TAG | Law
… not that gimme-five is not worth reading. But, for a good, but very sad read, check out Shinyung Oh’s blog, entitled “Because You Never Know.” Shinyung Oh was a lawyer who worked at Paul Hastings who had a miscarriage and was laid off about a week later and told that it was for performance reasons even though she consistently received great performance reviews in the past. The blog, which on has eight posts as of this writing, discusses her miscarriage, her career choice, her layoff, and more. It’s extremely sad to read, but worth your time. I don’t necessarily fault the firm for layoffs, per se, but honesty about the reasons for a layoff is essential in my view. And regardless, Oh is certainly going through a difficult time right now. I wish her the best.
I am proud to announce that I completed my first year of law school this spring at George Mason University. Without a doubt, it was the most intellectually challenging year of my life, as well as the most time consuming experience I have ever faced. Yet I certainly learned a lot, and I am glad I decided to go to law school. However, I recall that I was extremely nervous and uncertain the summer before my first year of school. I was extremely worried that I did not have a legal background, that I was not exactly sure whether I could handle the workload, and that I might be over-matched by my classmates’ intelligence. I was also worried that the stress and time commitment might take a toll on my relationship with my girlfriend. I am sure that these feelings of uncertainty are common amongst incoming 1Ls.
But, thank goodness, I made it out of the first year alive. My relationship was not wrecked – it became stronger. Although I met plenty of people who were extremely smart, I held my own and received very pleasing grades (at least for the first semester, still waiting to hear second semester grades) and a summer job at the US Attorney’s Office of DC. I was also able to continue running 40-50 miles per week during the year to stay in shape and relieve stress.
Of course, there were many times during the year that sucked. Big legal writing assignments always seemed to coincide with big weeks of reading for my other classes, which also seemed to coincide with other plans. But there are always going to be bumps in the road, and I made it through them, just as all of my classmates did.
Anyway, that is enough about me. I’m writing this article to offer some advice to incoming 1Ls. Please take it with a grain of salt.
The Summer Before 1L
Honestly, there isn’t that much you must do before your first year begins. Your school might send out a list of books they recommend you read. Mine told us to read three books, and “suggested” we read five others. I read the recommended three books. These books were: “Law School Without Fear” by Helene and Marshall Shapo, “An Introduction to Legal Reasoning” by Edward H. Levi, and “Law and Economics in a Nutshell” by Jeffrey L. Harrison. Honestly, I didn’t get too much out of these books, but some people think Levi’s book is really good. So if you have some time, and your school doesn’t recommend any reading over the summer, you might want to check out Levi’s book.
A book that I read and I think helped me a lot is “Law School Confidential” by Robert H. Miller. Essentially, the book walks you through all three years of law school and recommends how to do your reading, how to study for exams, how to apply for jobs, how to prepare for interviews, and more. It has been extremely helpful and I refer back to it every now and then when I’m in an unfamiliar situation. It’s not a bible that will get you A’s in law school, but it can be very helpful if used with a large serving of hard work.
Speaking of hard work, rest up over the summer. Don’t burn yourself out trying to learn everything about the classes you’ll be taking now. Relax and get ready to work in the fall.
Also, do yourself a favor and buy a nice, reliable computer if you don’t have one already. Make sure you’re comfortable with it before the semester starts. You don’t want to have to learn how to use your computer during the semester. And, if you get a chance, buy your books online rather than the bookstore. School bookstores will always rip you off – you can get your books much cheaper on bigwords.com.
1L: Reading Assignments, Briefing, and Outlining
The two most important things to be good at in law school, according to me, are briefing and outlining. Briefing is where you read a case and record it in a form that you understand and can use to help yourself remember important elements from the case later. Outlining is where you synthesize all of your reading and class notes into a form you can use on an exam.
There are two major ways to brief: note briefing and book briefing. If you note brief (example), you take notes on the case on your computer or on paper as you read, and then refer to that paper later to recall the case. Book briefing is when you highlight or take notes in the book you are reading so that you can refer directly to your casebook later to recall the case.
I began law school by note briefing, because I don’t like using highlighters. But after realizing how slow it was to note brief, and realizing that I had to keep referring back to my book anyway, I attempted to book brief. It actually worked really well for me. I used the method described in “Law School Confidential,” where you buy five different colored highlighters which all represent different elements of the case. For instance: Red (court, judge, holding), Green (facts), Blue (precedent), Yellow (reasoning), Orange (concurrence/dissent). So, if you’re reading a case, and you see the sentence: “Defendant’s cow was fertile,” this would be a “fact,” and if you found it important, you would highlight it in green.
I really don’t think book briefing works for everyone, nor does note briefing. You just have to try both and see what you like best and what helps you recall the information more effectively. I really enjoyed doing note briefing, and I think it saved me a lot of time, but I know lots of people that did just fine note briefing. Do what works for you.
Another important note about reading. Every professor I’ve had says “Don’t use commercial outlines – or you’ll get a bad grade.” The statement should read: “Don’t [exclusively] use commercial outlines.” You can and should use a commercial outline to supplement your reading if you don’t understand something or want to verify something about a case. Commercial outlines aren’t “wrong” even though many professors imply they are written by bozo the clown. In fact, the major commercial outlines are written by extremely smart, well-known groups of law professors. Furthermore, most professors who bash commercial outlines end up agreeing with the outlines on most or every issue. The lesson here is to take caution to go to class and listen to your professor to see if he or she deviates from the commercial outline on an issue. If so, follow the professor. Otherwise, when in doubt, the outline is useful.
A final note about reading and preparing for class. Some people come to class much more prepared than they need to be. Yes, you want to avoid being humiliated by your professor if you get cold called and don’t know the answer. But it does not follow that you need to read every case six times, look up trivia facts about each case on Wikipedia, and make flashcards about that day’s readings. There are some people that will do this early on, or even for much of the semester. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you’re preparing out of your mind for each class, you’re missing out on time you could be studying for other classes, making your outlines, or working on a legal writing assignment. To prepare for class, I generally read each case once, then go back through each case and highlight, and then on the day of class, I skim through the reading before class begins. Sure, I can’t make witty remarks about the background stories of the parties to the case that has nothing to do with the point of law at issue, but if I get cold called, I can get through without humiliation, while still having time to prepare my outlines and study for other classes.
The other extremely important thing to know in law school is outlining. Outlining is essentially where you condense all of the information you learned from reading your casebook and going to class into a form that will allow you to write quickly and accurately on an exam. Most exams in law school are open book and timed – so if you have a handy outline that helps you quickly recall all of the important information you learned over the semester, you should be in good shape. The key here is quickly and important. A 200 page outline for a class will not necessarily do you much good if you haven’t set it up so you know where to find pertinent information in the outline quickly. If at all possible, make your outline as short as possible by cutting out repetitive and/or useless information. My shortest outlines were about ten pages, and my longer ones were 20-30 pages.
For some examples, here are my outlines from my first year of law school (disclaimer: use at your own risk):
[I had to delete these because someone hacked into gimme-five and made them malware – contact me if you want them]
So… when do you outline? How do you do it? Here’s the classic law school answer: it depends. I, personally, preferred to outline after each class. That way the material was fresh in my mind, and I forced myself to keep up with outlining. Some people prefer to outline after covering a “block of material,” for instance, after covering cause-in-fact for Torts. The danger of this “block of material” method is that some blocks are much larger than others, so you might have a lot on your plate when you have a big legal writing assignment due or other classes to outline for.
Strangely, a large majority of the students I knew preferred to outline completely at the end of the semester. This is troublesome to me for several reasons. First, you don’t have the material fresh in your mind, so it is hard to write the intricacies of your knowledge of the law into the outline – and those intricacies are what are going to get you a good grade. Second, it takes a heck of a lot of time to outline, so along with the general stress of finals, you have to stress to get your outline done. Third, there are many important things you should be doing to study that don’t involve writing your outline. But this method seems to work for some people, so don’t count it out.
Additionally, there are many people that don’t outline at all. Once again, this works for some people. But if you’re going to do this, you’d better be really good at organizing your class notes and book notes, and have a really good memory.
Also, if you get a chance, ask 2Ls and 3Ls if they have their old outlines from classes they took with your professors. Don’t just re-use their outlines, but use them to check accuracy on your outline, and to see if you missed any important information.
Studying For Exams
I did a couple things to get ready for exams, which I think worked pretty well. First, I would go through all of my outlines and refine them – take out the useless and repetitive stuff and make the writing easier to understand. Also, review what you said in your outline to get your mind fresh on the topics.
Second, go to any review session your professor offers. Sometimes these are worthless, but generally they are pretty valuable. Come prepared with a few questions, because generally it will just be a Q&A session.
Thirdly, try pre-writing your exam questions. For instance, on a contracts exam, you know you’ll be asked what an offer is, and what acceptance is. Write down the exact words you’ll use on an exam and make a document you can carry with you into the exam. That way, rather than turning in a hurried, poorly written answer, you can turn in a polished answer for questions you know you’ll have on the exam. The professor will appreciate that.
Fourthly, get any sample exams or old exams your professors have on reserve in your school library or from other sources. The more sample questions you can answer before the exam, the more comfortable you’ll be taking the exam, and the better you’ll do.
Fifth, I highly recommend buying an Examples & Explanations book for your class, and reading the examples, answering them, and reading the explanations to see if you got the question correct. Once again, the more example questions you can try, the better. But, please take the “explanations” with a grain of salt, and always defer to what your professor thinks is correct over the explanations.
Your career center will – and should – bombard you with information. Bask in it. I haven’t quite figured out the whole career process yet, so I won’t offer advice on it. I will say that you shouldn’t expect to get paid a lot your first summer unless you’re going to a top-15 law school. Although I’m psyched to be working at the US Attorney’s Office of DC this summer, it’s unpaid, which is sort of painful.
Classmates, Friends, Life & Relationships
It’s not true that everyone is a jerk in law school. Although some people are jerks and cutthroats, there are plenty of genuine, awesome people in law school. Don’t get bummed out if you meet a jerk first, just keep meeting people and you’ll find some new, awesome friends.
Don’t put your life on hold just because you’re in law school. Although I’m really busy, I’ve maintained my long-distance relationship with my girlfriend and continued to run 40-50 miles per week. And I think keeping my life in-tact during law school was helpful in relieving stress. Running, obviously, relieves stress and produces endorphins. Plus, if you run in the morning before you start studying or going to class, it really helps sharpen your mind. If I study first thing in the morning, I always feel groggy and unproductive. But after I’ve gone for a run, I usually feel great, and I feel like I get a lot more done in less time. I highly recommend staying passionate and doing something other than studying during law school (not just drinking…).
Not all relationships work in law school. Some couples are just not prepared for the stress and time commitment. If you have a relationship and you’re about to begin school, make sure you talk it over with your significant other and tell them that you’re not going to get to see each other as much as you used to, and that you’re probably going to be a bit more on edge during the semesters. If you’ve found a keeper, they’ll understand, and they’ll support you. They’ll also provide a much needed ear to talk to, and they can be a wonderful non-law-school person to tell you what’s going on in “the real world.” My relationship is long-distance (4 hours away), but we made it work during this first year, and I’m extremely happy we did. My girlfriend was extremely supportive and understanding when I was stressed out and busy.
One caveat: don’t expect that because you’re busy you can just walk all over your significant other. Having a relationship during school still requires a commitment from you! So many people break up over stuff like this, so please be careful if you value your relationship.
If anyone has any questions about entering law school, please post them in the comments. I’ll try to answer every question I receive.
Update: I have posted a guide to the Virginia bar exam here.
Ever wondered what the current US Supreme Court Justices think about legal writing? Want some tips from some of the brightest legal minds of our time? Check out this link, and watch interviews with the current justices and listen to their thoughts on legal writing. Very cool.