Attending office hours can be a great way to get useful information outside of your case books and supplements. Many law students however, especially 1Ls, are unsure of how to approach their professors’ office hours. If you haven’t gone to office hours yet, or if you are wondering about how to get the most out of your experience, here are some tips. You can also check out this video of quick tips on office hours here.
Before you go to office hours, try to find answers on your own. If you walk in with a notepad expecting your professor to just regurgitate everything he or she already lectured about, or give you answers to hypos or practice exams without you doing any of the work, you will probably be disappointed. Your professor could likely (and probably should) tell you to try to figure out the material yourself before looking for easy answers. Coming to an office hour unprepared also looks unprofessional and can give off the wrong first impression.
Bring a List of Questions
Again, make these questions you have already at least tried to answer on your own. Perhaps, you’ve done the leg work, read the case, attended lecture, but you still don’t understand the bottom-line take-away point of one of the assigned cases. Try looking it up in a supplement and coming up with some ideas for what you think the court’s point was. If you still can’t figure it out, that’s ok! This sort of thing is a great topic to ask about in office hours. What did your professor think was the importance of the case as compared to other cases you’ve read and discussed? Perhaps there is a nuance in one of the rules that you have pondered or even tried applying in a hypo, but you’re not sure you have it quite right.
These are good jumping off points for a discussion which could prove very helpful to you. Also, going in with some questions prepared can cut down any awkward silences and make you feel less nervous.
Don’t Just Storm In Demanding to Know About the Final
Professors hate this. First of all, don’t storm in demanding anything, but when it comes to the final, tread lightly. Remember, your professor’s job is to guide you through the material, question you, help you learn and understand, and ultimately help you learn to think like a lawyer. There is more to his or her class than the final exam (even though it might not feel like it!). If you frame every question in terms of the final, this could be perceived as disrespectful to your professor’s whole pedagogical process.
Of course, if you’re coming up on finals and have questions about the exam, that’s another story. In addition, knowing the format of the exam you are expected to take is information that you will need to know early to practice and study to the best of your ability. If you don’t know from your syllabus whether your exam will be multiple choice, essays or short-answers, or some combination thereof, see if you can find some old exams, but also try asking your professor.
Don’t Go Just for the Face Time
Remember, the grading is likely anonymous in your class. Whether your professor likes you probably doesn’t matter as much as you think. As I said above, you don’t want to make a negative impression, but the sole purpose of office hours is also not just to make a positive one. You’re there to learn. If you’re looking for special insider tips, or trying to become a teacher’s pet, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work. Professors can probably see through this, and your classmates definitely can.
Talk Through Hypos
If your professor has given hypos in class, these are a fantastic thing to discuss in office hours. A hypo is usually raised in class to illustrate a particular point—whether that is some ambiguity in the law, how a particular nuance of a rule may apply depending on various factual situations, etc. It’s easy to gloss over hypos in lecture, but they might be one of the most important focal points of the semester. Review your lecture notes, try to learn the point behind each hypo. Aim to answer the question on your own, and go to office hours for clarification if you have questions.
Ask About Structure
If your professor always discusses particular causes of action or crimes in the same order, this should give you clues about the kind of structure your professor might want to see on his or her exam. For example, if each time an intentional tort case comes up in class, your professor’s first question whether there was intent, followed by whether there was causation and the required result, chances are this is roughly the order in which you should be analyzing an intentional tort if you see one on your final. If your professor is less structured in lecture, or if you have concerns about how to talk about certain doctrines, which elements should go in what order, whether a minority jurisdictional approach is important to discuss along with the majority approach or not, all of these things are great topics for office hours!
See if you can get any clues from what your professor says about how to organize your practice writing and the way you write your exam. Students often ask me about formatting, case citations, and whether their rule statements need to be verbatim from the case book or what was discussed in lecture. The only person who can answer questions about these kinds of preferences is your professor, so if you’re curious, ask! That said, again, find an appropriate time. As noted above, many professors will not be very forthcoming with exam information on the first day of office hours.
Get Feedback if You Can
Some professors give students who ask individual feedback on their practice writing and hypos. Many professors do not. You’ll never know until you try! If your professor offers this kind of help, it is a wasted opportunity not to take advantage of it. Where else can you get tips on how to write an exam from the person who will actually be responsible for writing and grading that exam?
Look and Act Professional
I understand that law school is a stressful time and many students want to be as casual and comfortable as possible at school. I get it. I’m not saying you should treat office hours like a job interview, but you follow common sense guidelines for looking clean, appropriate and put-together. It’s not too far-fetched to think that you be applying for a clinic or assistance job with your professor at some point. Professors can also be references for professional interviews. So, while it’s absolutely not necessary to suit up, make sure you’re not coming straight from the gym or the beach either.
Don’t Be Surprised If It’s Completely Different from Class
Sometimes professors can be terrifying in class. If you’ve ever found it difficult to take effective notes because you’re spending all of your mental energy just dreading being called on –trying not to make eye contact, just hoping when they pause and look at the seating chart that it won’t be your name that gets called — you’re not alone! Sometimes, though, these same “scary” professors can be completely different people in office hours! You might expect them to hide the ball or engage you in a rapid-fire socratic-style interrogation, but you might also find yourself pleasantly surprised. If you’re avoiding office hours because you’re too nervous, don’t! You could be missing out on valuable information. It’s always at least worth a try.
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