Frequently Asked Questions About Law School
I'm thinking about going to law school. Should I?
As a general rule of thumb, you should only go to law school if you can correctly answer the following two questions:
- Do I want to be a practicing attorney?
- Do I know what being a practicing attorney means?
Regarding the first question, you need to know that American law schools are strictly in the business of training future lawyers. Period. That's it. They are not about teaching "the law," or exploring questions about law and public policy. They are about equipping potential attorneys with the tools they will use in law practice -- how to think compartmentally, how to write a good legal argument. Think of them as trade schools for lawyers.
If you want to go to law school because you want to study law or because you have always been fascinated by constitutional issues or because "you can do a lot of things with a law degree" or because your parents want you to go or because you really like watching Law & Order or Boston Legal, none of these are good reasons to invest three years of your life, and upwards of $100,000 of your money, in law school.
Simply put, you go to law school to train to become a lawyer. If you do not want to become a lawyer, you do not go to law school.
As for question two, that depends on how you answer the first question.
You may think you want to be a practicing lawyer, but how do you really know? Watching Sam Waterston's character will not exactly give you the insight you really need. Finding a job or an internship in a law office, on the other hand, will. So will talking to practicing attorneys about what their job is like and what their life is like.
And that's where the Political Science Department's Pre-Law advising comes in. We are not only going to help you decide whether law school is an appropriate destination, we are going to try and put you in contact with other people - active professionals - who can contribute to this process for you.
What you're really doing here is embarking on a kind of a research project. Your question is whether or not to go to law school. In order to answer that question, you need to gather data. Data on what law school is like, what being an attorney is like. The Pre-Law Advisor can help you gather this data, but you have to be committed to the research project.
What if I don't want to be a lawyer, but I think that a law degree would be helpful me in the profession I do want to pursue?
This is the only exception to the rule that you should not go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer. However, the exception only applies as long as you know that you need the law degree in your chosen field.
In other words, don't go to law school just because you think the degree will help; you may be taking on an unnecessary set of burdens. On the other hand, if someone in your desired profession has advised you that you really need to have a law degree on your résumé in order to break into the field, then you should go to law school. (For example, students who wish to become lobbyists hear this a lot.)
This is especially true if the person telling you that you need the law degree has assured you that a job will be waiting for you when you graduate from law school.
It is even more especially true if this person is offering to help financially underwrite your legal education! Rare, but it happens.
What if I want to use my law degree for public interest advocacy?
Wonderful! You should definitely consider law school.
But you should have no illusions about what you are up against. Law school is an awfully expensive proposition, but there's not a lot of money to be made in public interest advocacy. You may end up with significant student loan debt without an income sufficient to pay it off. (Then again, many law schools will offer public interest law scholarships. And there are loan forgiveness programs for public interest work.)
Also note that most law schools predominantly funnel students into corporate practice or government work. And most of your colleagues will have opted to go to law school precisely because they want to be funneled in these directions.
This means that, as a public interest-minded person, in law school you will be swimming upstream against a multidimensional current of institutional pressures leading you away from where you are hoping to go. It also means that there may be very few people who share your interests among your student colleagues, and your lack of kinship with their priorities can make for a very lonely existence.
Having said this, if public interest law is what makes you passionate, then you should absolutely go for it. This career will be exceptionally rewarding (in a professional and emotional sense, if not a fiscal sense), and the struggles will be worth it. If you know that you will have the requisite motivation and commitment, including a strong work ethic, then let's get you into the law school that fits your goals!
What are the most important things I need to get accepted into law school?
In order of importance (most to least):
- Good grades and LSAT scores
- Good writing skills
- Strong letters of recommendation
- Interesting extracurricular activities
Grades and LSAT are self-explanatory; same for extracurriculars. As for writing ability, this is the most important skill you can develop while in college. It will contribute to getting good grades and it will also help on the personal statement you have to write for your law school application. So you should be taking courses at Ship in which you are asked to write essays. You can take courses in any subject that interests you; just make sure that you are being pushed to write in them.
Strong recommendation letters can only be written by professors who know you well, and who know your work. You should be making it a point to develop relationships with your professors. Don't just show up for class and be anonymous. Ask questions. Drop in during office hours.
Should I choose a law school based on where I want to live and practice?
Probably. If you attend one of the "elite law schools," you should be able to ride that law degree to a career in any city in the country. But if you are not attending one of the "elite law schools," this means that your school will have a good reputation locally or perhaps even regionally, but no further. In such cases, your job prospects will invariably be confined to that general area where the school and its graduates are known and well-regarded.
This means that you must realistically assess your credentials during the application process. (FYI, that's what your Pre-Law Advisor is for; so don't go it alone!)
If you have a stellar GPA and an LSAT score in the mid-170s, you can go anywhere for law school and for law practice. But if you have a so-so GPA and LSAT score, you should tailor your applications according to where you might want to eventually live. Don't waste your application fee on a school in a city you know you would not want to live in full-time after you graduate.
What courses will I take in law school?
American legal education is a standardized process, especially the first-year curriculum. With only a handful of exceptions, all first-year law students, no matter what law school they attend, are assigned the following classes: Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Property, and Torts. Some of these courses will last for the full year; others will last only one semester.
In addition to these substantive courses, all first-year law students will take a course on Legal Research and Writing. There is also a required course in legal ethics, usually called "Professional Responsibility."
The odd thing, though, is that the "first-year curriculum" is usually too big for the first year (especially if some of the classes are year-long). This means that part of the "first-year" curriculum has to be held aside until the second year and law school is only a three-year process!
Most law schools do not give students discretion in scheduling the first-year curriculum. The first-year courseload is assigned by the law school. You will take Torts when your law school tells you to take Torts.
However, this set of required courses is not the end of your course requirements. In addition to this boilerplate first-year curriculum, there is a series of other courses that you essentially "have to" take, even though they may not be official requirements because a failure to take them will look very odd to prospective employers.
For example, if you want to interview for a job in a prosecutor's office, you need courses such as Evidence, Criminal Procedure, and Federal Courts on your transcript. Or, if you want to interview for a job in a private firm, you need courses such as Corporations, Tax, Secured Transactions, and Bankruptcy. In fact, some law schools formally require some of these courses; Evidence and Corporations are the most prevalent examples.
Outside of the "first-year" curriculum, you do have some flexibility. If your law school doesn't formally require you to take Corporations, for example, you can opt to take it in your second or third year, in the fall or the spring (subject, of course, to the professor's schedule). You will also have some opportunities to take non-standardized electives and seminars. But keep in mind that between all of your official and your de facto required courses, there just aren't that many remaining "slots" in your three-year schedule for electives.
What are law school classes like?
Law classes have a couple of distinguishing features. First, when you are a first-year student (also known as a "1L"), you take all of your first-year classes with the same people. The typical law school entering class is divided up into "sections" - you will be placed in a section, and you will take all of your initial classes together.
In addition, your first-year classes will usually be large lectures. An exception to this is Legal Writing, which is usually offered as a smaller workshop (here, your classmates will be a subset of the same people with whom you are taking those large lectures).
Another distinguishing feature, though not a universal feature, is something called the Socratic Method.
Law professors who employ the Socratic Method teach by announcing that the class will now cover a particular assigned case and then randomly call on a student, who is then supposed to recite what happened, the facts, the legal issues presented, the eventual ruling, etc. Invariably, the student will be interrupted by the professor, who will proceed to pose questions that the student is expected to answer.
Here's the bad news: the Socratic Method is the source of countless horror stories about law students being unmercifully grilled by professors who seem to delight in making students squirm purportedly to train them to "think on their feet," but more likely out of overt malevolence.
Many law students also grouse about unofficial Socratic techniques such as "Hide the Ball," in which the professor withholds a key fact from their target, but expects the target to anticipate certain arguments anyway.
Now the good news: although these horror stories tend to be more truth than mere urban legend, the Socratic Method has fallen into happy disuse in recent times. Very few professors actually employ it. Plus, many professors who do use it opt for a kinder, gentler version of it: they will alert a student in advance that they should come to the next class "prepared" to be "on call" for a given case.
You may well get through your entire law school career without encountering a single professor who utilizes the Socratic Method. If, however, you do end up with a professor who does utilize it, well, just make sure you are prepared at all times.
How are law school grades determined?
In college, you are accustomed to having multiple chances to show your professor what you can do.
Not in law school.
In most cases (especially in required courses), your grade in a given class will be determined by your performance on a single final exam. Sometimes, you may have a midterm. But the days of having your final course grade be the result of several papers and/or exams assigned over the course of the semester are over.
So you should not expect to have the chance to "make up for" one paper that you bombed. Nor should you expect to get feedback about how you are doing in a class. If there's only a final exam, there won't be any indicia of progress during the semester. Generally, you will get one shot, and if you don't do well on that one shot, you're stuck.
How should I study?
The most important piece of advice is this: do not fall behind in your reading.
Look, the law school workload is heavy, and if you fall behind, chances to "catch up" are few. Blow off a couple of reading assignments, and you're soon going to be frantically pedalling up a very steep hill.
And, heaven help you if your professor is Socratic, and you get called on in class on a day when you haven't done the assigned readings.
Another good tip is to learn how to "brief" a case. For every case in your reading assignment, and cases are the overwhelming majority of what you will be asked to read, write an outline that contains a summary of the fact pattern, the holding in the case, the key legal arguments, and the relevant precedents that controlled. If the case you're reading specifically reaffirms a precedent (or criticizes one, or overturns one), include that, too.
You are also well-advised to form study groups with your classmates. Not only will other students have insights about the cases that you may have missed, study groups are an excellent way of apportioning case-briefing labor (you could agree to take two cases in that night's assignment, someone else could take two others, etc.).
What are law school exams like? And what's this "I.R.A.C." thing?
Your exam will consist of two or three (sometimes more) hypothetical cases that the professor has drawn up. Each separate case will have a complicated and multi-pronged fact pattern, which will touch on several concepts that were covered over the course of the semester. Your assignment will be to identify each legal issue that is raised, and explain how and why it will be resolved.
"I.R.A.C." is the technique you should use to tackle these monsters; the acronym stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion.
For each component of the hypothetical case on your exam, you will do the following: (1) identify the issue presented; (2) announce what rule should be used to resolve the given issue; (3) painstakingly detail how the rule is to be applied, including which party will prevail; and then (4) neatly summarize everything in a pithy concluding paragraph.
The good news about this mode of exam-taking is that it is straightforward. In fact, you will eventually become somewhat robotic in your approach to law school exams. The bad news is you will eventually become somewhat robotic in your approach to law school exams.
One last thing, make absolutely sure you stick to the "I.R.A.C." method. Deviation from this method will cause the professor to suspect that you don't know the relevant rule and that's a guaranteed one-way ticket to BadGradeVille.
Should I talk about policy on a law school exam?
Absolutely not. Unless the exam specifically asks for policy discussion (and it probably won't), policy discussion is an exam-taking no-fly zone in law school.
Consider this sample exam hypothetical, which could be asked in your Torts class:
Harry Homeowner owns a swimming pool, and has fenced it in, with a sign on the fence that says "No Trespassing - Private Property" in big red letters. One cold November day, while Harry is at work, Tommy Towhead, the seven-year-old boy who lives next door, wanders out of his house. Tommy's parents are home and should be watching him, but they are getting high on meth and do not notice Tommy wandering out the door. Tommy goes to Harry's pool, sees the sign, and reads it out loud (and is heard reading it out loud by another neighbor across the street). Nevertheless, Tommy heads for the diving board, and dives into the pool. However, since it is a cold November day, the pool has been drained of water. Tommy hits the bottom of the pool headfirst, breaks his neck, and is paralyzed.
Your only tasks on this exam question are to identify the salient legal issues and resolve them using the relevant precedents: who will win, and why? (That's where I.R.A.C. comes in.)
Now, you may see some interesting policy questions here. Why should Harry Homeowner be liable, given that Tommy was trespassing and that Tommy's parents were getting high instead of watching him? Is this a good way for society to apportion risk? Is it a good policy to force Tommy's parents to have to foot the bill for medical care that will last a lifetime? Is it really a better policy to pass those costs on to Harry Homeowner, since his insurance company will respond to these costs by raising premiums for everyone (thus, the costs are ultimately borne by the general public)?
These are all intriguing questions. Do not bring them up on the exam.
Your law school professor is trying to determine if you know the relevant rules and cases. The moment you raise a policy issue on a law school exam, you are inviting the professor to think that you don't know the law and that you are trying to bluff your way through the test. That will get you downgraded.
If you want to fulminate on the flaws in the doctrine of "Attractive Nuisance" (which is the relevant standard in the case of Towhead v. Homeowner), or argue how the doctrine marginalizes certain segments of society, or propose an alternative method of allocating risk, you should go to graduate school, and/or try to get a job somewhere where such questions are tackled.
Remember, law school is not about policy; it is about How To Be A Lawyer, and, unless otherwise instructed, you should approach your exams with that mindset.
What is Law Review, and why will my classmates freak out about it?
Law Reviews are the scholarly journals that the law schools put out. Depending on the school, issues of the Law Review come out quarterly, or monthly, or on some other timetable. The main articles in Law Reviews are written by law professors (and by political scientists!). Most journals will also publish student-authored "notes," although some journals notoriously do not identify the author of their student notes (Harvard Law Review, e.g.). Law Reviews are student-run and student-edited; there will be a faculty advisor, but the publication decisions are made by the student editors of the Law Review.
Here's why your classmates will obsess about Law Review: having a Law Review editorship is a major boon on a résumé.
Law Review editorships are honorific; students are selected to become editors based on superior academic performance. Only students with top grades are offered editorships.
In many cases, a limited number of slots on Law Review will be also opened up to a writing competition, in which competitors will be asked to write a brief for one of the sides in a pending Supreme Court case (or in a fictional case), and the Law Review's editorial board will pick the winners. Some schools include grades in their assessment of the writing competition; other schools just look at the briefs and never consider the writer's grades.
The prestige is not the only attraction (though, let's face it, law students can be a self-obsessed bunch, and anything that strokes their ego will be seen as desirable). Students who "make Law Review" get more job interviews, get interviews at more prestigious law firms, government offices, and private companies, and get more job offers.
Law Review isn't desirable because of the glamour of the actual work. Editors spend most of their time meticulously checking every citation in every article they decide to publish, which is nothing more than grunt work. Law Review is desirable as a status symbol, and as a credential that will unlock myriad employment doors.
Most law schools have more than one law journal. Usually, even these "lesser" journals are subjected to a selection process -- you can't just decide you want to be on the journal and join up (although this may be true in some cases). Being on a journal's editorial board, even if it is not "the" Law Review, is certainly a nice thing to be able to put on your résumé. Of course, there are levels of prestige for all of the various journals and employers take those differences into account.
What is Moot Court, and should I do it?
Moot Court looks something like a collegiate or high school mock trial competition, in that it features student-attorneys arguing a case before a panel of "judges." The panel is often made up of local attorneys or other legal practitioners; you may even get real judges sitting in.
There is one major difference between high school or college mock trial competitions, and Moot Court. The cases in high school or college mock trial often take place at the trial level, meaning that the attorneys are weighing how to present certain evidence, questioning witnesses, and giving jury summations.
By contrast, law school Moot Court competitions are usually appellate arguments. This means that Moot Court competitors will be playing a role not unlike that of Supreme Court advocates. Rather than dealing with the nuts-and-bolts of a trial, Moot Court competitors will brief an issue of constitutional significance and argue their position before the panel of judges.
This is not to say that the competitors will be get to make a speech. Instead, the lawyer will be interrupted by one of the judges, usually within moments. Moot Court attorneys can come prepared with a script all they want; they should just be prepared to depart from the script almost immediately.
Moot Court is definitely a valuable experience. It might well be one of the best ways to learn how to "think on your feet" (it is certainly a better means of acquiring this skill than being the unwilling subject in a Socratic professor's dialectic experiment). If you think that you want to become a litigator, Moot Court is a virtual must-do in your law school career. It will help you develop important skills and future potential employers will be looking for it on your résumé.
But even if you intend to be the kind of attorney that never sets foot inside a courtroom, Moot Court is still a worthwhile activity, because you at least learn techniques in organizing cases and arguments.
And yes, Moot Court competitions have winners. When you apply for a job, it will surely be nice to have a line on your résumé announcing that you won an "Outstanding Advocate" or "Best Brief" award!
What is a clinical program, and should I pursue one?
A clinical program is a program that allows law students to represent actual clients (typically indigent and/or criminal clients), under close supervision by attorneys. Students do everything attorneys do (except bill for their time), including drafting pleadings, negotiating, and appearing in court.
Why do it? Most law school classes are geared toward teaching you broad legal concepts, and how to "think like a lawyer." That's important stuff to know, but it is also important to learn some practical information and skills. Clinical programs teach you how to be a lawyer, how to deal with clients, how to deal with opposing attorneys, how to prepare for and conduct a trial, how to resolve ethical issues, etc.
Also, if you are attending law school in the area where you ultimately plan to practice, a clinical program will give you a chance to learn local process, things like the steps in a divorce case, eviction procedures, etc.
Finally, clinical programs, like any kind of employment, will provide you with contacts that will help you develop your career.
What is a judicial clerkship, and should I apply for one?
A judicial clerkship is kind of like a paid internship with a judge, which you get after you graduate law school. Law clerks spend their year doing legal research for the judge, and in many cases clerks even help with the initial drafts of judicial opinions.
Clerkships are very valuable experiences, for a number of reasons. They are a marvelous learning tool, and the mentoring relationship you can have with your judge is irreplaceable. They also look terrific on a résumé when you are applying for a job.
Lower court clerkships can be parlayed into even more prestigious clerkships on higher courts, in federal court, and in the most exceptional cases on the U.S. Supreme Court (but for those, you pretty much need to have attended one of the top five or six law schools in the country).
Clerkships are not something you need to worry about at the start of your law school career, since they are not available to you until after you graduate. But if you are interested in them, you should probably start asking your law school advisor about them some time during your second year.
What should I do with my summer "vacation" while I'm in law school?
Work. Not as a camp counselor, or waiting tables, or on your novel, or on your tan. You need to get a job in a law office, either as a "summer associate" in a law firm, or as an intern in a governmental agency, or as a legal staffer in an advocacy organization.
You need to work for two reasons. First, you have to get some experience. Not only do you need to start developing your skill set as an attorney, but you also need to decide if (for example) private practice is the work environment you want to ultimately pursue.
The second reason you need to work is that in many cases, these summer jobs are your entry into full-time post-graduation employment. Not everyone ends up working permanently in one of the offices they summered at, but a lot of people do. So your summer jobs are both learning experiences and foot-in-the-door experiences. In each case, they are overwhelmingly important.
How do law students get jobs?
Job hunting is done in conjunction with your law school's Placement Office (it might be called the Career Office or something similar).
For openers, your law school's Placement Office is a clearinghouse for job listings; law offices send notices of their openings here. Most importantly, it is your primary resource for job hunting advice: how to draft a résumé and cover letter, how to prepare for an interview, how to target your job search, etc.
The best thing that you can do for your career once you get to law school is to get to know the people in your school's Placement Office, and to do so right away.
Even if you just walk in to introduce yourself to a counselor, and ask them what you need to be doing, that's a good start. In fact, don't be afraid to ask them if there are any questions that they think you should be asking. Remember, you are entering a brand new environment, and you really don't know how things work or what is considered to be important. Finding out what you need to ask is just as important as finding out the answers.