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Advice For the Law School Class of '09: Ten Key Principles That Will Help You Succeed


Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006

After a brief hiatus, I recommence my regular fortnightly column today. My FindLaw return coincides with the resumption of classes, this week and next, at most law schools across the country. As in years past, tens of thousands of entering first-year students are about to embark on their lifelong journey of legal education. For whatever it may be worth, I offer below, based on my experience as a law student, a practicing lawyer, and someone who has taught at four law schools over the past decade, my top ten pieces of advice (some obvious and some less so) for incoming law students:

1. Develop a Strong Work Ethic: 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 volunteer, there hangs a banner whose message I think law students would be well advised to internalize. It reads: "Don't pray for a light load; pray for a strong back."

2. Working Smart is as Important as Working Hard: The raw number of hours spent in the library is not the only, or even the best, measure of what constitutes a good effort in law school. As in the real world, in law school, strategy -- and not just time devoted -- matters a lot.

After law school, almost every lawyer serves clients and customers. A lawyer's clients or customers may include individuals, businesses, government agencies and judges, in-house counsel, or (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 have clients and customers too - most particularly, we law professors, who are offered the students' work products in the form of exams, papers and so on. Just as each customer or client in the real world may be looking for slightly different things, so too we law professors might not all react to or consume the same work product in the same way. Being able to quickly figure out what your client or customer is looking for, and to vary your style and approach accordingly, is the kind of skill the real world values, and the kind that should be developed from the beginning of law school.

3. Read the Materials in Casebooks Actively: 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 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 where legal rules come from, how they interact with each other, what alternative legal rules could or can be suggested, 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 how they said what they said, and why they chose to say what they said, in the particular way they did. A law school casebook assignment is thus more than an exercise in 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 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 fits all or most law students, 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, active reading meant a fair amount of writing.

4. Talk to Your Classmates About What You Are Learning: It is no secret that lawyers do a lot of (perhaps too much!) talking. Oral presentation skills, whether invoked 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 new and (somewhat) distinct way of thinking is to try it out on other folks. And who better 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 most good law schools, students learn as much, or more, about what it means to think and act like a lawyer - from their classmates as from their professors. Indeed, what separates good law schools from mediocre ones is much less the quality of professorial classroom instruction, than it is the quality of the fellow students from whom you can profit.

5. Set Aside Time For Just Thinking About the Material: When I was in full-time legal practice, a wise partner for whom I worked lamented that the standard time sheets that lawyers use for recording how they spend their time so that clients can be billed contained categories for many lawyerly tasks - such as researching, drafting, editing, telephone conversations - but did not contain a standard category for what good lawyers do that comes closest to justifying their high billing rates: simply sitting and spending time thinking, carefully and systematically, about what they have read or heard.

A lot of young lawyers and law students think that when they have finished reading their assignment, their work is done. 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 help one side or another - is just beginning. Most areas of law contain ambiguity, a fact that many law students resent but ought to embrace; if legal questions always yielded mathematically precise answers, 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.

6. Use Every Opportunity you Get to Work on Writing Skills: Translating what they have read and analyzed into a written product is what many lawyers get paid for; written communication is a lawyer's stock in trade. Learning to write about legal topics effectively takes time and practice, and unfortunately the other realities of law school don't allow much of either. To be sure, there are (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 so. Writing exams (and practice exams for preparation) and seminar papers will help, but so too will writing much shorter things - a paragraph at the end of your class 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 whose answer should resolve the confusion; a letter to the editor or an Op Ed piece commenting on some recent legal developments, etc.

7. Make (Efficient) Use of Your Professors: Sharing ideas with your classmates, while essential and helpful, sometimes is not enough. There are some issues and questions as to which you need to talk to someone with more experience, depth and knowledge in the field - a faculty member. My strong sense is that most law faculty members at most law schools enjoy office hours and are disappointed at how few students show up. So, by all means, do go talk to your teachers, get to know how their minds work, and have them get to know you. Not only will interacting with faculty enable your professors to serve as references and mentors, it will also help you help yourself get to the highest levels of self-education.

But when you do make use of faculty time, do so wisely and efficiently. Don't ask your professor questions that you could answer simply by rereading the material yourself more carefully -- or questions that many or most of your classmates could answer for you. Because faculty members have limited time and scores, if not hundreds, of students, ask your professors only the questions as to which you really do need their assistance - that is, the ones to which you can't get adequate answers elsewhere.

8. Refrain from Using A Lot of Study Aids In Your First Few Months of School: The market is saturated with study aids - books and outlines that purport to give you the "law" in each field in a comprehensive but still easy-to-understand format. Resist the temptation to use these materials, at least until the end of the semester or year when you are trying to pull together all that you have been learning.

I say this for at least two reasons.

First, sometimes the "law" that is given to you in a study aid is not the same "law" that your professor or casebook has been talking about, so there is a chance a study aid can actually mislead.

Second, and more important, even when a study aid accurately distills an area of law for you, reliance on it will encourage you to avoid doing the hard work you need to do in order to develop the skills you must have in the long run. When you read a case, you have to decide for yourself what principle the case stands for, and why you think so. And how that principle relates to other principles you've seen. And to others that may arise in your mind that you haven't yet seen discussed in any case. And so on. Learning how to ask these questions yourself, and provide tentative answers to them that change as you are exposed to more and more cases in a field, is what you will be doing for much of the rest of your career.

When the key questions and answers in a field of law are presented to you in a rapid-fire manner such that you don't need to try to generate your own set of questions and responses, you are cheating yourself out of much of what law school is supposed to be doing for you.

9. Don't Think About Exams Right Away: Nothing deflates my mood more than when my UCHastings or UCBerkeley law students ask me the first day of class what the course exam four months hence will be like. It's not simply that almost nothing could be further from my mind at that point. It's that I feel sad that so many able law students fret so very much over final exams.

I realize, of course, that exams and grades are important. And I realize as well there are deep imperfections with the way law schools test and grade. (I have written an earlier column about the possible shortcomings of so-called "race-horse" timed exams.) So I am not suggesting incoming students should never think about exams. But I am saying that at least until Halloween, worry only about understanding the material for its own sake, not for how you might present it in an exam format.

10. Get in the Habit of Using The Skills You Are Learning Outside of Law School: Although first-year law students are (rightly) discouraged from working many hours a week outside of school, there are still important ways that your legal education needn't and oughtn't be confined to your classes. Read newspaper and magazine pieces about legal topics and analyze these pieces using the skills you're being given; you'll be shocked how many front-page stories have important legal angles to them, and how your ability to process them changes when you are given legal analytic tools and knowledge. Volunteer to tutor kids in law- or social-science-related topics at under-resourced schools in your area. The point is simply that law, as opposed to many other graduate disciplines, focuses on application to the real world. And it is never too early to think about using your new skills to make sense of and to help that world.

Vikram David Amar is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

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