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One skill that law students should develop is the ability to ask good questions. I’m talking about “big” questions here, not questions about small details of the cases that you’ve read. There are going to be many times in law school where you don’t understand something that you read or that was addressed in class. As a law student, you want to develop the ability to ask good questions.
Asking good questions is a way to give your professors the tools that they need to help you understand the law better. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most law students start their Civil Procedure course by learning about personal jurisdiction. In the first few several weeks of the course, you will read multiple cases about personal jurisdiction, and your professor will use numerous hypotheticals to expand your understanding of that legal issue. It doesn’t help you or your professor if you raise your hand in class, or go to his office during office hours, and say, “I don’t understand personal jurisdiction. Can you explain it again?” It would take a really long time for your professor to reteach several weeks of material to you a second time, and it is probably just a part of the issue that you don’t understand, not the entire subject.
Your questions (and your professor’s answers) will be more helpful if you do some preliminary work first. Here are two important tips for developing good questions:
(1) If you don’t understand a particular legal issue that you are studying, trying to reason your way through it first. Reread your case brief and class notes, and even go back to the cases and read the relevant parts.
(2) Take the time to figure out what you do know, and then ask yourself, “What do I actually not know?” Maybe a particular legal test has four elements. You determine that you actually do understand elements 1, 3, and 4, and it is just element 2 that is giving you problems. By narrowing down what you don’t understand about the issue, you will be able to craft good questions.
If you take the time to do a little advance work and tailor narrow questions, you will give your professor the tools he or she needs to be able to help you.
Recently, my posts have focused mostly on topics of interest to incoming law students or law school graduates preparing to take the bar exam. Today, I want speak to those law students who will be returning to school after spending the summer gaining some type of professional legal experience, whether working for pay in some capacity, completing an unpaid internship, or earning law school credit as an extern. This post may also be helpful to students considering an externship, clinic experience, or other practical legal experience during the upcoming school year.
So what are some of the academic benefits of legal work experience? Practical legal work experience, whether during the summer or school year, can contribute to a law student’s academic success in multiple ways:
- Inspiration: Let’s face it—not everything about law school is exciting or glamorous. Sometimes it’s just about getting through it, whether you are mired in some complicated federal tax law or attempting to untangle the legal rules that apply to secured transactions. When you’re slogging through a class assignment that makes you feel like you will never understand the law or is just not fun to study, you can use your legal work experiences to inspire and motivate you. There is nothing like experience with the law in practice to remind you why you are putting yourself through the hard work and stress of law school. It’s worth it!
- Context: Legal work experience can also provide helpful context for legal concepts that you are learning about in your law school classes. Classes like Civil Procedure and Evidence are especially difficult to learn if you don’t have a context for all of the rules you are studying. It’s amazing how much more sense the Erie Doctrine or the rules regarding hearsay evidence make when you are applying them in a real-world context. Legal work experience not only gives you a context for subjects you have studied in the past but can also provide a context for future classes you may take.
- Guidance: Legal work experience can also give you guidance about what elective classes you take in law school. Maybe you had no interest in bankruptcy law until your supervisor at the law firm this summer assigned you a research project involving bankruptcy issues. You might have previously ignored the fact that Bankruptcy Law was going to be offered next Spring, but now you decide you should take the class to explore further whether it is a possible practice area for you. Maybe you always thought you wanted to be a litigator, but an experience in drafting a contract in your internship in a corporate legal department encourages you to take a Legal Drafting course. Or you may have even received guidance from a supervisor who told you that, if you are interested in going into a particular legal field once you graduate, there are specific courses that will be helpful in that endeavor.
- Development: Finally, your legal work experience can have direct application to the academic skills that will make you a better law student. Specifically, you often become a more efficient and effective researcher, analyst, and writer as you gain more and more experience in practice. Just as the skills that you learn in law school will contribute to your success as an attorney, further development and practice of those skills will also contribute to your academic access.
Although students often view their legal work experiences as unrelated to their academic endeavors, further success in law school can be fueled, at least in part, by those work experiences. Looking for ways to connect your work to your legal education will enhance your law school experience!