By Britt Wiegand • May 29, 2018•Writers in Residence, Law School, Pre-Law, Curriculum and Classroom Dynamics, Other Law School Issues
Whew. It's over! Finals ended over two weeks ago and I still have days when I'm still not sure that I completely feel it yet. Sometimes I think I do, then (like the other day) I'm driving to meet friends for lunch, see someone with a backpack crossing the street, and automatically think "sh*t I've gotta get back to studying!" Though the feeling is still sinking in, I've received grades and gotten a chance to reflect on what I would do differently.
Since I can't go back, my hope is to shed some light for future students. I did a good bit of reading and talking to practicing attorneys (informational interviews are my jam) before coming to law school, so I felt prepared coming in... at least, as much as one can be for the craziness that your first year of law school. But, in addition to the advice I received, I wish I would have truly internalized and practiced the following two lessons.
1. Don't be a hypo-hater
Torts, Halloween 2017. My professor calls on yet another person who makes up an even wilder hypo than the previous one. "But, what if the pumpkins are smashed? Or, what if they steal them and it's like pumpkin bowling?" Me: *internally rolls eyes, checks watch, sighs a little, thinks: why can't the professor just cut people off instead of adding on to an already insane hypo?!* Instead, my professor's eyes twinkle a bit as she fully engages in a conversation around this hypothetical scenario. I don't remember what the rest of the hypo was, or which intentional tort we were discussing. I do remember that this man in particular (the one who added on about the pumpkin-smashing) was CONSTANTLY making up hypos in class. And I was (almost just as constantly) thinking that they were irrelevant. I had heard people talk about "gunners" before and during law school, and part of me had labeled this guy as a gunner who was just going to talk a lot.
Fast forward to the end of the semester. He (pumpkin hypo guy) CALI'd the class. He got THE highest score. A few of us were surprised at first, but I realize now that I shouldn't have been so surprised. Yes, there will be people who talk a lot without adding a ton to the overall discussion. But pumpkin-hypo guy was not this AT ALL.
Law is made of rules. The first step in mastering the law is knowing the rules. Yet, knowing the rules is not enough - they have to be pushed at from all different directions to see which ways they stretch. I wish I would have appreciated hypos in class more because of the way they poke at rules to see where and in what ways they could be stretched and prodded. If I could do my year over again, I would learn the rules earlier so I could tease them out more in practice before the exam. The man who CALI'd the class did just this - his thinking was flexible, and he was able to push at rules to see if they would bend.
Going back, I would memorize as much as possible, especially if the exam is closed-book (no notes/materials) - the earlier rules are memorized, the easier finals stress becomes. Even if exams are open-book, memorizing rules sooner allows one to engage more fully in class and keep up with the questions posed. By thinking through each hypo as it's presented and the professor talks through it, you're studying and preparing for exams right there!
2. Multiply by 10.
Legal writing.... yikes. Picture the confounded face emoji with the crinkled mouth, and you'll see me as I wrote my memos and appellate brief this past year. Even for my friends who were English majors in undergrad, legal writing can be extremely daunting. It demands ball-point precision to say exactly what you mean without using legalese or being verbose. Simultaneously, it's intellectually demanding and incredibly satisfying.
My biggest problem? Time. As an undergrad, I could knock out a paper in an all-nighter and easily get an A. Don't even attempt to do this as a law student. Putting in the time is essential. And, don't underestimate how long this will take - it's your first time writing in a completely new style. I'm generally good at time management, but I consistently underestimated the amount of time various parts of the writing process would take. I wish I could go back and spend much more time on writing - multiplying the amount of time I expected something to take times ten may seem like a gross exaggeration, but had I done this, I would have had more realistic expectations. Two big areas that I tended to underestimate follow.
Formatting: First, the formatting requirements are serious. They can easily bump up your grade, or detract from an otherwise well-constructed argument because you didn't follow the rules. Don't ever expect a professor (or later, a judge or supervising attorney) to go easy on you because you used the wrong size margins, incorrect font (including the font of the page number at the bottom), or formatted your headings incorrectly.
Citations: My first writing assignment required us to meet with a TA so they could review our citations before we officially submitted our work. I did the assignment (a 1-page introductory exercise) and met with the TA. He started reading, looked at a citation, and asked, "what are you missing here?" His attempt to walk me through my citation was a disaster - I stared at him blankly and said something like, "Sorry... I literally have no clue." As he continued to explain pin cites to me, I remember trying to focus as intently as possible so I could actually remember and understand what he was saying.
Citations get easier the more you do them, but they still take far longer than I expected. Like formatting, they are easy points that can give you an edge over your competition, IF you take the time to do them correctly.
Writing can be immensely daunting - researching, drafting, and revising are also incredibly time-consuming. Setting yourself up by over-estimating how long you will need will definitely help in the long run!