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On a recent Law School Toolbox podcast, Lee and I talked about the transition from undergrad to law school. For those of you who didn’t catch the podcast (perhaps you prefer to get your information from reading), here is a synopsis of some of the observations and tips that we discussed.
I come at this subject as a professor who teaches both undergrads and law students; as I prepare for class and interact with my students, I think a lot about how different these learning environments and expectations can be. Giving some thought to what skills you may need to add to your toolbox will help you gain confidence more quickly as you start law school.
Preparing For Class
One of the main differences in law school is that your grade is often determined by a single exam at the end of the semester; you’ll have three to four hours to show what you have learned during the entire semester. This is a lot of pressure on a single day and, to perform successfully, you have to really take ownership of your own learning throughout the semester. What does this mean?
First, you will probably have to do much more preparation before class than you did for many of your college courses. Some undergraduate courses have very user-friendly textbooks that provide definitions, objectives, review questions, and visuals. In contrast, the typical casebook that you will use for your law school classes looks pretty much the same as it did 50 years ago. It’s a big, thick book with hundreds of pages with tiny type and thin pages.
Reading 30 pages in that casebook can take hours — one rule of thumb is to plan on a pace of ten pages an hour to work through the material enough to be prepared for class! If you are used to being able to skim and understand material, this may come as a shock, but rest assured that it isn’t a reflection on your competence; in fact, the casebook method of teaching is actually intended to force you to spend time weeding through material so that you can think critically about what is important and what is not.
Sifting through relevant and irrelevant material sharpens your analytic skills; as you gain practice, you will be able to hone in on the legal rules more quickly and consistently. Think of this as building muscle.
Learning In And After Class
Even after you spend that hour-per-10-pages, you may still be confused. Again, this is part of the design of legal education and does not mean that you don’t have what it takes to make it through law school successfully. Class won’t always clear up your confusion. Sometimes, you’ll show up at class only to find that all the professor seems to do is ask more questions from a student who is just as confused as you. Questions will follow questions, and there will be times when everyone feels inadequate.
How do you navigate these challenges? Prepare to invest a lot of time learning what is akin to a foreign language. If you are savvy, you’ll review your notes after class to try to cement what you learned and clarify remaining questions. Even those of you who learned completely independently in college will probably try out a study group; you’ll consult “supplements” to help clarify an area of law; and you’ll start “outlining,” which is law-school-speak for synthesizing the material at the end of every unit. Some undergrads never have to devote such consistent and independent effort to a course.
From this struggle to find clarity in confusion, you’ll start seeing how law is developed and how cases fit together to create rules of law that are flexible and can apply to a variety of different situations. This intentionally messy process teaches you how to “think like a lawyer.”
Another challenge for many students is accepting that sometimes (often) their goal is not to find the “right” answer. Law school exams assume you know the rules – the key to success is reasoning, not concluding. Coming up with an answer isn’t enough; the bulk of points come from showing how and why you applied the law to a particular problem and convincing the reader that your conclusion is correct by walking them step-by-step through an analysis. This involves looking for similarities and distinctions, and thorough discussion of counterargument.
Law school exams are not so much about understanding the material as they are about analyzing and applying it to teach you to do what lawyers do – use law to take solve problems.
Think of law school as a chance to build upon and sharpen your undergraduate skills. You’ll need to work hard but also to work smart, and that means being open to new ways of learning.
In Part Two of this article, we will discuss writing in law school and how may differ from the writing you did in undergrad. Until then, take a look at our Ahead of the Curve series and a listen to our podcasts to get you ready for law school.
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