PREPARING FOR LAW SCHOOL

This is an outline and basic approach, derived from advice and help given to my friends. It worked for them.

The basic principle to my approach to preparing for law school consists of getting your mind ready to "think like a lawyer." The method used is one I call "pre-formatting your mind." The method anticipates that you are starting the year before you enter law school. If you have more time, there are additional things you can do.

The one year plan takes the following steps:

1-- purchase the Gilberts and the Nutshells for your first year classes now. [Gilberts and Nutshells are study aids used by law students. They are available by mail and at any law school bookstore.]

1a- take an LSAT prep class. Such classes are essential. If you have time, take the prep class more than once. While you want to take the LSAT only one time, you can take the prep class (and the practice tests) over and over again. Practice does make perfect.

2-- as soon as you finish the LSAT (not before, the information won't help you and will only weigh down your mind and get in the way), skim the legal summaries at the beginning of each Gilberts.

Don't worry about understanding the information, your goal is just to read through it and to let your mind become lightly exposed to the structure and outline provided by the summaries.

3-- over Christmas break read every one of the nutshells. Read them the same way you would read a light novel -- that is, read each nutshell well enough to understand the words but don't worry about how the words fit together.

4-- take a break from law until February.

5-- read through each of the Gilberts. Finish by April.

6-- the second and third weeks of May, read through the nutshells again.

7-- skim the Gilbert legal summaries again in the last week of May.

8-- June 1. Lay all the law aside. Let your mind rest and your subconscious reorganize everything. (Yes, that does mean go ahead and take your vacation or keep working at your job.)

9-- August 1. Buy the Legal lines for all your classes. Don't open them. Just buy them before the rush. [Legal lines or Legallines are another set of study aids that take the information in the Gilberts and Nutshells and match them to the textbooks used in your classes.] 10-- when classes start, brief every case just the way the professor asks. DO NOT READ, REFER TO OR LOOK AT CASENOTES before a class. If you brief the cases, you'll organize your mind and learn some very important skills. If you rely upon casenotes you'll find yourself without those skills.

I briefed all my cases. By briefing the cases I organized my mind. In constantly practicing organizing my mind (by doing briefs) I got to where I could brief a case as I read it during a professor's questions to me on the case.

11-- At the end of every week, NOT AT ANY TIME BEFORE, read the Legallines material that goes over the material covered that week. The purpose is to organize your mind and the law.

A real stress in law school is wondering if what you think you learned is really what you should have learned. Reading through the legallines material each Saturday morning will give you confidence in what you learned, reinforce your memory of what you learned, and help you fill any gaps.

If you wait until after the class you will also get the full benefit of the classroom experience (which is why you are going to law school). Finally, the professor can't confuse you about what you know if you don't read the material before class.

************* A side note at this time. Contrary to foolish opinions and popular misconception, law school does not teach you the law. It teaches two other things. FIRST, it teaches you a new language. "Thinking like a lawyer" is actually learning the grammar, vocabulary and logic of the language of law.

SECOND, law school teaches you how to organize and analyze law. An attorney rarely deals with "classic" or "black letter" law of the sort found in law summaries and books.

In real life practice you will get cases as muddled as the opinions you read in your casebooks. With those cases, and with muddled opinions, you will have to convince a judge that you are right. Law school gives you three years of sorting through the maze.

If you use study aids and outlines before classes, you are not pushing your mind to analyze, think and respond. Students who superficially rely on aids do poorly on exams as exams duplicate the confused facts and murkiness of class.

************* 11-- when it comes time to study for finals, go back to your notes and the Gilberts. Remember that the key to finals is not what the professors tell you they would look for in a perfect world, but what they can cope with when grading 300+ exams under time pressure.

Issue identification and recounting the law is the heart of every law exam. In answering a question, never leave out any element no matter how obvious. E.g. "When ã hit å, it was the intentional tort of battery, that is, a harmful (or offensive) touching. there were no privileges ( ..list the privileges..and state that they do not apply) and ã's actions were intentional and volitional rather than negligent as negligence is (list the elements)." That is how an exam question should be answered.

The reason that you should answer law exams this way is pragmatic. Law professors are reduced to running through exams and counting coup with a total at the end. Real analysis counts for little in a law exam because of the pure bulk of material the professors wade through in grading. Answers become all in this sort of situation.

You may think that it is impossible to find all the elements -- given the confused way classes are taught. But then, Gilberts lays out the elements for you. With the way exams are graded these days, it is possible to skip all your classes, play basketball and read 3-6 hours of Gilberts a day and get grades that make you a part of the top 10%, once you've mastered issue identification. (One of the guys in our law school did just that).

*************

These steps will help you your first year of law school. I suspect that they would help with later years of law school but none of my test subjects to date has had the drive or discipline to carry on the preparation program that far. All have had significant drops in GPA after the first year (usually from top 10% to middle of the class). Normal law school performance is consistent from year to year.

*************

Watch out for your professors. They'll tell you that they grade on what you know of the law and the quality of your analysis, not whether or not you "get the right answer." While professors desperately want to believe that "legal fiction" the truth is that they grade by going over and looking for the right answers.

Reality vs. the ideal may be rather blatant in its hypocrisy and ironic fit, but the exigency of grading exams results in variants of that behavior by most professors.

Professors in general, even the very good ones, tend to rely on rigid formula without exceptions. "Class participation," is usually rigidly determined by attendance. Even in a class where the grade is a paper rather than a final, the important part of the curve may be made up by points added for attendance (check with your professor and find out).

You may be representing the school in connection with the co-curricular program you are in and have an excused absence. Your paper may be one point off from the maximum possible, yet you'll find yourself victim of the modified bell curve grade point distribution and rigid formula approach and smack at the bottom of the class based on having missed the three days you had excused absences for.

*************

I bring up these warnings because the examples help to illustrate the gap between theory and practice -- even in a good law school and even with tenured full professors. Understanding the gap between theory and practice will help you write your exams and explains why issue identification and laying out all the elements helps so much. It shows the risk in taking any other approach.

Always use issue identification. Always identify the cause of action or the event (e.g. assault, springing interests, etc.), lay out all of the elements of the cause of action (whether or not they are important to the facts of the question) and point out which elements are supported by the facts and which are not.

(e.g. Paul Pain committed a battery. Battery has the following elements. There are the following defenses to battery, [a] is not supported by the facts because, [b] is not supported by the facts because, [c] etc. There are the following alternative theories <negligence, assault, trespass, etc.>. It was not negligence because Paul intended his actions. It was not assault because the victim did not have anticipation and because there was a harmful or offensive touching. It was not a trespass to the person because ... Identify every possible issue, just like clockwork and use the facts to determine only what the conclusion is.).

Finally, remember that there are harsh realities that control how your professors will actually grade their exams -- regardless of how "enlightened" or friendly they seem to be. Issue identification will help you deal with those realities better than any other approach.

*************

Wish you well. I think you'll make a fine attorney and that you will enjoy the practice of law. Good grades will help you enjoy the voyage getting there.


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Copyright 1998 Stephen R. Marsh

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