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To Prep or Not To Prep

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Thane Messinger:
This is the second of three posts (the other two being “Setting the Stage: Or, How to Do Law School Wrong” and “To Prepare or Not To Prepare, Part II,” both in Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold).

Again, this is from the manuscript, so there might be slight changes in the book itself:

To Prep or Not To Prep

One debate of sorts that rages--well, simmers--among advice-givers is whether a student should prepare before starting law school, and, if so, how. One camp, which might be labeled the Don’t Worry, Be Happy school of jurisprudence, argues that it’s pointless to study and that it’s more important to be fresh and ready for the adventures to come. The other camp--filled with Type-A overachievers (which includes much of law school populations)--proclaims the opposite: “Goodness, you have to prepare! You’ll be lost!! Why aren’t you done yet!!! Where’s my Prozac!!!!”

The first camp is not the camp to be in. If you decide not to prepare you will be way, way behind and lost. It might be useful, however, to discuss why this is true, so that the importance of preparation will make sense, and so that you’ll know what and how to prepare, in a way that is manageable and beneficial. You should enjoy your summer before law school (as you should enjoy all summers). But you absolutely should not blow off preparing for what’s to come.

Advice-givers of this camp assert, often strenuously, that any pre-study is pointless. “You won’t know what to study!” “You’ll study the wrong things!” “Everything you need to know you’ll learn when you get there!”

Wrong on all counts.  First, you will know what to study. How? Because that is the way of the law. Any good attorney can tell you at least the main points of every first-year subject. Look at the table of contents of any commercial outline, hornbook, or casebook, and you will see…exactly the same major concepts, for every course. The law, to be the law, must be predictable. It must be structured. This is (or should be) the essence of the study of law too.

So, as to points one and two (“You won’t know what to study!” “You’ll study the wrong things!”), you will know exactly what to study, and you will not study the wrong things. If, for example, we look at Contracts, you will find that every single contract undergoes the same basic tests: formation, legality, breach, damages--leading to the insight that, gee, wouldn’t it be useful to begin thinking about these topics, at least in the most overarching of ways.

To those who say, “…But your profs might focus on different areas of the law!”  First, no they won’t. Law professors are not only uniformly trained at the top law schools, they are expected to cover the major areas of each discipline. Second, these major areas are “well-settled,” a term of art in the law meaning that everyone knows what’s what, and everyone also knows what is to be covered. They are the legal “canon,” or near-sacred text of what is accepted as basic among the profession. Third, might a professor deviate on one point or another? Sure. The answer? It doesn’t matter. Even if they do deviate, it’s not likely to be more than a minor difference of emphasis. Actually, even this doesn’t go far enough: especially if they deviate, “pre-study” becomes more, not less, valuable. The more you know about the general framework of that area of the law, the more you will recognize the differences--and deviations. It is the difference between a novice and intermediate player. Not yet expert, but a world of difference between the two.

So, in short, you should begin preparation in a careful way: you should begin laying out the major headings for your master outlines. You will have six: Contracts, Property, Torts, Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law. Even if there is a difference in your first-year courses, which is unlikely, it would be highly unlikely that any of these will go to waste. Even if your law school pushes one to the second year, let’s say, you’ve “wasted” perhaps a few dozen hours’ time. We’re not talking about a huge amount of work. It’s less time than you’ll spend on the LSAT, by far.

An example of a first-level heading for, say, Contracts is Formation. Once you have the first-level headings, you should being the process of delving into the second-level headings, which begin to flesh out the subject. So, under Formation you might have Offer, Acceptance, Consideration, and Legality. The third-level headings under Offer will run through a number of tests, such as (1) Commitment (2) communicated to an (3) Identified Offeree with (4) definite terms. Each of those terms will be fourth-level headings, so, for example, a commitment is an objective test in which the question is whether a reasonable person hearing words under similar circumstances would believe the sender intended a contract.

Notice what is happening. In just a few minutes you’re laying the groundwork for an understanding of black letter Contract Law. As you move forward in the course, you will add detail to explain each of those phrases and terms. Moreover, when you define the term objective test, for example, you will be defining a term that applies across legal disciplines. You will, to put it bluntly, be learning a foundational definition for dozens of exams.

Yeah. Preparation is important. And what you are learning in class will make far more sense because it will fit within a framework you have already built, and have re-chewed a few times. Before your very first class, you already know, for example, there’s a basic question in Contract Law of how a contract is formed. So, if your professor delves immediately into a discussion of, say, Texaco v. Pennzoil, you won’t be lost wondering what on Earth an oral contract has to do with a billion-dollar dispute. Instead, you’ll be saying (silently!) to yourself, “Of course! How could they have been so dumb?”

Indeed. A billion-dollar dispute (and a billion-dollar bankruptcy) because a roomful of bigwigs forgot a first-year law school lesson in what makes a contract. That is the level of comprehension you should aim for, and your outlines--which you should start before law school--are a key to getting there.

Also, isn’t this more fun? Isn’t it better to know what the professor is talking about, and to be able to appreciate it…rather than slinking from class to class in a fog? If you neglect your outlines for even a few days, a fog it will be.

Note from a Top 2 [Yale Law School] reviewer: “And a fog it was. Boy do I wish I had done this.”

Note #2: there is not a single right way to build your outline. You might, for example, have Consideration as a first-level heading, or another second-level heading Termination Before Acceptance?, or some such. That doesn’t matter. It’s on a computer. You can switch it around if you don’t like it. And your professor will appreciate the sophisticated structural question you’ll ask if you do need to ask.

How to get started? Follow the primers and commercial outlines. Note #3: Your job is not to simply copy it. Commercial texts will have lots of detail that won’t make sense (such as cases and tertiary rules). Skip that, for now. You need, instead, to build the framework, into which you will later add the wiring, walls, outlets, paint, and so on. This isn’t so much “getting a head start” as it is getting ready to start off right. Once law school starts, you’ll have very little time to backtrack. And, by definition, backtracking is a poor use of time.

I will recommend, again, that you read Planet Law School. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that this is one of two sources I will recommend you use multiple times. For your preliminary work, focus on chapter 16 (especially pp. 432-42; 452-56; and 458-468). Follow the advice there and read, or ignore, whichever parts of the book don’t apply (yet). This advice--to go to another book for advice--might be viewed as a bit odd (and, no, I’m not the author of Planet Law School), but that misses the point. This is part of a broader lesson of efficiency: take advantage of the best of what is already out there. The materials recommended in Planet Law School are the materials you should have--and read; it would be pointless to simply restate them and the points he makes, less well, here. (Not to mention unethical.) The broader point is that Planet Law School is correct: preparation is important. It need not and should not be extreme, but it should be substantial, and concerted.

One other source you might look at, and this one I did have a hand in, are the Great Law Books pages at These include a number of references that you might find interesting or useful as to prepare for the LSAT, application process, or law school itself. In most cases, I suggest you borrow these books from the library--there’s no point to waste money better spent on future pizzas, yes?

Okay then. Ready for law school?

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

I have been preparing by spending my summer reading. I try to read 1000 pages a week, it was advised by a professor when I visited the campus

Thane Messinger:

--- Quote from: trudawg on July 13, 2010, 01:10:24 PM ---I have been preparing by spending my summer reading. I try to read 1000 pages a week, it was advised by a professor when I visited the campus

--- End quote ---

trudawg & All -

This can be fine, but it's important not to focus on "reading."  Law school is not (just) a volume event.  There is no credit for number of pages read.

So, if I might add to the prof's advice, what's most crucial is to understand the concepts that will be covered in class (and on exams).  This often comes with relatively modest reading, taken in bites, rather than a "slogfest" approach.  Once you're in law school, if it's just about the drudgery of reading 100,000 pages over the semester, it will be (a drudgery that is), and it won't help nearly as much as most assume it will.  Law school is about quality of thinking, not quantity of seat time, drudgery, or anything else.


Good Point Thane!

I don't know if I agree with that 100%. It is very possible you could learn something the wrong way and be set in it before it is introduced to you. For example RAP is extremly complicated and you could study that for hours and learn it wrong somehow making up rules that are completely wrong. I think without the guidance of a professor you can hurt yourself. 

Some concepts are pretty basic consideration, negligence etc. Those basic things might be worth exposing yourself to just to have a grasp of it, but I think some of it could be learned the wrong way if you do independent study.  That is just my opinion, but you make good points like you said it is a controversial issue and I am sure there are people that succeed using that method and others that don't. 

I personally think the most important thing you can do is learn the IRAC formula before starting school and how important issue spotting is.  I think so many people focus on learning the law and not how to properly answer a question that sometimes the brightest people don't get the highest grades. IRAC and Issue Spotting is not even very complicated, but learning to properly organize your answers and just writing a law school exam is the most beneficial thing you can do in my opinion.


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