Most students find the transition from undergraduate student to law student challenging because law school is unlike anything they have previously experienced. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways that law school is different than undergrad. In all, I’ve identified 6 major differences that specifically relate to your academic success as a law student.
1. Your law professor is not just going to stand up in front of the class and lecture while you take notes. Although a few law professors use a lecture format to teach their classes, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks the students questions about the law, and students answer. Many of the questions are in the form of hypotheticals that require you to think about what you have read and apply it to new fact patterns. Other professors may have students work on projects in groups or participate in role play exercises. The result: few classes will feel like the classes you took in undergrad.
2. Reading 30 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer! One reason for this difference is that the language of law is different from that of other disciplines, and it takes a while to learn it. You will have to look up a lot of words and phrases in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and many cases may take three (or even more) reads before you understand the important stuff. You generally cannot skim what you read in law school; instead, you must think about the meaning behind everything that you read to make sure that you understand enough to be able to answer those questions during class.
3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you may have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many final course grades in law school are based upon a single item—the final exam! That means that, especially as a first-year law student, you may have a difficult time assessing your understanding of course materials until it is too late to adjust your approach to your studies. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful, and you will have to learn new techniques to self-assess your understanding of each course.
4. In law school, you are in charge of your own learning. For the most part, if you are not called on during class, no one will know if you don’t do the reading on any given day. In most cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK. It is up to you to motivate yourself and remain disciplined in your approach to your studies and classes. If you don’t, you will find yourself in academic danger by the end of the course. If you slack off for a few weeks during the semester, you may never get caught back up again—and that is your responsibility, no one else’s.
5. In law school, professional expectations begin the first day of Orientation. These expectations actually contribute to your academic success, but they also contribute to your professional reputation as a future lawyer. What am I talking about here? As a law student, you are expected to be timely (both in terms of your presence and completion of assignments), prepared for class, willing to contribute to class discussions, and respectful (even when you disagree with someone else). In reality, these are not necessarily different expectations than existed in your undergraduate classes, but the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be much greater in law school.
6. Everyone is smart, and they are used to getting good grades. People who choose to go to law school have usually been pretty successful in undergrad. The result: law schools are filled with smart students who are accustomed to getting good grades. Many students find it hard to adjust to this difference, as they go from being praised by their undergraduate professors, earning the top grades, and generally being successful in everything they do, to being the “average” student in law school. Moreover, many law schools have mandatory grade distributions, which means that only a small percentage of each class will earn an A for the course.
Stay tuned for additional posts on these topics in the next several weeks, as I provide a more detailed introduction to what new students can expect in their first few weeks in law school. In the meantime, I invite respectful comments from current law students and lawyers about other things that they found different about the law school experience.