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, 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 student 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.