In May 2006, a seven-year-old boy named Braxton Bilbrey became the youngest person ever to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. When he got to the shore, there were some reporters waiting. One asked him what the hardest part was.
He said, “The swimming.”
In the beginning, law school feels like that. Everything feels like the hardest part, because you don’t see things clearly yet. You don’t know what’s important and what isn’t. You can’t tell which parts of the reading to focus on and which to skim. You don’t know what to write down in your notes. I would have spent a lot more time panicking in my first year, except that I didn’t yet know which parts of law school I was supposed to panic about.
I wasn’t alone. According to one study, “the emotional distress of law students appears to significantly exceed that of medical students and at times to approach that of psychiatric populations.” Everybody feels lost in the first year of law school. If you don’t, you’re probably not paying close enough attention.
One of the best cures for stress is a sense of control. But you can’t take control until you understand what’s happening to you. So this book will help you understand the daily choices you make in law school, and how they affect your grades and your future.
Law school requires you to make a lot of decisions. You’ll decide what to focus on when you do your nightly reading, what to put into your notes, whether to raise your hand in class (and if you do, what to say), whether to join a study group, how long to spend on each exam question, and so on.
This book will help you see those choices clearly. You’ll make the choices yourself.
You’ll make better choices if you know what your goals are. I’m going to assume you have two goals: to get good grades in law school, and to become a good lawyer. Here are the two most important things you need to know about how to accomplish those goals:
First: The secret to getting good grades is to treat all of your course work as preparation for the exam.
Second: Good grades alone won’t make you a good lawyer.
The rest of this book will explore these two ideas. Parts 1, 2, and 3 will explain how focusing your work on the exam can make your grades better. Part 4 will explain how other choices you make in law school affect the kind of lawyer you become.
This book is an operating manual, designed to guide you through the choices a law student faces every day. I wrote the core of this book immediately after I finished law school, because I didn’t want to forget how those choices looked to someone actually facing them. It’s one thing to hear from the scientist about what route the rat took through the maze; it’s another thing to hear from the rat how he solved it.
I’m going to assume that you are an intelligent adult; I won’t tell you to pay attention in class or remind you how important it is to work hard. It’s not that paying attention and working hard are unimportant. They’re very important. In fact, the secret to doing well in upper-level classes might be working as hard as you worked your first year. One study found that third-year law students spend half as much time studying as first-year students. The median third-year student spent about as many hours studying as a first-year student in the fifth percentile. So if you keep working at the same level throughout law school, you might rocket to the top of your class by default.
But that’s about all the advice I’ll give you on hard work. I trust that you can figure out for yourself how hard to work, and how often to go to class, and how often to exercise, and whether to go to the bathroom during exams. (All of these questions are discussed in some detail in other law school books I’ve read—even the one about going to the bathroom.) I want to help you understand the structure of how law school works; this is not a lifestyle guide.
How to Get Better Grades
In most law school classes, your entire grade is determined by one exam. To do well, you’ll have to think of all your course work in terms of how it will help you on the exam. Working efficiently toward the exam will help you make better use of your hours in the library; it will help you see the law more clearly; and it will help you free up time to relax. The first three parts of this book will help you understand how it works.
The book begins by explaining how law school devises your grades— which means exams. Part 1 explains how exams work and what kind of preparation is required to do well on them. Rather than telling you what to do, I emphasize the choices you’ll make. There’s no single right way to take an exam. But there are specific choices every student faces. It’s important to think them through.
Part 2 explains the skills that are required to do well on exams. “Thinking like a lawyer” consists of three closely related skills: distilling the legal materials you read; spotting the issues that your exams expect you to address; and making arguments about those issues using the law you’ve distilled. These are the skills that will determine how well you do on exams.
Part 3 explains how your work during the semester can prepare you for exams and develop the skills they test. It explains how to treat each of the different kinds of work you do in law school—reading, listening to class, and so on—as exam preparation. I’ll try to show you how to focus each of these kinds of work on the exams: to strip away the things that won’t help you on exams and spend the most possible time on the things that will. This is the part of the book that will interest you most if you’re now a first-year student, because it’s full of tricks and specific suggestions. Why not put these at the beginning of the book? Because I don’t want you to just mimic my study habits; I want you to develop your own. To do that, you’ll need to understand what law school wants from you, and what makes some approaches better than others. Parts 1 and 2 give you a foundation for that.
The Costs of Ruthless Efficiency
Doing well in law school means more than getting good grades. The purpose of law school is to make you a lawyer, not just a law school exam taker. If law school teaches you nothing more than how to prepare for an exam with ruthless efficiency, you will have wasted years of your life and vast sums of money. What else you’ll try to learn in law school depends on your law school, your professors, and your own goals. But every good legal education offers you more than just the bits of law you’ll use on exams. Ruthless efficiency can make you miss some of the most important parts of your education.
Law isn’t just a collection of doctrines; it’s a culture. To do law well you must become, as one professor writes, a connoisseur. Becoming a good lawyer requires more than an intellectual understanding of rules. You’ll need a feeling for how the whole system of legal ideas fits together, and how it affects the people who work with it. That’s why you go to class: to develop a feeling for how good lawyers talk, argue, and interact.
Your extracurricular life matters too, not just to your sanity but to your prospects of getting good at lawyering. Some of the most valuable parts of law school are extracurricular, like the pro bono work you get to do and the chats with your professors and colleagues that go beyond what’s covered in class. All of these things develop your feeling for the law. And all of them take time away from exam preparation. It’s important to accept that. In law school, it often seemed as though my mental filing cabinet had only two drawers: one marked Retained for Use On Exam and one marked Banished from My Thoughts. You’ll need more drawers.
The pressure of the exam will tempt you to cut uncredited learning experiences out of your life. You’ll feel pressured to skip anything that isn’t directly related to getting good grades. It’s a difficult balance: on the one hand, exams are always looming, demanding all your time and energy. On the other hand, a good law school offers you a rich variety of intellectual and practical experiences that won’t show up on your transcript. No book can make these choices easy for you.
Nor can any book tell you how to balance the pressure of impending exams against all the other things that sensible people want to get out of their lives: friendship, love, music, television. Your choices about how to integrate your work and your life will be a central part of your new identity as a law student, and as a lawyer. A book like this can only help you see those choices clearly, and understand what’s at stake.
One of the biggest choices law students make, of course, is the decision to go to law school in the first place. There’s an ongoing debate and a fast-growing literature on the value of law school—on whether law school is worth the heavy debt burden many students take on, whether lawyers’ job prospects are good enough to justify the financial risks involved, and whether law schools do enough to help prospective students understand those burdens and risks. It’s important to know, before you get started, that while some lawyers think going to law school was the best decision they ever made, others deeply regret it. If you’re still deciding whether to go law school, I encourage you to research these questions thoroughly, and to reflect on why you want to go to law school and what you hope to get out of it. This book aims to show you how law school can be a wonderful experience; please don’t mistake that for a promise that it will be a wonderful experience. It’s a book about how to make the most of law school, not whether to go.
This book also won’t try to tell you what law school will feel like. If you want descriptions of the archetypal first-year experience, read Scott Turow’s memoir One-L, or watch the movie The Paper Chase—you’ll be relieved when you get to class and it’s nothing like the picture they paint. The archetypal law school experience isn’t terribly relevant to your experience. There are too many different law schools, too many different professors. And even among the students in a single class, every student’s experience is different.
Consider how many different ideas about law school there are, for example, among the many illustrious professors and legal thinkers who’ve written about it. Duncan Kennedy sees in law school a deadening perpetuation of unjust social hierarchies, a trap. On the other hand, Martha Nussbaum sees in it the potential for a truly Socratic education—one that teaches students not just to analyze law but to find meaning in their own lives. Gary Bellow called law school “empirically irrelevant, theoretically flawed, pedagogically dysfunctional, and expensive.” But Oliver Wendell Holmes said that it can show you “the joy of life become an end in itself.”
Each of these pictures of law school is real to some law students. Law school is a trap, and a soul transformation, and a scam, and a joy. Your own experience will be determined partly by your professors, your law school, and your peers. But much of it will be determined by your own choices. The more you understand the structure of what’s happening, the better the choices you’ll be able to make.
Most books about law school warn you, excitedly and often, that law school is completely different than anything you’ve ever done before. Sure it is, in some ways—certainly in volume, and no doubt in style. But it’s learning; you’ve learned before. You can do this. Especially if someone helps you understand how it works.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-5 of A Student's Guide to Law School: What Counts, What Helps, and What Matters by Andrew B. Ayers, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)