Friday, August 13, 2010

Law School For Idiots

Law School may seem intimidating at first, but this is only because of the scare stories. What could be easier than a school where all your grades are based on the final exams?

Any idiot can go to law school, and as I like to say, I'm living proof of that. I just finished reading Scott Turow's "1L" which is an account of his harrowing experiences in his first year at Harvard. As he learned in the book, part of the problem of being a law student is not that the work is hard, but rather in learning that it is easier than it appears.

Getting in to law school is no big deal. Get a good grade on the LSAT. To do this, you have to be somewhat smart and good at those SAT-type tests. But also you have to invest the money in taking the LSAT review course. The course will train you in the questions you will expect to see, and it will easily boost your LSAT score by several percentile points. I ended up in the 99th percentile after taking the course. Not bad.

Train yourself to take the test, and you will do well on the test. This is a theme you will see throughout law school and on the Bar exam. Try to train yourself on the law in general, and you will do much more poorly on the test - even if you end up learning "more" in the latter method.

Having some decent grades will help you get into law school as well. Now if you are one of those overachievers who wants to work for a big New York law firm, well, you need great grades from a name school and a good LSAT score to get into the "name" law schools like Harvard or Yale. But for the rest of us schumcks who will end up practicing law at a more parochial level, that really isn't necessary - nor is all the stress of law school.

Once you are in law school, relax. Very few people flunk out of law school. Most people who leave do so for other reasons - they find they don't like the law, for example. But failing? Hard to do.

Here's the dirty little secret of law school - one that I didn't "get" until my second year: All of your grades are based (in most cases) on your score on the final exam. And in most cases, what is taught on the final exam has little bearing on the coursework over the semester.

I wasted a lot of time trying to participate in class and being "prepared" for class, when what I should have been was prepared for the Exam. The oddball cases discussed by the Professors ended up confusing me and I didn't learn the basics of the law until it was too late.

So as a "1L" you can stress out about briefing cases or being "prepared for class" to be called on to "brief the case", but it really means nothing at all, other than maybe an academic interest in the law.

By your second year, you will find that many students are skipping more than half their classes. Some of my friends attended not a single class in some courses, and still ended up getting an "A" because they aced the Exam, which was a near-copy of the previous years' exam. I tried to "learn" by attending classes and reading the material, and nearly did the impossible - I nearly flunked out of law school.

Once I started training myself to take the exams, my grades improved remarkably. I am a slow learner, sometimes, but I finally figured it out by the last year of school (which is four years for us night students).

Approaching Law School as an Engineering grad, I assume naively that the classwork was related to the coursework on the test. In Engineering school, I could show up, pay attention, take notes, ask questions, and get an "A" on the Exam. Law School was a completely different ballgame, and I doggedly (and stupidly) tried to apply my previous skill set to Law School, blithely ignoring my neighbor's different approaches. I felt that somehow I was learning "more about the law" by doing it my way. But passing the test was the main idea - the main idea I missed, initially.

The grade for each course is based on the one and only Exam, and the Exam is based on two things: Black letter law and issue spotting. The exams are basically essays and some ask you to spot major issues (the important ones) which is really not hard to do. Don't get caught up in the tricks they use to distract you - getting you to go off on a tangent on some minor issue that won't carry the day. Spot the main, important issues, and you are assured a good grade.

Such exams are easy to grade for the professors. You spot five of the six main issues, you get an "A". You go off on what seems like an interesting tangent, but fail to discuss most of the main issues, you get a "D". It is that simple - the simple, direct answers take the day. Bullshitting about tangential nonsense might make you think you look smart, but it misses the main idea.

Similarly, the essays are based on the "Black Letter Law" which is the well-worn path the law usually takes - not some obscure case which is presented in class only to confuse you and to make you wonder if the law makes any sense at all. Professors like to teach you about esoteric oddball cases in order to illustrate basic questions in the law or to get you to think about the boundaries of that well-worn path.

Many first-year students, myself included, fail to grasp this simple concept and end up confused - wondering why one piece of case law says the opposite of another, based on nearly the same facts and circumstances. Scott Turow, in his book, recalls his struggles with this same problem - that he failed to grasp that what his professors were trying to do is ask questions with no clear answers, and then get you to think and argue about the law. The professors are not providing answers, but trying to get you to think - like lawyers - by asking questions.

But generally, these sorts of things are not on the Exam. The Exam, which is the whole deal (and graded anonymously) deals with your basic understanding of the law, and generally doesn't address esoteric questions.

And many professors re-use the same (or similar) questions from year to year on the exams, or rotate them from time to time. Law school libraries generally have copies of old exams for you to look at, so you can train yourself to take the exam by taking old Exams.

My grades improved remarkably when I realized this simple trick. Train myself to take the exam first, then think about the esoteric aspects of the law second. I would sit in a room and take an old exam, typing up the answers, in the time allotted for the "real" exam, as an exercise. In some instances, I would use the actual exam room, so that by the day of the Exam, I had been through the experience several times and was not all freaked out by it. By then, the Exam room was my comfortable lounge, and taking the Exam was something I had done several times already. I was relaxed, to say the least.

Typing answers is also a good idea, if you are a good typist. A typed exam is easier to read and one professor confessed that he automatically graded such exams higher than poorly scrawled answers in "blue books". Usually the typing room was less crowded, too, so you can have a little more peace and less stress than the large auditoriums where the main part of the class is taking the test.

Again, if you want to be a legal superstar, you'll want to get on Law Review and have stellar grades. For me, as a night student, this was not even an option. I just wanted to get the degree that I needed to keep the job that I already had (writing Patents). Passing the courses - and the bar exam - with the minimal amount of fuss was important. Becoming a great legal scholar in Constitutional Law, well, that wasn't as important.

And speaking of the Bar Exam, it is just a test, just like the LSAT or the law school exams. No need to freak out about it And guess what? They test you on issue spotting and black letter law, just like in law school. Really smart people screw up the bar exam because they are really smart people - too smart. They read a simple question with a couple of "ringer" distracting facts in it, and assume the question is a "trick" and that the main issue deals with the distracting facts. But what the examiners are really looking for is you to barf up the basic idea, to show you understand the basics of the law. You miss the basics, and all the esoteric tangential issues are of no use. And it is a pass/fail test.

Again, the bar review courses (I used BAR/BRI) are essential. Many of the legal concepts I learned in law school did not coalesce until I took the bar review course, which reduced an entire semester (or year) of coursework into a few days of outlines. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Many of the questions on the actual Bar Exam were verbatim from the review course. Some always are. The multi-state portion repeats a lot of questions (and some are basically unanswerable). You can drill yourself on multi-state questions (available in electronic form) to the point where you can pass the Exam just because you've memorized all the "correct" answers after a while.

When I took the State Bar Exam, I was very sick and running a fever due to an ear infection. I was in very bad shape, ready to pass out. As a result, I wrote short, simple, direct answers to the exam questions, covering the main ideas.

I passed.

Friends of mine, all panicky and nervous, were sure that there was a "trick" to each question, and that by addressing some tangential issue in a long-winded essay, they had mastered the bar exam.

Some of them failed.

I am not trying to trivialize the study of law, of course. One of the major hurdles one faces as a "1L" and as Mr. Turow discusses, is learning to think like a lawyer and learning the unusual lingo of the law. First year law classes and the Socratic method do help you learn to "think on your feet". There is value in the classwork, at least initially.

And as Mr. Turow discusses in his book, many of the "case books" published by the professors often abstract the cases to the point where you can barely make sense of them. In fact, no one could make sense of them.

So in that regard, such "cheater" materials like nutshells, outlines, and other study aids are important in cutting to the chase when studying law school materials. Hiding the main idea is very common in law school, and there is no sense in going on a treasure hunt, when someone can just hand you a map.

When a professor leaves out basic information from a case in the case book, it really is just making simple ideas seem harder than they need to be. Why they do this is a mystery to some - perhaps because they want to make law school seem harder than it is - and keep people out of the guild as a result.

There are, of course, some courses where the grade is not based on the exam - moot court competitions, courses with research papers due, etc. Such courses tend to teach you more about what you will actually be doing as a lawyer, and as a result, you may be better off putting more effort into your moot court brief than into attending every class for a course where the grade is based on the final.

Perhaps that sounds crass, but this is the way the law schools have structured the game - so in a way, it really is their fault. As Mr. Turow noted in his book, by the second semester, many of his classmates - as many as 1/3, were skipping classes regularly to concentrate on more important things, such as research projects or moot court briefs. And this was at Harvard, supposedly the greatest law school in the nation.

One wonders why they would structure a legal education in such a manner that encourages students to take shortcuts or skip classes. But perhaps that is another part of the education itself - learning to spot what is important and necessary and most useful, and also identifying what is less important and less necessary. In medicine they call this triage, separating the dead and dying from the merely wounded, and concentrating efforts where they are most useful and will produce results.

Most lawyers only have limited resources to bear on a given legal problem (limited by their client's ability to pay) and thus have to adjust their efforts to where they would do the most good. The most bang-for-the-buck.

Law students have to do the same thing. And perhaps that is one of the more important lessons in law school. You learn to separate the wheat from the chaff - what is important from what is window dressing. You learn to think analytically instead of emotionally. And that last item is why some people drop out. They don't want to learn to be analytical, on the grounds it is dehumanizing.

Like I said, it took me nearly four years to figure all this out. By the time I sat for the Bar Exam, I realized that I had wasted much of my law school education trying to do things "right" when I could have learned more and gotten better grades by applying the principles of triage to my work. It was a hard and expensive lesson to learn.

And here you are, getting it for free. Enjoy.