Thinking About Law School – Part 3: Your First Year

Yes, you do have to read it all. However, the faster you can get up to speed with the proper way to read a case, the easier your life will be. Your goal when reading a case is simple, eliminate the fluff and isolate the critical facts the court used, the issue the court decided, and the rule/ruling made. The cool thing is that these are the same skills you’ll need when taking an exam. The shorthand for this is IRAC (issue rule analysis and conclusion). The only real difference between reading a case and taking an exam is that the exam requires you to do your own RAC — your professor will take care of hiding the issue and critical facts among the extraneous fluff.

Commercial outlines, case briefs and nutshell guides are useful, but are no substitutes for doing the reading. These commercial products are the law school version of Cliff Notes. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you can get away with using them in class as a substitute for having read the case. Better to admit you are unprepared than to start playing “stump the chump” with the professor. First, there is no way a one page summary is sufficiently comprehensive to provide enough information to satisfy a detailed probing by a motivated professor.  Second, commercial products are notorious for getting the names of the plaintiff and defendant reversed at random locations through out a brief and there’s no surer way to set yourself up for a game of “stump the chump” than not being able to present a coherent summary of a case. Use the commercial products to fill in holes in your notes, but don’t rely on them as substitutes for actually reading the material.

Statistics show that your performance during your first year in law school is predictive of your success on the bar exam – if you can manage a C+ average by the end of your first year, you’ll have no problem passing the bar.  The catch is: the pace of law school does not allow for “being a little lost”. If you even suspect you might be a little behind, aren’t quite sure of the material, or might have missed something in class don’t wait any longer before you get a tutor, find an academic coach, or get help from the professor. If I were to do it all over again, I would set up a standing weekly appointment with a tutor the moment I set foot on campus and I would keep that appointment religiously.

The hardest part about your first year is realizing that, for the first time in your academic career, you may get a C. Don’t fret. Law schools take the cream of the academic crop each year (the average GPA for my first year class was 3.75). All that a C means is that you are an average over-achiever. C’s get degrees and, more importantly, C’s get jobs too.