I received an interesting question recently from an incoming student: “How does a student get through New England Law successfully?” In thinking about how to answer this question, I decided to articulate the most common early mistakes that I see students make. So, for the benefit of students starting law school this fall, here’s the list:
1. Not using time wisely: underworking. Some of the students who suffer from the "not using time wisely" problem simply don't spend enough time on law school. Often, these students think that law school is like undergraduate study, where some students could put in maybe four hours a day during the semester on classes and/ or studying, and then cram for finals at the end. It just doesn't work like that in law school, because there's so much material that you have to comprehend immediately. I recommend that first semester students assume that they need to put in 40 hours a week during the semester, and about 60-80 hours a week during and just before finals. I've found that students who work hard during the semester on fully understanding the law as they learn it have more time before exams to focus on exam prep (i.e. how to write a law school essay, etc.)
2. Not using time wisely: overworking. Some students who don't use time wisely are not working efficiently. A lot of times, these students are diligent, hard-working students who have the exact right attitude for law school, but they try too hard to do EVERYTHING. Students who do well in law school know their limits and are able to prioritize the important things and de-prioritize the less important things. So, what are the important things? That's my next point....
3. Understanding what law school is actually about. Many students underperform because they misconceive what they're supposed to be learning and how they're supposed to demonstrate it on final exams. This problem actually falls into two categories....
a. Understanding what you're supposed to do during the semester. Law school is odd in that we seem to send the message that the cases are the most important thing you're studying. Because most classes use the Socratic method and the case method, the implicit message is that you will be tested on cases. When I was an undergrad, I took a Constitutional Law class in which the final exam simply asked us to EXPLAIN ten cases we'd read. Law school is NOTHING like that. Although the cases "matter," what they matter FOR most is not what many students think. What the cases matter for is: (1) the legal rule (i.e. what the law is); and (2) how the facts apply to that rule. The legal rule is important because that's the blackletter law that should go into your outline; it's the "stuff" you need to know. How the court applies the facts to the law is important as an example for you of how to DO legal analysis. And, that leads to the second category....
b. Understanding what's expected of you on exams. On essay exams, you are graded mostly on your legal analysis. Most 1L students think that you're graded on your ability to recite the rules of law that you learned from the cases and to determine the outcome of hypotheticals "correctly." While you DO need to know and express those rules on exams, that counts for maybe 10% of your grade. The other 90% is based on your legal analysis. So, what's the difference? Here's an example:
Bad essay answer: The Issue raised in this problem is whether D is guilty of murder. Murder is the premeditated killing of another person. Because D premeditated, he's guilty of murder.
Good essay answer: The Issue raised in this problem is whether D is guilty of murder. Murder is the premeditated killing of another person. The prosecution will argue that because D and victim had recently had an argument, that shows that D had the motive to kill victim and thus he likely premeditated. D will argue, though, that this killing occurred in the heat of passion, because of the recent disagreement where insults were exchanged, and he can therefore only be convicted of manslaughter. This case is similar to State v. Jones where D was in a heated exchange with victim and ultimately killed him. The court held that "mere words are not enough" to allow a finding of "heat of passion." Like Jones, this case involves only mere words. These words were insufficient to permit a finding of "heat of passion," and therefore D is guilty of murder.
The "Bad" example is an extreme version of an inclination I see often; students think that they need to say the rule and say the result -- almost like a written version of a multiple choice question. By contrast, in the “Good” answer, the student not only stated the law but also applied it in an almost dialectical fashion. This shows that the student will be a good attorney because not only can she represent her client, but she can also foresee and rebut her adversary’s arguments.
So, there you have it. Those are, in my humble opinion, probably the biggest and most common mistakes that I see. I invite comments from current students on their perceptions and experiences, too. If my ideas on this are controversial, I certainly welcome other thoughts. I think the more information we can provide to incoming students, the better prepared they will be to succeed.