Before my older brother and I started law school at the same time (totally independent decisions, by the way!), none of our close relatives had gone to law school. I don’t know about him, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into with this decision. I’m not sure I even thought about law school all that much. I had worked for an amazing attorney for over a year, and she gave me a Scott Turow book to try to talk me out of going. But I had enjoyed my work with her, wanted to be an attorney, and I thought I knew what to expect. I had already completed a Master’s degree. Surely it couldn’t be much different, right?
Wrong. My master’s program involved cozy little classes, general freedom to choose courses that fit with my interests, and a pretty stable understanding of where my grades were. The readings were straightforward, and the class discussions were lively and friendly. I was fortunate enough to go to a law school with a very cooperative outlook, and they did their best through phone calls, orientation, and meetings with our assigned small groups to prepare us. But there’s only so much they could do.
You mean…briefs aren’t just a kind of underwear?
I don’t really remember what my first readings involved. I hadn’t heard of doing a case brief until orientation, so my first attempts were probably pretty laughable. I did them though! And they helped me to make sure that I was actually paying attention to the readings. Whether I was pulling out the right information, of course, is a whole different question.
What Exactly is the “Hot Seat”, and how can I Cool it off?
I’m fortunate enough to have a pretty good memory, but the Socratic Method was still absolutely terrifying for me. Having to speak in class in front of all of those people, while having the professor barrage me with questions…let’s just say that’s not something I would have knowingly signed up for. But, I survived! And I learned! When it came to class notes, though, I did exactly what I now tell my students not to do. I became a transcriptionist. I used my laptop to take notes, and I took way too many. How was I to know what was important and what wasn’t? Some first-year professors provide a lot of support in that area, but most of them don’t. And trying to choose wisely when half of what was actually said came from students who don’t know all that much about the topic…well, I wish I had been more selective in my note-taking, because winnowing it down for the outline got pretty burdensome.
Outlines. You mean sketched-out shapes, right?
Speaking of outlines. A few weeks into law school, I heard someone talking about outlining for exams. What fresh hell is this? I’m reading hundreds of pages, doing briefs that I still haven’t gotten the hang of, and now I’m supposed to be doing something called outlines? That said, the whole notion of not having any sense of grades or where I stood until after the end of the semester absolutely terrified me. So I threw myself into them. I heard people talk about swapping outlines, but I instinctively knew this was a bad idea – I have my own approach to things, and I didn’t really want to get thrown off by someone else’s thought process. So I did my own outlines, conferring with friends occasionally on points that were more obscure. The finished products helped me well enough, but they definitely were not as useful as they could have been.
Wait…was I Supposed to be Practicing?
If you’ve spent any time reading on the Law School Toolbox, you know that we’re huge advocates of practice. Law school exams are new territory. But, as you might have realized by now, I wasn’t approaching law school with the understanding that this was a totally new experience. I’ve always done pretty well on tests as long as I studied. So, of course, it barely occurred to me to do practice exams, and it certainly didn’t occur to me to get my professors’ feedback on my writing. They didn’t offer, so I didn’t ask. I did take advantage of TAs, and did the assignments that they suggested, but I didn’t make an effort to find additional practice questions to work through.
What I Would Do Differently
In spite of all this, I actually did quite well in law school. I had a lot of outside things going for me that really helped me succeed, and I learned quickly about the things that I needed to do. But sometimes I wonder. How much could I have reduced my stress by getting tips on reading, briefing, outlining, and exam writing before I had started law school? If I had talked to my former boss about the things she needed to do in her studies, or had a few chats with current law students about the things they wished they had known (Note: I once tried this, but I made the mistake of asking the question of the student who was tasked with calling me to convince me to go to her law school. Sales-pitch mode is not good for straight answers).
If you’re gearing up for your first semester in law school, please learn from my experience. Take the opportunity now to learn about what you need to do. Practice reading and briefing cases. Read up on the Socratic Method (and maybe watch Legally Blonde, if you’re a Reese Witherspoon fan), and learn what you need to put into your case briefs in order to keep up with the professor’s questions. Figure out the best way for you to take notes and do outlines. Get an idea of how to do these things before you’re stressed about keeping up with the readings. And, once you’re into the semester and have enough background knowledge, start doing practice exams and getting (reliable!) feedback!
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.