I promised to follow-up to my 0L prep post once I could discern whether any of it was useful. Over the last several weeks, I have been thinking about what I would say/recommend/advise. Part of my delay in this penultimate follow-up post (expect another one after first semester grades are back) is of course the lack of time I have. Law school forces you to really think about time efficiency. For those who take this journey seriously, every time spent not studying must be justifiable. I seem to only have two justifications: 1) Spending time with my dogs, cats, and . . . oh yeah, my husband; and 2) Mental refreshers which recharge me and make me more productive for when I do study.
Blogging definitely falls under the second category – I enjoy it immensely. It is a stress reliever and I feel good knowing others are benefiting from (and/or enjoying) my posts. So when Legal Rabbit messaged me, I was inspired to write this post. With her permission, I am sharing her kind email with you:
I’ve been a longtime fan of your blog! Since the LSAT is finished and I’m finishing up my apps, I was wondering what kind of prep I could do before law school starts. I think you are one of the most informative and honest law bloggers out there, so I was hoping you could share some tips. I guess I’m wondering what kind of books would be a waste of time and what kind of prep would be helpful? I’m working during my gap year before law school, but have plenty of time to read in my free time.
Thanks so much for your time,
As many of you will recall, I had BIG plans for my 0L summer. My to-do list was good-intentioned, but in the end, not getting all of it done (and really booking-it to try to complete even half of it) made me feel that I was unprepared or that my future classmates would be more prepared than I! Turns out, the fact I read even one book and had given any thought to what was coming meant I was more prepared than most. But did it pay off? That’s the important question.
To answer this, I am forced to think about what was important for me to know in order to be successful these last few weeks. This list sums it up:
- Know how to read a legal opinion. For the most part, the opinions that are in casebooks are edited (ie. shortened, containing only the relevant info in order to demonstrate that rule/exception/point). However, I’ve already had to read 3 “real” (unedited) opinions, which were 10+ pages. 3-4 of which were “fluff” that I was quite tempted to skip. For the most part, almost any 0L prep book will have a few pages on reading a legal opinion. However, this FREE PDF (“How to Read a Legal Opinion”) is one of the best guides, in fact, our legal writing instructor gave us a copy the first day of class. It is 10 pages and very to-the-point. Even better, it goes beyond what simply what an opinion is and discusses what to look for and familiarity with the structure of opinions. Also, force yourself to read every word in the opinion. In undergrad, and just pleasure reading, even the strongest of readers have a tendency to skip words, lines, or even paragraphs to get to the “good stuff.” It isn’t possible to do that here. Also, if there is a word you dont’ know (legal or otherwise) you have to look it up. Checkout NOLO’s free dictionary!
- Know how to brief cases/opinions, how to use the brief to prepare for class and how to use the brief again for your course outline. Upperclassmen both in real life and on law school forums will say that briefing is a waste of time. Why not just “book brief” (ie., highlighting in the book in different colors or writing in the margins “Issue,” “Holding,” etc. There are several reasons. First, briefing forces you to compartmentalize the parts of the case and actively engage in the material (yeah, and highlighting in technicolor does the same thing). Well, true. But, when you are cold-called and 80 of your peers plus your professor are staring at you for the answer, what are the odds you are going to forget what the orange-color marker means, or suddenly what you wrote as “Issue” in the margin, does not exactly pinpoint the part of the case which refers to the issue – which you have now forgotten. It is better to have a brief with the Procedural History, Facts, Issue, Holding, Rule, and Analysis (really just any dicta/notes) separated-out plainly (and when possible, in your own words, but concisely). So that in a panic, when my professor says “Ms. Dreamer, how did we get here, what did the lower court’s say?” I can quickly look to the part of my brief which says “Procedural History,” skim the 1-2 sentences I have typed, and respond. (But class participation/performance doesn’t matter and exams are graded blindly, so who cares if you look stupid). Well, I care. I want my classmates and professors to respect me, but also, I don’t want to waste their time. The more accurately and concisely I can respond, the quicker we can move through the material and the more material we can cover. Further, I will get far more out of a class when I am calm, focused, “on-it” than if I’m fumbling around like an idiot, embarrassed and clueless. Secondly, opinions are not always neatly organized where one could simply write “Issue” next to a line and that line represents the issue. In fact, most opinions do not explicitly write out, “The issue in this case is . . .” Rather, the issue is inferred based on the text of the opinion. In fact, that is part of the students job in analyzing the opinion – to figure out what the heck is in dispute, and how this particular case fits in to the overall picture of the subject (more on this later). Which brings me to the other purpose of the brief – using it for my outline – which is my current task-at-hand since I am now on fall break. Every case represents a rule or an exception to the main rule. That is why we are reading these cases (rather than just learning the rules alone in a boring list). So your course outline is made up primarily of the rules from the cases – each case is referenced by a “one liner” of the important facts with the rule. Outlining is quite time consuming and when you are outlining half the course, as I am this week, you will appreciate having already typed the facts and rule so all that is needed is a copy and paste. If you didn’t brief, then you have to go back to the case you read 40+ cases ago and try to figure out which facts were pertinent and what the rule is. Important point about briefs: briefing is done before class, and as I have just demonstrated, the brief is examined again for outlining. But don’t forget, between pre-class and outlining, you must go back to your brief and add-in any class notes, make any corrections, additions, etc. You don’t want to rely on your pre-class brief that could be incorrect or incomplete.
- How to analyze the cases and understand the nuances. Probably the one skill I wish I was better at before starting law school was really analyzing the cases. Thinkingly deeply. Actively learning – being engaged in the material. The first several weeks, I realized I could easily point out the issue, holding, etc. but I didn’t always know why and I didn’t always know how to answer a professor’s follow up questions (ex. Hypos, “Assume the same facts as in the X case, minus this one thing the person did, and instead let’s assume that person instead acted differently – do we still have assault?”). There was a lot to do and I found I would often read, brief, next, repeat, etc. It was survival – get everything done, as quickly as possible. But by doing this, I was missing out on developing the essential skill of legal analysis. Legal analysis requires looking at the specifics of the case (go deep into the details) but also to look at the broad picture. In looking at the specifics, by understanding the arguments that the judge is presented with, you get a better understanding for why the judge ruled a certain way. Which argument was more compelling? If the prevailing party’s argument was different, would they have still won the case? What exactly made the judge find that the prevailing party’s argument was more strong? Where/how did the losing party’s argument fail – was there something missing? How did the parties’ argument fit within the rule of law that the judge applied? When the judge took the argument and compared it to the rule, did the judge have to broaden the rule to make it fit or did this narrow the rule in some way? What does this mean in terms of precedent – how will the next litigant in the next case be impacted? – This brings me to the “big picture” or the “forrest.”You have to actually know the case so intimately that you understand what it represents in terms of the “big picture.” Part of this means asking: “Why was this case assigned and why is it in this part of the book?” “Is what I am being shown here the rule for X topic, is it an exception to that topic?” “Does this case demonstrate the same thing the last case did, but in a very different context?” “How does this fit into what I’ve already learned thus far?” – These are the sort of questions that are essential in understanding the “big picture.” Don’t lose the forrest for the trees. I was told this 10+ times during orientation, by upperclassmen, by professors, etc. But I didn’t know what it meant until a month-in. The big picture is important in shaping your understanding of the topic but also looking at cases in more abstract terms makes it easier to apply the rule to a new (somewhat different) fact pattern. And that skills is what is tested on the final exam.
- Accept ambiguity/arbitrariness/conflict. I will never forget – I read Case A and thought to myself “wow, easy enough, I see what the rule is – not hard at all.” Then, I read Case B and thought “crap, the court ruled completely differently than Case A yet these cases are so similar – am I an idiot, let me read this again . . . same thing, I don’t get it.” This happens, and no, I wasn’t an idiot – I had read and understood both cases. But together, the cases conflicted. Why? After much frustration, I realized that when this happens, there are several reasons. First, it is important to analyze the facts of each case, which facts are present in Case A that are not present in Case B. Perhaps the fact omitted was a triggering fact quite essential to the court’s reasoning. Second, the courts may be in different jurisdictions and therefore, they aren’t required to rule a certain way (and have just demonstrated this by their rulings). Third, the time period could be different (was Case A decided 50+ years earlier and Case B represents the new, “modern” view, in which Case B overturns the precedent of Case A), or Fourth, nobody knows – and that is okay! (What!? – yep, seriously. Just accept it, and move-on).
- Have a broad understanding of the American legal system, court structure, and the role of the judiciary. 0L prep books and law school casebooks don’t really get into this yet it is so important to have this background information (pretty much what used to be taught in high school civics courses) to shape your understanding of the process and the system. This (again) FREE! PDF is a real gem. It is long, so don’t spend too much time reading word-for-word, but at least get acquainted with the legal system.
- Time management – creating and sticking t0 a schedule. This is huge. Take a lot of stock in time management. It can give you even more of an edge than just being “naturally” intelligent. Become extremely aware of how your time is spent. 20 minutes here and there throughout the day scoping out Facebook, etc. can add up to hours each day. In law school, it is a struggle to get everything done. At my law school, the question isn’t so much about getting the reading (the bare minimum) done, but how much more you did than the next guy (there’s always something more that can be done). Don’t waste time – it is the law student’s (and lawyer’s) most valuable asset. As a 0L, become more efficient, practice good time management. Also, pay attention to your most productive hours – are you most productive in the morning, evening, etc. As a law student, take your class schedule and at the beginning of every week, schedule-in ample time designated for reading the assignments for each class. Then at the end of every week, schedule time for reconciling reading notes and briefs and class notes (harmonize any conflicts, including any additions, etc.) Schedule in your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Stick to it.
- Discipline. Having worked in the “real” world for many years, even while completing an undergraduate degree took a great deal of discipline. I would say discipline is one of my strongest points. Having maturity and purpose in my life makes discipline a little easier for me than some of my much younger cohorts. However, I too have had to increase my level of discipline – we all do to varying degrees. A good chunk of my younger classmates are having to discipline themselves from going out and partying (even drinking until complete drunkenness). Thankfully, that is not my issue. However, disciplining myself to turn down an episode of The Good Wife (gasp!) in order to read 10 more pages of put-you-to-sleep contracts reading has been a challenge. There is always more work than there is time. So in addition to time management, 0L’s would serve themselves well to become more disciplined, controlled, and have purpose. When I say purpose, what I mean is, what are you aiming to do with yourself today, this week, three years, five years – is what you are doing right now going to accomplish that purpose? Don’t lose sight of your purpose. That said – DVRing The Good Wife and watching it when time permitted was a great refresher! So don’t push yourself when you are burnt out. Take a break (a reasonable one) – it will likely make you more productive when you get back to work.
- Focus. Can you read a bunch of boring gibberish that you have no idea what it is saying and do it in a sufficient time (not getting on Facebook between every page – or paragraph). Focus takes practice. It is a skill and a tool which you will need to constantly use – so it better be in tip-top shape. If you suspect you may have legitimate medical issues preventing you from being able to focus, see a medical doctor. Would a better diet improve your mental stamina? Some believe that exercise is good for the brain too. But really, it takes practice. Try reading something complicated and mundane (most legal opinions fit this bill) and set a timer for 5 minutes. This isn’t an exercise in speed-reading (quite the contrary). When 5 minutes is up, do you know how many times you thought about something else, or even how many times you actually did do something else. How good is your comprehension of what you just read? A good case to try this with is Marbury v. Madison, which is a common Constitutional Law class (hey, you’ll probably have to read this 1L year anyway, so why not try now – I’ve even provided a link to the case).
- Get your affairs in order. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, it is pretty self-explanatory. I mention it only because a fellow classmate turned good friend had sharp pains in her stomach all summer but ignored them – only to have to have gallbladder surgery 3 weeks into law school. This sort of thing is not-fun but it is even more awful when it rears its ugly head when your a law student! As much as possible, try to anticipate things by seeing your regular medical doctor, renewing driver’s licenses, etc. Also, if you have to relocate for law school, move-in as early as possible. In law school, you hit the ground running from the first day. Many of my classmates were unpacking and just getting acquainted (having moved-in 1-2 days before orientation). Needless to say, they were pretty distracted.
- Know how to type – accurately and fast. I suspect this is less of an issue for most of you are reading my blog. But even if you don’t plan to type your notes, you will likely want to type your outlines and perhaps your final exam – being a less-than-stellar typist is going to slow you down and frustrate you. If you do plan to type your class notes, then this point is even more important. You don’t want to miss an important point because you were too busy finding the “s” key or correcting your indecipherable mis-typed words.
- Have a game plan – typing notes v. writing – and your approach/system. There is something to be said about not bring a laptop to class. Obviously, it keeps you focused and off of Facebook. But even if temptation isn’t the issue, be aware of the “court reporter” syndrome – you are so focused that you type every word, verbatim! Class time is supposed to be spent analyzing what was said. It is a time to confirm that what you understood the case to mean (which you read before class, on your own) is in fact as it is (or isn’t). This is also when the professor takes you beyond the assigned reading and pushes your understanding above the casebook. You want to be able to take it all in, not frantically type everything assuming you will have time to re-view later. Plus, professors (at least mine talk in circles and repeat what they say several times – how frustrating it would be to type an entire paragraph realizing it doesn’t even encompass the main point (which is the few words that should’ve been typed). In terms of your approach, if you are typing will you use Microsoft Word, OneNote, Circus Ponies’ Notebook, etc? Are you very proficient in each and do you have a system for organizing your information regardless which method you use? If you will be writing your notes, do you plan to type them after class (build this in to your schedule!).
- Think philosophically – not just about how things are, but why. Some law schools (mine included) stress policy. Don’t worry about learning policy before law school, but at least thing critically about your own policies. Not just that you are pro-choice or pro-life, but why. The why is what matters. Map it out if you have to – you may find that the reason you agree with something is based on something else, and another, etc. What are all of the premises. Get used to thinking this way.
- Build Confidence and Trust in Yourself. The first semester of law school breaks you down. You begin to think you know less now than what you did before law school. It’s pretty scary when you start to feel like what you thought was right is now wrong and that nothing is certain. It is psychological warfare! Don’t let it get to you (easier said than done). But remember that you knew enough and were smart enough to get into law school and that what you knew to be true pre-law is still true now, but perhaps your understanding has deepened. Have a portion of your desk or study area that show off your pre-law school accomplishments. Certificates, thank you cards, pictures, whatever. Make a mini-shrine to remind yourself how awesome you really are.
It is important to prepare, but it is more important to be wise in preparation.
Sorry Legal Rabbit – this was probably way more than what you bargained for! In sum, I would say don’t read multiple 0L prep books – read one. If you want very specific tips that create a clear “game plan” I recommend 1,000 Days to the Bar. If you want the important stuff feel comfortable in creating your own “game plan” on your own, read Hard Nosed Advice from a Cranky Law Professor. In addition to reading one book, watch the DVD “All About Law School” to give you a genuine idea of what to expect in law school – this will help calm your nerves about the “unknown” and give you a few tips. If you don’t want to shell out the money to purchase the DVD, watch a few of the clips on youtube and search for a few others there while you are at it. Just search “life of a law student” or “law school.” Or . . .there’s always the Paper Chase.
So why just one book? For the most part, if you’ve read one, you read them all. Further, I wish I had spent less time reading about what to do once I started law school because most of the advice wasn’t all that mind-blowing and everyone is naturally going to do what works for them anyway. Rather, I wish I had practiced reading dense, complicated material (specifically, legal opinions) and developed some of the skills I mentioned before. That’s what affects the learning curve. It is really about who catches on to this new, foreign method of learning the fastest. My advice is truly to focus more on honing the skills and less about the other stuff. That said, I have heard, though I have not read (shame on me, I have a copy) that Getting to Maybe is really good at teaching legal analysis. It may be worth reading it, but I do not know personally. Some folks (mainly on online forums) have indicated a desire to prep substantively for law school by looking at law school supplements, etc. This is not a good idea for two reasons. For one, it could be a complete waste of time because your professor will most likely emphasis different things and few topics than the supplement books. Second, this will lead to burnout even before law school. But, if you really must, and are really that eager, check out Emory University’s “Mini Law School” podcasts. They are law-related but more from a citizen’s point of view. I feel like law school expects a certain degree of baseline non-lawyer knowledge, so it would be helpful to make sure that you are at least aware of certain legal issues that exist (but not necessarily the law, legal ramifications, etc. of such issues).
But above all, spend the summer before law school relaxing and doing anything that you have wanted to get to or think you won’t have time to do once law school begins (because you likely will not have time once law school begins). It could be something as simple as reading for pleasure (a very good idea since reading is such a big part of law school, even non-legal reading is beneficial practice of this essential skill).
On a personal note, I am loving law school – it is everything I hoped it would be and more. I am very happy that I chose to attend Dreamer School of Law and despite the craziness that is 1L year, I am really enjoying being a law student. I think I have grown tremendously, not just intellectually, but as a person. Though law school has a tendency to break people down (they tell us it is just part of the “process” as though that’s any better) I do feel that my confidence has grown. I am more trusting in myself and my abilities and feel I now have more purpose in my life than ever before. I will try to update more frequently, and in the mean time, if there are any specific questions, please let me know! Sometimes, I just don’t know what to write. Feel free to contact me via the “Contact Me” page or at lawschooldreamer [at] gmail [dot] com.