, and belonging to all your other classes.  I found that I loved First Amendment law, but I also found that I love thinking of courses as puzzles, and enjoyed secured transactions tremendously for that reason -- no matter that I had no interest in practicing in that area.  Note that I'm referring here to finding joy in law school, not in life.  Many people will tell you to exercise, eat healthy food, not forget your loved ones, and so on.  All essential advice.  But in addition to not forgetting the things that give you happiness in life in general, I think it's important to find ways to draw particular joy and sustenance from law school in particular.  Again, it's your money and your time, and I think you will feel a lot better off about it if you work to find ways of making it your own and finding something lasting and exciting about it.

8) Don't Hate Shortcuts But Don't Make Law School All About Them Either.  Most first-year students find their year very challenging.  And most of them find by the time they become second-years that there are all kinds of tricks and strategies they can use to make it a lot easier (apart from one thing they may not notice; that the more they've read and absorbed legal language and forms of argument, the easier it is to read, study, and understand the materials in their upper-year courses).  Upper-years will give you all sorts of advice: read this Gilbert's, not that one; this Professor wants a particular kind of answer on her exam, and this one another sort of answer; and so on.  I think we as professors need to strike a balance in advising about these kinds of shortcuts, because if we disdain them altogether students may naturally think that we're engaging in unnecessary mystification and making their lives harder, and so they'll ignore us.  I guess I would say that if your sole aim in law school is to get a B in class, these shortcuts have genuine value, although even here they may have less than you think.  But if you would like to develop legal skills, learn how to become an A student more often than a B student, and just, you know, enjoy law school, then you shouldn't let the shortcuts become the whole story.  I am just about ready to shoot any student who walks into law school with the Chemerinsky con law treatise and without the assigned con law casebook (and yes, it has happened [the business with the books, not the shooting]).  Not because I hate the book; it has lots of value.  But because this is really getting things backward in all sorts of ways -- in terms of enjoying the course, in terms of really mastering it, etc.  Use your shortcuts, but don't let them become your entire law school experience.

9) Use Clinics and Adjuncts.  This may not apply to everyone, although maybe it should.  But for those of you who are interested in getting some practical skills or who already know exactly what they want to do in practice, both clinics and adjunct professors are a great resource.  I know many law students who otherwise weren't crazy about law school but found a profound education in clinical work.  And some adjuncts (not all of them, of course) offer simply the best courses you will get at law school.  As I wrote earlier on the blog, I think that law schools should stop thinking of adjuncts as, well, adjuncts, and think of them as an integral part of what they do; as colleagues, not fill-ins.  I think we should see them as part of our overall faculty mix.  I'm clearly not knocking theory or more theoretically oriented professors, of whom I'm often one; but for those who either don't like that sort of thing or don't want it to become their entire law school experience, clinics and adjuncts are a terrific place to start.    

These will do for now.  I hope a few people out there find them useful.  Sorry about the title; I couldn't resist.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 17, 2011 at 09:24 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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great advice, Paul.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Aug 21, 2011 11:20:55 AM

7. Party. Say what you want about law school but it's a place where you're thrown in with a few hundred other good people of your age, mostly single, in a highschool like structured environment. It's a great time if you do it right.

Posted by: another student | Aug 19, 2011 12:32:04 AM


6. If someone offers you a job to work with a real lawyer, doing real law, for $10/hour - take it. Think of it this way, you paid $2,500 per credit to listen to a professor drone on about stuff that in no way prepared you for what lawyers do. This guy will give you such training, and pay you at the same time!

Posted by: 2L student | Aug 18, 2011 4:08:32 PM

That is horrible, absolutely horrible advice. Let me give the kids some advice that is worth something:

1. Drop out before the 100% tuition refund deadline.

2. If you don't follow the above, find last year's outlines. Someone has an outline of this year's lecture - which will follow the professor's statements like a script. You will see that, due to laziness, professors don't change how they lecture much and so this outline will allow you to completely and totally predict what will come out of your six figure salary professor's mouth. You'll see that the outline tracks even non-curriculum items such as jokes. If, instead of using this outline and doing practice exams, you waste your precious time reading cases like a sucker and making your own new outline, then you will not survive the curve. Law professors are lazy and they will not revise the curriculum. They will only tweak it. You can use this laziness to game the system.

3. Professors are liars. Those who say "I don't hide the ball" are the most egregious ball hiders. Those that say "I encourage class participation" are the worst at dominating class discussion. I don't knwo why this is, but expect the opposite of what comes out of their mouths.

4. If at times, you feel ripped off and angry about it, that is perfectly normal. Feel free to curse your professors and the school who live like fat pigs off of money that you cannot afford to pay them.

5. I'm so sorry. I am so sorry that you had to go through this.

Posted by: 2L student | Aug 18, 2011 4:06:01 PM

great advice

Posted by: john chung | Aug 18, 2011 3:16:30 PM

My memory is playing tricks with me; Lyrissa's post was to professors, not students.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 18, 2011 12:25:45 AM

I concur on #6; I also strongly agree with #9. The two best courses I had in law school were taught by an adjunct; and I took the second one PRECISELY because he taught it.

In fairness, I never had Paul as a teacher - just an informal mentor (for which I am profoundly grateful).

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Aug 17, 2011 4:25:46 PM

I strongly, strongly agree with #6.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 17, 2011 10:46:13 AM

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