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Law School - How to Succeed, Not Just Finish
Success in Law School Means More Than Just Graduating
Conventional wisdom tells us that law school is a grind, a time of toil, a drudge. The reason that conventional wisdom is conventional is that is is often true, or at least approximates the truth. This article is not about how to make law school a fun and frolicking experience. It isn't; It's tough. This article is aimed at helping a law student or anyone contemplating law school to make a success of it. And yes, as the title suggests, a successful law school experience means more than just graduating.
Make no mistake about it, law school is no longer seen as an automatic key to a lucrative career. As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, law school applications have been falling. Most attribute this to the horrible economy that began with the financial crisis of 2008. But there are also some dark clouds over the legal career as a result of the use of online legal forms and templates, and the cheap outsourcing of a lot of legal grunt work that fresh graduates traditionally saw as a way in the door. But if you have decided on a legal career, fully aware of its downsides, you know that you have to go through law school.
Your Legal Career Begins on Your First Day of Law School
Think of law school a part of your career not just a passageway through which you must cross. Learning the law is your obvious mission, but there is an entire set of activities that you can use to jump start your legal career. This article will look at the basic steps youneed to take to get through law school as well as the career building blocks that are there for the asking. Well, not just for the asking; you have to affirmatively throw yourself into them.
The Basics - The Things You Must Do in Law School
Time management. That's right, you have to manage your time. Especially if your circumstances require that you work during law school, you need to manage the little time available to you to get done what you must get done. Check out this article on managing time, clip it and keep it available for constant reference. Do you have some favorite TV shows that you just can't miss? In this era we have the wonderful technology of DVR, enabling you to record your shows for later viewing. Do so, and watch them over the weekend (if you must).
Study groups. Early on during your freshman introduction you will be urged to join a study group. On its face, this is an excellent idea. The idea behind a study group, a small cluster of fellow students, is to carry your classroom experience a step further. The give and take in a study group can replicate the Socratic dialogue with your professors in the classroom. HOWEVER, do not jump quickly. I recommend giving it a few weeks, or a couple of weeks at least, during which time you get to know your fellow students. Do you want to be stuck in a group of six people, three of whom are boorish dolts?
The Grind Stone - Apply Nose
Studying and The Socratic Method. When I was in law school the rule of thumb was that you should spend four hours of study for each hour of classroom work. That adds up to a lot of time. Don't try to short circuit the process. You simply have to put in the time studying because you will be expected to know the cases you've read for your next class. The Socratic method, named after the great questioner Socrates, was devised by a professor named Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard Law School in the late nineteenth century. His idea was to replace the old rote learning method with the "casebook" method (a synonym for the Socratic method) whereby students study actual cases and are then questioned by their professor on those cases. Students are told to look for three areas: the facts, the legal issue, and the holding or decision of the court. If you don’t read the cases, you may as well skip class. But that isn’t a good option because, as in elementary school, attendance is taken.
Ultimately you will have to pass the bar exam, and you will take a special course to cram for it. You will also study tips on studying for the bar exam. The extend you put the time into studying in law school is the extent to which you will improve your chances of passing on the first try.
The Classroom Experience. Most professors count classroom performance as part of a student's grade. This is why you have to prepare for each class. I promise you, the one time you fail to read the assigned cases is the time you will definitely be called upon. A typical exchange with a professor looks like this:
The professor poses a question in the form of a hypothetical, based on the assigned cases, and then calls on a student to respond to the hypothetical. The professor peppers the student with questions such as:
· “Why should that make a difference to the outcome?”
· “Why is that important?”
· “I don’t see the relevance of your answer, explain;”
· “But doesn’t your answer conflict with the case that we just discussed?”
· “What if we changed this or that fact – would that change your answer?”
· “ Why?”
· “But how can you say X, when you just argued Y?”
This tense interchange is no time for other students to doze off. Right in the middle of questioning Mr. Smith, the professor may turn to Ms. Jones and say: “Mr. Smith said X; do you agree?” “Why?”
This goes on for three or four years. After law school don't think that it stops. The professor is replaced by a judge.
Grades. I won't belabor this point other than to say that you should strive for good grades which result in a good class ranking. "Graduated in upper 20 percent" is a nice thing to have on a resume.
Law Review, Moot Court and Other Extracurricular Activities
When you graduate from law school it's helpful for your resume to show something more than your academic credentials. A Law Review is a student edited publication containing articles on legal topics. Some law review articles are cited in United States Supreme Court opinions. Membership on the law review can be the most important part of your resume. It's highly competitive so don't feel like you've blown it if you don't get on, but by all means try. Moot court is an excellent activity that replicates, as the name suggests, speaking on your feet in court as well as writing legal briefs. These are the top two extracurricular activities in law school.
Diet and Exercise. In law school, you spend a lot of time on your butt. You need to get exercise because it's critical to the functioning of your health in general and you mind in particular. I'm not going to provide an exercise regimen here, but a simple commitment to brisk walking for a half hour a day will do the trick. As far as dieting, all I suggest is that you watch those carbohydrates, which, although not bad for you, are known to cause sluggishness. When I was in law school I experienced extreme fatigue. I went to a doctor who recommended what I just suggested. It worked. Take care of your body and your head and they will take care of you. Think of law school not only as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional and physical one as well.
Have you considered law school?
Career Building and Law School
While in school you may not have determined which are of the law is for you. That's fine. Don't feel pressured that you have to make a decision while you are studying. But the critical thing to keep in mind while in law school is the necessity thinking ahead to the next phase of your career and to start taking steps in that direction.
· Networking. Get in motion and stay in motion. Attend conferences that allow law students and hone your skills in talking to people during breaks. There are countless books and articles on the fine art of networking. Study up. The social skills you learn will stay with you throughout your career.
· Volunteering. Offering your services to a nonprofit organization is a great way to get yourself known. While you cannot give legal advice yet, you can be of help, and people who are helpful get noticed. Gather those business cards.
· Get to know your fellow students. Don't limit your contacts to the few in your study group, but know and be known by the other law students. A peer who happens to be a friend can often be a gateway to an opportunity.
Too much is made of the difficulties of law school. Look at it as a job, a mini career and just as you would for your own business, create a business plan for law school success.
Parts of the article were excerpted from the book Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, Coddington Press, 2011 by Russell F. Moran.
Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran