20 August 2005

Look to the Left, Then Look to the Right…

and in the fantasyland of some constipated old white men who were law professors in the 1970s and earlier, one of the three of you won't be there. (Note: Law school academic-failure rates at most ABA-accredited schools are seldom as high as 10%.)

In any event, it's that time of year when new law students panic and ask practicing lawyers how to get through law school. So, here's my contribution, for whatever it's worth.

  • The single most important class you're going to have in first year is Legal Research and Writing. It's the only class that every lawyer is guaranteed to need every day. That said, if it's graded on a pass/fail basis at your school, you should put greater "marginal effort" into graded classes—but, whatever you do, don't blow it off. It's a sad truth that this profession, which lives and dies by the written word, as a rule can't write a coherent shopping list. The better your writing (and research) skills, the better a lawyer you will be.
  • The second-most important class you're going to have in first year is Civil Procedure. I had the advantage of coming in understanding that in a fundamental way: In a military operation, the rules of engagement often determine the outcome. Civil Procedure is the equivalent of those rules of engagement. In my experience, over 80% of all non-criminal disputes (and even a substantial proportion of pure transactions) turn on questions of civil procedure as much as on underlying facts or specific legal principles. Even if you hate it, consider taking some more-advanced civil procedure courses—and I do not mean "moot court" or "trial advocacy"—such as conflict of laws and complex litigation.
  • Don't set your heart so much on becoming one particular kind of legal specialist that you don't study anything else. In the last couple of weeks, I've gotten several e-mails from law students who want to know how to get into copyright law, or publishing law, or entertainment law. I didn't start out there; I started out doing consumer protection litigation. For a variety of reasons (such as scheduling), I didn't even take copyright law! Instead, get yourself a broad foundation in areas that every lawyer must understand to be effective.
    • Civil procedure (as noted above), including evidence
    • Taxation
    • Administrative law
    • Business organizations, including both corporations and agency/partnership
    • Bankruptcy
    • Intellectual property at some level

    Then there are all of the other "foundational" courses that extend a little bit farther, and from which you should definitely choose some: international law; property and environmental law; employment law; tort law; constitutional law beyond the required class; finance, securities, and commercial transactions; criminal law; and so on. Some students simply won't be interested in some of these areas, or can't work them in due to scheduling conflicts. That's doesn't mean one is "defective" as a lawyer—just that one's horizons are more limited, and one is less likely to develop solutions outside the box.

  • Speak up in class. If you have problems with this, better to overcome them (or determine that you can't) as soon as possible. Remember—the most that a professor can do to you is demonstrate that he or she knows the material better than you do. If your ego/confidence can't take any setbacks at all, what are you doing in law school in the first place? (Note: This is not an excuse or rationalization for mean-spirited attacks by professors or other students; it is a recognition that you're going to need to find a way to cope.)
  • Build "curiosity time" into your schedule. Read material concerning things you're not familiar with (see Professor Madison's careful consideration in ten parts), even during school. My best 1L grade came when I blew off last-minute cramming and read a non-law biography the night before the exam.
  • Finally, don't make one mistake that I did: If you have health problems, get them taken care of and let your professors know. Believe it or not, there aren't that many constipated old white men left in legal academia; if you bring a problem to the professor's attention early, something (such as taking an exam two days late when one has taken one's spouse to the hospital) can be worked out. But if you don't say anything, you're stuck.