Welcome to Law School, Part X

This series has focused on things you can do before law school to get ready for law school. Today, I’ve got a final few tidbits, including some points suggested by readers. Later, as the semester starts, I’ll have some suggestions for actually being in law school.

Judging by some comments, my suggestions about reading science (for humanities-minded students) and reading literature (for humanists) were only partly clear. If you took your pre-law school academic discipline(s) seriously, you encountered challenging reading material. If you did a lot of reading in any subject before law school, you’ll be better prepared than students who didn’t. But that’s only part of the point. The more general point has to do with your intellectual preconceptions. Being a lawyer and a law student means opening your mind to completely new ways of looking at the world.

What literature does for scientists is expose them to something that doesn’t always come through in “ordinary” science or engineering studies: The world as we find it doesn’t come in orderly systems, and our task isn’t simply to find and understand those systems. Literature is all about the glorious messiness of the world, and it’s important to see the value in that messiness. A lot of people arrive at law school expecting to learn “the law,” and in “the law” they expect to find an orderly set of principles, nicely sequenced and indexed and internally coherent. Sometime during law school, and usually during the first semester, these people realize that “the law” isn’t so orderly, or sequenced, or coherent. My experience is that well-trained scientists and engineers are more likely to come looking for order and to have more trouble dealing with the law’s obvious disorder. Read literature; embrace messiness.

What science does for humanists is the reverse. The humanities and non-quantitative social sciences are absorbed in the eccentric, the idiosyncrasy that makes us truly human. Science looks for order in that apparent chaos. Scientists and engineers are trained to abstract and build systems. The world of law is, at least formally, an effort to systematize and regularize the inherent messiness of human affairs. Sure, every case stands on its own facts, and in law school we obsess about factual details. Where’s the humanity in the case? What makes it compelling? But it’s important to learn to stand back and see the order in a group of cases that appears at first to be a set of unrelated narratives. My experience is that the English majors have the most difficult time with this, building structures when they initially see only detail. Read science; learn to appreciate systems.

Other, more pragmatic thoughts:

1 — For the “older” law student (read “older” according to your own criteria): You may feel out of place socially. If you’ve been out of school for a while, you may feel out of place academically. If you look for jobs via the standard law school interviewing process, you will be uncomfortable with employers’ explicit and implicit focus on youth and reluctance to acknowledge non-law-related experience. As a teacher, however, I love having you around the building, and I love having you in class. I love the fact that you know something about life beyond college, about raising families and building careers, borrowing money, and flying commercial airplanes and running hotels and managing (or playing in) rock ‘n’ roll bands. I love the fact that if I mention John Wayne in class (as I did once, about 8 years ago), you may know who that is. And I love the fact that you have the courage to come back to school. So welcome. If you’re anxious about law school and need someone to come talk to, feel free to come talk to me.

2 — For the “traditional” (fresh out of college) law student: Respect the fact that some of your classmates know something about the world. You can learn from them, both during law school and afterward.

3 — Don’t be (unduly) intimidated by your professors. A lot of law professors, like a lot of other professors, and like a lot of lawyers, have huge egos. There are a lot of us out there, though — and not just the younger and/or newer faculty — who don’t see it as our mission to show off what we know to a bunch of newbie lawyers. We really do want to populate the legal profession with people who are going to enjoy it and be successful at whatever they choose to do after graduating. And we’re willing to help you get there, with introductions, recommendation letters, and the occasional phone call. There are too many students and too few faculty for us to do that sort of thing for everyone. But more important, it’s difficult for us to do that at all if we don’t know you other than as “Mr. Smith” on a seating chart. If you want to stop by my office during office hours and ask for help clearing up a concept that got muddied during class, that’s fine. That’s what office hours are for. The students who stick out in my mind, though, and the students I end up wanting to help, are the ones who take an interest in getting to know me a little bit, and who let me get to know them. I’ll remember you at graduation, and I’ll remember you afterward.

4 — 1, 2, and 3 share a theme: Law school is partly about starting to build a personal and professional network. You don’t need to be cynical and manipulative about this. In fact, you shouldn’t be. But your law school classmates and some of your professors are people you likely will know, know of, and at least follow for the rest of your lives. These are people who may be your friends; they may refer business to you; they may help you find another job. You can spend three years in school being anxious, hyper-competitive and generally unpleasant, or you can be sociable and generous and graduate with a group of people who will want to call you a colleague as well as a classmate. You get to choose, and the choosing starts at the beginning of your first semester.

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.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part IV: Write.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part V: On law school prep classes.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part VI: On taking law school exams.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part VII: On grades.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part VIII: More books to read, and movies to watch.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part IX: Outside reading: Remember who you are.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to Law School, Part X

  1. Excellent advice! I especially wish someone on the faculty had told me no. 1 on my first day of school (assuming any of them really felt that way).

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