So you’re starting law school, or thinking about applying? This morning I gave an orientation talk to incoming law school first years about what to expect in the first semester of law school, and particularly the first few weeks. In this post and the next, I will provide the gist of what I mentioned during that talk. The bottom line? When you start law school, prepare for change. This post  describes the “new normal” you will face, as well as how I view the law school classroom as a law professor.

The New Normal. Let us start by defining the “new normal” – the stage on which this change will occur. In your prior education, you excelled – at least to such an extent that you decided to continue your education. Be aware that everyone around you, your new peers, has had similar success. That means that the intellectual caliber you will face in law school may be higher than what you faced in earlier educational settings. Additionally, you and your peers are all seeking to become lawyers. That means that each of you has self-selected for a profession that is assertive, competitive, and sometimes very argumentative. You have placed in a position of challenge, with challenging people who themselves tend to rise to a challenge.

This all means that you will be studying and learning in an intense environment. Get used to it.

The Classroom – Professors’ Frame of Reference. The first year curriculum at every law school I know covers civil procedure, criminal law, torts, contracts, property, constitutional law, and legal research and writing. Regardless of the subject matter of the course, however, the professor’s job is to train you for a complex, ambiguous, competitive, and rapidly changing profession.

In general, your professor will press you as hard as she can in class. She will demand that you come to class prepared.  She will ask you questions and require you to answer. She will ask you questions that force you to think about the nuances of what you’ve read and what you hear in class. She may seek to press you to defend your answers against the competing views of your classmates. She certainly will press you to defend your views against her own. And let’s face it: each of these professors will have had years of experience in their disciplines, while you have only just begun in the law.

What’s going on here? Are professors trying to humiliate you? As a rule, I’d say no. What they are trying to do is something different. They are trying, in good faith, to prepare you for a tough discipline.

I can’t speak for all professors, but I can give you a sense of why I do what I do in class, and why I want to press my students to take risks, make mistakes, and participate in class.

Preparing for Pressure. Performing as a lawyer requires being put on the spot all the time. Clients ask you questions and demand competent answers in real time. Judges ask you questions and won’t take “I don’t know” or “I pass on that” or “Could you repeat the question?” for an answer. Opposing counsel will look for openings in what you say in order to seek advantages for their own clients. Whether you become a litigator, a deal-maker, a mediator, a jurist, a legislator, an executive, or an academic, you will be put on the spot daily in your career as a lawyer.

Internalizing Substance. But preparation is more than being able to spout something on the spot. There is a whole lot of substance you need to know. This substance will be relevant, to one degree or another, in whatever you do as a lawyer after law school. By forcing you to be prepared to answer questions in class, these professors are going to press you to internalize the substance of the material you’re reading, so that you can respond, knowledgeably, under pressure, about that information. Putting you and your peers on the spot is a methodology for reinforcing the information presented.

Building Schemas. Furthermore, your professors are putting you on the spot because they want you to learn patterns of legal thought. Let me use the term from cognitive theory: schemas. Schemas are organized patterns of thought that we use in everyday life.

Much of what you will do in practice is provide advice, and take action, under conditions of substantial uncertainty. Your professors are trying to help you learn schemas –organized patterns of thought or behavior – upon which you can rely in practice when you face a new situation.

For example, you will learn schemas about what to look for in a contract – offer, acceptance, consideration, capacity, intent, and legality.

You will learn schemas about torts – a cause of action in negligence is generally duty, breach, proximate cause, and injury.

You will learn schemas in civil procedure. For purposes of personal jurisdiction: First, what does the relevant long-arm statute say? Next, assuming the statute permits the exercise of jurisdiction, is that exercise of power consistent with due process?

The list goes on and on.

To gain familiarity with schemas, you have to internalize them. Not just as tricks of memorization or lines in a commercial outline, but in ways that allow them to snap into place without apparent effort. Furthermore, you have to learn where within these schemas the law is relatively firm and clear, and where it is relatively soft, malleable, and nuanced. One of the best ways to learn these schemas is to go over them, repeatedly, and with variations that force you to think critically about what is truly essential.

So in-class procedures in traditional first-year law courses are designed to coax you and coach you to internalize these new schemas. To internalize them so much that, when presented with a potential legal problem later in law school or in your career, you can “issue-spot” and know what is important to learn, what to prioritize, and how to react.

Hiding the Ball. Why don’t professors simply tell you the law? They know the answer, but they are not coming right out and telling that answer. Are they toying with you — just hiding the ball?

No: I don’t think most professors are trying to hide the ball. I believe they are doing something else.

It is of course essential that you master the basics of what you are reading. To the extent that there are “rules” or “clear principles” in their disciplines, your professors demand that you learn those principles, and you can expect to be tested on them.

To the extent there is a “ball,” your professors are going to expect that you already identified its basic contours prior to class. That’s why they assign readings and expect you to have completed them. You’re attending class not to learn the basic principles, but to expand upon and explore your understanding of those principles. Your professors will surely go over some of the basic principles of each reading assignment in any given class, particularly in the early weeks of law school. They are going to spend increasing amounts of time, however, testing the boundaries of those principles by exploring fact patterns that differ from those in the materials you’ve read. They are also going to want to probe the values underlying the materials you read, because working with the values behind legal rules is critical to both understanding and effective advocacy.

Moreover, with respect to the “hiding the ball” metaphor, you will learn something else over time. Professor Pierre Schlag says it this way:

 “[A]s the student sees it, there must be a ball. And since there must be a ball, the problem can only be that the professor is hiding it.  . . . .”

That’s sloppy and incomplete thinking, Professor Schlag says. He continues:

 “The ironic significance of the ‘hiding the ball’ metaphor is that . . . the image reprieves the student from ever having to consider the disturbing possibility that in law there is no ball or that, if there is one, no one has a really good account of what it looks like.”

We don’t need to take an absolutely nihilistic view of the law in order to credit Professor Schlag’s basic point. The law governs human behavior, is based on human perceptions, and depends upon human recollections and predictions. These are all imprecise and unpredictable. Sure, there are plenty of legal questions that may be solved by simple, doctrinal answers.  But no matter how routine a question may appear on its surface, it almost certainly implicates significant complexity. Yes, notwithstanding the teachings of legal realism and critical legal studies, there is often a ball. Sometimes the ball is relatively easy to identify. But quite often, the so-called “ball” exhibits Heisenbergian propensities.

Your professors are trying to give you the tools to provide firm guidance, firm counsel, and firm advice in circumstances of real uncertainty. A good professor tries to approach this from both directions. Yes, she tries to help you learn the basics (so that you can be firm in your advice), but she also tries to help you get used to uncertainty. She will push you to consider the questions that don’t have the easy answers. Perhaps the questions that don’t have any definitive answers at all.

In the post that follows, I will discuss some of the implications for class preparation and class participation.