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What Matters in Law School (or, what Doesn’t)

One of the primary difficulties of being a One L is that for most of the semester the only graded items—exams—are far off, in the distance, at the end of the semester. As a result, there are usually about 16 weeks in a semester during which there is very little guidance on what is important to do with your time. Worse, there seem to be about two dozen things you can be doing with your time, and being the cave dweller that you are, you have no perspective from which to judge what are good things to do, and what aren’t.  A good place to start on the One L year is right here: what do I do all semester? What matters, and what doesn’t?

What Doesn’t Matter

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Ah, the Wonders of the Law School Study Group

One of the staples of law school life is the study group. After all, what about a study group is not to like? Eight people, sitting in a circle facing each other, doing a sort of Socratic method Q and A with each other, in their best imitation of Mr. Chips. Everyone is surrounded by piles of paper everywhere. Spent beer cans and coffee cups abound, there are half-eaten pizzas at everyone’s feet. Some guy in a college sweatshirt is in the middle with one hand holding a casebook and his university Polo® wire-rim glasses in the other, while grasping a big clump of his hair in confusion. Bafflement is on everyone’s faces, and no one seems to have any clue what is going on in the next day’s class, or the class as a whole.

Ah, the One L study group. Isn’t it glorious?

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Quick: Which Counts for Your Grade? Daily Class Performance, or Exams?

Again: what matters? Exams. Exam performance is the only thing that matters. But because you don’t have exams every day, and you do have class every day, One Ls become persuaded that daily class preparation should be their focus. Everything is oriented around preparing for tomorrow’s class.

This is terribly wrong. You want to be in a study group? Get a group together and chant this a hundred times: “Exams are the only things that matter.” “Exams are the only things that matter.” Exams must be your focus. Class room preparation is about 20th on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me, attending class and listening in class is critically important. And you know what? That takes almost no energy, and no prep time. All you do is show up with some coffee and I am sure you can manage that. In fact, listening closely in class is the biggest bang for the effort buck that you can get in law school. You do virtually nothing, and get a lot of payout for it.

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Another Dirty Little Secret: Briefing Cases is Overrated

John Boy Law Student spends one hour a night reading his cases for the next day, and three hours briefing them. He briefs every one start to finish in a beautiful Microsoft Word template he has made for every class. He closes the library every night, all semester long. “Good John,” his mother says. “What a serious boy,” says Dad. And every day John goes to class, full of enthusiasm. He thinks: “I’ll be ready if I get called on today, yes sir!” And sure enough, the one day in the semester he gets called on to explain a case, he is spot on. “How proud we all are of John.”

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Violence in Law School, a.k.a. the Socratic Method

Law school classes are typically built on the Socratic method. By now you probably know what that means: Everyday you go to class, and the professor calls out a name—presumably randomly—and that person is on the spot for the entire class. There is no way out. The professor then starts grilling that student about one concept—the key concept—in one lousy case that was in the assigned reading for the day. What proceeds is a brutal Q and A session on that case with the lucky student of the day, who, no matter how well prepared she is, will end up looking like a total moron.

At the end of this ritual sacrifice the bloody student stumbles out of the room with everyone else, who are grateful that today, at least, their number didn’t come up. That is the Socratic method in a nutshell.

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Two L: Outsmarting the Herd

There is a piece of conventional wisdom out there that says that a person’s class rank is pretty much fixed following the One L second semester exams. The thought is that generally the ranking after One L exams puts you in a spot in the class, and thereafter people tend to sort in the second year grades in essentially the same way that they sorted after the first year exams.  The thought continues for the third year as well and very little change in rank occurs. Once again, the conventional wisdom is to be ignored. In fact, because of its unique qualities, my view is that the Two L year provides the savvy law student with more opportunities to gain serious advantages over other students than the One L year. I climbed several places in my class in the Two L year, and I have very strong opinions on how you can too, taken from my experience and what my students have told me.

I firmly believe that you can jump a significant number of places in the class the second year. Perhaps that idea is an exception to the conventional rule, but of course, the whole point of my book is that to be successful, you need to be the exception to the rule. By definition, the people that live by the conventional rules end up in the middle of the curve.

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The Most Important Thing to Do Before Law School Bar None

If you have the problem I had before I became a serious student—the sitting still five minutes problem I have been writing about—You need to do it exactly like I tell you. Unless there is something wrong with you, it will solve your sitting problem, and you will be able to do what law school requires. If there is something wrong with you and this doesn’t work, I am sorry. Withdraw from law school before the tuition refund rate starts going down.

My guru had been to law school, and at the time he was pursuing a Ph.D. A real smarty pants. He told me that he had the five-minute problem before he went to law school. Someone had told him what he was telling me.

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More Law Student ADD Therapy

Shortly after I finished my undergrad degree I somehow managed to get into the University of Chicago for graduate work. Looking back, I am not sure how this occurred.  Someone with authority got a little reckless, I think. But I digress.

When I got my acceptance letter from Chicago, I was thrilled. I thought “this is the greatest day of my life.” After all, it was the University of Chicago and that is where all the smart people like me go to grad school. Right? “Congratulations! You have been admitted. . .” That is what that letter said. It must be true. I called everybody. “Mom, I got into the University of Chicago. I must be a genius.”

What a joke. Nothing against the U of C. It was and is a great, great university. But, at the point I was at in my academic life, I can tell you that it was not good for me to get into that school. At least at the moment I got the letter. You see, I didn’t understand what had actually happened to me. I didn’t realize that I had just been accepted into a school that would totally expose me. The University of Chicago is the intellectual equivalent of a full body search at Leavenworth prison.

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Law Students and ADD

I am guessing that a lot of the people reading this blog are a lot like I was after finishing my undergrad degree. I’ll bet that the real problem with a lot of you was the real problem with me before I went to law school.  It is not that you don’t know how to study. If you have the basic brainpower and can read, you can study. The problem for me was that I could study—read things carefully and thoroughly—but for no more than about five minutes. I am guessing that for many of you, your real problem is not that you can’t study. Your real problem is that you can’t sit still.

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This is the Real Problem For Zero Ls

The One L problem is not the amount of work. Problem number one is that if you are the typical law student, you simply don’t know how to study. Better put, you don’t know how to sit still.

No doubt, you were smart enough all through school that you just cruised along with very little effort. Sure, there were the occasional papers or projects that required focused time on something. But the brainpower work—actually understanding the concepts? Everything in high school was kind of a joke.

And, surprise, surprise, that turns out to be pretty much true in college as well. Like I said before, if you don’t take the hard sciences in college, being successful in college never really requires extraordinary effort. But if you put in extraordinary effort in the hard sciences, chances are that you are not in law school. You are in med school killing yourself for the promise of a high paying future, or you are in engineering or architecture or chemistry kinds of grad schools, killing yourself for the promise of a mediocre paying future.

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