Law School Discussion

To Prepare or Not to Prepare, Part II

To Prepare or Not to Prepare, Part II
« on: June 24, 2010, 02:39:43 PM »
Following the earlier two posts (“Setting the Stage: Or, How to Do Law School Wrong” and “To Prep or Not To Prep,” both in Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold), here is the third.

Again, this is offered for those who are persuadable; I shall not dispute that there are many opinions on this, but I shall herein offer my own.

To Prepare or Not to Prepare, Part II

There is, as they say, a “split of authority” among, well, authorities on this question. Nearly every law school guidebook has some take on this issue, and much the advice is some variation on the Don’t Worry, Be Happy tune. In other words, “There’s no need to ‘pre-study,’ for goodness sakes! Just relax and enjoy yourself before law school. You’ll learn everything you need to once law schools starts.”

This advice is so wrong it’s hard to approach this sufficiently carefully so that you get a sense of just how wrong this really is. Here goes: First, there’s more than a tinge of laziness to this advice. Even if couched in “rest up so you’re ready for the real battle” language, it’s hard to see this as other than, “Goodness, you’re going to be burning out soon, so save your strength!”

If you burn out, it will be because you are studying poorly. Usually, this is because you realize once you start law school just how far behind you already are. And if you burn out, it won’t make a bit of difference whether or not you were rested when you started. Burnout is burnout. The focused, intense approach I discuss is by design and necessity sustainable. It is hard, but it is less hard than what most students do now. And it is the way to avoid burnout. The path of bad-bad-bad study (which nearly everyone assumes is the “right” path) is a near-guarantee for burnout, emotional and spiritual as well as physical and pedagogical. What’s worse, bad study--and bad advice--seem to “fit” our preconceptions better: study hard, take notes, and so on. That sounds right, but…no, no, no.

Reading and color-coding case after case after case--and understanding none of it--and taking bucket-loads of notes in class and then cramming just before finals? Not only won’t it work, but of course you’ll burn out. And, if you do, it will serve your right. Or, knowing that there is an alternative--if you insist on studying badly, it will serve you right. Sorry to be so brusque, but if you want to get into the minds of veteran professors and hiring partners, that is how they will see it: If you don’t “get it”--in time for exams--then that’s just too bad. You don’t count. Literally. If you don’t get it, as measured by grades, you are invisible to these two groups. They’re looking to reward those who do get it, in time.

That is reason number two that you must prepare.

Here’s how the summer-preparation issue was written in another book for law students, Later-in-Life Lawyers: Tips for the Non-Traditional Law Student (which, notably, was a rebuttal to the conventional “wisdom”):

There are perhaps three points: First, if your preference is not to prepare, let it be for more noble reasons than laziness. Law school requires enormous dedication; if you’re not willing to dedicate time now, ask yourself, seriously, whether you’re really going to “make up for it” later. Second, understand that many students are preparing. As they will be your competition in the all-important first year of law school--where absorption of the material is most difficult--do you really want to risk a do-nothing-but-relax-and-be-merry approach? Too, even if advance preparation is not entirely helpful, what if it is partially so? What if, as is likely, it just takes a few times before a legal doctrine makes sense? What if that one extra time before finals would have been the just the right number, for you?

The last point is the third reason. Your goal should be to have a strategic pass under your belt as you get started. Note: this is strategic pass--a 40,000-foot view requiring just a few dozen hours for each subject--not the minutiae that everyone gets hung up on. This overview will help by being a first pass, and it will help by making the second pass “fit” better. The law you then learn during law school will make more sense.

Going into law school “cold” is a nearly certain path to sub-par performance. Is it possible to do well (and thus get the gold) without any preparation? Sure. As a matter of statistics and experience, this happens. But that’s not the way to bet. The odds are already 9-to-1 against you. And there’s something greater at stake: actually knowing the law. It’s one thing to memorize a bunch of stuff…it’s quite another to internalize six sets of hundreds of rules and many hundreds more sub-rules, exceptions, and exceptions-to-exceptions. That is the law. Moreover, to think like a lawyer (and thus do well on exams and in practice), you must know these in your bones, and you must know how to apply them to a new set of facts, cold.  The rules themselves are just the starting point; even if memorized in time, going in cold is still too late for most.

Law professors have a command of the law not just because they’re very, very smart (as indeed they are), but also because they’ve been spending their time on that subject for years, and sometimes decades. In a sense, it’s like the pro who is tossing a ball around with a novice. Because they are pros, it seems effortless. And when compared to the novice, it seems miraculous. In reality, it is neither; practice makes perfect.

A large part of this is the fact that law professors are not learning the law for the first time. You are. Moreover, your professor has the luxury of focusing on one or two areas of the law, while you’re expected to learn six, simultaneously. While obvious, this is more than a mere disadvantage. This is not intended, by the way, to be disparaging of law professors. Rather, it is intended to point a way that should be obvious to you: having studied the basics of the Big Six, you will be miles ahead--and you will be on your way to understanding the law. You still won’t be to the level of the professor (nor should you expect to be), but you’ll be able to hold an intelligent conversation that you simply will not be able to do the first time around. That is the key: knowing enough to be able to put it all into perspective.

You need not know every rule. You need not parse every source. This is a misconception that law students stubbornly cling to. No, no, no. You must know the framework, and you must know the basic rules, exceptions to those rules, and the highlighted exceptions-to-exceptions. And, more importantly than those, you must be able to apply them--which takes us back to the framework.

One frustration in the first year of law practice, by the way, is that most junior associates never seem to get the same type of assignment twice. They’re often bandied about from partner to partner, only adding stress to an already-stressful job. Paradoxically, this only adds to the importance of having that knowledge of the law in your bones, which will prove most helpful in having some sense of what on Earth the project is all about.

So, you should, in a concerted-but-not-overwhelming effort, undertake your first pass before law school; your second pass in law school; and your third pass for the bar exam. The first two passes will be crucial to Getting Good: your exams. Three passes will--as you look back--be just right for your success in your first position: Getting the Gold.

Copyright: Thane Messinger, Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.  All rights reserved.