What No One Tells You Before You Go to Law School: You Actually Have to Teach Yourself “The Law”

I have to admit, I was pretty surprised when I showed up to law school and purchased my textbooks. One glance revealed that these were quite different from my undergraduate books. What was up with all of these long cases, followed by a string of questions with no answers? Weren’t these books supposed to teach me “the law”? I definitely wasn’t seeing too many answers!

Here’s a little secret: You basically have to teach yourself “the law” in law school!

How in the World Can You Teach Yourself?

I’ve been thinking a lot about law school pedagogy lately, and reading some books and articles on the topic.

In theory, here’s how law school should work:

  • Your professor assigns some primary source material (the cases) and you read it.
  • As you’re reading, you try to puzzle out the pieces of law that the case is revealing.
  • After you’ve done your best to figure things out, you go to class, and your professor models the sort of legal thinking methods that good lawyering requires.
  • You pay attention, playing along in your head and trying to answer the questions that your professor is asking.
  • As you cover more and more material, you start trying to piece together bigger and bigger chunks of the law in a particular topic area, until ultimately you’ve got the entire course figured out.
  • You think about how to apply this new knowledge to specific facts, and practice doing so.
  • You take an exam that your professor has carefully designed to challenge your ability to apply your new knowledge, and review it afterwards to see how you could have done better.

That’s the idealized version. In reality, there are a number of places this model routinely falls apart (and some huge problems with it, to begin with).

Problems with the Standard Pedagogy

Even when the system functions perfectly, it still has some major holes. Chief among these is an almost complete lack of feedback.

If you do any research at all into how humans learn, you’ll rapidly find that people learn by watching someone else do something, and then trying it themselves under close supervision. So, if you want to learn to ski, you can throw yourself down the hill – which might eventually result in competence – or you can take a lesson to watch an expert perform certain skills and then try them yourself under his supervision. Having tried both methods, I can tell you that the second one is a lot more efficient (and less dangerous)!

So let’s think about what you don’t generally receive explicit instruction in at law school:

  • The best, most effective, way to read a case. As it turns out, experienced lawyers read cases differently than law students do. This isn’t so surprising, but wouldn’t it be useful to tell incoming law students HOW experienced lawyers read cases? What are they looking for? What do they filter out? What techniques do they use to avoid information overload?
  • What you should do before starting a reading assignment. Law professors tend to be very good about drilling down into the details of a single case, or set of cases, but not so good about situating the cases you read for each class into a larger picture. This approach can leave the average law student feeling rather bewildered. Sure, you basically understand each case, but you have no idea how they fit together into a meaningful whole. That’s a problem, but one that can be alleviated by taking a few minutes at the start of a reading assignment to review a hornbook on the topic, or even just to reflect on what you already know about related topics and think about the questions this set of cases might answer.
  • What you should be paying attention to and writing down in class. Presumably, your instructor has certain things she’d like you to get out of each class. Some professors do a little recap at the end, which is helpful, but doesn’t address the broader – meta-cognitive – aspects. Why are you in class anyway, and what’s the point? What new information should you have absorbed at the end of each day? What do you need to keep track of?
  • Strategies for exam preparation. There’s an unfortunate tendency for many law professors to ignore the elephant in the room: the final exam. Although this probably derives from a desire to calm students down, it has exactly the opposite effect in many cases, because it leaves the impression that anyone can just figure out how to do well on an exam, without any instruction in techniques for doing so. That runs contrary to learning theories I’ve been reading about, which suggest that the key to success is having the right tools for the job, learning when to deploy them, and evaluating their effectiveness. It’s this iterative process that leads to success, and, conveniently, prevents the sort of negative self-talk that many law students fall into. (“I need a new technique” is far less damaging than “I’m an idiot who can never be a good lawyer.”)
  • How to improve going forward. The sad reality is that most law students never even see their final, graded exams. And, if they do, the feedback is minimal. As a result, there’s no pathway for improvement! Fine, you got a B+ in Con Law. Not terrible, but what did you miss? What do you need to know before you set off into the world as a lawyer? Or before you take the bar exam? These are important questions, but they’re rarely addressed.

Useful Techniques for Teaching Yourself

I know it’s annoying, given that you’re paying good money to go to law school, but – if you want to do well – you’re going to have to teach yourself the law, and how to apply it.

So, what can you do? Time to get meta!

In other words, it’s time to think about learning to learn (versus just learning a body of material).

If you’ve got some time, check out an interesting article: Teaching Law Students to be Self-Regulated Learners, 2003 Mich. St. DCL L. Rev. 447. It goes through theories of self-regulated learning (where no one’s telling you what to do but you still manage to learn what you need to know) and applies the concepts to law school.

If you’re not going to read the article, here’s the nutshell version: Set “mastery” goals, think strategically about how to achieve them, and monitor your progress.

If you can do these things, odds are you’ll do very well in law school, and have a lot more enjoyable experience along the way!

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Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. Stay tuned for her monthly Ms. JD column debunking myths about the legal profession. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS or on Facebook. Say hello!



This was a great post. I’ve been reading a lot about best practices in terms of studying for law school and you basically summarized everything that I’ve read. You’re also spot on about the lack of feedback and it’s actually something that worries me as I go to into law school this fall. Of course I plan on dropping in on office hours as much as possible to gauge my professors’ expectations, but I know I’m still going to feel nervous and confused as finals creep up on me. At this point, all I know is that I’ll be spending my summer prepping for my 1L. Thanks for a great read!


Don’t, don’t, don’t spend your summer prepping for 1L year.  Please. Spend your summer on the beach, reading fiction and hanging out with your friends.  Work out. Take naps. Kiss your kids. Do anything except prepping for 1L year.  There is no way for you to understand what law school is about until you are there.  There is no way to study for things you have no idea about before you are there.  Just try to enjoy the summer and then really buckle down and try to figure out the system when classes start.


Being a trained lawyer, I naturally see both sides of the summer prep issue.
On the one hand, I agree you should have fun and relax, and not stress yourself out studying.
On the other hand, I do think it’s useful to do some “meta-level” reading and thinking, because law school is quite different, and it’s useful to know what you’re getting into and start developing some strategies for learning.
So, reading commercial outlines cover-to-cover? Total waste of time. Reading Law School Confidential cover-to-cover? Time well spent, in my opinion.
Best of luck, and I’m sure you’ll be fine!

Kate McGuinness

Alison does a great job of what does and doesn’t work in law school. Unfortunately, there too much that doesn’t.
One reader said she planned to spend the summer preparing for law school. Generally, I agree with the advice that such an endeavor is a waste of time with three exceptions. 
One, read the law review article Alison cites. Two, if you haven’t already, take a speed reading course. (The volume of materials professors except students to cover is staggering.) Three, if you’ve been out of school for a while, read several “serious” nonfiction books. I found it took a while for my brain to click into the pattern of careful scrutiny that law school requires.


See here too:


What I meant by prepping for law school was exactly what Alison addressed in her comment below. I plan on reading “Getting to Maybe”, “Paperchase”, “Law School Confidential”, and many other books that people have recommended. I’m also planning on shadowing several lawyers that I have contacted in order to get a better sense of what they do in their specific fields. Of course, I see no purpose in trying to conquer the minutae of law school that I currently have no sense of - supplements, outlines, briefs, etc. However, I do see a point in learning how successful students made it through law school and what professors expect from students.


Sounds like a good plan! And, if you have the bandwidth, feel free to sign up for the free Start Law School Right course we just launched: It’s ten email lessons, spaced out over the course of the summer that gives an overview of the whole process.

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