Tag Archives: law school

Last Minute Advice for February Bar Takers

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

It’s less than a week until the start of the February bar exam, and I’ve been having conversations with some tired, stressed-out bar studiers. I think it’s time for a pep talk, so here is my advice for the final days of bar prep:

First, assess your weaknesses and come up with a daily plan for the remaining days of bar prep. This is not the time to study all of the bar company outlines cover-to-cover. What are your weakest, actually-tested subjects? What topics within those subjects do you find most challenging? Focus your energy on those things, rather than attempting to review everything. When you review cover-to-cover, you are actually spending a lot of time on law you already know, and there’s no value to that approach in the final days.

Second, quit paying attention to your scores on your multiple choice practice sets. I always get emails from bar studiers in the last few days before the bar exam who are panicked because their scores suddenly dropped at the end. Your scores in the final days are usually not predictive of your ability to pass the bar. Instead, they may reflect the fact that you are tired, you are not taking adequate breaks from your studies, you aren’t sleeping, or you are rushing through the questions and not focusing enough on the details of each question. View practice MBE questions as an opportunity to just continue reviewing the law, regardless of whether you get the questions right or wrong.

Third, keep using essay questions in your studies. Even if you don’t have the time to fully write out your answers to the essay questions, take the time to issue spot and evaluate whether you have a plan for completing the analysis for each issue. This can be a great way to spot topics that you need to spend a little extra time on in the final days.

Fourth, run through your bar exam preparations. Have you checked the emails from the bar examiners as well as the bar examiners’ website to make sure you know what you are required to bring with you to the exam, what you are allowed to bring in the room, and what is prohibited? Get everything together so that you aren’t scrambling at the last minute. Evaluate how long it will take you to get to the bar exam location from where you are staying, and add significantly more time than that to ensure that you will have plenty of travel time regardless of emergencies. Want to know more about what to expect on the days of the exam? Most law schools send representatives from Academic Support, Student Services, or the Alumni Office to support their students on bar exam days, and they will have insight into some of the logistical concerns you may have.

Finally, and most importantly, make your health the highest priority in the final days of bar prep. Get on a sleep schedule that mirrors the timing you will need on bar exam days, and go to bed at a time that will allow you to get 8 hours of sleep (even if you don’t actually sleep that entire time). Sleep is the most important priority at this point – you will focus better if you have enough sleep, adequate sleep helps you manage stress better, and you will remember what you have studied more if you’ve protected your sleep. Eat regular meals, and make sure that they are nutritious. Your brain isn’t fed by junk food! And finally, take regular breaks. Bar studiers often don’t take enough breaks because they feel that the breaks take away from their study time, but breaks help your brain recharge so it can continue doing the hard work. If you find your attention wandering or you just can’t remember things you have known before, it often means you aren’t taking sufficient breaks.

Keep focus in these last days of bar prep, and know that your hard work will pay off in what you accomplish next week. It’s time to go out there and rock the bar!

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Filed under Bar Exam, Stress and Mental Health

Asking for Help in Law School

Every year at this time, I meet with first-year law students seeking to do better than they did last semester. Those meetings may be required because of their academic performance. We usually start our discussion by exploring their approach to their studies in the Fall. There are often common themes to what they tell me. Many struggling students weren’t able to effectively manage their time, and in an attempt to get their work done they took shortcuts. Perhaps they relied on canned briefs rather than reading cases themselves, or they used a commercial outline to study for exams instead of synthesizing course material for themselves. They didn’t do practice exams in the weeks leading up to finals, perfecting their approach to essays and multiple choice questions before grades were attached to their work. All of those choices were important to their first-semester outcomes, but there is another common trait at the heart of those results: these students almost never sought help in the midst of their struggles.

So why is it so hard for law students to seek help when things aren’t going well? Some law students are embarrassed to admit to their professors that they don’t understand course material or don’t know how to complete a particular type of assignment. They believe that their professors will think less of them if they ask for too much help. Other students believe that they must “figure it out” on their own, and if they aren’t able to do that they just don’t belong in law school. There are some who don’t even realize that asking for help is an option. They may be first gen students, not knowing that their classmates who weren’t first gen already knew the process for asking for help. Or maybe their undergraduate institution didn’t really have an “office hour” culture, and so the idea that professors could be available to answer students’ questions outside of class didn’t even occur to them.

There may be a variety of reasons law students don’t seek help, but their choices end in common results. Rather than developing strategies and processes for long-term success, the struggling student reinforces bad habits that perpetuate the challenges they’re facing. Their first-semester grades come in, and they are in academic difficulty – often on academic probation, or not far from that line. They start off their second semester of law school discouraged, overwhelmed, and still not sure what they should be doing to improve their studies.

Does this post so far describe you? If so, you are not alone. And most importantly, there is an opportunity to change course. Help may already be on the way, if your law school has required you to meet with your academic support department. But there are also things that you can begin to do, on your own, to initiate those conversations and get the help you need for law school success.

What can you do to get help? Most law schools have at least one professional academic support person, and you may already know who that person is. If they haven’t reached out to you, take that first step and reach out to them. If you don’t know who provides academic support at your school, contact your Dean of Students to find out who can provide help. But don’t stop with academic support. Talk to your professors. Get feedback on your performance on your exams last semester. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. Go to office hours. Ask your classmates questions. Seek out a study group (as long as that group is actually productive). These are all things that successful law students do, and you should do it too. Seek help to break out of the old, unproductive habits from last semester, and use that help to develop new habits that build your confidence in your ability to be successful.

Finally, don’t delay. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will be on the right path for your future academic and professional goals!

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Filed under General, Grades, Law School Exams, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

Is Grammar Not Your Thing?

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

Writing seems to come naturally to some law students and lawyers, but it isn’t easy for all of us. You may have gone through a school system as a child that didn’t emphasize grammar as much, and your grasp of the grammar rules is not as strong as a result. Maybe your undergraduate major is in a field that didn’t require much writing, and you’ve had less opportunity to practice that skill. You could have a learning disability that makes writing more challenging. Perhaps English is not your first language – you may have excellent grammar skills in another language, but those rules don’t transfer to English. Or maybe you are like me – a first-generation college student and law student who didn’t always hear grammatically-correct language growing up, and you have to work past that initial instinct to write how you learned to talk.

Whatever the reasons for those grammar deficiencies, it can be hard to develop the grammar skills needed for effective legal writing. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Becoming a better writer requires significant practice, and the more you write the better you get. We also have a tendency to expect our first draft to be perfect. But much of what makes writing good happens in the editing process, and that is where you have an opportunity to work on your grammar as well.

It can be helpful to have some grammar resources as you edit, and there are a number of good online resources available. Here are some that would be particularly good for law students and lawyers:

  • Core Grammar for Lawyers: It’s possible your law school may require this resource for legal writing classes, but you can purchase it individually if it hasn’t been assigned. This resource presents grammar rules in a legal context and gives you the opportunity to practice what you are learning.
  • Common Errors in English Usage, by Professor Paul Brians: Although this website is not focused on legal writing, it provides a broad range of information about many common grammar and word usage errors in the English language.
  • Grammar Girl, by Mignon Fogarty: This website offers regular tips for improving your writing. It is not focused on legal writing.
  • Law Prose Blog, by Brian Garner: Brian Garner is one of the foremost experts on legal writing and grammar, and his blog provides daily tips for legal writing.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Purdue University’s online writing lab has some great grammar resources, located under the “General Writing” tab. This website is not focused on legal writing though, and you should avoid tabs that are clearly directed to other fields of study (such as the “Research and Citation” tab).
  • University of Denver Sturm College of Law Writing Tips: This website has some great grammar resources, and it is specifically for law students.
  • University of North Carolina Writing Center: Although not targeted to legal writing centers, this website also has some good grammar resources.

Remember, great writing really happens during the editing process. The only way for your writing to improve is to do as much of it as possible, reserving plenty of time for editing!

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Filed under Legal Writing and Oral Arguments

Originality in Scholarly Legal Writing

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

One common law school graduation requirement is a scholarly paper. Some students fulfill this requirement by writing a student note for their school’s law review or specialty journal, while others write a lengthy research paper as part of a seminar course. One requirement for legal scholarly writing is originality, which can feel like a lot of pressure to a 2L or 3L. After all, you are still figuring out what it means to be a lawyer, and how do you know enough to come up with something “new” to write about? The fear can paralyze you, preventing you from narrowing your topic or developing a thesis for your work.

The fear really comes from a misconception about what originality actually requires. Originality doesn’t mean that you have to be the first person to have ever written about the topic. Instead, it means that your paper has to include original thought. You can’t just summarize what other people have already written about the topic, as you might do in an undergraduate term paper. You have to have a perspective, something new to add to the conversation in some way.

What makes a scholarly paper original? Of course, if you are the first person to ever have identified a legal problem, that is an easy way to have an original paper. You might notice that a court has identified something as an issue of first impression, for example, and no scholars have yet explored that issue further. Or maybe courts are split about how to resolve a legal issue, but not much has been written outside of court opinions.

But even if other scholars have already offered potential solutions to a legal problem, there is often space for another, alternative approach. Maybe you realize that scholars have not considered something you think could be relevant for analysis of a legal issue. There may be two scholarly approaches to a topic, very different from each other, and you believe the real solution might be something in between. Or maybe another discipline has a different way of looking at that legal problem, and you realize that those other theories could be integrated into your own legal analysis.

One way to find your own voice, your personal space within the scholarly conversation, is to read some of the scholarship that has already been published on the subject. Do a search within law reviews and journals in one of the legal databases, looking for articles that have been written in the past few years on your topic. That will give you a starting point for where the scholarly conversation has been heading. Choose at least 2 or 3 articles that seem to have a significant amount of discussion of the topic that you are interested in. As you read those articles, have your own conversation with the authors in the margins. Does what you are reading raise further questions? Note what those questions are. Do you feel that the author is not considering something that could be important? Write “What about ….?” in the margin. Does what you read inspire new ideas? Make a note of those as well. When you take this approach for multiple articles, you will often identify your own perspective of the topic you have chosen.

Finally, if you have concerns about whether your topic is original enough to meet your law school’s scholarly writing requirements, make sure that you have a conversation with the person supervising your research project.

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Filed under Legal Writing and Oral Arguments

6 Ways that Law School is Different than Undergrad

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, there are 6 major differences related 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. It’s rare that law professors lecture to their classes. Instead, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks you questions about the assigned cases, and you must be prepared to 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. There’s a lot to be learned in class, but you must be an active participant in the learning process. Even if you aren’t the one the professor is calling on, you need to be thinking through what your answers to the questions would be, and identifying the things you don’t understand and need to explore further.

2. Reading 20 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer to complete your reading! 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 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 and apply what you are learning to solve new legal problems.

3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you often have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many law school grades are based upon a single exam! What is the potential problem with this? If you do not adopt other methods for self-assessment of your understanding of course materials, you may not realize that you don’t understand until you’ve already received your final grade. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful. But if you pay attention to the strategies I discuss in this blog, you will develop tools for self-assessment that help you take control over your learning process and reduce those feelings of stress.

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 many cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK or if you have caught up on the material. No one forces you to review material after class is over, and your professors won’t follow up to make sure that you are outlining course materials in preparation for final exams. Instead, it will be 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. Your identity as a successful may be challenged by this new environment, and it may take some time to figure out who you are as a law student and future lawyer.

Although these six differences mean that the first weeks and months of law school are a challenging transition period, there are things that you can do to take control of your learning process in this new environment and set yourself up for academic and professional success. In the next several weeks, I’ll be posting more articles about what new students can expect in their first several weeks in law school, as well as strategies for success.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

A Road Map to Success on Law School Exams

© Alvaro German Vilela | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The most common way to study for law school exams is to create an outline for each subject, synthesizing everything from the course (case briefs, class notes, etc.) into a single coherent document. Outlining is an effective way to study, as it forces you to consider how cases, statutes, and hypotheticals fit together. A good outline identifies the key legal issues from the course, pulls the rules, definitions, and explanations from the cases related to those issues, and organizes the material in such a way that the student can predict how to use that material on the exam.

Although outlining is a solid approach to your law school studies, some subjects benefit from an even more focused approach – a technique that I’ll call “road mapping.” A road map takes the material related to a legal issue from your outline and turns it into an action plan for how you will analyze that issue on an exam. If you take this approach, each legal issue should have its own road map. When you identify that legal issue in a fact pattern on the exam, you will know exactly how to tackle that issue.

So how do you create a road map?

  • First, start with identifying the issue. The issue is the starting point on your road map. You may want to think about what types of facts may signal that this issue is “in play” in the question. For example, if you are taking a Torts exam, and the defendant is identified as an employee, you may ask yourself: “Could there be a vicarious liability issue here?” Usually, you’ve identified all possible issues for a subject in that subject’s outline, so this step is usually easy.
  • Second, ask yourself: “What should I do first?” Generally, the first thing that you want to do is identify the appropriate rule for the issue. Does this issue have two or more possible rules? In many subjects, there may both majority rules and minority rules. Some professors may assign jurisdiction-specific reading based on the state your law school is in. And in Contracts, for example, you must determine if you should apply the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) or the common law. As soon as you realize that there is more than one possible rule, you know you must answer a preliminary question. For example: “What jurisdiction are we in?” or “Is this a contract for the sale of goods?” Identify what the steps are for determining the applicable rule. Then based on which rule is chosen, determine what the actual rule statement should be.
  • Third, ask yourself: “What should I do next?” Answering this question requires you to think about how the rule should be explained or defined further. Does the rule include a series of elements that must be met? If so, how would you work through those elements in an essay exam? Keep repeating this process until you reach the end of your rule analysis portion of your road map.
  • Fourth, ask yourself: “Are there exceptions to the rule that I’ve identified and explained?” Those exceptions should be included in the process as well – after determining if the rule would otherwise be met, you will want to work through the possible exceptions.
  • Fifth, ask yourself: “Have courts applied public policy to their analysis of this issue?” If so, you will want to identify and explain what public policies may be applied to the issue, and determine when you would want to go into that policy discussion.
  • Sixth, having gone through this process, identify at which points you would want to include facts from the exam hypothetical in the analysis. Note in your road map the places where you would apply the legal rule to the hypothetical facts.
  • Finally, note how you would approach the conclusion to any analysis of this issue.

As you can see from the steps above, the key to a good road map is being intentional. Don’t just memorize rules – think about how you would apply those rules to a new set of facts. Your road map should be an action plan for how you would tackle each issue on the exam.

The last month before finals is the perfect time to create road maps. Much of your outlining should be completed by this stage, and you should be focused on reviewing material and taking practice exams as finals approach. An additional benefit to road mapping: you will identify aspects of  legal issues that you don’t yet understand, and you have the time at this point to work through those legal issues and go to your professors’ office hours to refine your understanding of the material.

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Filed under Law School Exams, Outlines, Study Tips

How Time Management Contributes to Success on Law School Exams

stopwatch by digitalart_freedigitalphotos

If only I’d had more time.

Such is the lament of law students across the country during the final exams period. Time is almost always an issue during law school exams – some professors even warn students that it’s impossible to completely answer all questions in the time allotted. A student’s ability to manage time during the exam can be key to academic success, and the failure to do so can have disastrous consequences. Almost every semester, students do poorly or even fail exams because they spend too much time on one part of the exam and either don’t have enough time to finish or never get to the final part of the exam. And the time constraints also contribute to feelings of stress both before and during the exam.

You may feel like you have no control of the time challenge. After all, it’s your professor who creates the exam and determines how much time you will have to complete it. All you can do is show up on the day of the exam and write as quickly as possible, hoping to make it to the finish before time is called. In reality, however, there are steps you can take to manage time during the exam. These steps, by themselves, are not sufficient to guarantee success – but with a strong study plan before the exam, and good written analysis during the exam, time management can contribute to your academic success.

With that in mind, here are some tips for managing time during your law school exams:

Assess Before You Write. You can’t manage what you don’t know. If your professor doesn’t give you specific details about the number and type of questions in advance, take a minute or two at the beginning of the exam to evaluate what the parts of the exam are and what each section is worth.

Follow Your Professor’s Instructions. If your professor tells you how much time to spend on each section of the exam, pay attention to those instructions. Your professor designed the exam with those time constraints in mind, and the time is likely to correspond with the value of each part of the exam.

Assign Time Based on Value. If your professor’s instructions do not include time suggestions, allot time based on value. For example, let’s say you are taking a Contracts Law exam that is scheduled for 3 hours. When you look at the exam, you see a multiple choice section, worth 1/3 of the exam, and two essays, each worth 1/3 of the exam. You should allow 1 hour for the multiple choice section, 1 hour for the first essay question, and 1 hour for the second essay question.

Create a Schedule for the Exam – and Stick to It. Once you have calculated how much time you should spend on each part of the exam, create a schedule. Write down the times you should finish one part of the exam and move on to the next, and then stick to the schedule. If you happen to finish a section a little early, then the remaining time can go towards another section. But don’t “steal” time from one section to give to another by ignoring the schedule altogether.

Don’t Let Open Book Exams Get Out of Control. Occasionally, students will have an “open book” exam, where the professor allows students to bring in casebooks, outlines, and class notes. Students often think that open book exams are easier, but that is usually not the case. Every time you have to look something up during the exam, you are not writing. It is almost always better to prepare for open book exams in the same way that you would prepare for a closed book exam, and only look things up during the exam if you really can’t remember the law you need to answer the question.

Take Practice Exams to Develop Time Management Strategies. If your professors have released any old exams, take a few timed practice exams before the exam period begins. Practice exams allow you to develop your time management strategies without worrying about grades.

With these time management tips in mind, good luck on your final exams!

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Filed under Law School Exams

5 Tips for Surviving (and Thriving) during Law School Final Exams

image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

As law students head into final exams, here are 5 tips for surviving (and thriving) during the final exam period:

(1) Take care of yourself. Law school exams are not a sprint but a marathon. Make sure that you get plenty of sleep each night – if you stay up late (or all night) trying to get ahead on your studies, your brain will not function as well afterwards. The next day, it will take you longer to accomplish tasks that would normally be easy, and lack of sleep also has a negative effect on memory. A tired brain does not contribute to academic success in law school. It’s also important to not skip meals – brains need food too! And make sure that you take regular breaks from your studies. Take a walk, or do something else that gets you up out of your chair. After each break, you will go back to your studies refreshed and ready to tackle your outlines!

(2) Create a study plan. Students commonly spend most of their study time on the first exam or two, and then they run out of steam before the end of the exam period. Print out a blank calendar, and divide up your days so that each class gets a reasonable portion of the remaining study time. You will realize that you need to rotate your schedule to give each class its due. For some students, maybe assigning one subject per day makes most sense; for other students, studying two subjects a day may work better. The important thing is to be intentional – if you have a study plan, you know exactly what you should be doing each day to stay on track and maximize your studying.

(3) Identify your priorities. Students often study for exams by going through their outlines over and over again, from cover to cover. Although that approach may work for reviewing course material throughout the semester, it is usually not the most efficient way to study in the days leading up to your final exams. Instead, create a checklist of issues for each subject (instructions for creating a checklist can be found here). Once you’ve created your checklists, start each day by printing out the checklist(s) for that day’s study subject(s). Go through the checklist, evaluating if you can comfortably discuss the law for each issue.

(4) Develop road maps. After you’ve created your outline, think about how you would actually use the information on an exam. If you identify a particular legal issue in an essay exam question, what would you do first? What would you do next? Some students create a flow chart that shows the analytical process they would use in their essays, while other students list a series of steps (kind of like following a recipe). The form is up to you, but try to do much of the thinking about how you would organize your analysis for each legal issue before you get into the exam. If you do, you will spend more time writing during the exam, and less time thinking. And your essays are likely to be more focused and better organized. The process of developing a road map also helps you to identify topics that may need more review.

(5) Take practice exams. Sometimes your professors have released old exams or practice questions. If they have, there’s an opportunity to better understand what your professors are looking for in the exam answers. One way to use a practice exam is to simulate the actual exam experience. Find a quiet, distraction-free place to take the practice exam. Time yourself, so that you write for the amount of time that the professor would allow for that question during an actual exam. If the exam is closed book, don’t look at your notes. Taking an exam, even if you only do one essay, can be a great way of assessing how prepared you are for the exam. You can then spend more time reviewing the areas of the law that seemed too vague or fuzzy. If you feel that you don’t have enough time to write out complete essays, you can still use a professor’s old exams to test your ability to spot legal issues and make sure that you know the law for those issues.

Following these tips can help you make the best use of limited time in the days leading up to final exams. Good luck on your exams!

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Filed under Law School Exams, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

New Law Student Guide to the First Weeks of Class

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

It’s that time of year when law schools are preparing to welcome new students to Orientation and their first semester of classes. As a new law student, you have probably received numerous communications from your law school, providing a variety of instructions regarding your 1L year. You may have read some books which describe the law school experience, and you may have current or former law students giving you advice. There are a wealth of articles on this blog to help you during your transition to law school, but I thought that I would highlight some that may be particularly useful in the first few weeks. Here they are:

First, a couple of articles explaining one of the common approaches to the law school classroom, Socratic Method:

Here are some articles about reading and briefing cases for law school:

Next, a couple of articles about taking notes in your law school classes:

Finally, here’s an article about how to create a good study schedule while in law school:

 

More posts about how to be a successful law student coming in the future. In the meantime, does anyone have any specific questions or concerns about starting law school? Feel free to put your questions in the comments section for this post.

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Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

A New Culture, a New Language: Welcome to Law School!

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.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

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.

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

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.

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