Introducing Senator Elizabeth Warren at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Representative Joseph Kennedy III recounted the following exchange he had with then-professor Warren on his first day of law school:
“Mr. Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?”
“Mr. Kennedy, you realize assumpsit was the first word in your reading?”
“Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.”
I also had Prof. Warren on my first day of law school. In addition to making comments like that retold above, she would relentlessly exhort struggling students to “Stop and think!” If that didn’t work, she’d cry, “You know the answer! You know!” Eventually, the student would produce an acceptable response or desperately exclaim, “No, I don’t!” The class held its breath, waiting for Prof. Warren to move on. Who would be called on next?
I got called on regularly – but never voluntarily. Sometimes I had to stop and think; sometimes I knew the answer. I remember the sense of relief as the last Contracts class of the week ended, and the class collectively exhaled. I also remember how deeply Prof. Warren cared about her students and how much she loved teaching. Contracts was a challenging 1L course, but we learned so much that Contracts bar review was positively easy.
Other than that law grads like to tell war stories about tough (and famous) professors, what should you glean from these anecdotes?
This: Class participation matters, even when it hurts.
Why Class Participation Matters
Being called on makes you think on your feet. It forces you to express your ideas and hones your public speaking ability. These are valuable skills you’ll rely on throughout your career. You may not be a trial attorney, but if you plan to have any interaction with clients, supervising attorneys, and opposing counsel, you’ll need to express yourself clearly and confidently. Start practicing now. A mistake in class does not have the same consequences as a mistake in court; a tough professor can’t “punish” you the same way a tough partner or judge can.
Class participation helps you learn. Nothing solidifies material in your memory like the adrenaline rush of being called on. I still remember discussing International Shoe in Civil Procedure on a Halloween long ago. And I’m pretty sure Joe Kennedy can define “assumpsit” today. Your participation helps others learn, just as their participation helps you. Law school is competitive, but the best classroom experience is a team effort. Be a team player and contribute to the dialogue.
How To Do It Right
Be prepared. Do all the reading and take notes — in a separate document or in the margins of your casebook – to help you find key language if you’re called on. As Prof. Warren strongly suggested, look up unfamiliar words. Despite the welcome trend toward plain English, learning law is like learning a new language, especially during your first year. There are many terms of art that you can’t fully understand from context alone.
I still recall the brutal half hour during which an unprepared classmate was grilled during Civil Procedure. I can see the professor pacing and hear his increasingly frustrated refrain: “You’re trying my patience, Mr. S ___.” You don’t want to be remembered as the student who didn’t do the reading or didn’t use a dictionary. Law school is the beginning of your professional career; you’re building a lasting reputation with your professors and your classmates, future colleagues all.
Think critically about others’ contributions. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it correct or insightful. Pay attention to your professor’s response. If it’s comparable to my Torts professor’s signature line, “You’re breaking my heart,” you’ll know the comment is essentially wrong. Some professors simply move on without criticizing a comment. Masters of the Socratic method engage the student, continuing to elicit responses until the point is unequivocally made.
Some students thrive on speaking in class. We’ve all seen students who take it too far, annoying their classmates and exhausting their professors. One overzealous classmate of mine was effectively silenced during the second semester of first year when a professor announced that he would not call on the student: “I’ve been warned about you.” That’s an extreme example, but also a cautionary tale.
Most students, however, dread being called on. If that’s you, volunteer to answer an easy question, just to practice speaking in class. If the professor asks for a summary of the facts, raise your hand. Work your way up to volunteering legal analysis or a policy argument. If you volunteer, you’re less likely to be called on later. And if the grading system rewards participation, take advantage of it. Just try not to star in your classmates’ war stories.
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