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Working on Your Skills in Law School

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A major strategy is to choose courses best suited to develop the skills you will use in law school: reading, writing, and speaking. You may not have considered these skills as important. With one noted exception, simply possessing these skills will not help you get into law school. But developing your skills now will stand you in good stead once you get there.

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Reading

This is what law students do each day: they wake up, they have their coffee, and then they read and write. Sometimes they communicate with others about what they have been reading. Sometimes they apply what they have read in clinical situations or in moot courts. And sometimes they are tested on their ability to recall and apply what they have read. That's it: that's what a legal education is. Practicing lawyers spend proportionately more time communicating orally. But they still read. Since you're going to be spending most of your time doing it, reading should be easy and enjoyable. If it isn't, then your working life as a lawyer will be a living hell.

Blunt words, but necessary. I know that many of you don't enjoy reading and do it only if you're forced to. If that's you, then you need to make some effort to improve your skill or else look for some other line of work.

Reading skills improve with practice, and one strategy for improvement is to choose courses with very heavy reading loads. An English course in the modern novel, where you read a novel a week for fourteen weeks, is good practice. Courses in constitutional and administrative law, in political philosophy, and in social theory are also good choices. Ease in gradually, and work up to at least one heavy reading course each semester.

Coursework is valuable to the extent that it gets you into the habit of reading. But beyond that, reading in your spare time is more efficient. It doesn't much matter what you read. Some law schools hand out prelaw reading lists, typically indexes of commonly available books about law school and about legal practice. If you're interested in law-related reading, you can look at Marke and Bander's Deans'List of Recommended Readings for Prelaw and Law Students, 2nd ed. (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1984). The readings tend to be rather heavy going. If you're looking for something to fill up your time during that eleven-hour flight to Frankfurt, one of these books will do quite well. Or you can work at such a list systematically. Reading about law and legal practice is a good way to keep up your morale and motivation, and having some of the legal classics in your head won't hurt you when you get to law school.

But remember, the point here isn't to learn subject matter. You'll do that in class. The point is to improve your reading skills, and you don't have to read great classics to do that. You simply have to read . . . anything. It's much better to devour popular novels than it is to carry around a copy of Holmes's The Common Law which you never get around to opening. And you're more likely to get a broad general education if you read various kinds of materials.

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One value of reading for pleasure is that the habit will improve your recognition vocabulary. A large vocabulary will make it easier for you to read more difficult texts in the future. My experience suggests that students with large vocabularies tend to do better on standardized tests like the LSAT. If you feel that your vocabulary is deficient, you may want to investigate courses in vocabulary building, which are offered as electives by most English composition departments. Essentially, these are courses in memorizing lists of big words, designed to correct deficient reading backgrounds. But these courses won't replace the reading habit; the big words will only stick in your head if you use them over and over.

Beware of speed reading courses. They seem like a good idea, since you're going into a field where there's so much to read. And studies indicate that at least some speed reading courses can improve your reading speed. But in my experience, these courses don't improve reading comprehension, and they don't help you to master the details of complicated texts. They seem to produce a kind of rapid skimming. As a result, speed reading techniques are not useful in handling legal materials. I know several lawyers who took such courses as students in the 1960s; none of them now use speed techniques in their legal work.

Writing

Strong writing skills are important for law students, who must take required courses in legal writing and turn out seminar papers and essay exams. And writing skills are even more important for practicing attorneys, who spend much of their time drafting letters, memos, briefs, contracts, and even legislation.

However, most law professors believe that the writing skills of law students have deteriorated. As I travel around the country and talk to law professors and admissions officials, I hear the same thing over and over: "These kids can't write anymore! You and I, Professor Lermack, we walked six miles to school each day, through the snow, and by God we learned to write! But these young couch potatoes and Nintendo players can't write anymore!"

I don't know whether this is true. It may be only the usual complaining of older people about the younger generation. Nevertheless, if you prove that you write well, you will look much more impressive to those grumpy law professors than if you can't. Evidence of good writing skills may actually help you get into law school. That evidence can come in the form of publications or literary prizes. In chapter 9, when I explain how to fill out law school application forms, I will show you how to make sure that the law schools receive this evidence.

For now, you have to create the evidence by finding ways to show off your skill. Creative writing courses, poetry contests, publication in school or small literary magazines, working for the school newspaper, writing position papers or pamphlets for political candidates- all offer opportunities. Or you can take a seminar course that requires you to write a long research paper. Students often send particularly good seminar papers along with their law school applications.

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