9.2 – How to Perform in Seminars


How to Perform in Seminars

Open discussion with fewer students

The next type of law school class I want to talk about is a seminar. A seminar is typically a law school class that has a smaller number of students in it than other classes. Maybe it will have ten, fifteen, twenty students enrolled. Often, they'll meet weekly, you'll do some reading, and there's a lot of emphasis on discussion. You will discuss the material in a more open way than you do in a doctrinal class, where the professor is really just trying to get through a lot of material. You'll have more time to just have an open-ended discussion. Then, very commonly, seminars are going to have a very significant writing component. The key skills that seminars rely on is reading, discussion, and writing.

Seminar writing involves academic writing.

In terms of the writing, there's different kinds of writing that might be required for seminars. Some seminars require long research papers at the end of the semester, other seminars require shorter papers, multiple points over the course of the semester. The idea is we want to give students a chance to really focus on some text, read them carefully, talk about them in a group, understand them better, and then really have a chance to really develop their writing in a way where you don't get to in most other law school classes. The writing is going to be a little different from the writing you might do in your legal research and writing class. It's not going to be lawyer writing. It's going to be more sort of academic writing, writing about what we think the law should be, things like that. What the right theory is of the law.

If you're someone who really liked taking philosophy classes or something like that when you were an undergraduate, I think you're going to really enjoy seminars, and they can be a lot more, in some ways, intellectually stimulating than just a regular lecture doctrinal class. But you want to think about how to approach them and how to be successful.

Grading System

Class participation is very important.

A few things, they're going to be graded quite differently than an exam class. Your grade is usually going to be based on your class participation. That could be a very significant part of your grade, whereas in most doctrinal classes, that's a pretty small part of your grade, if it's any part of your grade at all. Then it's going to be based on the writing you do over the course of the semester, or towards the end of the semester. But there's not going to be an exam at the end, typically. That would be very unusual for a seminar.

Approach to Seminar Classes

Class Participation

The way to approach classes, you're not scribbling down literally everything the professor says in the hopes of building this elaborate outline, and then conveying all your knowledge at the end on an exam. Instead, you want to approach class as an opportunity to develop deeper understanding and to contribute to a conversation. You really want to make sure you do the reading for seminar before class. There's no point in catching up at the end. If you miss the opportunity to have the discussion the first time, you've just wasted your time and everybody else's time. Keep up with the reading.

Then be prepared in the sense that come to the seminar, take a few notes for yourself, whatever the reading is, maybe it will be philosophy articles, law review articles, policy analysis, take some notes, and some questions, maybe there are parts that you didn't understand as well. Maybe there are questions that it raised for you about how we might reform the law further. Write those down. It doesn't have to be a lot, but if you just come in with a few things that you're interested in saying, maybe some points and reactions you had, or something that the author said that really rang true for you, or really seemed wrong to you, just write down a page reference in your notes, and just come in ready to say, "Hey, I wanted to ask the class about this point on page 22. I thought this was really interesting. I'd like to hear more about it." That's going to really show a lot of engagement. It's going to help you and it's going to help your fellow students understand the material better. Someone who's doing that is really going to display a lot of engagement.

Keep in mind that a seminar is typically not going to be a blind-graded class, unlike a doctrinal exam class. Your professor is going to give you a grade knowing who you are. If you look like you're someone who's showed up every week, really prepared, thinking deeply about the reading, and trying to talk about it in a way that's helpful, that's really going to serve you well.

I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking in seminars. They don't like raising their hand and I would always get nervous in those settings when I was a student. I know the feeling. All I can say is you just have to force yourself to do it, and your contributions are probably smarter than you think they are. Your peers' contributions are probably not as smart as you think they are relative to your own. Everybody feels that way. You just need to figure out a way to make yourself talk because it just is such an important part of the class. If you just show up every week and don't say anything, you're really doing yourself to a poor grade in a seminar, at least one that takes class participation into consideration at all.

Seminar Writing

In terms of the writing requirement, you want to focus very carefully on what exactly the professor wants. If the professor says, "I really want a research paper," you need to really figure out a topic that you can provide some original research on. You want to try to find something that you're interested in, that you're going to be interested in enough to go do the research, to dig into Lexis or Westlaw a little bit and find some interesting cases, other articles to talk about, and so forth. If your professor says, "I just want you to write a reaction to the reading and don't do any outside research," don't waste your time doing outside research. Just try to do a good job meeting the challenge that you have been given.

I think one thing that I would advise you to do is try to do the reading a little bit in advance so you have a bit of time to think about what your paper might look like. Imagine it's a class that requires weekly or semi-weekly short-response papers. One thing you could do, let's say the papers are due every Monday morning, you could do the reading on Sunday afternoon and write the paper until late at night on Sunday. I don't think that's a great idea. What if you did the reading on Wednesday night, the Wednesday before, and then you just slept on that, and then you thought about it, and over the weekend you developed your thesis and then you typed up your paper on Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon after letting it gestate in your mind a little bit? That's going to be a much stronger paper than one that you just scramble to think of and write over a very short time period.

Again, here, for any kind of writing you're doing, I would advise you to pay attention to little things, attention to detail, make sure it looks good on the page, nice formatting, proofread, check for typos, because again, it just, for whatever reason, it sends signals to the reader about the quality of your work overall. Even if you have great ideas, if you're displaying those ideas in a way, in a format that makes them look really sloppy, that's just going to bleed into how someone assesses the quality of your ideas. It just demonstrates that you don't care. You really want to show that you care and that you took it seriously when you're working on a paper like this and you're turning in a written document.

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