2.1- How Law School Classes Are Taught


How Law School Classes Are Taught

This class is going to concern how to deal with your classes on a day-to-day basis, how to keep up with the reading and so forth during the semester, before you start studying for your exams. To do that, it helps to start by thinking about how exactly law school classes work. Our focus for the moment is going to be on what I've called doctrinal or podium classes, which are the real bread and butter of law school and particularly the first year of law school. I'll say a little bit more about other types of law school classes a little bit later on in this course, but for now, our focus is on traditional podium classes.

Podium Classes

Assigned reading-based discussion

A traditional podium class in law school is usually going to meet maybe two times a week, three times a week, four times a week. It's going to have a textbook, which is usually what we call a casebook. A casebook is a pretty thick volume that's typically full of cases. What's a case? A case is a published ~~appellate opinion~~. It's usually been edited to some degree by the casebook author, and it might include other things.

It might include statutes and rules. It might include notes. It might include excerpts from law review articles, but basically it's going to contain the knowledge that the course is going to ultimately test you on. Sometimes there'll be other additional things, additional textbooks, maybe a reader that includes policy discussions, or a statutory supplement, or things like that. Your reading is going to be drawn from those sources each day.

Each day, you're going to be assigned some amount of reading. It could be five pages. It could be forty-five pages. Law school professors vary a significant amount in how much reading they like to assign per class. Some people like to assign very small chunks of reading and really go deep into that reading each class. Some professors like to assign bigger chunks of reading and only focus on certain parts, but you're still responsible for knowing the things that aren't covered in detail in class. You're going to have to figure out what kind of professor you have for each of your classes.

You've got your reading, and I'll talk more in the next lesson about what exactly to do with your reading, but you've got this reading, it's assigned every day. Maybe you have a syllabus that tells you exactly what reading you're going to do for the whole semester. Maybe your professor just gives you the reading each week as you go. That's going to vary by professor.

Socratic Method of Classes

Question-based discussion

Then you come into class. How does class work? Well, that's going to vary a little bit too. Some professors are just going to lecture the whole time in the way that maybe a college professor does. They're just going to stand up there and tell you a bunch of things. Other professors are going to do other things. They're going to have things like group exercises, simulations, but by far, I think the most common way law professors run class is by using some amount of what's called the ~~Socratic~~ method.

The Socratic method is so named because it's named after the philosopher Socrates, who famously just went around asking a lot of questions and claimed not to know anything. In the Socratic method, the professor, rather than just telling the students what the professor wants the students to know, asks the students questions. In theory, these questions are designed to draw out certain kinds of knowledge from the student. These questions can be factual questions. What happened in this case? What is the procedural posture of this case? Things like that. Or they can be more open-ended. What were the arguments in this case? Which argument did you find most persuasive? What's a counterargument to what the court is saying here?

Different kinds of professors are going to like asking different kinds of questions. Some professors are going to be what we call a more strict Socratic, where they just ask questions and never make any declarative statements. It's very hard to ever get those professors to tell you what they think the law is. That's a little bit out of favor these days, but there are still some old-school Socratic professors. Other professors use more of a hybrid where they do some Socratic questioning, some cold calling, and we call it cold calling because often you'll just be told, "Ms. Smith, can you tell me about the case?" since you have no warning and you're just put on the spot and you have to start talking.

Again, there's a range in how professors handle that. Some professors put people on panels, some professors say anyone can be called on any day and you just need to be ready to be called on. The thing I want you to realize now is that in any given class, you're going to spend sixty minutes, or ninety minutes, or two hours, as the case may be, really in the weeds of a particular case or particular legal doctrine or a particular set of legal issues. You're just going to go like that class to class. Each class, you're going to be in the weeds trying to figure one thing out.


Exams based on multiple-choice questions, essay, issue spotters, and policy questions

Then, at the end of the semester, you're going to be evaluated, typically on a blind-graded exam. That exam is not necessarily going to be about just what you did on any given class. It's going to ask you to pull together understanding of the law as a bigger whole and draw on an understanding of the law that comes from the sum total of all the different doctrines, rules, arguments, et cetera, that you've learned in individual classes.

Those exams, they can look quite different. Some exams have multiple choice questions. Some exams have short answer questions. A very common component of law school exams, though, are essay questions. The essay questions can come in a couple of flavors. One is what we call an "issue spotter," which is you're given maybe a fact pattern and your job is to identify the potential legal issues that arise and apply the law to that fact pattern.

Then a policy question is really a pretty broad category that includes questions that are designed to get at, what we say, policy, the considerations that go into what the law should be, but also things like theory, philosophy. The kinds of stuff that you might learn in class, that isn't just, what is the rule and how does the rule apply to any specific set of facts?

In the following lessons, I want to help you understand how to keep up with your classes in the right way so that you're setting yourself up for really good performance on those exams at the end of the semester, because the kinds of work that you do in class doesn't necessarily just prepare you on its own for a really good exam performance. It's going to require a little bit of work on your part, and I'm going to help you figure out how to get there.

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