Lately the blogosphere has been dishing out advice for beginning law school students by the dozen, mostly by professors offering a suggestion or two on how to survive law school. Some are good, the rest make me wonder what reality these people are living in. And while there’s plenty of suggestions on how to perform well in school to go around, so far no one has given these “pearls of wisdom” a critical look to see if they’re truly worth their weight in gold. Enter, yours truly.
Below contains a summary of most of the advice I’ve found so far, followed by my own personal critique. Note: I found tips for students going through orientation and some advice that dealt strictly with how to brief cases, but I decided to ignore them since they don’t deal with the overall picture.
Suggestion #1: Develop a strong work ethic.
My initial response: No @#$% Sherlock. Honestly, this could apply to just about everything else in life, and if a student hasn’t learned by law school the value of having a strong work ethic, he never will. I don’t know what’s worse, that this is the kind of advice law school students are being given, or the fact that some feel it’s necessary to reiterate those life lessons we should have already learned in kindergarten.
Suggestion #2: Working smart is as important as working hard.
This might have been helpful, except virtually no information is given on how a student can work SMART. Instead we’re just fed some analogical anecdotes that tell us nothing. Anyone with a positive IQ point knows they have to work smart as well as hard, but the key issue is, HOW? We’re not told that here.
Suggestion #3: Read the materials in casebooks actively/Do the reading.
It’s true that law school isn’t about memorizing and regurgitating legal rules, but about learning how to skillfully perform legal analysis. However, being an avid reader in casebooks is a moot point if you’re not told WHAT to look for, as if earnestly reading badly written casebooks will somehow magically impart in you the skills necessary to perform a lawyerlike analysis. The truth is you have to first KNOW the law (otherwise known as Black Letter Law), before you can learn analyzing it and then applying it to various scenarios (fact patterns). But the necessary Black Letter Law can be so buried inside the casebooks that you may end up wasting eons of time just trying to find the relevant BBL before doing anything else, much less taking a crack at doing legal analysis.
Suggestion #4: Refrain from using a lot of study aids.
We’re told here that study aids can be inaccurate, and even if they were accurate, relying on them would discourage the hard work needed to perform legal analysis. Yeah right. What study aids, (specifically ones like primers and commercial outlines) can do is give you the BBL plain and simple, making it far easier for you to learn and internalize the relevant law, and thus provide a foundation for which you can learn how to perform a lawyerlike analysis of fact patterns. You CANNOT analyze cases and fact patterns until you first become familiar with (and have internalized) the relevant Black Letter Law. Good study aids can help you accomplish this by helping you learn BBL in a straightforward and easy to understand manner.
Suggestion #5: Don’t think about exams right away.
The professor bemoans over how too many students are concerned about exams and even ask questions about it on the first day of school. Might that have something to do with the fact that for the most part, a student’s grade for the class will be almost completely based on one final exam? Naturally that’s going to make a student a wee bit curious about the exam’s contents, and how can he can appropriately prepare for it beforehand.
Suggestion #6: Treat law school like a job.
This one isn’t so bad. I would venture so far as to say you should treat law school like a FULL-TIME job. I’m sure a lot of student suffer from a “party mentality” that they developed during their undergrad days, and find themselves dismayed at the thought that law school will require them to actually have to WORK for their grades. Time-wise, investing 40 hours a week towards your studies is not bad advice, especially if you are studying the right way, and it emphasizes the importance of creating a schedule that will bring some order to your daily routine, helping you to balance studying time with free time without sacrificing either.
Suggestion #7: Exercise.
Suggestion #8: Maintain outside interests/Take a break every now and then from law school.
It’s certainly a given that law school should not be your WHOLE life. But there’s something wrong when law school seems to create such an isolating environment that students feel they have no choice but to let it monopolize ALL of their time at the expense of everything else, including their relationships with family and friends. It’s one thing if it’s because law school is just uniquely demanding, but it’s quite another when a large part of it may be because of a badly flawed pedagogy that often sends students chasing after their own tails.
Suggestion #9: It’s ok to feel lost.
Gee, thanks. Instead of being a part of the problem, why not be a part of a solution and develop a teaching method where students WON’T feel so lost? And no, it’s NOT ok to feel lost because we SHOULDN’T be feeling lost to begin with. What are we paying you guys for anyway?
Suggestion #10: Talk to your professors and ask them questions.
After admitting to the shortcomings of legal education, we’re entreated here to approach our professors outside the classroom for help. This might be all well and good if A) the professor has sufficient enough time to help you out and B) he actually happens to be a GOOD teacher. But if not, what then? And what if you have a REALLY bad professor, as opposed to one who is merely an incompetent idiot? In many cases these very professors are perpetuating the students’ problems in trying to learn the law. Talking to them may help you get a sense of what they are looking for, but if they’re the sort that love to play hide the ball and other mind games, then this kind of advice won’t take you very far.
This is very good (and telling) advice. I’ve heard elsewhere that the best classes students ever had was not because of the subject, but because the professor was so good. This may not apply to first year law students who’ve had their schedule preprepared though, but if you can choose your professor, even if the subject sounds drop dead boring, it would be sorely worth it just to sit in a class where the professor has an excellent reputation.
Suggestion #12: Take practice exams.
YES. ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY. Taking old exams given by professors in the past is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the real one. Practice does make perfect, and being able to practice on old
exams is an opportunity you should never pass up. More importantly, start taking practice exams early in the semester (maybe about midway). Do not start taking them a week before the final exam. This is something you should work on throughout the semester rather than as a means of cramming for the final exam.
Suggestion #13: Go to class.
This just in: water is wet.
Suggestion #14: Law school is tough. Deal with it.
This one gave me a headache. After being told law school will suck up all my time and then some, I’m then advised that one way of dealing with the stress is to (you guessed it), make time for myself and my family.
Suggestion #15: Use law review articles to help learn and understand the material.
I’m not sure about this one, as this is the first time I’ve heard of the use of law review articles as a study aid. She does make a point about Commercial Outlines not being sufficient unto themselves, since they only convey black letter law without providing the reasoning (or policy) behind them. That’s where the use of a good primer comes in though.
Suggestion #16: Find out what works best for you.
As LawMommy would say, this one should be emblazoned on a t-shirt or on professional labels, not because it’s good advice, but because it’s been said repeatedly, over… and over… and over… and over again.
Blackprof.com offers some of the better advice for law students that I’ve found so far, and Madisonian.net also offers a few tips definitely worth looking into (with the possible exception of the suggestion that you should brief every day). As for me personally, I indicated before that I believe legal education is (or should be) a two step process: 1) To learn and internalize Black Letter Law and 2) Applying your knowledge of Black Letter Law to different scenarios and fact patterns. I honestly believe it can be as simple as that, but for whatever reason there seems to be a perpetual need to inject mystical qualities into the law by the powers that be, making it far harder to master than it should be. I suspect a lot of it is by design, and is being perpetuated by little more than elitist snobbery.