I’ve talked about this subject previously, but it bears repeating as new students are getting ready to head off to law school for the first time this month. The first weeks of law school can be intimidating for new law students. For many students, it can be like you’ve been dropped into a foreign country–one where you don’t speak the language, don’t really understand the culture, and really wish you could figure out what happened to your tour guide. This experience can be stressful, but remember you are not alone in the process–many law students have traveled the path before you, and there really are many resources (the equivalent of guide books, foreign language dictionaries, and those tour guides) to help you along the way.
So what makes law school so different? First, you will most likely find the culture of law school very different from what you’ve experienced in undergrad and graduate school programs. There are new expectations for professional behavior, and you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to your education. Many of your classes will be taught using Socratic method, with the professor guiding your learning by asking you questions rather than lecturing. If you are not prepared for class, you will quickly be left behind. Second, class assignments will require more time and effort than you have had to put into your studies in the past. And especially in the first several weeks of the semester, as you read course assignments, there will be many words you don’t understand; much of the law that you will study has a context that you won’t have learned yet.
Like learning a foreign language, learning the language of law will require significant time and effort during your years in law school. You will read cases multiple times, learning to “translate” each case into usable information for class and exam purposes. You will look up countless legal words and phrases in your law dictionary. You may create flashcards to help you memorize the key vocabulary and legal tests (the “grammar” of law), much as you approached taking Spanish, French, or Chinese in high school and college.
Although it really isn’t possible to learn most of the language of law until you are immersed in it during your 1L year, it is possible to develop some of the context for that language now, during the summer before you begin your life as a law student. Sometimes your law school will provide specific suggestions of things you should read prior to your 1L year—check with your law school’s Admissions staff or Academic Support professionals for additional guidance. As I’ve described previously, there are a number of books out there that provide good information about what to expect in law school, and many of those books provide some context for the legal language you will learn. There are also books you can read “for fun” and still learn some legal language and context. There are also some great websites, such as the Federal Judicial Center’s “Inside the Federal Courts” website, created to educate federal court employees but useful for incoming law students as well. Other state and federal court websites may provide additional helpful information.
So what types of information would be helpful to know before the first day of law school? Here’s a nonexclusive list of suggested topics to learn more about this summer:
(1) the differences between civil law and criminal law;
(2) the meaning of words and phrases such as “case law,” “common law,” and “statutory law”;
(3) the federal court system and federal appellate process;
(4) the state court system and state appellate process for the state in which your law school is located in;
(5) how the U.S. Supreme Court functions and who the current Supreme Court Justices are; and
(6) basic information about the types of law you will be studying during your first year of law school, which, depending on the law school, might include subjects such as Torts, Property Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law.
Remember, you don’t have to be a legal expert before you go to law school; you are just creating a context for what you will learn as a 1L. You will have your equivalent of “tour guides” in law school–your professors, law school administrators and staff, Academic Support professionals, and upper level students who have gone through what you are going through. But a little research before the first day will make you feel less like a tourist wandering in a foreign land.
Stay tuned for more advice for new law students in the coming weeks! We will explore a number of topics, including Socratic Method, law school grades, reading and briefing cases, and numerous other subjects of interest to incoming students.