2.7 – Study the Professor, Not the Subject


Study the Professor, Not the Subject

We've talked about how you should take a results-focused approach to academic success in law schools. You are really going to be focusing on the ultimate goal. How are you going to be evaluated and how can you figure out the most effective way to have that evaluation go in a way that's positive for you? As we've talked about, one of the most significant ways in which you are evaluated in law school is a blind-graded exam at the end of the semester. An exam is blind-graded. Sometimes people call law school exams double-blind. They are not double-blind, this is a mistake.

Law school exams are blind-graded, not double-blind-graded.

If a law school exam were double-blind, that would mean that the grader would not know who wrote the exam, and the person writing the exam would not know who was doing the grading. That's actually not the way it works at all. You know exactly who is going to grade your exam. Your exam is going to be graded by your professor, and it really will be graded by your professor in almost all cases. In other academic disciplines, exams are graded by teaching assistants. In your undergraduate courses, that may have been the way things worked.

Professors grade your exams.

That is typically not the way things work in law school. Law professors may sometimes use teaching assistants, but they typically do not grade the exams. The professors grade the exams themselves. Again, this is going to be different from certain kinds of exams you might have taken, like an advanced placement exam in high school, that will be sent out and it will be graded by just some person. The bar exam, you don't know who's going to grade it.

Law school exam, you know exactly who is going to grade it. This is really, really important because what it means is that your goal is not necessarily to write the most objectively brilliant exam about some topic in its ideal form. It's to write the exam that your particular professor thinks is most effective, most well done, and so forth. That leads to a number of concrete takeaways.

First of all and most obviously, it means that you should listen very carefully to the instructions your professor has given you about how your professor wants you to write an exam. That should always trump any other kind of advice. If your professor says, "I really like exams that are in this format, or that look like this," absolutely listen to that before you listen to anything else. There is a number of other takeaways too.

Emphasizing aspects in exam that professor thinks are important

First, you should maybe emphasize things that your professor thinks are important. If your professor is a law and economics scholar who spent half the class talking about economic efficiency, and how to design rules for economic efficiency, and ideas like the Coase theorem, it might make sense for that to show up on your exam. Whereas if your professor is a legal historian who is very interested in the background of legal rules and how they evolved, that might suggest that you emphasize those things more as well. That could really come into play when you are writing, say, a policy answer, where you're really getting into the underlying reasoning behind legal rules and so forth.

Even when you are dealing with issue spotter-type questions that are about the legal rules, emphasize the things that your professor spent more time on. If your professor spent three weeks on one particular doctrine, there is a good reason for that. It probably means your professor thought that that doctrine is really, really important, and so in an exam, you might want to spend more time discussing those issues than you might otherwise.

Learn the law as it is taught to you.

Another implication is that your job is really to learn the law that you've been taught. Which isn't necessarily the same thing as learning the law in its most ideal and abstract form. One thing that you'll find with law is that it's interpretive. That means that there aren't always 100% clear answers. On some doctrines, there are real disagreements. If you go look at treatises which are designed to encapsulate what all the legal rules are, you might find fundamental disagreement on pretty important legal rules because different treatise writers interpret the background legal rules differently.

Sometimes, there is universal consensus, but a lot of times there isn't. Your goal should be to really learn whatever your professor thinks the rules are because even if you read the underlying cases and you think, "Well, I don't think that's quite right, I think this is what the rule is," well, guess who's going to be grading your exam? Guess what that person thinks the legal rule is? If your professor says, "I think this is what the best rule is," you absolutely need to learn that. You are not trying to learn the criminal law in the abstract. You are learning the criminal law as taught and understood by Professor X. Where does that leave you? A couple of further takeaways from that.

It means that you need to figure out what is most important when you are studying. That means that your reading that you were actually assigned and your notes from class are going to be the most important sources when you are trying to figure out what is important and what the law is on the exam. Look at the actual casebook, the actual reading you are given, and that you were assigned, and look at what your professor said in class, because there is no substitute for that in terms of figuring out what your professor thinks the law is and what your professor thinks is important.

Study aids/summaries don't replace your readings.

What about study aids? Things like other books and resources that are designed to help teach you what the law are? Those can be really, really useful and those can be valuable, but you need to understand exactly what they are for and how to use them. A study aid is going to be useful to the extent that it is a supplement to what you are getting out of the material. It's not a replacement. I would strongly discourage you from looking for material that will replace your reading.

Things like CliffsNotes basically for law, short summaries of cases that you would read instead of actually doing the hard work of reading your casebook in law school. I think that's going to be a really, really bad idea. I think you really need to focus on what you were actually assigned to do. A study aid, though, can be helpful in the sense that it can maybe more clearly explain the law to you than the material that you've been given. Some casebooks never actually clearly state what rules are. Some professors like to, as they say, hide the ball, where they just ask questions and they never say, "Okay, here is what I think the rule is."

Study aid must not contradict professor's pedagogy

A study aid that tries to really break down, "Here is what the doctrinal rules are," can really help your understanding and help you get to a clear place of understanding what the rules are. You need to choose them carefully. You need to make sure you are not choosing something that's going to contradict what your professor thinks and believes. One thing you could do is you could ask your professor, "Hey, are there any study aids that you think are particularly valuable that you rely on?" Some professors will say, "Yes, I really like this treatise or I really like this little book that explains the rules." If you get that, that's great, because you at least know that it's a source the professor thinks is useful and probably the professor agrees with that source about what the rules are.

Oftentimes, professors won't give you that answer, and so there you are a little bit more on your own. You are going to have to use your judgment. I would just say try to look for things that are going to emphasize teaching the rules clearly and are also not going to offer a really idiosyncratic perspective on what the rules are. For example, in my criminal law lectures for 7Sage, I try to focus very much on laying out the rules of criminal law in the way that it's most applicable to as many criminal law classes as possible.

The most generic versions of the rules that will be the most useful. Finding a source like that, I think, can be really, really valuable, as long as you realize the ultimate tiebreaker has to be what you were actually taught. If you read ten treatises and they all tell you the rule is X, and you go to your professor and professor says, "Well, I really think the rule is Y," you ultimately need to rely on what your professor said, because again, your professor is the one who is going to be grading your exam.

Even if the professor is 100% wrong, which sometimes they are. Professors are just people. It could be easy to think of them as these godlike figures who know everything, but they don't. We make mistakes, we screw things up. Ultimately, because we are the ones grading it, you have to convince us that you understand what we were trying to teach you. Go with what the professor thinks, even if you think it is not the objectively best answer on the exam.

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