Five First-Year Survival Tips

  1. Law is a web, not a silo.

You’ve surely noticed by now that your first year of law school is divided into discrete subjects — civil procedure, criminal law, property, torts, contracts, and legislation and regulation. This is a necessary, but artificial creation. Most lawyers will go their entire careers without having a client walk into their office and proclaim, “I have this really tricky personal jurisdiction problem.” (A civil procedure professor can dream, right?) Instead, clients tell you their convoluted stories and it’s up to you to identify the relevant substantive and procedural aspects of their dispute, hence the “issue spotting” aspect of law school.

As you prepare for class, you should be watching for these intersections. Unless your casebook authors have edited it out (and woe be unto them if so), virtually every opinion you read will include procedural postures: what’s happened so far in the dispute, who sued whom, and so on. Even a straightforward car accident will bear on torts, property, and civil procedure. Identifying these crossovers early and often will build your skills across substantive and procedural areas of the law.

  1. Don’t miss the forest for the trees and vice versa.

In some classes, you will find yourself wading in what seems like the minutiae of a case, deep within the factual weeds for days on end searching for a kernel of a legal principle. Others may feel so ethereal that you’ll long for the smack of a tree branch. The point is that theory informs practice, and practice informs theory. Professors will present materials in different ways.

Nevertheless, take care not to get lost in trees. Cases illustrate bigger principles, but it may take a few classes on the topic to see how a principle plays out across myriad and sometimes conflicting contexts. When you reach the end of a unit (or so your casebook seems to indicate…), take some time to identify these principles, to see the forest — not just the trees within it.

  1. There are no shortcuts.

Many years ago, for the bargain price of $685, you could purchase a “Conquer Law School System,” which promised to contain the secrets of law school success. When I looked to see if it was still around today, sadly, it wasn’t (granted, I didn’t check eBay). Maybe it’s now buried deep in a tomb somewhere, or maybe, just maybe, it was a scam. Because, as I suspect you know, there are no shortcuts.

There are, however, many studies on the science of learning that you can use to your advantage. One article suggests that using pen and paper will increase memory retention. And there’s a worthwhile six-part series at The Faculty Lounge that chronicles ways in which you can use cognitive psychology to improve your performance. Use these and save your money.

  1. Stay in touch with your creative side.

That part of you that loves to write fiction, play music, draw, or engage in some cool, quirky, creative activity that I’ve never heard of has a tendency to slowly wither in law school. Don’t let it. Find new avenues to express it. You may find yourself writing missives like There’s a Pennoyer in My Foyer or drawing images of a shotgun wedding to illustrate Rule 19 joinder. Outlets that bring you sanity and, better yet, help you adapt and learn in this new reality that you’ve found yourself in are not time wasters. Well, mostly not.

  1. On law school exams and baseball.

Last, but certainly not least, is my go-to analogy for exams: baseball. All that reading you do to prepare yourselves for class is a bit like watching baseball on television. (Okay, maybe for some of you it’s not quite as soothing or for others it’s far more invigorating, but stay with me for a moment.) Casebooks, like watching baseball, are wonderful for learning the fundamentals of the game, for seeing how umpires call balls versus strikes, and even for considering how a player’s statistics might help you predict performance in the next game.

But the exam asks you to hit the baseball. Nothing about watching baseball on television prepares you for that. What does? Batting practice. Spotting issues, identifying the relevant rules, and applying the law to the facts takes practice. Take sample exams often. As painful as it may be, practice writing down your answers. Better yet, invent and take your own exams. You will find that the universe of questions, prompts, and variables is actually more limited than you may think.

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch is a Chair of Law at the University of
Georgia School of Law. She is visiting Harvard Law School for the fall
semester, when she will teach Civil Procedure to Section 5 and a class on mass torts.

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