In my last post, I discussed the environment in law school and why I do some of the things I try to do as a professor. In this post, I provide a few brief suggestions about class preparation and class participation.
Class Preparation. I have four basic guidelines. None of these points is rocket science, but each point is worth emphasis.
(1) Read everything that’s assigned. This should be obvious and redundant, based on what I’ve previously written, but sometimes being obvious is really important. There is a reason why the professor has given you the readings, even if she addresses only a few of the materials in class. Indeed, she almost certainly will not mention all of a day’s readings in class. Don’t skimp or cut corners. You not only risk embarrassment and poor grades, but you also are simply not going to get your money’s worth if you do not perform a substantial amount of work out of class, before each class. One could call this the Costco theory of law: the more you read, the lower the cost per word. (This is similar to my cost effective approach to golf: high handicap, but low cost per stroke.)
(2) Find a study group – or at least a friend with whom to study. You are not going to understand all of this information as you read it. You are going to need sounding boards and reality checks. You will also find that your peers come from many different backgrounds. This diversity of opinion is critical to your learning process.
(3) Commercial outlines and hornbooks won’t cut it. You might learn some basic principles, but you are not going to be able to internalize schemas without repeated applications, in diverse fact patterns, in the sometimes abstruse language of legal opinions – the so-called case method, with which you are about to become very familiar. In practice, no one is going to distill a legal situation into an outline for you. The world is a messy place, and the law reflects that mess.
You are also not going to learn about the important nuances in the law if you attempt to rely on distillations performed by someone else. Schema-building is experiential. You can’t borrow someone else’s memories and experiences.
I’m not saying don’t buy outlines, or don’t use them at all. I might just as well say you should never exceed the speed limit or never drink a beer. But please realize that these materials cannot begin to substitute for doing the reading, thinking about the law, and talking about the law.
(4) If your law school offers supplemental meetings or lectures about learning the law for first-year students, attend those programs. You are spending a lot of effort and resources to attend law school. If your law school provides an offering, it believes the information is relevant and important. Don’t avoid these sessions out of some fear of showing potential vulnerability. And don’t ignore them because of chesty self-confidence. As one of my students said today — we don’t know what we don’t know.
Class Participation. Here, I have five pieces of advice.
(1) You must risk mistakes. You are going to make many. Your peers are going to make many. The professors are going to make some, too – and the only reason they may make fewer is that they have had more opportunities in the past to make mistakes, to course correct, and to try again. Volunteer, especially when the professor asks for volunteers. A “wrong” answer may give the professor more to work with than a “correct” one.
(2) Most students expect answers to their questions. In law school, expect questions to your questions. Your professors might provide an answer if you ask a question, but they may instead ask you something in response. They may believe that you could readily answer your question by looking again at the material you were already supposed to read. They might believe that your question takes the class down a path that diverts attention from the topic at hand. Some professors simply don’t answer questions because they believe that their job is to help guide you to your own discovery of the answers.
(3) Hypothetical questions are your friends. What’s a hypothetical question? A lawsuit will generate a legal opinion. That opinion will be heavily edited and placed in your casebook. You will read the opinion. That opinion will recite certain facts, apply a legal rule, and reach a result. In class, the professor will change the facts slightly, and ask whether and how the result might differ. And she will do it again, and again.
I have heard students say that hypotheticals are just ways for professors to fill up the dead space of class. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most law school examinations are hypotheticals, so facing hypotheticals in class is one of the best ways of training for exams.
But more importantly, hypotheticals are one of the chief ways lawyers reason. The law emphasizes analogical reasoning. Is this situation more like that case, or more like this one? What if this part of the facts had not happened? The hypothetical is a critical facet of law school learning.
(4) Do not disengage when someone else is answering. Follow the discussion. Participate vicariously. How would you answer? What issues do you see in the answer that your peer provides? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
(5) Class participation does not end at the end of class. Find a way to get to your professor’s office, either during office hours or some other time. Ask questions there. Sure, you may show that you don’t know something. So what? You’re in law school. You’re here to learn, which presumes you don’t know something.
By meeting your professors and addressing them one on one, you will begin to chip away at the intimidation you may feel in class. You will begin to build rapport and possibly trust. You will also begin to build connections with potential mentors, potential job references, even potential collaborators in your future legal careers.
I will end by suggesting two books. The first one is quite practical. It’s Michael Schwartz’s Expert Learning for Law Students. Even if you think you’re totally ready for this thing called law school, you might learn a few things in this book that help you out. And if you are having difficulties catching on to how to read and analyze cases, how to study efficiently and effectively, how to prepare for class, and how to prepare for exams, this book is worth buying. Like any other book, read it critically, and choose for yourself what seems to work.
The second book I will leave you with is different. Don’t read this book this semester. You have plenty else to do. But sometime, over winter break, or during next summer, you should read a book that reinforces the power of the law to make social change. Here, read Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice. I don’t care what your political stripe may be. Simple Justice is a history of the efforts, over many years, to overcome segregationist school policies in the United States. It is the story of Brown v. Board of Education and the continuing struggle for educational equality. Books like Simple Justice can tell you all you need to know about the promise of the practice of law – and how maintaining that promise is a constant struggle. Reading Simple Justice can reinforce your determination to commit all your resources to learning the law. Such books can remind you, perhaps, of why you chose to go law school and begin this process of profound change.