Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Best Advice for Aspiring Law Students

....probably doesn't come from me. After all, I don't have any particular recommendations for what Cliff Note versions of law subjects (commercial outlines, or "hornbooks") that you should use--Emmanuel's or Gilbert's or the Lexis/Nexis "Understanding _____" series. (Although I recommend doing your own, as the process is as important as the product. But in a pinch, don't be too proud to borrow someone else's) I won't tell you which clubs to join to get access to the best outline bank (I have a law school famous Civil Procedure outline in one of the org banks). I won't tell you how to ace exams, mainly because I don't know myself. It's a one-shot deal, but not a one-shot process. When I went to law school, I studied hard, outlined, and performed the test the best I can. I never did find shortcuts around this method.

But I have offered you advice on how to navigate the social pressures of law school--from the banality of the wine and cheese parties to how not to overload yourself by trying to join every organization in addition to Moot Court and a journal. (seriously folks, most of this takes you by surprise) I have even recommended which brand of earplugs to buy. And if I haven't mentioned it enough, this is THE backpack for lawschool--fits a standard 14-15" laptop, plus at least 2-3 big casebooks. If a petite, 5'2" girl like me can carry that much on me (and I went to Bourgie Metrosexual Law School, so I sometimes did it in heels, and plenty there did it on stilettos), you certainly can. Or you can nerd out, save your back, and use a rolling backpack (I did, and I feel no shame)--just don't put your laptop in it, as going over cracks in the sidewalk can seriously mess up your laptop.

But out of the goodness of my heart, and since people will want to go to law school no matter how many times you ask, with an earnestly grave look, "are you sure you want to do that?", here is some more insight, via Prawfsblawg on how professors think when they create and grade exams:

First, you must start with a good, fair exam. Err on the side of being too hard rather than too easy, because you can always decide that 70% right is an “A” and 60% right is a B, but if everyone gets practically everything right, it’s hard to make valid distinctions. Of course an exam can be too hard, but the most common mistake for beginning folks along those lines is not asking questions that nobody can answer, but rather asking too many questions/having too many issues. In my first year, in one exam, not a single student finished the last essay: that essay wasn’t particularly hard, nor were any of the others; there were just too many of them. Also, spell out
jurisdictional issues in the instructions. In my labor and employment classes, I say in the instructions, “assume all the employers/employees/unions are covered by [the relevant laws] unless the facts indicate otherwise.”

Put in issues of varying difficulty: relatively easy ones so that the “C” papers can be distinguished from the “F” papers, and relatively hard ones, so that the “A” papers can be distinguished from the “Cs.” While you can’t test everything, keep some sense of proportion between how much it counts on the exam, and how much time you spent on it in the reading and in class. Mix in questions that actually have right answers (plaintiff would win here, for sure, and here’s why), with questions that don’t have obviously right answers that make students articulate and weigh competing rules/policy concerns/types of arguments.

Do a detailed grading key. Figure out how many points you should give for certain observations. Then be consistent. If the right answer is “Plaintiff wins, because the one-bite rule doesn’t apply to pet alligators,” four points are available, and a student
says, “Defendant wins, because the one-bite rule does apply to alligators,” decide whether that’s worth 0, 1, or 2 points and be consistent for all similar answers.

Essay questions often have kinks. If a question’s wording really was ambiguous or legitimately suggested an issue you hadn’t thought of before, give students credit if they have a plausible argument. I once used the phrase “worked in a large women’s clothing store” in an employment discrimination exam. I meant “large” to refer to the size of the establishment to indicate coverage by a statute. Some students,
however, interpreted that to mean “clothing store for large women.” That “fact” arguably could have gone to a legal issue in the problem (for reasons I won’t bore you with). So ... they got credit.

Finally, when reviewing exams with students, I tell them that I will only change a grade if (a) there is a math mistake in calculating it; or (b) if it appears I actually didn’t read or completely misread a section of their exam and didn’t give them any credit when they deserved at least some. Reviews are about the student learning how to do better, not for arguing that knowing that the one-bite rule applied should really be worth 3 points, not 2.

I cannot stress enough how different a law school exam is. If, you were an English major like me, you were used to an hour and a half to spin an essay from scratch based on a book of your own choosing, say The Lais of Marie de France (from the reading list) using a primary source quote of your own choosing in order to demonstrate some abstract theme (like redemption), then this is wayyyyy different. You will not get to choose the topic, text, or theme. It will not be a consideration of an abstract theme, allowing you to ruminate on the human condition. You will become a lawyer, even if they have to beat the last flutterings of poetry and literature from your soul. Even if you were a poli sci student like me, used to just answering some easy question like "Describe the significance of Marbury vs. Madison for shaping our current political system" or "Using historical examples, argue for or against the following statement: "To achieve greater security, the United States must act more unilateralist in its foreign policy." Yeah, don't naive and expect cake walks like that.

I'm not even making this stuff up people. I was a reader for lower division poli sci courses my senior year. You can answer these questions without reading a book. (Sadly) Law school will not be like that, and a lot of people I know wish they could have anticipated this a little more. If the wrong prof can make constitutional law, "the reason I went to law school" (everyone says that! No one says "bankruptcy law"!) boring and dreary, then there are plenty of other ways to crush the soul and ideals of the neophyte poli sci major. They'll beat that out of you too. But if you take an intellectual interest in your law school courses (and I mean all of them, so choose wisely after 1st year), then law school is very intellectually rewarding. It's not spending an hour discussing The Turn of the Screw, but it's really interesting and fun to talk about legal issues and think up alternate hypos and additional claims in the same action. It is! Trust me.

Law school is not altogether bad, but it is different. The exams are typically issue spotter exams: you get a hypo, where bad things invariably happen (people get killed, commit torts, break contractual obligations, get discriminated against--something happens that gives rise to a legal controversy). You then have to examine the claims of either the plaintiff or the defendant or both, and sometimes you are called upon to say whose claim is more meritorious. You say what these claims are, and describe them in detail using the facts. Picking out which facts are important is tricky. And using them in your answer is tricky. One of my professors referred to it as "massaging the facts." You have to work the facts into your answer--persuasively. It doesnt' matter what conclusion you reach, what matters is your reasoning, organization, how many issues you spot and discuss well, and your use of the facts. There's that whole breadth vs. depth quandary. In a "race-horse" exam, typically under 3 hours for 2 or more hypos, it's more breadth. If you get more time per question, the professors expect deeper discussion. Most will forgive minor typographical or even grammar errors (particularly in a race horse)--but few will forgive really bad organization or poor reasoning. The best thing you can do is a month and a half before finals, access the old exams for your prof (or if he is new, a prof who uses a similar exam format in the same class). And you take them. Just practice issue spotting and outlining the question. You should probably take one under timed conditions. Doing one with a study buddy keeps you honest (no peeking at the sample answer) and on track. I usually did 2-3, but I know many who did a lot more. This is really important if you go to a school with a severe forced curve. Particularly if it's not a Tier 1 school, and trying to improve it's ranking by flunking out the bottom third of the first year class. Ouch--something to avoid at all costs. If you flunk out, the AALS says you can't reapply for two more years. There goes $30,000, a year, and a life plan. Don't treat the LSAT like it's the SAT, and don't treat law school like it's college. You're in professional school. Act like a professional.

Finally, do go to Prawfsblawg and click under the "Life of Law Schools" index--truly valuable stuff to read. Most of it is advice for junior profs or aspiring academics--but it is sure handy for a law student to have some insight into the process. Plus, it helps your law prof seem a little more human--healthy for the student whether you hate your prof or revere your prof.

End of public service announcement.