Advice for New Law Students of Color
by Spencer Overton
Welcome to law school, and I hope you do well.
Sometimes experienced heads don’t talk about the details of law school because they know that the process is stressful. They don’t want to add to your anxiety.
I have a different opinion. I have found that when students don’t do well, it is often a result of a lack of mentoring, straight talk, polish, and maturity (not due to a lack of intellect). Thus, I want to be frank, let you know the game, and dispel some common myths. My hope is that such disclosure will help you get your bearings and feel more comfortable. Myth #1: If I know the material I’ll get good grades.
Wrong. Almost all law schools use a curve, and so you need to do better than most of your classmates in order to get good grades. You need to know the material, but that’s not enough. Ask the administration (e.g., Dean of Students) for a copy of the curve that professor use to grade first year courses so that you understand what a bad, average, and good grade is. At many law schools, a “B” is below average. Myth #2: I’ve got three years to do well.
You need to figure out the game the first two to three months. Job opportunities, law review, and most everything else is based on first year. Next fall you’ll be interviewing and looking for a job, and most interviewers are not going to care about undergrad, your community service, moot court, your potential to rebound, or anything else. They are going to look at first-year law school grades (they are busy and are looking for a quick way to determine which students they should agree to interview), and whether or not you’ll fit in to their work environment.
Unfortunately, the function of law school is not simply to teach law. Another important function (and some would say the most important function) is to sort students for potential employers. It is much easier to recognize this hard truth and put in the time now and do well than to spend the next 10 years trying to make up for bad first year grades. Myth #3: I don’t want to be on law review or go to a big firm, but do public interest instead, and therefore I don’t need high grades.
Frankly, you may not know enough about law review or firm life—and how you can help the community through both—by making that statement now (or how much more difficult it is to pay a school loan note of $1,400 a month when you’re bringing home after taxes $3,000 a month rather than $7000 a month). Additionally, because there are so few good public interest jobs and a large number of people want them, they often require higher grades than firm jobs. It is also patronizing to suggest that high-paying clients deserve a lawyer who has earned high grades, and that public interest clients do not. Finally, many seasoned people look at the “public interest” excuse as a cop out from doing the hard work. Myth #4: Even though I did everything in college at the last minute and still did well, I’ve turned over a new leaf and I’m coming to class, doing all of the reading, briefing cases, and outlining for law school. This means I’ll do well in law school.
Wrong. I teach property, and I hear tales from so many people who “think” they should have done better because they worked hard and knew property better than their other subjects.
Grades usually come down to a single 3-hour exam at the end of the semester. Your whole existence for the next 10 months should revolve around how to pick up more points on that exam than most of your classmates. You do this by getting copies of old exams and answers to the exam if they are available now (not in November or December), and starting to learn to dissect them now.
Start with your professors’ old exams and dissect them, move on to others’ old exams, and then redo and revisit your professors’ old exams. Take some exams slowly without being timed, and move on to timing yourself. Practice, practice, practice. Simulate the exam experience. If you’re going to take the exam on your laptop (which I recommend if you can type, because you can cover more issues quickly and your work is easier to read), practice on a laptop.
You should study for structure and substance. You should ask yourself, "Why is X included on this model answer and Y is not?" Does a good answer use headings? IRAC? Anything else?
You should figure out what a scoring checklist would look like for a particular exam question, so that you can look at this from the perspective of a professor (a scoring checklist allows for more objectivity in grading (often, if the exam answer identifies and analyzes the issue the student gets points, and if the issue is not identified and analyzed the student doesn’t pick up the points, even if the student was brilliant on a different issue)). You should figure out how many points you can pick up in 3 hours, and if not everything, you need to figure out what you should focus on to get the most points (remember, you don’t need 100%, just more than other classmates).
Learn to pace yourself so that you don't run out of time. Too many students invest all of their 3 hours into Question 1 and write very little on Question 2, thereby missing a lot of easy points that would have allowed them to move up the curve. Many professors grade all of the student answers to Question 1 together and then all of the answers to Question 2 together, and later total the score without having any "sympathy" on those who wrote a brilliant Question 1 and next to nothing for Question 2. As professors, we often like all students (we don't want to hurt anyone), we are often grading blind, and we know that "helping" one student hurts all others on a curve. Thus, many of us aim for a seemingly objective, numerical, defensible system for grading that allows for consistency.
There's a lot more, and you learn it by asking your professor questions, and by trial and error in taking practice exams. You’ve got only three months to become an expert at taking law school exams.
At a minimum, you should invest 15% of your time each week (6 hours in a 40-hour week) working on figuring out the exam process, and probably more if you want to do very well (especially as the semester moves into October and November).
For me, exam taking is a race. The question is which students can pick up the most points in a finite amount of time. Because you’ve got only a finite amount of time, you don’t want to add anything unnecessary that is not going to help you with points, because doing so will prevent you from picking up some other points within the finite time period.
Visit with each of your professors within the next three weeks during office hours. Figure out how much of the grade is class participation, and how much of it is based on exam performance (for me I reserve the right to raise or lower a third of the grade based on class participation (e.g., from a B to a B+), which means that on the curve, the students who don’t participate are at a disadvantage relative to those who do participate).
In terms of the exam, does the professor grade based on picking up issues (the student at the top of the class was most comprehensive in spotting all the issues)? Or can you go deep on only a couple of issues and miss some other big issues and still get an “A”? Does the professor give points for organization (even if he or she does not, organization is good because it keeps you straight as to what issues you’ve covered)? Could your professor point you to three or four students from last year who got A’s or A+ grades that you might contact? Is the exam open book or closed? Is it all essay or will there be some multiple choice as well? Are most of the questions “issue spotters”? Are any of them “policy questions”? Or does the professor ask that you use policy when a question of law is up in the air to figure out which body of law should be adopted in a jurisdiction?
Ask nicely for all of this stuff (avoid even a hint of confrontational attitude), and don’t be surprised if the professor or the administration (when you ask for the curve) is a bit hesitant. They know that you’re asking about the particular safe deposit box where they keep all of the money, and they’ll be weighing in their minds if giving you this information gives you an unfair advantage over other students.
You want all of this information so that you can put together tools that will allow you to perform well on the exam. A 100-page outline may be too cumbersome to use on the exam, and a 2-page checklist might be better. If the exam is closed book, perhaps you memorize a 1-page checklist that you can jot out as soon as you get into the exam. You aren’t going to know what tools will work for you to pick up the most points, however, unless you engage in the trial and error process now (rather than on the exam when it counts), and hone your tools.
Exam taking is not rocket science. Generally, the people who do well in law school are the people who master the game earlier (within the first two months before your first set of exams) rather than later (third year).