For law school success, don’t do what you’re told -- do what works
Here's a guest post from a new friend, Larry Law Law (no, not his real name, but I wish it were!):
Hey there. Do you want a first-class ticket on the express train to bad law school grades and disappointment?
Well, watch out! You will be on that train if you believe this statement:
"I will do well in law school if I do exactly what my law professor tells me to do."
At first glance, this statement seems harmless. It may even seem like good sense.
But make no mistake. This statement is evil.
Evil. Like Touch-of-Evil, Gargamel-waterboarding-Smurfs, line-cutting-at-Trader-Joe's, murdering-puppies evil.
Too many smart, diligent 1Ls worked themselves to death just to get average grades.
And you already know what average grades (much less bad grades) mean these days:
● Mid-tier, not top-tier, interviews (if you get any at all);
● Chasing crappy jobs instead of being chased by top-tier law firms;
● Working crap jobs (doc review for chump change) instead of having a fulfilling career (it is not all about money);
● Swimming in student debt that will never go away.
Dire, no? This may be bad news if your plan for law school was “do what my prof says.”
Now, if you've been with Anna awhile, you know that she tells it like it is (like here).
Me, too. I’ve seen the carnage first hand as a tutor to law students. So let me repeat:
If you do exactly what you are told in law school, your grades will suck and so will your post-law school life.
This may sound crazy. You got good grades in college doing what your professor said to do.
And it may seem risky to change plans and not follow your law professor’s advice.
But your risk lies precisely in trying to take the safe path.
The risky thing in law school is to follow the same strategy as every other smart, hard-working person in your class.
For law school to be worth it these days, you must excel.
And to excel in law school, you need to step out of your comfort zone – maybe for the first time – and be a rebel.
To be clear: I am not telling you to play Opposites Day with all your law professor's advice.
I am not telling you to go to class blaring Killing In the Name Of wearing a chain-mail shirt and no pants. (Rather: keep your pants and skip underwear! Feel the rebellion inside your pants! But avoid wool.)
No. You are going to be a limited tactical rebel in law school. Ignore a little and listen a little.
Most importantly, you will be relentlessly focused on those things that will get you results (i.e., good grades).
Which may or may not be what your professor tells you to do.
In short, the boringest. nerdiest rebel ever!
So here, rebel rebel, is what you need to know.
1. College = cramming knowledge into your knowledge-hole
Your college experience shapes what you think law school will be like.
Most get to law school thinking it’s college, just with lockers and meaner professors.
This unexamined belief makes you susceptible to following bad advice from law profs.
So let’s start with college: What was it like for you?
You went to class. You took careful notes. You read. (Yes, nerd, extra reading, too.) You went to review sessions. You went to office hours. You asked good questions.
All to one end: to cram knowledge into your knowledge-hole.
So you can regurgitate it on an exam that calls for you to elicit the specific knowledge you crammed.
(If “cramming” a “knowledge-hole” is too vivid for you, try gentler imagery: “screw the knowledge-bulb in your knowledge-socket,” etc. Happy to make it less disturbing for you!)
It is that simple in concept: Cram knowledge, then regurgitate it.
It is not easy to do well -- it takes planning, discipline and hard work -- but you did it well enough to get into law school.
This concept is rooted in an unspoken agreement, which I’ll call The Compact. It’s like this:
● The student does what the professor asks.
● The professor gives you an exam only about what the professor asks.
● The professor rewards the student with good grades.
2. At first and for a while, law school seems like college . . .
So you arrive at law school and it mostly looks like college: There are professors, lecture halls, books, and exams.
Since law school looks like college, The Compact must be in effect, right?
So your job is clear: you do what the professor asks. And your professor asks you -- tells you, rather -- to do a bunch of things:
● Your professor tells you to read all the cases in your casebooks, so you read all the cases.
● Your professor tells you to “brief cases” you read (in short, summaries identifying different pieces of cases), so you brief cases.
● Your professor tells you to go to class and take notes, so you go to class and take notes.
● Your professor tells you to be prepared to be called on to talk about cases in class, so you prepare to discuss cases in class. (The endless joy that is the Socratic method: “Mr. Hart, recite the facts of Hawkings vs. McGeeeeeee.")
You work harder than you ever have. You cram a metric shit-ton of knowledge.
Still, you feel lost about what is important -- what are you supposed to be studying? There are ton of details. Are all of them important?
You hear from other students that outside materials (commercial outlines or hornbooks) can help you understand the law.
But your professor says outside materials are streng verboten. Your prof tells you not to consult outside materials, so you do not consult outside materials.
So your only option is, like Boxer in Animal Farm, to work harder. You work harder reading cases, briefing cases, taking notes, and trying to look prepared for class.
(For all his troubles -- spoiler alert! -- Boxer gets sent to the glue factory.)
Also, two other factors: you would hate to look stupid in front of your brilliant classmates. Public speaking is, for most, hard enough without hecklers (your prof).
And your professor makes vague but ominous threats about docking your grade if you’re not prepared when he calls on you in class.
As the semester winds down, your professor finally suggests breaking up the reading cases/briefing cases/panicking about being called on monotony.
Your prof kind of suggests that you should think about making outlines and taking some practice exams to prepare for finals, so you maybe think about making outlines and taking practice exams. Whatever that means.
You give it the college try. But since your professor did not make it mandatory and wasn’t that clear about what you should do, your effort is muddled.
Still, you approach finals with some faith. You did all your professor asked you to do.
Under The Compact, that’s enough, right? Your reward should be good grades.
3. . . . until final exams.
Here, the merry-go-round breaks down.
You take a real final exam, under pressure, and it is nothing like your college exams.
College exams ask full questions -- with nouns and verbs -- that invite you regurgitate crammed knowledge (e.g., "What were the causes of the Peloponnesian War?" “Was Napoleon’s rise caused by the French Revolution, or was he just an asshole?”)
You sit, open your law school exam, and begin to sweat bullets as you stare:
The exam appears to be a 2-3 page long shaggy dog story, followed by the professor’s insanely terse question:
Or, if the professor feels very generous: “Assess the claims and defenses of the parties.”
As Kimmy Schmidt might say: What. The. Fudge.
What happened to The Compact? You, the student, did all your professor asked.
In exchange, your professor was supposed to give you an exam that tested what you learned. And then you were supposed to get good grades (and laurels and groupies and your own servant to whisper in your ear: “Remember thou art mortal”).
But this exam question (“Analyze” or “Discuss”) does not seem inviting at all. There seems to be no place for regurgitate case details you memorized.
It turns out that the exam is really asking you to demonstrate your skills in “issue spotting,” that is, your ability to identify, analyze, and resolving legal claims and defenses.
This is fair in that it is what actual lawyers do, and what law school should train you to do.
This is not fair in that your professor spent no time directly teaching you issue spotting.
Apparently, when your professor mumbled something about practice exams, you were supposed to teach yourself issue spotting.
Your professor may think that the public shamings that are the Socratic method constituted some kind of “training.”
But did it teach you to spot legal issues in brand new situations? Nope.
At best, your training was indirect. Like your professor spent the whole semester training you on a stationary bike at Soul Cycle, then took you to the Tour de France for your final exam, hands you a real bicycle and says “Pedal and balance, or you’re dead.”
* * *
Will your professor take responsibility for this bait-and-switch? Will anyone?
Nope. More likely, if you visit your professor with questions and a transcript littered with Scarlett Letter Bs, you will get:
● condescension (“Some students just get it and some don’t.”);
● victim-blaming (“Anyone who does the work will do well. Did you do the work?”);
● gaslighting (“Of course I prepared you for the exam!”);
● pity (“It must be really hard to struggle like this.”); and
● weird rationalizations (“So much of life is luck, you know. Well, off to lunch!”).
You will not get an apology, even of the Animal House variety, i.e., “You fucked up; you trusted us.”
You will not get, from your professor, compassion or empathy because nearly all of them succeeded in law school. They don’t understand students who don’t succeed. (Compassion is not pity. Compassionis to understand another’s pain and suffer with them. Pity is a sad-face emoji text, a condescending arm’s length hug without understanding).
You will not get an acknowledgement that the prevailing method of legal teaching (thanks a ton, Christopher Langdell) for the last 100 years -- make students read cases and figure out the law and let them figure out issue spotting for themselves -- is the problem.
You will not get an admission that this so-called pedagogy is, in essence, an abdication of responsibility for actually teaching law students. Making someone pay $250,000 to let them sink or swim is not teaching. Doing more than that is not coddling, either.
It is patently insane to make students focus an entire semester on one set of activities (case analysis), and then test them on something else entirely (i.e., issue spotting).
This is so insane that many of you will disbelieve or ignore what I am telling you.
Ignore me at your own academic and professional peril.
So what does this mean for you? Law schools and profs won’t change any time soon. I can’t change them, much as I would like to.
The only thing you can change is you.
In short: you are on your own to learn the law and to develop the skills that really matter on your law school exams.
But not totally alone. You’ve got me.
Now, I said a lot about what not to do. What, more positively, should you do to succeed?
More on that next time.
Larry Law Law is a tutor and coach to top students at T14 law schools. Hundreds of students used his methods. He wasn’t a shabby student himself: magna cum laude, Order of the Coif and on the Law Review Exec Board at NYU Law. Larry Law Law’s been around: he clerked (2x) and worked in BigLaw, BoutiqueLaw, GovLaw, and NoPayHumanRightsLaw.