Law school in the United States involves heavy tomes called “casebooks”. While other requirements may vary, law school inevitably involves introductory courses on the major divisions of common law jurisprudence: Torts, Contracts and Property. These courses are usually taught with casebooks. The classic casebook includes, with little or no explanation, actual published cases from appeals courts around the country (perhaps a few from England, as well). The beginning law student must quickly learn what to do with the case. You can memorize every word in it, but that will do you no good. The law professor will expect analysis into established categories: what are the facts, the rationale, the holding? Then the student will be asked whether the reasoning makes sense if the facts are changed ever so slightly: the dreaded “hypothetical”.

While one might argue that the “Socratic Method” has been around since Periclean Athens, the casebook method is actually of much more recent vintage.

The “case” method, or “casebook” method, started as an attempt to make law “scientific”. It was introduced in the early 1870’s by Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895. Prior to Langdell, legal education consisted of memorizing “blackletter rules” from legal treatises by academics such as Blackstone’s Commentaries. Langdell believed that law could be made into an “empiricial” (and therefore objective) science by using the cases decided by common law courts as raw material for a scientific survey. While individual judges’ opinions might be skewed by their own biases or errors, objectively valid legal rules would emerge from the study of a sufficiently large sampling, Langdell believed.

As “science”, Langdell’s method was a joke. As pedagogy, however, his casebook method had many advantages in training lawyers, and it remains the predominant method of legal education in the United States. Cases were gathered in textbooks, devoid of notes, comments or explanations. Students were expected to read the casebook, and then come to class to discuss it. Discussion varies with the professor, but considerable lip service is given to the “Socratic Method”, wherein students are induced to express their opinions, and then are shown why their opinions are false. This can be an exercise in cruelty and humiliation, or a philosophical dialectic, or both. Whether the professor is a true midwife to wisdom or just an arrogant ass, forcing students to review the material and express their own opinions, more or less publicly, is infinitely superior to merely reading and spouting rules, as a training for appearing in court and making an argument to a judge. Reading the case, determining the range of the factual circumstances to which the holding applies, figuring out which precedents are “on point” and distinguishing contrary cases: these skills are called “thinking like a lawyer”.

Unfortunately, litigation also entails dealing with positive law (statutes enacted by a legislature, regulations promulgated by the executive) not just case law. Also, the work of a lawyer may not be limited to litigation, but may instead focus on “transactional” work: writing contracts, and forming or merging businesses, as well as negotiation and mediation. Studying a “casebook” does not develop these skills.

Langdell is also credited (or blamed) for creating “law school” as we know it today, instituting at Harvard Law School now familiar practices, such as: (1) a law school admission test, (2) a three-year law degree program, (3) a graded curriculum, divided into “courses” of so many hour-units apiece, (4) final examinations, and (5) full-time professors.

Things I wish someone would have told me about my first year of American Law School (1L)

There are things that people tell you about 1L that give you the impression you're going into it with open eyes. They tell you that the workload is intense, that it is highly competitive, that you'll be miserable, etc. But having lived through 1L I can tell you that it didn't give me an accurate view of what I was signing up for. So I'm writing this...

The first thing that people neglect to tell you is that once you join, you're locked in unless you're fantastically wealthy. The cold hard reality of law school is that it costs so much to attend just a single semester that once you go to your first class you're financially bound to finish law school and get a degree. This is significant and should not be overlooked because you likely have no idea whether or not you'll enjoy learning about law or practicing law. In addition, you have no barometer for whether or not you'll be a good law student or lawyer. Ignore your friends and family telling you that you'd make a good lawyer because they have no way of actually knowing that fact. You just need to decide for yourself whether you think you have the fortitude and courage to make that gamble, and accept that if take that first step you are locked in for the entire race.

Law school is sprint. Let me elaborate, law school is a marathon length sprint and the more tired you become the faster you need to run. Do not attend law school if you get bored or discouraged easily because you will be tested repeatedly on exactly those qualities. And ultimately, like any race, you race alone. Law school is not like undergrad. If you're lucky, you'll have a few close friends but for the most part law school is a pretty isolating and superficial experience.

Personalities and Law School Culture
There are no Type B personalities in law school. At least none who last. In addition, a large section of people who decide to go to law school do so because they have a chip on their shoulder and have something to prove. This is something you need to keep in mind when you decide to join, because you'll be spending the next 3 years in a small community with these people. This brings on a second effect. Law school is many respects will remind you of high school. It is small, gossipy, and you're around these people all the time.

The workload becomes increasingly heavier as 1L progresses. The upside, and something they don't tell you, is that it becomes easier because you are learning how to think like a lawyer. The faster you learn how to think like a lawyer, the sooner things will ease up for you.

This is what you do. Law isn’t like the movies. You will live, for the most part, in a library even if you’re a trial lawyer. If you don’t like reading, or you don’t like libraries, find another career.

Learning How to Think Like a Lawyer
Like it or not, law school is like boot camp and it is designed to reprogram you. You will be different at the end of this experience and will look at the world through different eyes than you did pre-law. For most people, this is a traumatic experience. Almost everyone I knew during 1L had a breakdown of one sort or another from the strain of it. However, we all survived and came out of it different people. This is something you seriously need to consider when looking at law school. You will not be the same person you once were. The best way I can explain it is this: You become refined. However, who you think you are isn't necessarily who you actually are. Walls get torn away because you don't have the time or energy to maintain them and if you have any unresolved issues lurking beneath the surface, they're liable to come out. This isn't always pretty. A friend of mine likened law school to cocaine, it is something only intense people are interested in and it makes them more intense. That's a pretty accurate assessment. So in addition to learning to think like a lawyer (something that might annoy your friends at first) there is a good chance that the core of you will come to the surface and become sharper. For some that is a good change, for others it isn't. It's an individual thing but it is something I've seen in just about every student I know.

They're not as uncommon as you'd think among 1L's. I read a study a while ago that stated that approximately 90% of 1L's are clinically depressed.

You don't just feel older at the end of 1L. You look older. Stress causes hair loss, lines, etc. Also, you're probably going to need glasses at the end of this. It sucks. Accept it.

Substance abuse
Lawyers drink. I suspect that is due to law school. Many law schools provide free beer at functions. Many students are well on their way to drinking problems. I don't know if alcoholic personalities are drawn to law or if law turns people to alcohol, but it seems like a large portion of the student body drinks fairly regularly and uses it as a crutch.

Your lover will leave you. Or you'll leave your lover in a fit of pique. Either way, 99% of the time a relationship will not survive 1L. Marriage, soul mates, best friends for years, etc. It doesn't matter. You are under tremendous strain and are forced to be neglectful. In addition, you are changing and it is unlikely that your lover will want to stay around for that. And even if s/he does, you might find that you're no longer interested in your lover. An example of how ugly you can get, a classmate of mine told his girlfriend that 1L was much like when her father died (needless to say, that relationship didn’t survive). I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "We're different." Yeah, I said that too. Trust me, you're not. Relationships are crushed by the weight of 1L. Break up now, before you go, because otherwise the breakup will happen when the stress is at its peak (right before finals).

You will be asked to give up a tremendous amount for this career. More than you realize. You're not just giving up your financial security. You're also giving up parts of yourself, your relationship, your eyesight and (for some) your hair. It's a heavy burden and you might find you carry with you a great deal of regret. Prepare yourself for that.

Family is your saving grace and is probably the only reason I made it through 1L. Turn to them, trust them, look to them for support. Your family cannot understand what you’re going through, no one can but your classmates, but they will forgive you for it. And believe me, you will require forgiveness. As finals approach you’re going to look and act worse than you have done since you were 16 and only your family will be willing to cut you the slack you need.

But if after reading all of this you still want to go, you might have the strength to make it through. It is not an easy path to take, but what is?

Law school is often said to teach people how to "think like a lawyer." The phrase is rarely detailed any further. People tell you that you're going to be reprogrammed, but they don't tell you exactly how.

Here's what happens, explained (like everything in law school) through anecdote.

One day, about a month and a half into our 1L career, we were given a case in criminal law class. The defendant was in his house one night knocking back a few beers and getting gloriously shitfaced when, all of a sudden, the po-po came a-knockin'. They wanted to search the defendant's house. The defendant obliged, and the police conned him into walking out of his house to the side of the street. An altercation ensued, and the defendant was arrested on charges of public drunkenness. It was a scenario right out of Ron White's stand-up routine.

In the state in question, "public drunkenness" was defined as "appearing on a public highway in a state of intoxication," or something similar. After a month and a half of dissecting statutes, everyone in the class was ready to argue whether the street was a "public highway," and whether the defendant actually "appeared" there, and what the definition of "intoxication" would be.

The debate over these points raged in our little lecture hall for something like an hour and a half.

Finally, the professor gave up and shouted, "Have you all lost your fucking minds? Do you not see that this is just totally WRONG? The text doesn't matter if the act is WRONG on its FACE!"

And that's how it goes. We poke through the intricacies of dead white people's writing, hour after hour, distinguishing holdings from dicta, looking up the terms of a statute in a dictionary until the pages start to fall out, and after a while, we forget what the point of it all was in the first place.

Anyway, the next time you hear a lawyer say something that makes no sense at all, you'll know where they got it from. They got it from reading into something far more than any sane person ever should. And that's what law school teaches people to do, for better or for worse.

Another thing to be said about law school: Which law school you go to really, really matters.

One of my friends, a student at a second-tier law school (that is, in the 50-100 ranking), got a summer job at a major law firm in Tokyo. It was the only interview he got after sending resumes to every firm in the city. He was surprised to get a callback, and even more surprised when he was hired over the phone. Then again, law students with his level of Japanese are very rare.

Once he got to Tokyo, he was working with kids from Harvard, NYU, and Penn, schools in the top echelons. He asked how they were recruited. Turns out that the firm had wined and dined them, pooh-poohed the other big firms, did everything it could to win them over. They were being sold to; they didn't have to do any selling.

Once you get below the top 25 or so, the on-campus recruiting situation isn't nearly as pretty. The employers who recruit at the lower-ranked schools are almost always local: the district attorney and public defender offices for surrounding counties, some local legal aid groups, and a small handful of private firms with offices in the region. The private firms—the only place where there's real money to be made right out of law school—always want the top tenth or quarter or third of the class, without exceptions. They want the kids who are on Law Review (invariably, these are the people in the top tenth/quarter/third anyway). Some will disqualify anyone with a C on their transcript. It's a picky world.

So if you're at a lower-tier school and you want a real job, you have to go around and beg. Whereas if you're at a top 25 school and you want a real job, you have to wait for it to come to you. Big difference... one that will be hit home to you if you screw up your 1L year, as many law students do, overcome by the great rat race.

Another dirty little secret of law school: Top-ranked schools have major grade inflation. Many follow a B or B+ curve, while the second tier usually has a C+ curve.

The moral: When you're applying, aim high. If you can slip in to any of the cream-of-the-crop schools, you've got it made. A law degree from Yale or Stanford or Columbia will take you anywhere in the world. If you don't get into that top tier, you still have a shot, but your chances are much slimmer, and you really have to bust your butt to push through to the top.

Thursday at a Second-Tier School

I'm one of those at a "second-tier" school: I froze during the logic portion of the LSATs, and, impatient as always, I wasn't willing to wait the year to take them again, and I felt it unjust to shell out a few thousand for a LSAT preparatory course when I could start this journey now.

I'm an evening student, which means I work 9 hours a day, commute 1 hour into the city, take three to four hours of class a night, then commute 1 1/2 hours home (carpooling).

Tonight is Contracts. How can we be bound? Only by our consent? What were the rules for unilateral contracts again? On a Thursday, my eyes heavy with sleep, these are not my concerns. Instead I daydream: why are contracts K? Why have my true loves also been K's? What is consent anyway?

Thursday nights, the accumulation of the week causes strange things. Last Thursday I almost destroyed a woman who reminds me too much of a stripper I once knew. I wonder if she shares my lurid secret past, and then I wonder how I can destroy her.

Luckily, at a second-tier school, as our Civil Procedure Professor professed, I imagine it will be easier to get to the top of the heap. Will I transfer to trade up or get an easier commute or save money? I don't know. I like being the big fish in the small pond, and if my grades come out the way I think they might (crossed fingers), I'll have a tough decision ahead.

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