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An Insider's Guide to Law School

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Books, movies, and every lawyer you meet feed you the same horror story: Your first year in law school is going to be the toughest of your life, complete with mountains of reading, sadistic professors, and cutthroat classmates. While the experience varies from school to school and student to student, most first-years say that the agony described in "One-L" and "The Paper Chase" is only half the story; hard work and a steep learning curve do come with the territory, but not only is it possible to survive your first year-it's actually possible to enjoy it.


Grab your new laptop (some schools, such as Stanford, require you to buy one; you'll find that many students actually use them to take notes in class), and hit the ground running. Generally, law schools split the first-year class into sections. You will get to know your sectionmates well, as you take all your classes with them. Though sections disband after the first year, the bonds formed during this intense period are usually some of the strongest in a law school career.

First-year students attend class roughly 14 to 15 hours per week. Whether your courses are yearlong or semester-long depends on the school, but the first-year curriculum is virtually identical at every law school in the country:
  • Civil Procedure covers the nuts and bolts of litigation.
  • In Torts, you learn about civil injuries and their remedies, often with a healthy dose of economic theory.
  • Contracts is the study of enforceable agreements.
  • Criminal Law, not surprisingly, covers criminal statutes and penalties.
  • You debate the merits of abortion rights, free speech, and gun control in Constitutional Law.
  • Property is the study of ownership and rights, and when these rights are infringed.
Most schools also require a first-year seminar in legal writing and research, often culminating in a moot-court exercise where 1Ls argue an imaginary case before a panel of "judges" played by professors or practicing attorneys.

Tip: Some schools require you to dress the part for this, so you may have to spring for a suit.

Conventional wisdom has it right: Be prepared to spend more time reading than ever before. "Nothing prepares you for this much work," says Bethany Currie, a 1L at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "I'm constantly surprised by how much homework there is." Expect an adjustment period as you learn to read case law, a unique skill that only practice can perfect. "In the beginning of my first year, it took an hour to read and brief a 10-page case," explains Deborah Dencer, a 1L at another Midwestern law school. "But eventually it becomes second nature." In time, you'll find yourself breezing through cases at warp speed.

Briefing a case is just what it sounds like: Creating short outlines for each case helps immensely when you're called on in class; plus, they're an invaluable study aid at exam time. There's no right way to brief a case, but following a set structure helps. Usually, you start by stating the nature of the case and what rule of law it illustrates; following that, you might summarize the key facts, identify the issues, and indicate the court's holding and decision. One student at Cardozo Law School says, "In the first semester, they ask you the facts of the case a lot, so briefing is really helpful. But going forward, you start learning to highlight and to make marginal notes."

A note about outside aids: While commercial hornbooks, casenotes, and outlines (the CliffsNotes of the legal world) are certainly useful to many students, they're not necessarily a substitute for reading the cases yourself.

Tip: Before you shell out money for guides, ask a 2L or 3L for advice and check to see if they're available in the library.

Most schools use the time-honored Socratic method to teach law in the classroom. Rather than lecturing, professors call on students randomly (or for some lucky sections, according to an alphabetical list) and question them at length-in front of the class-about the implications of the assigned reading. This type of dialogue, pioneered by the Greek philosopher Socrates, forces students to arrive at the answer by gradually building a logical chain, link by link. This teaches you to apply legal reasoning in novel situations, instead of merely memorizing the principles behind a given case.

Cold-calling is also an extremely effective method of getting everyone in the class to do the reading every day. It's natural to feel like a deer caught in the headlights when you're called on for the first time; chances are, everyone in the class will freeze up under questioning at some point. While you may never forget the time it happens to you, bear in mind that your classmates will only remember their own moments of embarrassment.

At most schools, class participation won't affect your grades. "Be prepared for daily classes," says Pedro Cervantes, a 1L at the University of Illinois, "but focus more on ensuring that you know how to take the exams at the end of the semester."

The exam period will generally last for two weeks at the end of each semester. Some schools give you a week of reading days to prepare; others might allot only a weekend for this purpose. Exams are often three hours long, writing intensive, and sometimes may be taken on your laptop; at some schools, there are take-home exams for which you will be given a set period of time.

The best way to prepare is to take the exams your professor gave in previous years. Many law schools file them in the library; if yours doesn't, ask your professor if you can see an old exam. Most 1Ls also find it helpful to create course outlines, which boil down the substance of the course into a digestible form. "Put your notes into outline form from the very first day of school," advises a 1L at Suffolk University in Boston. "It saves you a lot of work right before finals." Organizing a study group of two to six friends or sectionmates can help you fill in the gaps and keep you motivated. And stay calm, cool, and collected through the whole ordeal with tips from our resident health guru, Dr. of Law.

Tip: Review for common first-year exams by attending bar prep classes. Although you won't take your bar exam till after your third year, many bar review courses are offered for first- and second-year classes to help students synthesize the material.

Grades generally don't come in for at least three to six weeks after the exam. Professors may post grades keyed to anonymous code numbers on a bulletin board in the school, or you may have to call an automated telephone information system to receive them. At some schools, you still get them the old-fashioned way-by mail.

No matter how you prepare, expect the unexpected when your report card arrives. Most law school courses base grades solely on one do-or-die half-day exam at the end of the semester, and many conscientious students get nasty surprises when they see their grades. Finding yourself in the middle of the curve may be difficult to get used to after the academic success that got you into law school in the first place. But grades "don't mean what they meant in college," Currie points out. "Celebrate with a B+, and be ecstatic if you get an A."

The curve varies from school to school. At some, the same percentage of students gets a certain grade on all first-year exams. Some have set policies, so 25 percent of students may get Cs and many more get As. At others, you may find that no one gets a C, but only 3 percent get As.

Life-Social and Otherwise
You can have a life while keeping up with your classes, but by all accounts, it's a balancing act. Working nonstop with no outlet for your stress is a recipe for personal misery and academic burnout.

"Although it is important to do your best in law school, definitely go out and have a good time," advises Cervantes, who plays on a "beer league" basketball team and maintains a busy social life. Intramural sports teams, cultural clubs, and volunteer opportunities offer the chance to relax and spend quality time with your classmates.

Zachary H. Smith, a 1L at Boston University, says his classmates provide a welcome respite from the daily grind: "For the most part, everyone is friendly and happy to spend time together inside and outside the classroom."

Looking Ahead
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which works with law schools and employers to set guidelines for recruiting and hiring, mandates that law schools can't give career advice to 1Ls until November 1, and 1Ls aren't permitted to begin looking for jobs until December 1.

"The limited discretionary time of 1Ls should be spent adjusting to the rigors of law school's academic demands, rather than focusing on employment concerns," explains Paula A. Patton, executive director of NALP. But once December rolls around, it's full speed ahead.

"You think you have a few years before you have to decide what you're going to do," warns Holly Yoshinari, a Harvard first-year, "but you are immediately immersed in interviewing workshops, resume seminars, and the 1L summer-job hunt."

Summer gigs aren't easy to come by, since few firms recruit 1Ls on campus. Expect tough competition for cushy summer associate positions; even at top schools, 1Ls will get numerous rejections for every offer. Sending out 200 resumes and cover letters to firms in your target cities and getting "dinged" (rejected) at 195 isn't an uncommon 1L experience. If you're determined to work for a particular firm, persistence (and good old-fashioned connections) may be more important than what's on your resume. Visit your career office for information on how to conduct the 1L job search. If you don't find out what you need, ask a career counselor for advice.

The most reliable, though certainly not the most lucrative, way to build your legal resume during 1L summer is to take an unpaid internship with a nonprofit organization, such as a legal aid bureau, or a government agency (e.g., a local prosecutor's office). Some law schools provide stipends to students doing unpaid summer work; if yours doesn't, it should still be able to help you apply to private foundations that do.

Tip: If your summer job doesn't cover all your expenses, ask professors about research opportunities. They're a great opportunity to boost your resume and earn some extra cash.

Part 2 | You read case law at the speed of light. So why is 2L known as the year they work you to death?

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP)


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