I find the start of each academic year invariably invigorating. And it is an especially exciting and important time for first-year law students who are literally at the beginning of their professional journeys. Since my biweekly column slot this week roughly coincides with the beginning of the new academic year at many law schools across the country, I offer below, for whatever they may be worth—based on my experience as a law student, a practicing lawyer, and someone who has taught at four law schools over 25-plus years—a dozen pieces of modern advice (some intuitive and some less so) for incoming law students:
1. Make the time to work on writing skills: Translating what they have read and analyzed into written products is what most lawyers get paid for; written communication is a lawyer’s stock-in-trade. Learning to write effectively about legal topics takes time and intense engagement. Unfortunately, the other realities of law school sometimes make it challenging to devote the time that is needed to improve writing skills. To be sure, there are helpful (and often required) courses in “legal writing,” but getting (or staying) in good writing shape requires regular exercise for the rest of your career, not just for a semester or two. Writing exams (and practice exams for preparation) and seminar papers will help some, but not nearly enough. You should get in the habit of frequently writing shorter items—a paragraph at the end of your class-session notes distilling your thoughts about a case or a professor’s presentation of it; an email to a classmate or a professor explaining why you were confused, and posing a crisp question the answer to which should resolve the confusion; a letter to the editor or an Op Ed piece (whether ever submitted or not) commenting on some recent legal development, etc. It is sometimes said that you don’t know something until you can teach it to someone else. A corollary might be that you don’t know something until you can write it up in a thorough, clear, and plausible way. The more you practice your writing during law school, the better you’ll be at legal practice after you graduate.
2. Develop a strong work ethic: One of the biggest problems today—and you see it clearly in the context of today’s political discourse—is that people are disinclined to read and analyze anything that isn’t short, catchy, and superficial. The internet and social media have created amazing opportunities, but they are also responsible in part for the demise of good journalism, and the lack of depth people have in their knowledge about — and their ability to carefully analyze — the world around them. Twitter has its virtues, but it has also inflicted great harm to deliberative democracy, since it is hard to meaningfully explore anything in 140 (or 280) characters, but many people still use tweets as their primary source of opinion formation.
Law, by contrast, when it is done right, is all about depth and substance. The texts are long and often dense; the analysis is complex, sometimes tedious; the assertions and conclusions frequently come with qualifications; and the bottom lines are usually nuanced.
Done right, law school—and the practice of law thereafter—is hard work, and plenty of it. Discipline, persistence, and stamina are attributes of most successful law students and lawyers, and the sooner one makes peace with that reality, the better. At a charter middle school in San Francisco where I used to serve on the Board, there hung a banner advising: “Don’t pray for a light load; pray for a strong back.” After years of reflection, I would tweak it for law students: “Don’t pray for a light load; build up your back muscles!”
3. Working smart can be as important as working hard: The raw number of hours spent in the library (or other place of scholarly work) is not the only, or even the best, measure of what constitutes a good effort in law school. Strategy is important in law school, just as it is in the real world, and what matters most is how—not just how much—time is spent.
After law school, almost every lawyer serves clients and customers. A lawyer’s clients or customers may include individuals, businesses, government agencies, judges, in-house counsel, and (quite often) other lawyers, such as partners, within a practice group. Successful attorneys develop an effective customer-service mindset; the best lawyers are the ones whose clients or customers walk away the most satisfied.
Although perhaps it is not apparent, law students also have clients and customers—most commonly, the law faculty, for whom students produce work product in the form of exams, papers, and so on. In the same way that different customers or clients in the real world may be looking for slightly different things from the lawyers they hire, law professors might not all react to the same work product in the same way. The ability to quickly figure out what the client or customer is looking for, and to vary your style and approach accordingly, is a characteristic that the real world values, and thus is the kind of skill that should be developed from the beginning of law school.
4. Read the materials in casebooks actively: This piece is closely related to the first two. It is often said that law school is not about learning or memorizing the content of particular legal rules (which may change over time and for that reason must be looked up anew in the future anyway), but rather about learning how to go about teasing legal rules and standards from ambiguous materials, analyzing how the legal rules can best be defended, how they interact with each other, which alternative legal rules might be suggested to courts and other decision-makers, and the like.
This (oversimplified but still useful) statement of the nature of legal education means, among other things, that it is not enough for you to read a case and understand what the judges said. You must also consider why they chose to say what they said, and in the particular way that they said it. A law school casebook assignment is thus more than an exercise in SAT-like reading comprehension; it is an invitation for you, the reader, to ask questions such as: How does what is said here compare to what is said elsewhere? If what is said here is correct, what also follows from this? Given what is said here, what are the kinds of questions that one would naturally expect other cases down the line to have to address? And so forth.
This kind of analysis requires a student not just to follow along in the case materials, but rather to attack them: to break them down, look at their component parts, reassemble them in different ways, and more. Although I certainly cannot say my own style would necessarily work for all or most law students, I can say that when I was in law school I found that I was not reading energetically and methodically enough if I was not scribbling down a lot of questions and comments to myself (to return to later) in the margins of the casebook as I provisionally evaluated each paragraph and what it added or was trying to add. For me—and perhaps for a good number of other students—active reading involves a fair amount of writing.
5. Talk to your classmates about what you are learning: It is no secret that lawyers do a lot of talking (perhaps too much!). Oral presentation skills, whether deployed in front of a judge, a jury, a fellow lawyer, an outside client, the press, or a group of interested citizens, are often essential to effective legal representation. The only way to get comfortable using a new language and a (somewhat) distinct way of thinking is to try them out on other folks. And who better as a practice audience than your classmates, who are going through the same set of experiences, and who are going to make the same or similar mistakes in learning this new culture? At good law schools, a student can learn as much—about what it means to think and act like a lawyer—from her classmates as she can from her professors. Indeed, increasingly what separates the very best law schools from the rest is less the quality and character of the faculty, and more the richness and depth of the student body from which each student can learn.
6. Set aside time for just thinking about the material: When I was in full-time legal practice, a wise partner and mentor lamented that the standard time sheets that lawyers use for recording how they spend their time, so that clients can receive some detail along with their bills, contained categories for many lawyerly tasks—such as researching, drafting, editing, sending emails, and participating in conferences and telephone conversations—but did not contain a standard category for what good lawyers do that justifies their high billing rates: simply sitting and spending time thinking, carefully and systematically, about what they have read or heard.
Many a law student and junior lawyer assumes that when she has finished reading her assignment, her work is done. (Relatedly, many folks assume that if one reads a large enough number of cases, the answer sought will clearly present itself.) To the contrary, when the reading is finished, some of the hardest and most important work—trying to fit all the reading into a detailed big picture that makes sense, and that can be framed so as to benefit one side or another in a dispute—is just beginning. Most areas of law contain ambiguity (and many interesting legal questions don’t have a ready-made answer resolved by past cases), a fact that many law students resent but ought to embrace; if legal questions yielded mathematically precise answers most of which were already out there, most anyone could be a good lawyer. Playing with and shaping ambiguity is how lawyers earn their keep. But to do that, one really has to sit and reflect on how the small pieces fit together, and at which intersections there is the most room for beneficial manipulation. Law students should, early on, get into the habit of setting aside chunks of time after they are done reading or researching on a topic simply to intellectually digest all that they have just swallowed.
7. Be cognizant of, but do not obsess over, the economic realities of the legal profession: We all know law students face stress. For some, debt loads are high, and job prospects three years from now may seem uncertain amidst talk of high inflation and slowing growth. In this environment, people have to think carefully before making decisions that might affect their own financial futures. They have to appreciate how what they do in school will enhance their marketability. They’ve got to begin to network—using their classmates and faculty—even while in law school. They’ve got to periodically reevaluate whether the course they are on should be changed; one example is giving serious consideration to whether attempting to transfer to another law school after the first year would make sense. No doubt they’ve got to keep track of more things than previous generations of law students had to. But they don’t have to worry about the long term every day. People who are starting their first year this month have already made the decision—hopefully after careful cost-benefit analysis—to go to law school. So they should throw themselves into the enterprise and avoid constantly revisiting whether they’ve made the right decision. If someone is really uncertain/unhappy after one year, there is the offramp of withdrawing (and at many schools a person who withdraws after having successfully completed one term or one year has a right of return for some period of time without having to reapply.) But folks shouldn’t let their student debt and employment outlook distract them from getting the most they can out of school. And freeing oneself from distraction might enable better law school performance, which in turn is one of the best ways to increase employability.
8. Make wise use of skills courses, clinicals, and the like: One complaint often heard about law schools today is that they don’t do enough to produce “practice-ready” graduates. Law schools (prodded in part by the ABA) have responded to this criticism by increasing the number of courses that attempt to inculcate practical skills through clinical involvement in real-world cases, simulation exercises, and externship placements in public and private organizations. This in the main has been a healthy development. But even as you partake of the increased number of practical courses, don’t forget the basic, substantive courses in traditional classroom settings that are the foundation of your legal education, and form the single most essential part of your legal training. Learning how to learn and analyze law is more important than learning the techniques of practice. Remember, you’ll likely have an entire career to hone practical modes, but the three years of law school is likely the last time you will ever be able to immerse yourself in a truly academic environment.
9. Don’t forget the legal aspect of law school: Another development in law school curricula over the past few decades is the increasing prevalence of “law and” interdisciplinary offerings. Examples of this genre might (depending on how one defines things) include law and economics, critical race studies, law and society, law and philosophy, feminist legal theory, and law and psychology. These efforts to locate law in a larger academic context are welcome additions to the curriculum. But as with practice-oriented courses, one should make sure not to overdo things here. Law is its own discipline—a distinctive blend of textual, historical, sociological, empirical, economic and psychological analyses. It’s great to analyze legal problems from other academic and theoretical perspectives, but, to paraphrase Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous quote from the McCulloch v. Marylandcase (involving the Bank of the United States), “we must never forget that it is a [law school] we are [operating].” “Law and” offerings can be great, but make sure that there is a legal connection to what is being studied. In other words, make sure that what is being talked about is truly interdisciplinary, and not simply other-disciplinary.
10. Don’t play just to your strengths: One mistake I see many law students make is that after they realize that they don’t seem to do particularly well in a particular kind of course (e.g., substantive law courses as compared to practice-oriented offerings, courses that require papers rather than exams, courses involving public law rather than private law, etc.), they simply stop taking that type of class. And at most law schools, it is fairly easy to craft your second- and third-year schedules to avoid the kinds of courses with which you seem not to connect. But avoiding what is least comfortable is not the way to improve as a lawyer. All these different kinds of classes are important parts of the law school experience. And so if there are certain types of courses that seem especially foreign to you, that discomfort is a reason to take more, not fewer, of them, so that you may shore up your skills in areas of weakness.
11. Learn the difference between what is and what ought to be: Today it seems that people from the right and left parts of the ideological spectrum have difficulty understanding the legal mainstream is not always narrow. And relatedly, that oftentimes what is the best answer under existing legal principles may be different than what the most just answer ought to be. But before you can successfully advocate for changing existing law, you must understand what the law today is, how and how it got to be. That may sound frustrating, but successful law students and lawyers accept that reality.
12. Engage people with different ideologies than your own: This final item follows closely from the last two. We all know of the modern tendency for people to retreat to echo chambers populated by like-minded thinkers. That doesn’t work for democracy, and it certainly doesn’t work for legal education. Broad (and sometimes uncomfortable) freedom of speech and inquiry is an essential value at the foundation of any good law school. That certainly doesn’t mean that harassment or threats should ever be permitted. But what it does mean that sometimes law students will be subjected to ideas that they find not just wrong but morally offensive. Rather than avoiding those ideas, law students should engage and (in civil terms) confront those ideas. Throughout your legal career, you are going to go up against opposing counsel whose stated positions may at times make your blood boil; developing the ability to endure such situations and use them to sharpen your own thinking and advocacy skills is essential to career success. So begin that process in law school itself. Try to make a point of occasionally attending meetings of student organizations whose philosophies you disagree with; reach out to students after class sessions to explain to them why you have a very different take than the ones they articulated during class. At worst, you will refine and improve your presentation and persuasion powers. At best, you will cause others to look at things somewhat differently, and perhaps refine and improve your own thinking too. As my friend and decanal colleague Heather Gerken at my alma mater (Yale Law School) told incoming law students (according to a post on the YLS website):
If you want to make an impact as a lawyer, you need to be able to think hard about your values and why they matter, look at the evidence, marshal a record, and persuade. And if you want to persuade, you need to be able to see, genuinely, the world through the eyes of an adversary, construct the best argument on the other side with sympathy, and then dismantle it with clarity. If you want to be a great lawyer, now is the time to start inhabiting that role.
Good luck on what I hope is a great academic year for you!