I wrote a lengthy comment to a post on the Volokh Conspiracy that offered some advice to those about to start law school, and after rereading through it, I felt it was coherent enough to merit posting here (with some grammatical changes). Even though my law school plans have been scuttled this summer, the least I can do is offer some suggestions and insight to those of you who are going on without me. Hope you find it helpful!
I think the advice given so far (with the exception of some of the comments here) barely begins to scratch the surface. Regarding doing the reading, such advice is profanely pointless when you consider that students are often saddled with so many monstrous reading assignments that it’s virtually impossible to stay on top of it all. Prof. Somin fails to stress how important it is to be able to extract the relevant portions of what we read, and more importantly WHAT THOSE RELEVANT portions are supposed to be (which in essence is black letter law). Yet students who receive no helpful guidance from law professors may spend more time reading (and memorizing) procedural history or pointless dicta simply because they don’t know any better. For this I place the blame largely on law professors who love to play hide the ball, and worse still, consider it to be a legitimate method for teaching students. I find such a callous and even contemptuous attitude these professors exhibit towards their students to be quite offensive and disgusting. Law school may not be “vastly” different from undergrad school, but it is SIGNIFICANTLY different, and students MUST understand that if they are to survive. Here are my personal suggestions (based on my own research) for any beginning law student who might be reading this thread:
- Learn and understand the value of Commercial Outlines (known as COs.) Once you know the casebook you’ll be assigned, purchase a CO keyed to that casebook. Commercial Outlines basically extract and highlight the black letter law of the cases you read, which is exceedingly important, because your ability to understand and internalize BBL will be crucial to your success in law school.
- A lot of the stress generated by law school can be attributed not only to being overwhelmed with assignments, but because of not knowing where to start. The primary purpose of these reading assignments is to find and extract the relevant black letter law (that’s what your outlines will be all about). Everything else is largely superfluous. Once you understand that, and know what to look for, the stress levels will drop dramatically. You’ll still have to work very hard, but working hard with a clear sense of direction will prove eons better than having no sense of direction at all.
- Understand that “briefing cases” in law school is only remotely similar to briefing cases the way attorneys actually do it in real life. Do not fall into the trap of placing more weight on briefing cases than you should. Only a minor portion of your time should be spent briefing. The rest should be spent on learning and internalizing black letter law (and playing with hypos).
- Unless the law professor is a jerk and detracts from the norm, your law school exam will almost always consist of “fact patterns.” Here is the reason why learning black letter law is so important, but another pitfall you need to avoid is to merely regurgitate BBL on your exams. The professor is not testing your knowledge of BBL, rather, he is testing your ability to APPLY your knowledge of BBL to the fact pattern that you’re given. That is the crux of law school exams and you must absolutely understand this if you want to do well. Like an engineer, you won’t be tested on your knowledge of tools of the trade, but rather your ability to use these tools efficiently and effectively.
- Make use of primers (the most famous being Aspen). Some professors use them (God bless them) and some don’t. Primers are designed to introduce you to black letter law in an easy to understand manner. They are abundantly worth their weight in gold.
- Get copies of old law schools exams from your professors to practice on (and if they don’t have any or refuse to give you any, look for databases of exams online). You should start practicing on these exams as soon as you’ve retained enough BBL to work them (maybe halfway through the semester?) Do not wait until the last week before final exams to start practicing. This is not the kind of education where you can cram all night long the day before the test and think it will prove effective. It will be a death sentence instead.
- Ignore the advice to sign up for extracurricular activities. This is law school, not high school. From one source, I was told I should expect to spend 3 hours studying for every hour of class I took. That’s roughly 48 hours a week, and joining clubs nilly-willy will add even more time to that. Focus on your studies instead. You have two years to join any extracurricular club, so for your first year, forget about it. First acclimate yourself to the law school environment until you’ve adapted to the differences, and feel confident enough that you can take on a little bit more without placing any undue stress on yourself. Note, after your first year, one “extracurricular” activity that should in fact be considered an absolute MUST is a clinical program. Law school clinics will provide you the closest thing ever to what its like to practice law FOR REAL. They are invaluable, and should be a mandatory part of any law school curriculum.
- You will soon become intimate with the term “hypos” (short for hypotheticals). These involve changing facts around in a “fact pattern” and then determining if the black letter law that applied in the first pattern would still apply to the new one. Think of hypos as mini-me versions of final exams, and you’ll begin to realize their importance. Hypos are the barbells that will work out your mental biceps, and they are more or less the only way you can develop your skills in analyzing fact patterns and “spotting the issues.”
In summary, studying in law school is basically a two prong process. The first is to learn, understand and internalize black letter law, and the second is to utilize that knowledge effectively (by playing with hypos), so you can spot the relevant issues in fact patterns and then apply the appropriate BBL. That’s it (in a nutshell). Hope somebody out there finds it helpful.
P.S. Students should note that some professors will frown on the use of COs or even primers. Too bad. They’re not the ones paying your $30,000 a year tuition. In the end you need to do what’s best for you, and just because they’re professors does not mean they are automatically looking out for you. Indeed, some of the most inane advice I have ever heard came from the mouths of law professors, which I can only surmise is attributable to some “Ivory Tower” complex that is affecting their capacity for common sense.
P.S.S. The best advice I saw offered by Prof. Denning at Instapundit I believe was treating law school like a full time job. If you time your studying wisely and invest the amount of hours you normally would for a full time job, you’ll have more free time to yourself without feeling overburdened. The problem is sticking with it, because if you start slacking off and miss a few hours a week where you should have been studying, you’ll more than likely have to make up for it, and those hours can add up very quickly. Finally, Pro
f. Kerr says its normal to feel lost, and advises students not to hesitate from asking their professors for help. However, this isn’t going to help students when their professors are the sort that play cheap mind games on them. Even worse, professors may provide answers or suggestions that could turn out to be vague or even counterproductive. For example, a prof might tell you the point of an exam is to “spot the issue.” But what does that mean, really? If they’re not willing to spell it out for you, or to take the time to explain the terminology and what they’re honestly looking for, such advice will prove pointless. Hopefully you’ll have enough good professors to steer you in the right direction, but then again, you may not. Be wary, and be prepared.