Tips for surviving law school

As you approach law school, remember this: by design, law school is pulling you in two different directions, and people who cope with that tension well will thrive. Your professors are teaching you “The Law” and “How to Think Like A Lawyer.” They might debate among themselves which of those is their primary task, and you will very shortly be informed by an array of practicing lawyers that they utterly fail to teach you either one. But if you recognize that these two objectives are at play, and learn how to balance them, you will be on your way to law school success.

One aspect of your education will to learn “The” law. Notice the odd phrasing of this endeavor. Nobody goes to school to study “the” medicine. Or “the” business. Not even “the” physics. There is something about this course of study that leads people to use the definite article “the” in front of “law” to describe the arena in which lawyers ply their craft. Perhaps it is simply self-importance, as if “the law” is some sort of shorthand to let the world know that this is the only all-unifying course of study out there. As if the curriculum is “the truth.”

But there is something to this. More than our friends in the business schools, people will assume that the law degree means that you know certain concrete and objectively verifiable things. It will not be long after even starting law school that you will start to get those questions from friends and relatives about whether “The Law” allows this, that, or the other thing. It means, in fairly stark terms that you might not find in some other graduate programs, that there most definitely is a right answer to many questions.

So within the confines of knowing that the law can change, recognize that there are certain legal principles and rules that your professors are trying to get you to understand.

Why, you might ask, is that so difficult? Because there is a second objective at play in your law school education, and it is diametrically opposed to the belief that “the law” is worthy of study. And that is that your professors are charged with the task of getting you to think like a lawyer. At its best, thinking like a lawyer means that you constantly question and challenge what you are hearing. Thinking like a lawyer means that even when “the law” seems to point you in a certain direction, a good lawyer is always thinking to herself, “yes, but….”

How does this all translate into tips for surviving law school? Because navigating the path between “the law” and “thinking like a lawyer” is the route that you must take to translate your classroom experiences into examination performance. Your professor might spend an entire class period fleshing out a particular obscure rule of property law including an in-depth exercise in thinking like a lawyer about how it makes little sense in today’s world, or leads to odd results, or seems unjust in certain applications.

A successful law school student will be able, on an exam, to approach that problem from both perspectives: to know the rule and apply it correctly, but to also be capable of explaining the weaknesses in the rule, the ways that rule might be attacked, the inconsistencies between that rule and the rule taught the following week. A student who masters “thinking like a lawyer” will begin and end every exam question with “it depends.” A student who masters only the black letter rule will miss the point that being a lawyer means more than reciting rules, it means applying rules and constantly engaging in counterargument and challenging assumptions. A student who masters both, and can summon either skill on demand, beats either of the others.