An Insider’s Guide to Law School

Content provided by JD Jungle Magazine

First year, they scare you to death. Second year, they work you to death. Third year, they bore you to death. There’s more than a grain of truth to this bit of legal lore: Here’s how to stay afloat as you dive into law school, year by year.

Books, movies, and every lawyer you meet feed you the same horror story: Your first year in law school is going to be the toughest of your life, complete with mountains of reading, sadistic professors, and cutthroat classmates. While the experience varies from school to school and student to student, most first-years say that the agony described in “One-L” and “The Paper Chase” is only half the story; hard work and a steep learning curve do come with the territory, but not only is it possible to survive your first year—it’s actually possible to enjoy it.

Grab your new laptop (some schools, such as Stanford, require you to buy one; you’ll find that many students actually use them to take notes in class), and hit the ground running. Generally, law schools split the first-year class into sections. You will get to know your sectionmates well, as you take all your classes with them. Though sections disband after the first year, the bonds formed during this intense period are usually some of the strongest in a law school career.

First-year students attend class roughly 14 to 15 hours per week. Whether your courses are yearlong or semester-long depends on the school, but the first-year curriculum is virtually identical at every law school in the country:

Civil Procedure covers the nuts and bolts of litigation.
In Torts, you learn about civil injuries and their remedies, often with a healthy dose of economic theory.
Contracts is the study of enforceable agreements.
Criminal Law, not surprisingly, covers criminal statutes and penalties.
You debate the merits of abortion rights, free speech, and gun control in Constitutional Law.
Property is the study of ownership and rights, and when these rights are infringed.

Most schools also require a first-year seminar in legal writing and research, often culminating in a moot-court exercise where 1Ls argue an imaginary case before a panel of “judges” played by professors or practicing attorneys.

Tip: Some schools require you to dress the part for this, so you may have to spring for a suit.

Conventional wisdom has it right: Be prepared to spend more time reading than ever before. “Nothing prepares you for this much work,” says Bethany Currie, a 1L at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “I’m constantly surprised by how much homework there is.” Expect an adjustment period as you learn to read case law, a unique skill that only practice can perfect. “In the beginning of my first year, it took an hour to read and brief a 10-page case,” explains Deborah Dencer, a 1L at another Midwestern law school. “But eventually it becomes second nature.” In time, you’ll find yourself breezing through cases at warp speed.

Briefing a case is just what it sounds like: Creating short outlines for each case helps immensely when you’re called on in class; plus, they’re an invaluable study aid at exam time. There’s no right way to brief a case, but following a set structure helps. Usually, you start by stating the nature of the case and what rule of law it illustrates; following that, you might summarize the key facts, identify the issues, and indicate the court’s holding and decision. One student at Cardozo Law School says, “In the first semester, they ask you the facts of the case a lot, so briefing is really helpful. But going forward, you start learning to highlight and to make marginal notes.”

A note about outside aids: While commercial hornbooks, casenotes, and outlines (the CliffsNotes of the legal world) are certainly useful to many students, they’re not necessarily a substitute for reading the cases yourself.

Tip: Before you shell out money for guides, ask a 2L or 3L for advice and check to see if they’re available in the library.

Most schools use the time-honored Socratic method to teach law in the classroom. Rather than lecturing, professors call on students randomly (or for some lucky sections, according to an alphabetical list) and question them at length—in front of the class—about the implications of the assigned reading. This type of dialogue, pioneered by the Greek philosopher Socrates, forces students to arrive at the answer by gradually building a logical chain, link by link. This teaches you to apply legal reasoning in novel situations, instead of merely memorizing the principles behind a given case.

Cold-calling is also an extremely effective method of getting everyone in the class to do the reading every day. It’s natural to feel like a deer caught in the headlights when you’re called on for the first time; chances are, everyone in the class will freeze up under questioning at some point. While you may never forget the time it happens to you, bear in mind that your classmates will only remember their own moments of embarrassment.

At most schools, class participation won’t affect your grades. “Be prepared for daily classes,” says Pedro Cervantes, a 1L at the University of Illinois, “but focus more on ensuring that you know how to take the exams at the end of the semester.”

The exam period will generally last for two weeks at the end of each semester. Some schools give you a week of reading days to prepare; others might allot only a weekend for this purpose. Exams are often three hours long, writing intensive, and sometimes may be taken on your laptop; at some schools, there are take-home exams for which you will be given a set period of time.

The best way to prepare is to take the exams your professor gave in previous years. Many law schools file them in the library; if yours doesn’t, ask your professor if you can see an old exam. Most 1Ls also find it helpful to create course outlines, which boil down the substance of the course into a digestible form. “Put your notes into outline form from the very first day of school,” advises a 1L at Suffolk University in Boston. “It saves you a lot of work right before finals.” Organizing a study group of two to six friends or sectionmates can help you fill in the gaps and keep you motivated. And stay calm, cool, and collected through the whole ordeal with tips from our resident health guru, Dr. of Law.

Tip: Review for common first-year exams by attending bar prep classes. Although you won’t take your bar exam till after your third year, many bar review courses are offered for first- and second-year classes to help students synthesize the material.

Grades generally don’t come in for at least three to six weeks after the exam. Professors may post grades keyed to anonymous code numbers on a bulletin board in the school, or you may have to call an automated telephone information system to receive them. At some schools, you still get them the old-fashioned way—by mail.

No matter how you prepare, expect the unexpected when your report card arrives. Most law school courses base grades solely on one do-or-die half-day exam at the end of the semester, and many conscientious students get nasty surprises when they see their grades. Finding yourself in the middle of the curve may be difficult to get used to after the academic success that got you into law school in the first place. But grades “don’t mean what they meant in college,” Currie points out. “Celebrate with a B+, and be ecstatic if you get an A.”

The curve varies from school to school. At some, the same percentage of students gets a certain grade on all first-year exams. Some have set policies, so 25 percent of students may get Cs and many more get As. At others, you may find that no one gets a C, but only 3 percent get As.

Life—Social and Otherwise
You can have a life while keeping up with your classes, but by all accounts, it’s a balancing act. Working nonstop with no outlet for your stress is a recipe for personal misery and academic burnout.

“Although it is important to do your best in law school, definitely go out and have a good time,” advises Cervantes, who plays on a “beer league” basketball team and maintains a busy social life. Intramural sports teams, cultural clubs, and volunteer opportunities offer the chance to relax and spend quality time with your classmates.

Zachary H. Smith, a 1L at Boston University, says his classmates provide a welcome respite from the daily grind: “For the most part, everyone is friendly and happy to spend time together inside and outside the classroom.”

Looking Ahead
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which works with law schools and employers to set guidelines for recruiting and hiring, mandates that law schools can’t give career advice to 1Ls until November 1, and 1Ls aren’t permitted to begin looking for jobs until December 1.

“The limited discretionary time of 1Ls should be spent adjusting to the rigors of law school’s academic demands, rather than focusing on employment concerns,” explains Paula A. Patton, executive director of NALP. But once December rolls around, it’s full speed ahead.

“You think you have a few years before you have to decide what you’re going to do,” warns Holly Yoshinari, a Harvard first-year, “but you are immediately immersed in interviewing workshops, resume seminars, and the 1L summer-job hunt.”

Summer gigs aren’t easy to come by, since few firms recruit 1Ls on campus. Expect tough competition for cushy summer associate positions; even at top schools, 1Ls will get numerous rejections for every offer. Sending out 200 resumes and cover letters to firms in your target cities and getting “dinged” (rejected) at 195 isn’t an uncommon 1L experience. If you’re determined to work for a particular firm, persistence (and good old-fashioned connections) may be more important than what’s on your resume. Visit your career office for information on how to conduct the 1L job search. If you don’t find out what you need, ask a career counselor for advice.

The most reliable, though certainly not the most lucrative, way to build your legal resume during 1L summer is to take an unpaid internship with a nonprofit organization, such as a legal aid bureau, or a government agency (e.g., a local prosecutor’s office). Some law schools provide stipends to students doing unpaid summer work; if yours doesn’t, it should still be able to help you apply to private foundations that do.

Tip: If your summer job doesn’t cover all your expenses, ask professors about research opportunities. They’re a great opportunity to boost your resume and earn some extra cash.

You read case law at the speed of light. You write three-hour exams in your sleep. So why is 2L known as the year they work you to death?

In September of your second year, the onslaught of extracurriculars, recruiting, and clerkship hunting pick up where academics left off in May. Your second year is unlikely to be as nerve-racking as your first, but in many ways, it’s just as tough.

There’s a knack to taking law school courses, and by the time your second year rolls around, you’ll finally feel like you know what you’re doing. “Expect that the material will begin to come a little more easily,” says Sam Pollack, a 2L at Boston University. But the important thing about your second-year classes isn’t whether they’re easy or hard, it’s the fact that you pick them yourself. After a year of being force-fed civil procedure, torts, and contracts, the opportunity to choose classes that inspire you is a welcome change.

Douglas Sondgeroth, a 2L at Boston College, finds his second-year classes “more difficult, but definitely more interesting and rewarding,” in part because they allow students to “explore their own interests and focus on specific issues that a general first-year course cannot consider.”

Tip: If your law school allows you to cross-register for courses in other parts of the university, take advantage of it. A course in business, government, or a foreign language adds perspective to your legal education and gives you the opportunity to meet graduate students in other disciplines.

For resumé-building types, year two is all about journals. While many schools still have only one journal, usually called the “Law Review,” student-edited journals are proliferating, and you may have an array to choose from. At some universities, only the flagship journal (e.g., Harvard Law Review) holds an entrance competition, but at most, high grades or winning writing competitions are necessary hurdles for any journal work. These competitions, or “write-ons,” usually take up a week at the end of 1L spring; expect a lengthy project that tests your legal writing and editing skills.

No matter how you get it, a position on the editorial board of a legal periodical is a useful credential throughout your career. The prestige comes with a price tag, however: Anywhere from 10 to 40 hours of your week will be consumed in evaluating manuscript submissions, editing the accepted articles, and tediously checking the accuracy of hundreds of footnotes. If you are intrigued by legal scholarship, the challenge can be fun. For some students, though, it’s just another obligation. “Be careful what journal you work for, if you work for [one],” cautions a New York University 2L who is less than fascinated by cite-checking. “It can be a big time-suck and is not very rewarding.”

Upper-class moot court is another extracurricular option that can impress potential employers; it’s a step closer to the real work lawyers do. Most schools field mock trial teams who argue fictitious cases in nationwide tournaments. Many also offer intramural appellate competitions, where teams of students prepare and argue simulated Supreme Court cases. These activities are excellent training if you intend to go into litigation.

If you’re looking for the most practical experience of all, clinicals offer upper-class students the chance to work on cases for actual clients. Clinical work may involve anything from assisting in the composition of a friend-of-the-court brief to single-handedly arguing an eviction trial in front of a jury. Although handling a divorce case for a battered woman or helping to research a death-penalty appeal can be emotionally exhausting, it’s likely to be the most satisfying achievement of your law school career. (Read about some current cases law school litigators are working on in)

Tip: “If your school offers clinical programs or externships, don’t hold them off until your third year,” urges Seth Eichenholtz, a 2L at Syracuse University.

Deep down, the professors know it: Until 2Ls have their summer offers, no one is paying much attention in class. That’s one reason law schools keep moving the fall recruiting season back; at some, like New York’s Brooklyn Law School, on-campus interviewing begins as early as August.

Recruiting exposes the naked elitism of the legal profession. Top firms may refuse to interview students whose GPAs are below a certain cutoff, and they adjust that cutoff based on the name of the school. For example, a firm might grant interviews to students at second-tier schools only if they have GPAs of 3.7 or above and are members of the law review; to students at top-20 schools only if they have a 3.3 or above; and to any interested student who attends Yale, Stanford, or Harvard.

Tip: Some firms shun certain schools altogether. But never be shy about contacting a firm that doesn’t recruit at your school; you have nothing to lose but one copy of your resumé.

Signing up for on-campus interviews is usually easy; all you have to do is submit a resume. If there are many options available, choosing firms can be challenging. The number of firms recruiting at each school varies, but most students interview with anywhere from 10 to 30. The pressure to choose wisely is high; 2L summer jobs usually turn into offers for full-time postgraduate work, and many firms hire only those students who have worked for them in the summer.

Tip: Talk to as many 3Ls as possible about their experiences at various firms, and do as much independent research as you can.

Interviewing can be surreal and all-consuming. Brief on-campus interviews force you to present yourself in sound bites to a succession of suits. You need to be poised, focused, and fast on your feet. Callback interviews get more intense. They are usually on-site and can last an entire day as you spend more substantial amounts of time with several members of the firm. Read Interviewing 101 for detailed advice and strategies on how to breeze past the on-campus interviews and turn callbacks into offers.

Tip: If you make callback interviews at a big firm, you’ll probably be treated like a maharajah by rich and powerful partners. But don’t let the lobster and champagne banquets distract you from the task at hand: Judge the firm, not its marketing department.

Clerkships (one or two years of researching and writing opinions for a judge) provide an inside look at litigation you can’t get anywhere else, as well as a lifelong resume boost. Federal circuit judges interview as early as October of your second year, and district and state judges follow close behind. Unfortunately, law schools outside the top 10 don’t always do enough to encourage their students to clerk. If your school doesn’t produce many clerks, that may be because few of its graduates apply. If you want a clerkship, go for it.

Make the most of your third (and final) year of law school: Get some rest before entering the world of work.

Your third year is the last bit of freedom you’ll have before you take the plunge into the practice of law (or whatever career you choose). But it’s pointless to pay a fortune in tuition just to twiddle your thumbs. Here’s how to make the most of a year that’s known more for being a waste of time than a rite of passage.

By the time your third year rolls around, whatever terror accompanied 1L courses will be a distant memory. “Expect to be challenged, not tortured” in your last year, says Heather Parker, a 2000 graduate of The John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. “You can absorb information much more easily and rapidly.”

You may find that the real difficulty lies not in staying up to speed in your classes, but in simply staying motivated. If your 2L summer went as planned, you will probably have your post-graduation job lined up already. As long as you don’t flunk out, your offer is safe. So unless you’re in the running for a degree with honors (and you care about making it), grades are just as irrelevant as they were during the spring of your senior year in high school.

Since the pressure is off, you finally have the opportunity to study what you like and to learn for learning’s sake. “You are going to learn what you need to know for the bar when you take the [bar review] class over the summer, so choose classes that truly interest you and that you have wanted to take since you got to school,” says an NYU 3L. Chances are, this is it for your academic career, so don’t miss the chance to try a course in a new field.

If you’d rather not use this year to catch up on sleep, focus on extracurriculars. “I’ve worked more this year than I have in years past, but that is entirely because of my activities,” explains David Bigge, a Harvard 3L.

While extracurriculars may become more intense as graduation approaches, you may also find that the nature of the work changes in positive ways. 3Ls usually run the show at journals, so 2Ls are stuck with the scut work. Take the opportunity to develop your leadership skills, and mentor 2Ls as they learn the ropes at your organization.

If you end up without a tempting offer after your 2L summer, the job hunt will dominate your 3L experience. “The earlier you find a job, the less hectic third year will be,” says Kevin Willen, a 3L at the Washington College of Law at American University. Even if you have an offer from a firm, you might want to defer it to apply for a public-interest fellowship or other special program. “Looking for jobs didn’t help [make third year any easier],” says Bigge, who explored public-service options despite having an offer from a prestigious firm. “I tried (and failed) to get a fellowship; that was very busy and stressful.”

If your school provides services to make the process easier, take advantage of whatever help is available. “Be sure to make use of all that your school has to offer in the way of career services and mock-interviewing sessions,” Parker recommends.

Tip: Since personal contacts are key to finding jobs outside of the organized interview process, attend as many networking events as possible.

Remember that your first job is only that—a first job—and that greater opportunities may present themselves after you’ve spent a year in the market.

Bar Prep
Although the bar exam isn’t until late July, you’ll probably take one part of it before you graduate—the professional responsibility exam. Depending on the state, over the summer you will take some combination of the multistate bar exam, a state essay exam, and a performance exam. For more information, check out our article Behind the Bar.

You can sign up for a bar exam review class any time (doing it early often allows you to lock in a low price), but try to do so by spring of your third year. The class runs from May through July, wrapping up just before the test date. Popular courses include Bar-Bri and PMBR.

Tip: Sign up for a review class as early as possible to lock in a low price.

Saying Goodbye
While most 3Ls say that they feel ready to move on, they also encourage their 2L counterparts to enjoy the freedom of their last year in school. “Take advantage of it, make plans to see people you don’t always get to see, explore the city you live in, pursue any hobbies or things you have been wanting to try—because your schedule will never be this flexible again,” advises an NYU 3L. You may also feel that your final year is whizzing by much more quickly than the previous two. “I did actually start to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Parker agrees. “Your third year will be over before you know it.”

After three years of bonding with your classmates, saying goodbye may be one of the roughest challenges of the last year. “I have met lots of great people at law school, and many of them are good friends that I will miss,” says Robert Wolinsky, a Harvard 3L. Hopefully, you’ll feel the same way about your class after you’ve been scared, worked, and bored to death together. Try to stay in touch with your classmates after graduation; after all, no one else will truly understand what you’ve been through.

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