Those of you in your second semester and beyond or those with older brothers or sisters who have given you the scoop on law school will find that this article really isn’t for you. It’s for those of you who are approaching law school the same way you’d ride through a dark tunnel on a roller coaster—confident, but you’d feel just a little bit more comfortable knowing what lurks ahead.
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Avoiding the Stumble Syndrome
One of the biggest problems facing law students in their early weeks is the “stumble syndrome.” This malady occurs because students are hit with so much new information—and hit so quickly—during the first month of school that they feel they are continually stumbling from day to day, unable to find any firm footing.
The result of this syndrome is that students take so long to get oriented to the ways of law school itself that they don’t start learning what law school is supposed to teach them (i.e., the rules of law) until they’re already behind. So if you know what to expect, you’ll be able to hit the decks running and get down to the business of learning law much sooner. And the first thing you’ve got to learn about is the Socratic method of teaching.
The Classroom Approach—the Socratic Method
What will your daily life in law school be like? Perhaps the most striking initial observation you’ll make about your first- year law classes is their size. Typical classes contain between 100 and 150 students.
Although you’ve all undoubtedly taken large lecture courses in undergraduate school, you cannot compare law school and undergraduate classes because most law professors don’t lecture. They use some variation on what’s called the “case method” or Socratic approach to education, in which they call on an individual student and ask questions about the material assigned for that day.
So while you may feel safe and complacent surrounded by 149 other faces, you’re going to be a lot more vulnerable to cross-examination by your law school professor than you ever were in undergrad school.
The Socratic Method is not new, nor is it unique to law school. In fact, only recently (in the last 100 years; and that, in law, is recent) and only in the United States has the technique been applied to the study of law. Prior to the late 1800s, law was learned through the reading of treatises and commentaries written by judges and practitioners and through on-the-job training.
Socratic sessions require you to shift gears quickly. It’s not unusual for you to be reciting a case when suddenly the professor interrupts you, changes the facts, and asks you to offer what the rule of law might be if those facts, rather than the ones in the case, existed. The professor might state a different legal rule, then ask you to apply that to the facts in the case you briefed for class. You will often be asked to reconcile the decision you have just recited with previous cases.
Some professors who use the Socratic system get carried away and engage in a little verbal whipping, especially if they feel you haven’t done the homework. But take it in stride. Every lawyer in the country has survived the Socratic method of teaching; you will too. Remember too that because the classes are so large, you will not be called on often.
Here’s a trick to be used frequently: The best way to beat the nervousness in Socratic sessions is to volunteer when you know the answer. This relieves the tension and if you do it frequently enough, you may, depending on your school’s grading practices, be able to earn extra credit.
Often professors modify the traditional case approach to instruction. Rather than grilling students, they use assigned cases as points of departure for class discussions in which everyone is encouraged to participate.
Your assignments will be almost exclusively from “casebooks,” which are somber-looking tomes that include actual court decisions (or excerpts from them), each one representing a rule of law.
It is these cases that you will “brief,” or synopsize, to aid in your recitation in class and in your comprehension of the rule of law each case represents. In addition to cases, you will usually be expected to read short discussions of the cases (which appear after each case) written by the author or editor of the casebook. These blurbs, or “notes” as they are called, are quite helpful in understanding recalcitrant cases and for summarizing and reconciling several seemingly inconsistent decisions.
You can expect assignments to be long: 100 pages per week in a single class is not unheard of. The average per class is usually between 40 and 60 pages per week. Don’t fall behind in the reading. It is extremely difficult to get caught up once you fail to complete assignments; even if you sincerely intend to get to the unread portion of the assignment later in the semester, you probably won’t have time to do so.
A word of warning: Assignments will usually be posted before your first class session; ferret them out and do them. Professors have been known to call on students on the first day, even before they have cracked open their brand-new notebooks.
Grades and Exams
Because class rank is so important to potential employers and for determining such honors as invitations to join the law review, few law schools offer a pass-fail arrangement. Most grade their students by numbers (60 through 100) or the traditional letter standing (F through A). Grading is anonymous at many schools. You will be given a code number around exam time, which will be known only to you and a computer; professors don’t know whose blue book they’re grading, and other students won’t know what grade you received when marks are posted.
First-year grades are based exclusively on one or two written exams (the technique for preparing for and taking these tests is discussed at great length later in this article). The one exception to this is your legal research and writing class, in which you’ll be graded on writing projects and an oral presentation.
What are these exams like? Although some professors use multiple-choice and true-false exams, the majority of law school exams are essay tests. You will be given a fact pattern full of all sorts of nasty things—murders, car accidents, breached contracts, kidnappings. You’ll be astonished at how much trouble people can get themselves into in the space of one paragraph.
And who gets them out of trouble? You, of course. The question will ask: “You be the judge. What is the outcome of the case?” Or perhaps: “You are counsel for X. What arguments would you make on his behalf?”
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After a period of analysis and outlining, you’ll write the answer in a blue book. Then you go home, having survived the fastest three hours of your life, and wait three months to find out your grade (law school tests patience, as well as endurance).
Occasionally some professors will give you credit for class performance, perhaps as much as 10 percent of the final grade, based on your skills in recitation and willingness to volunteer. Some make this extra credit; a few professors will subtract points if you’re unprepared.
You may be curious about the courses you’ll be taking your first year. In most schools these are year-long courses, and they will occupy two or three hours a week of lecture time during both semesters. The contents of each course are described briefly in this section. In addition, here is included the basic headings of my course outlines under each topic to show you specifically what topics are usually covered. (Bear in mind, though, that professors often adjust curricula to reflect both their own interests and current trends they see as important; your course content will probably vary somewhat.)
In the course on civil procedure you will learn procedural law, which is the body of rules that regulate how people sue one another for civil wrongs (as opposed to the “substantive” law, which describes what rights they have in general and when they will be permitted to enforce those rights). In short, this course will teach you how a civil (not criminal) lawsuit works.
The procedural law that you will study in this course will be federal civil procedure, not state. You learn federal law primarily because: (1) you have to learn it sooner or later; and (2) federal procedural law is particularly streamlined and obviously much more uniform than the laws of the various states.
In some schools, there may be a second- or third-year course dealing with the civil procedure laws of that state in which the school is located or a state in which prospective graduates will seek employment (such as New York or California). The state course is optional, however, and usually is taken solely for the purposes of preparing for the bar exam.
The major subjects you will learn are the Supreme Court’s authority to declare congressional acts unconstitutional, the legal relationships between state governments and the federal government and among the branches of federal government (the courts, Congress, and the president), the powers exercised by the federal government, and the protections afforded individuals. You may also learn something about the mechanics of Supreme Court practice.
The concept of the contract, an agreement that can be enforced in court, is so central to our daily personal and professional lives that it is perhaps the most important course in first-year law school. Throughout your legal schooling and your practice, you will continually refer to the material you are taught during the two semesters of contracts class.
Contracts appear literally in every area of law you might practice. Their application to real estate transactions and corporate law is obvious. Contracts also play a large role in tort law and divorce law—through the use of settlement agreements to resolve disputes without going to court—as well as in antitrust law, trust and estate law, taxation, and even some types of criminal law.
Yet even if your speciality doesn’t directly involve much contract work, you’re sure to receive calls from relatives who’ve just found that their Florida dream condo is actually an acre of pungent Dade County swamp and who are begging you to find a loophole in their contract.
The course will teach you who can make a contract, what rules must be complied with in order for a contract to be enforceable in court, how the obligations created by a contract arise and are then discharged, ;and what defences exist in suits based on contracts. You’ll also learn of certain special contractual situations, such as the rules relating to contracts made for the benefit of other people and transfers of rights under a contract.
The course on criminal law will teach you the substantive law of crimes (what murder is, for instance), not the law of procedure in criminal actions (how to try someone for murder). This subject is the one you’ll probably be the most familiar with going into law school, thanks to television, movies, and novels.
In the crimes course, you will learn the elements to be proved by the prosecuting attorney in order to allow a jury to find a person guilty of a crime, defences, constitutional requirements for protecting the rights of the accused, and miscellaneous aspects of criminal law, such as statutory construction, sentencing, and social policies to be served by criminal law.
The subject is a fascinating one in itself whether your interest is defence or prosecution. Those of you planning careers in corporate firms, though, shouldn’t think you’ll never have to deal with criminal law. Often, even in the prestige firms, litigation attorneys have learned their craft as U.S. or state’s attorneys, prosecuting criminal cases. Moreover, it’s not un-usual for corporate clients to get themselves into situations in which it is alleged they have committed some type of white- collar crime.
Legal Research and Writing
The course on research and writing will teach you the techniques for researching legal issues. It also will give you some experience in preparing the types of documents attorneys work with every day. You will learn what types of legal books and journals exist, how to use them, where to find them, what computers can do for you, what legal services exist and how to use their publications.
The course will familiarize you with the place that will be your home away from home for the rest of your professional life: the law library. You will be given short quizzes or projects, in which you must track down information in a kind of legal treasure hunt.
During the first part of the course (and usually no longer than four to six weeks), you will learn about the sources of the law and where to find them. After that, most schools will have you use these tools to complete two writing projects: (1) a memorandum of law; and (2) a court brief.
The memorandum of law will be the major project of your first semester. In law firm practice, memoranda are the essential means of communicating with other attorneys in the firm and with clients. A memorandum is a lawyer’s response to a legal question. “If I haven’t signed the contract yet, can I get out of it?” “The driver I ran into was drunk and speeding. Am I still liable to him?” When presented with one of these questions—either from the attorney you’re working for, or from a client directly—your task is to write a memorandum of law that states the facts, the rules of law that you believe would apply to those facts, and then the conclusion.
In preparing the memorandum for your course, you will be given a hypothetical fact pattern and a related legal question.
In the second semester, your project will be a continuation of your memorandum. You will write an “appellate brief”—not to be confused with a “case brief,” which you’ll recall is a synopsis of a court decision. An appellate brief is a long document written by the parties to a trial after the trial is over. The brief arises when the loser at the trial complains that the trial court decision was incorrect. The brief is addressed to an appellate court (a court that does not hear trials but whose primary purpose is to correct mistakes made in the trial court). After submitting their appellate briefs to the court, the lawyers for each side have an opportunity to stand up before the judges of the appellate court and present oral arguments, summarizing their major points in the brief. Similarly, the high point of the second semester is an actual oral argument, called a “moot court,” in which you will appear before professors or senior students sitting as “judges” and argue the position you have taken.
An appellate brief assignment based on the above memorandum might look something like this:
You have just been notified that a verdict has been rendered in the case of Smith v. Fred’s Highway Barricade Company. The jury found in favor of the barricade company. Your client, Sam Smith, wishes to appeal this decision to the court of appeals. Attached are relevant portions of the trial transcript. Please prepare an appellate brief setting forth all legal arguments why the trial court was in error and why a verdict should be entered in favor of Mr. Smith, or in the alternative, a new trial should be ordered.
The real property course will take you back into the cob-webbed halls of the ancient common law as it existed in England when ownership of land was synonymous with power.
The law developed special rules—complex and arcane—to regulate the ownership, use, and transfer of land.
Today, although most of the stodgy accoutrements of the old-time law of real property have been discarded, many old rules remain, modified by modem statutes and court decisions.
Specifically, you will work your way through the concept of possession of land and objects; the types of rights (called “interests”) one can have in real property; the legal nature of the landlord-tenant relationship; the methods by which one can transfer property and protect the parties’ interests in the process; newer forms of real estate ownership (co-ops and condos); and the public and private regulation of land use.
The word “tort” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to twist,” as in a screw, as in somebody screwed up. A tort is a wrong for which the law provides a civil penalty (as opposed to a criminal one) and that isn’t a breach of contract.
A car accident, a plane crash, a slip-and-fall in a building lobby, exploding soda bottles, asbestosis, a careless surgical operation, calling someone a thief when he isn’t one, stealing someone’s car—these are all torts. (Note that some of them also are crimes.)
In your torts class, you’ll learn about “intentional” torts: hitting your neighbor (a battery), scaring your neighbor by almost hitting him (assault), locking him in a closet (false imprisonment), falsely telling him that his beloved pet turtle has died (intentional infliction of emotional distress).
You’ll learn about negligence: when the law imposes liability because of carelessness (as opposed to purposeful conduct) and the defences to it.
Products liability, a fascinating body of law that combines a number of theories and legal philosophies to protect consumers, will undoubtedly be on your professor’s agenda.
You’ll also learn the law of defamation (libel and slander), misrepresentation, invasion of privacy, and other less common torts.
Although the above-mentioned courses are those most frequently required of students, you may find your school offers a different arrangement of courses, or even different courses altogether.
For instance, New York University Law School offers, instead of the traditional legal writing and research, an interesting course called Lawyering—a six-credit program that includes instruction in drafting skills, research, client interviewing and counseling, case analysis, and problem handling. There is also an opportunity to work out scenarios encountered in the real legal world through role playing.
For students in the evening division of their law school (generally a four-year program), the required first-year courses are spread out over their first and second year. Most schools also require you to take an ethics course and your school will probably have a few upper-class requirements, such as corporations or wills.
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