Advice for new law students, part I

I vividly remember my first trip to the campus bookstore when I was a new law student, not so many years ago. There were piles of casebooks and statute books assigned by the profs. In contrast, I don’t remember seeing much on how to be a law student. Yet one of the most important skills you’ll learn in your first year is how to be a law student: how to digest the voluminous reading materials, how to prepare for class, how to take notes, how to outline, how to otherwise manage your time, and how to take tests. Most if not all of those skills are directly or indirectly essential to successful practice as an attorney.

Thankfully, many law-school orientations now provide important emphasis on developing these skills. And you’ll develop them throughout your first year and beyond. So along those lines, here are some resources from a number of lawprofs that new students may find to be of interest. In a follow-up post, I’ll add some other thoughts to those contained below:

Feeling lost is normal. Don’t worry but do seek out your profs early and often. Orin Kerr writes that it’s perfectly normal for new students to feel lost because “professors start treating you like you’re in the legal profession from day one.” He’s right. Hang in there. If you feel overwhelmed, you’re perfectly normal. Concentrate on learning the materials and developing good work habits. Kerr further notes that one of the best ways of dealing with new-student confusion is to go to your profs’ offices during office hours and ask lots and lots of questions. Don’t be afraid that your questions are dumb. For one thing, most questions aren’t dumb. (In fact, some of the best questions I’ve ever been asked have been prefaced by the qualifier, “This is probably a dumb question . . . .”) For another thing, it’s much better to seek clarification before exams than afterwards.

Learning the law versus learning how to learn the law. Michael O’Hear draws a valuable distinction between learning the substance of law (such as “how is a contract formed,” “what are the elements of burglary,” etc.) and learning the skills of lawyering. He notes, “[t]he first semester of law school is not really about mastering any particular content, but acquiring certain essential lawyering skills: how to read a case, how to read a statute, how to reason analogically, how to construct a syllogism, etc.” Michael makes a great point — one of the key goals of the first year is to develop those essential skills. Knowing this may help you to make a concerted effort. But at the same time, don’t forget that it’s equally important to learn the substance of the law as well. The rub is that you’re learning your lawyering skills — such as how to read a case — at the same time you’re learning the substance of the law contained in the case itself.

Treat law school as a job but not as your life. Brannon Denning writes that you should 1) treat law school like a job; 2) exercise; and 3) maintain outside interests. This is right, too. Treat law school like your full-time job and make sure you have a life outside of that job. Get your work done, but exercise. It clears your mind and keeps you healthy. And have a life outside of law school. Even better, make sure that you maintain relationships with people who aren’t lawyers or law students. It reminds you that there’s more to life than law school. As Brannon says, “while law school should be treated like a job, it shouldn’t be regarded as a prison sentence.”

“Welcome to Law School” series. Last year, my friend and colleague Mike Madison posted an extensive and thoughtful series entitled Welcome to Law School. You can find links to the series of postings at the bottom of this post at his blog.

Stress management. Here’s a link to a booklet by Lawrence Krieger on The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress. (Hat tip to Mike Madison where I learned of this, and who in turn found it from fellow blogger Eric Goldman.)


Advice part I (life and stress) here.
Advice part II (studying and attitudes) here.
Advice part III (back up your data) here.
Advice part IV (essay exams) here.
Advice part V (conclusory argumentation) here.
Advice part VI (incomplete argumentation) here.

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