Welcome to Law School, Part IV

For many students, one of the real horrors of law school is the traditional grading system. For the large majority of your courses, one exam, at the end of the course, determines your whole grade. Some professors will factor in class participation; some professors will use quizzes or short writing assignments or mid-term exams. Legal research and writing courses, seminars, clinics, and practicum courses operate differently. But the bread and butter of law school evaluation is the one-shot essay exam, for all the marbles. Most of these will be in-class three- or four-hour tests, though some professors give take-home essay exams.

Why bother bringing this up two months before school even starts?

Today’s tip: You can improve your performance on essay exams simply by writing well, with good composition skills and clear syntax. When I read exams, I note students’ regular failure to display even the most rudimentary composition skills, stuff that everyone should have learned in high school and mastered in college. (Sadly, today, few do.) How to organize an essay. How to organize a paragraph. How to organize a sentence. How to recognize a sentence. I used to be surprised and disappointed by this; now I’m simply grateful when I find a well-written exam. Badly-written exams don’t automatically score poorly. Well-written exams don’t automatically score well. But good writing and good writing alone puts me in a good grading mood. As my constitutional law professor Paul Brest told us, you don’t want a grumpy person grading your exam.

The more you practice good writing, the more likely it is that you will bring good writing habits into the exam room. (And into your legal research and writing class, which will be the subject of another tip, later in the summer.) Right now, if you have the opportunity to write, pay attention to the craft. It will serve you well. Read good writers (see WTLS, Parts II and III) and study their techniques. If you’re not writing regularly for work or school, you are probably writing regularly somewhere — via email, or messaging, or blogging. Messaging isn’t the place to practice the kind of writing that you’ll use in law school (that’s a tip in itself: don’t write for law school using the style that you use for IM!). But email is. And blogging is. There will be times when email offers the opportunity to craft a well-written paragraph. Take that opportunity. Every blog post is a chance to practice your writing. Organize. Outline. Revise outline. Draft. Revise. Revise again. Post or send. Repeat.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part I: Get fit.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part II: Scientists should read some literature.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part III: Non-scientists should read some science.

3 thoughts on “Welcome to Law School, Part IV

  1. I graduated from the University of Michigan with an English concentration a year ago. It wasn’t until I agreed to facilitate a creative writing workshop at a local prison that I faced my own lack of knowledge about the English language.

    Part of the problem could be blamed on the introductory composition requirements in most colleges. It’s normal for such classes to be almost solely content-based. A knowledge of basic composition is assumed. Even at the University of Michigan, however, most students arrive seriously lacking such basic skills.

    This has been a frustration for me for some time. I graduated from college having generally developed good writing habits, but without real knowledge about how my writing functioned. And as I hinted, it wasn’t until I had to actually teach it, that I buckled down and began learning what I needed to know.

    A recommendation might be to read, and reread, “The Elements of Style.” It’s available for free on the internet at http://www.bartleby.com/141/

    My advice is to start early. It can take time to be able to easily recognize the key elements of sentence structure that are so important to good writing.

  2. If you have time, and are seriously resolved to improve your writing and your use of English generally, you can’t go wrong learning as much Classical Latin as you can. (Or alternatively, if you know well a modern Romance language, try to trace its morphological and syntactical development from the Proto-Romance/Vulgar Latin.

    Learning Latin has caught a lot of flak in our time. So have the Classics generally. They are slighted for being anachronistic or irrelevant. Yet, every time after reading and analyzing Latin sentences I come away feeling I’ve been given the keys to the kingdom. Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, etc., etc., inflection, mode, time, aspect, subjunctive, supine – it really makes you pay attention to what is going on in a sentence -a valuable skill that transfers when reading or writing English. This is not to mention the lexical knowledge that is gained.

    All you have to do, when it comes down to it, is pick up an solid, reliable introductory Latin text like Wheelock’s Latin, and set for yourself a simple week-by-week study plan that would take you from the first declension and the first conjugation, say, up through to the use of these forms.

    I think it would be a great use of the weeks leading up to law school. My major was philosophy in college. I’ve been in the workforce for a number of years. Now I’m thinking of applying next year to law school and trying to learn to read as much Latin as I can until the crush of application time.

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