AOH :: FIRST-YE.TXT|
How to survive the first year of law school
How to Survive the First Year of Law School
At The University of Texas
by Mike Godwin, email@example.com
(Copyright 1988,1992. This article may be freely distributed on any
computer forum, including commercial online services. To reproduce it
in print or in any other non-computer medium, please seek permission
from the author.)
You went to a decent college, you scored well on your Law School
Admission Test, and you ranked in the top 10 percent of your class. So,
now that you're here at The University of Texas School of Law, you can
look forward to an unbroken string of acadernic successes, right?
Not so fast. No matter how easy you found undergraduate school to be,
law school is a different story. And the sooner you learn that, the
better your chances of coming out of the law-school game a winner.
First, disabuse yourself of any notions about your natural academic
superiority. Sure, you're good, but so is everyone else in your class.
And since everyone is graded against everyone else on a curve, the
chances are nine out of 10 that you'll be in the bottom 90 percent of
your class, regardless of your undergraduate performance.
This means that law-school success doesn't come merely from knowing the
law; you have to know it better than most of your peers. So you can't
If you start heeding the following hints early in your first semester,
they'll improve your chances of hot job offers...and maybe even an
editorship on the law review.
If you saw the movie "The Paper Chase" (and odds are that you did, or
you wouldn't be here), you probably know that large classes in law
school normally are run by "the Socratic method." Rather than
lecturing, the professor will assign some reading for the day and
conduct the class by asking students questions about the material.
Watching the movie, you probably got the impression that the best
law students are those who are eager and able to answer the
professor's questions. Don't be fooled. Glibness and self-possession
in class are only roughly correlated to exam performance, and your
grades are based almost entirely on final exams, not on your
quickness in the classroom. Because the finals are graded
anonymously, the professor won't even be able to link your
classroom participation with the exam.
It's far wiser to spend your time mastering the principles behind
each case you read rather than memorizing its facts. If you try the
latter tactic, your brain will be too muddled with facts at exam time
to allow you to apply the law. Don't worry about the inevitable
instances in which a professor tries to embarass you for knowing
less than he does. (I refer to the professor as "he" because almost all
UT law professors are male. Most are white, too). You can get your
revenge by earning an honors grade in the course.
Keep up with the assigned reading. Onerous though the reading may
be, it's easier to keep up than to catch up. And reading the cases for
the day will enable you to answer most of the questions any
professor tries to throw at you.
If for some reason you do get behind on the reading, however, don't
panic. This happens to some of the best law students. Attend class
anyway, even if you haven't read that day's class materials. The
professor's Socratic questions will clue you in to the issues he expects
you to know for the exam.
Some law professors are frightening; others are charming.
Ultimately, however, their personalities don't matter very much.
Whether he likes you or not, each professor will grade your exam
according to the curve. There's no such thing as an "easy" law course,
although you may find some lectures more tolerable than oothers. If
the material is easy for you, it may well be easy for everybody, so the
curve can get you anyway.
While some law professors make a pretense of keeping office hours,
most of them don't really want to see you outside the classroom, a
milieu they prefer because that's where they have all the control.
Any question you want to ask a professor probably can be answered
by a "hornbook" (legal treatise) anyway, and library is full of
Don't expect too much sympathy from your professors. After all, law
school is a game they've *won.* They may have some sort of abstract
pity for the poor contracts student who's agonizing over Sec. 2-207 of
the Uniform Commercial Code, but under no cirumstances will you be able to
persuade them to change your grade.
Briefing your cases
The rule here is "Condense, condense, condense." Nothing's more
pathetic than the law nerd whose brief is longer than the case
excerpt in the casebook. Remember this rule: Each case has one or
two main ideas. Find them, and you'll have what you need to know
for the exam.
And good, *brief* briefs can be easily incorporated in your study
Some professors like to ask tricky questions about the fact pattern of
a case during the lecture, but don't write these details down.
Instead, make notes in the margin or highlight key facts of your
casebook. If you've read the case, you should be able to remember
the facts long enough to get through the class period. And if the
professor stresses a particular type of fact pattern in the lecture,
he's signalling to you a possible exam issue. Note the issue, not the
facts of the particular case.
Buying study aids
Basically, there are two types of study aids you can buy for first-
year courses: commercial outlines and hornbooks. A commercial
outline is a prepackaged, detailed skeleton of the material you
need to know for a particular course. There are several brands of
outlines, and each has something to recommend it. The Legalines
outlines track particular casebooks, while the Emanuel Law Outlines
and Gilbert Law Summaries are more general, although they will
include many of the cases in your casebook.
You may find it best to buy Legalines outlines for each of your
courses except contracts. (The UT professors who wrote the contracts
casebook designed it in a way that makes it difficult to produce a
commercial outline for it.) Then you can supplement the Legalines
with general-purpose outlines like Emanuel's and Gilbert's for
courses you're having trouble with. Be aware that occasionally the case
summaries and discussions in the commercial outlines are *mistaken*--
let your professor and your classmates supplement your take on a given
case or issue.
Some students buy "hornbooks" for particular
subjects, but for a first-year student the treatises often go into too
much unnecessary detail. Theyre also very expensive, and in general
it's best not to buy them; but you may want to make an exception for
contracts, which many students find a particularly subtle and
difficult branch of law. The Calamari and Perillo hombook is good for
general contract law, while the White and Summers hornbook is
necessary for a thorough understanding of the parts of your
contracts course that deal with the Uniform Commercial Code. You
may also want to consult UT Professor Charles Alan Wright's treatise
on the law of federal courts for your civil-procedure class.
Finally, if you signed up early for a bar-review course (believe it
or not, some people do this during their first year), some bar-review
courses will allow you to "check out" their reviews of black-letter
Try to get into one. When you find a likely group, make sure that
most of the people in the group are dedicated enough to stick with it.
Discussing difficult ideas with other law students is a good way of
making sure you understand them. In general, study groups work
best with about five people, with each person concentrating on one of
the five first-year courses you'll be taking each semester. If you
have a choice about which course to concentrate on, choose the
course you think you'll find most difficult your responsibility to
your friends in the study grou p will give you an added incentive to
master that material.
Buy a computer--you can purchase them at near-wholesale cost at
the Texas Union MicroCenter on 21st Street. Only if you own a
computer will you be able to produce and edit a legible course outline
in a hurry. You'll need two types of software: a good word
processing program to help you with the briefs and memos you have
to produce for your legal research and writing seminar, and an
outline program to produce the course outlines you'll need for exams.
(Some word processors include outlining capability--in general, those
word processors are not as good at outlining as programs designed for just
If you buy a Macintosh, the outlining software of choice is MORE; if you
own an IBM PC, buy Thinktank or Grandview.. Both products are available
at local computer stores.
Your heart's beating rapidly, your palms are sweaty, and your mind is a
blank. Yes, you're taking your first law-school exam. How on earth do
you handle those exam questions?
The first thing to remember is that all law-exam questions are more or
less alike. Each describes an invented and often quite complex situation
that, had it occurred in real life, would probably generate one or more
lawsuits. Following the fact situation is usually a question or
instruction such as "Describe the potential legal claims and liabilities
of each party."
Your best strategy, when you outline your answer, is to pretend you're
the lawyer for each party in turn. Pretending to be Smith's lawyer,
quickly list all the legal principles from your course outline that
could advance Smith's case against Jones. Now play the part of Jones'
lawyer how would you answer each of these legal arguments or daims? What
counterclaims could you use against Smith? What will Smith say in
response to your responses? What other parties in the fact situation
could sue or be sued? And so on.
Inevitably, you'll see some obvious legal issues in the fact pattern.
You have to deal with them, of course, but don't make the fatal mistake
of assurning that by handling the obvious or major issues you've written
a good exam answer. After all, your peers probably share your gift for
seeing the obvious.
So, how do you make sure you catch the subtle issues as well as the
straightforward ones? When you're preparing for the exam, condense your
outline into a checklist of one- or two-word shorthand expressions for
legal principles. Memorize the checklist, and recite it in your head
each time you pretend to be the attorney for one of the parties. (Better
yet--write it down on your scratch paper at the beginning of your exam
as soon as you're allowed to start writing, before you even read the
first question. The checklist will remind you of issues you'd otherwise
Besides creating a legal-issues outline, the best way to prepare for
exams is to take practice exams. Almost all professors keep their old
exams on file in the lbirary. After you've done the bulk of your study
outlines, photocopy your professors' exams from the last couple of
years. Then sit down with a friend and practice outlining exams answers
based on the old questions. Don't bother writing a full exam answer!
Time yourself, and give yourself about as much time to outline each
answer as you would during a real exam. YOu should budget about a third
of the time you're given to answer an essay question for outlining your
answer (e.g., 20 minutes for a 60- minute question).
After each question, compare your outlined answer with your friend's.
He or she will have seen somepoints you missed, and vice versa. This
pinpoints issues you may tend to overlook during the real exam.
Four of your first-year law courses contracts, torts, civil procedure,
and property will last your entire first year. You'll also take two
semester-long courses: criminal law in the fall and constitutional law
in the spring.
Thus, if you have to concentrate on any particular exam during winter
midterms, concentrate on criminal law; that's the only exam you'll take
in your first semester that counts as a grade for an entire course.
Conversely, the exam for the three-hour constitutional-law course in the
spring will count less toward your average than the exams for your
year-long courses, which are each worth five or six hours' credit.
Don't get too competitive. It's the friends you make during your first
few months as a law student who'll help you get through the year. Don't
be deluded into thinking that other students are the enemy; they're not.
It's the system you've got to beat, and you can do it with the right
attitude. A vicious competitive streak, however, tends to undermine
your karma in the long run.
Finally, try to enjoy yourself. The law really can be fun to learn if
you let yourself relax. Most people who make it through the first year
look back at it as a time of rapid intellectual growth and the building
of mental discipline. Don't regard law school as just the
stepping-stone to a career. A law-school education has value in itself
-- it will teach you a lot about what makes our society tick.
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