1.1 – Overview of the Law School Experience


Overview of Law School Experience

This class is going to focus on understanding law school and the law school experience. We're going to talk about how law school works, the structure of your time in law school. The reason we're going to do this is I've found it's always a lot easier to tackle a problem if you really know what you're getting yourself into. Some people are going to come into law school having a really good sense of how it works. Maybe you know a lot of people who have gone through the experience. Maybe you have family members who were involved in the law in some way. A lot of people are going to come in not really having any idea what they're in for.

Law school is actually somewhat different from other educational experiences you've had. I think understanding the ways in which it is different, and how exactly it works, and how you're going to be evaluated is really critical to having a good experience in law school and having a successful law school experience.

Speaking autobiographically, I'm someone who has a lot of family members who are involved in the law. I have a lot of family members who are lawyers and a couple of family members who are law professors. I found that having that inside knowledge as I came into law school was really, really helpful and helped me have success in law school. I'm going to be trying to give you the inside scoop both from someone who, as a law student, had a certain amount of success in law school, and now, as a law professor, sees things from the other side and really understands how it works, and what law school professors are really looking for when they're grading exams and when they're teaching their classes, and so forth. Let's talk about how law school works.

Law school is going to be ~~three~~ years in the United States. Sometimes people can get it done a little bit faster than that with taking summer classes, but the American Bar Association still requires you do three full years' worth of law school credits. Usually, the first year is going to be made up of required courses, either all required courses or mostly required courses. At Yale Law School, it's only a required first semester of courses, but that's unusual. At the law school I teach, all the first-year courses are required and there's no electives. There's some variation there. Basically, you're going to be handed a set of classes that you have to take in that first year.

Often, one of those classes is a legal writing class, which is going to be a little bit different than the other classes. That's going to be a class where you turn in a series of writing assignments over the course of the semester or the year. The other classes are going to be what we call doctrinal or podium classes, typically, where there's a professor standing up at a podium in front of the room and maybe lecturing about the law, maybe using the Socratic method, which is where the professor calls on students and asks them questions about the reading and works through an exchange with them. Those classes are going to be focused on one particular area of doctrine.

First Year

The most traditional first-year courses that are required are civil procedure, contracts, torts, property, criminal law. Sometimes constitutional law is a first-year course. At some schools, it's an upper-level course. Again, there's some variation here. Some schools are starting to have a first-year legislation and regulation class that's required, but that hasn't been adopted everywhere. Law school really throws you into the deep end right at the beginning.

Now, there's a saying that I'm going to use to help you understand the law school experience. This is a cliché. People say it a lot. You're going to hear law students repeat it a lot, which is that law school is three years. In the first year, they scare you to death. What does that mean? That means that you really have a very steep learning curve. You're going to be thrown into these classes. You're going to be asked to read case books that contain appellate opinions. We're going to be spending a lot of time trying to help you better understand how to read cases in your case books and understand them. Then you're going to be thrust into class, and you're going to be asked to explain the law, especially in a class that uses the Socratic method, where you're going to be called on and just being asked, what did this case hold, what is this case about, what are the facts, and so forth.

Many people find that very intimidating. It's a very intense experience. It's typically a lot of work. It's very transformative. I found it a very exciting experience. I think a lot of people find it very exciting. You're learning a lot of things, but it can be quite intense. Then, after your first year, you typically have a summer. Sometimes people take summer school. Often people go do some summer job in that first summer. That first summer is often a time to explore. Maybe go do an unpaid internship if you're able to, or if you can get financial support from your school, some government job, some public interest job. Develop some legal experience and maybe try to figure out where your interests are going to lie.

Second Year

Then you come back for your second year of law school. The cliché saying about the second year is they work you to death, the idea here being that second year can be really hard because you're going to have classes. Most of them are going to be elective classes at this point. You're choosing your classes. On top of those classes, you're going to get maybe more involved in other activities. You might be on a law journal. You're helping edit a law journal that publishes articles by legal scholars and that can be a tremendous amount of work. You might be involved in moot court. You might be taking clinical classes where you're actually able to practice law under supervision of your instructor. You're doing a lot of extra things on top of regular law school classes, and it can be really challenging. In addition to that, you might be looking for a permanent job.

Now, depending on what your career path looks like. Sometimes people are hired by law firms for jobs for their second summer and those jobs really turn into permanent positions. People are devoting a lot of energy into searching for those opportunities. They might also be searching for things like clerkship opportunities, which are postgraduate positions that help lead into the next stage of your career. There's really a lot going on. That second summer after your second year of law school really can be a particularly critical summer, especially if you end up with, say, a summer job at a firm that you hope to get a permanent offer of employment at.

Third Year

Then in the third year, you come back. Maybe if you're lucky, you've got a job already lined up for post-graduation. The cliché about the third year is they bore you to death. A lot of law students say, "Well, at this point, I've really learned what I need to learn. I'm just taking classes just so I can get on to the next point in my career. I can take the bar, and so forth." I don't think that has to be true. For me, the third year of law school was, I think, a really enriching experience. I learned a lot of things. I sort of wished there was even more law school because there were so many classes I wanted to take and so many things I wanted to learn. But that is the cliché.

Way Forward

My goal in these lessons is to tell you some strategies that are going to avoid some of these clichés: why you don't need to be scared of your first year, why you can figure out ways to make your second year really manageable so you're not being worked to death, and how you can find your third year really enriching and not an experience that's going to bore you to death. This course is designed to give you some tools to really help you have a successful law school experience and a rewarding law school experience, and, ultimately, how that can lead into a rewarding career in the law.

We're going to talk about a bunch of the different aspects of law school, although the overwhelming focus of the class is going to be on your doctrinal classes and your exams that you're going to take in those doctrinal classes.

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