Law School: What to Expect and How to Cope, Selections
from "Introduction to The Study and Practice of Law in a Nutshell"
By Kenney Hegland, Professor of Law, University of Arizona
It is the best of schools, it is the worst of schools. It is law
school and it won't be the same.
Legal education is different from under-graduate education. As
an undergraduate you sat and took notes while the professor lectured.
You left, often inspired, occasionally depressed, but generally
with the feeling that you learned something:
"That Sartre believed essence precedes existence." "That
the Second Law of Thermodynamics suggest that the universe will
eventually run out of energy." "That Sartre, had he known
of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, would have been even more depressed."
In law classes you naturally expect to learn the law. "That
murder is the unlawful killing of a human being." "That
minors don't have contractual capacity." "That torts are
not English muffins."
Your experience of law school will be quite different from your
expectation. Not only do you not "learn" any law in class,
often it will seem that you are considerably worse off for having
attended it. ("Now I don't even know what a human being is!")
In law school professors generally make no attempt to explain the
assigned reading nor do they attempt to supplement it. Their mission,
you will discover, is something quite different.
In law school you don't just sit and take notes; you are expected
to participate. Well and good, this sounds like an undergraduate
seminar. However, you will find a critical distinction in the kind
of dialogue that occurs. In an undergraduate seminar you participate
by offering and defending you opinion on the issue at hand. In law
school your opinion, by itself, counts for little; what you say
must be reasoned and justified in the context of law. At first it
is very difficult to do this.
Preparing for class is also different. You don't skim the material
looking for central ideas nor do you sit long hours attempting to
memorize key points. In law school you struggle with the ideas -
expect, at first, to be whipped by a two page case.
Finally, law exams are unlike tests you have taken in the past.
You will not be asked to merely recite what you have learned (Define
murder.") nor will you be given broad essay questions such
as "Is Law Just?" Law exams require you to apply the law
you have learned to new factual situations.
You will find all of these differences bewildering and threatening.
You will also find them challenging and exhilarating. It is the
best of schools, it is the worst of schools. Welcome.
Fear and Loathing in the First Year
The first year is intellectual dynamite. Gone the lectures of undergraduate
days, gone the endless, meandering discussions of Great Issues,
Lectures fall to the "Socratic method" - students, not
faculty, to bring forth knowledge. The great issues remain, yet
in law there is a critical difference; they matter. Here a Hobbesian
view of human nature means a certain criminal defendant will go
to prison rather than remain free; here, classical economic thought
means the enforcement, rather than non-enforcement, of a specific
contract. Here the theories determine outcomes. Tested by reality,
abstraction becomes more focused and urgent. When all is said and
done, someone wins, someone loses.
Most law students, when they aren't complaining, discuss law. It
is heady and fascinating stuff.
Another very positive aspect of the first year is the satisfaction
that comes with mastering a new and difficult discipline. At first
you will be doing it wrong; you will garble facts, misstate issues,
and confuse holdings. After much hard work, you will do it right.
That accomplishment is deeply satisfying.
On the other hand...
There is a "Ferocious, grasping sense of uncertainly."
You've always been successful at school. You want to do well now.
What is expected of me? How should I study? Is it worth the effort?
Do I really want to be a lawyer? What is it I am trying to learn?
Will I flunk out?
Students going into other graduate programs, schools of education,
philosophy, social work, have a fairly good idea what to expect
because those graduate schools are not qualitatively programs. Law
school is, in marked contrast, a whole new game.
Don't expect the sense of uncertainty to abate early. There is
little feedback. Traditionally there are not term papers or midterms.
You will sit in a large class, classes over 100 are not uncommon,
awaiting the one and only test, the final. Finals come and go and
quite likely there is still no meaningful feedback; grades don't
tell you what you are doing right or wrong. Lack of feedback is
one of the most bitter complaints of law students. Why the lack
of feedback? Partly, perhaps mostly, economics. Legal education
is graduate education on the cheap, one professor handling a class
of 140! Recently there has been improvement. Many law schools now
offer small classes in the first year. Students in these schools
will take one of their courses in a class of 20 to 30. And in the
second and third year, there will be seminars and clinical courses
that have a lower student/faculty ratio and hence more feedback.
With these exceptions, the general law school model holds: large
classes followed by a single final. Legal education simply does
not look like other graduate education, a small group of students
sitting around the table chatting with the professor.
I'm the Dumbest One Here!
Take heart! Every first year student believes this. Only one is
right! (the bad news is....)
After the first few weeks in law school, I was convinced that all
my classmates were geniuses. They said such profound, insightful
things, things that would never, ever, occur to me. "It's curtains
for me, I'll flunk out for sure!" I did find some solace in
the fact that Boalt Hall, like most law schools today, flunked out
very few students. (As admission standards rose, failure rates fell.
Gone the classic First Day Greeting: "Look to the person to
your right, look to the person at your left....") Using the
rumored "flunk out rate" as a basis, I concluded that
I had to be smarter than only 3 or 4 of the 120 students in my section.
Not bad odds. I would come to class, looking and listening to discover
someone dumber than me. Weeks would pass. I grew desperate. Finally
someone would say something that seemed wildly beside the point.
Mark one down. At the end of the first semester the count stood
at three. It was going to be a cliffhanger. (As it developed one
of the three ended up in the top 10% of the class. One of the really
unnerving things about the first year is that you can't tell who's
The insecurity, although understandable, leads to viciousness.
I, sitting, watching, counting, am one example. Another is the pathetic
posturing that occurs.
"I don't study more than an hour a day and understand everything."
"My LSAT is in the 99th percentile. What's yours?" "Personally,
I find Kingsfield a little weak on consideration!"
How to cope with posturing? Take a tip from a defensive linesman.
Broadcasting a professional football game he told the following
story. As a player, often friends would ask him, "Doesn't so-and-so
play the same position as you do with the Jets?" Indeed, so-and-so
did. "And what's-his-face, he plays the same position for the
Rams?" Indeed he did. "Well those two guys always sack
the quarterback. Why don't you?"
"Did you ever consider that they're better football players
than I am?" You can lose the posturing game (I'll never make
it with such talented people!") or you can attempt to win by
inventing your own killer sword ("I didn't do that well on
the LSAT but I do have a doctorate in philosophy!") Best, however,
not to play: "Gee, did you ever consider you're smarter than
Once after a few weeks of class a student came to me aghast. "Several
people have already finished reading the book! What am I to do?"
"How do you know they've finished reading the book?" "Because
I saw their books. They're underlined all the way through!"
Realize this: Some buy used books.
A typical first year scenario. You study one case half the night.
The first several times through, nothing. You stick with it. You
consult your law dictionary. You reread the case. Suddenly a glimmer;
more slowly, order. Finally you are ready.
Confidently you go to class. You are quickly shattered. "What
does what we're talking about have to do with the case I read? I
didn't understand it at all; maybe it's not even the same case!"
The pain of trying hard and failing, the confusion and the panic
that accompany it, often turn to bitterness. "These professors
can't teach, even if they wanted to, which they don't; they just
want to confuse!" It is as if they swore to some terrible
Misreading of the Prayer of St. Francis, "Where there is understanding,
let me sow confusion."
Not so. A "case" is an invitation to do law. Your professor
is trying to help you understand what it is to do law; she assumes
you have a basic understanding of the case and quickly goes beyond
it. "You will teach yourself the law; I will teach you how
Expect your professors to understand the cases at different levels
than you. They are lawyers; they know how to read cases; they know
the law. What strikes them as important about a case likely will
not be what you find important - it is a question of differing experiences
and understandings. Do not be lament.
Being Called on in Class: Herein the Socratic Method
You'll be in class one day, just sitting there, minding your own
business, actually rather enjoying the discussion, when, without
warning, you hear someone calling your name. The Professor! All
eyes turn to you. There is total silence. The Professor is good
enough to repeat the question: Quis outouc ptyo xovibiyeous oppeauwud
ipptons? Relax! Take a deep breath, loosen your jaw. Shift your
attention from "Oh no, it's happening to me!" Focus on
the question. If necessary ask that it be repeated. Answering the
question remember that your are probably doing a whole lot better
than you think you are. Just because you thought of something, just
because you understood a point, doesn't mean that it is so obvious
it doesn't justify discussion. What you have to say might be terrific.
Realize that you appear nervous even though they surely are. Listening
to someone recite you do not hear the pounding of his heart nor
feel the quiver in his lips.
Confront, finally, the dreaded fear: You make a total fool of yourself
and your classmates actually laugh at your bumbling, inept response.
You will walk from the room shattered, unable to look your classmates
in the eye. Nonetheless you will overhear smatterings of their conversations.
Suddenly it will strike you:
"What? They're talking about other things, law, baseball,
the weather. No one is talking about my shame, my disgrace."
Be the fool and learn that the world goes on much as before. This
is valuable, although somewhat disappointing lesson. The willingness
to risk being the fool is absolutely essential to effective lawyering.
Who was foolish enough to first assert that separate means equal?
To argue that, despite tradition and practice, police must warn
defendants of their right to remain silent? To suggest that manufacturers
of goods could be held "strictly liable" for injuries
their products cause? Law demands creativity; creativity demands
we try new things; fear of playing the fool demands we don't.
Welcome the opportunity that law school affords, that of being
the fool before 120 classmates. Let them laugh as you learn to risk
and hence free your creativity. Of course, the worse you are, the
more they will love you. As you stammer and fret, there will be
a collective sigh - "There's one more we can mark down."
The Second and Third Years
The rush and intensity of the first year become the calm of the
second and third. Gone the fear and anxiety born of uncertainty.
You will now know what is expected, both in class and on examinations;
you will now know how to read cases and how to engage in Socratic
dialogue. You will also know your place in the inevitable scholastic
pecking order. Be the news good or bad, it will surely be liberating.
Grades no longer will be the ever present concern; you are now free
to learn to know rather to impress.
While some find tranquility routine and boring, most prosper and
grow. The academic pace slackens; there is time to pursue friendships
and personal interests.
Movies and plays again become something other than study breaks
squeezed between Contracts and Torts. This chapter considers second
and third year options - law review, courses, clerking. It also
suggests some spices - teaching law in high schools, and using the
humanities, literature and film, to deepen your understanding of
the law and lawyering. Making the most of the second and third years,
however, is less a question of taking the right courses and more
a question of having the right attitude.