Book Review: Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Law School Experience By Students, for Students by Robert H. Miller

Summary. The book Law School Confidential (affiliate link), by Robert H. Miller, now in its third edition as of 2011, is a popular, ranked second on Amazon for the search "law school." I bought a copy when I decided to focus more heavily on becoming a law school tutor. But is it a good advice book? My evasive answer: there are better books out there on how to do well in law school, such as Planet Law School, but this book is not terrible.

There is a lot of helpful general information in Law School Confidential (and there are even some terrific passages, I will admit), but overall my sense is that overall the book simply repeats much of what is conventional wisdom about law school.

Be clear what Law School Confidential is not -- it is not a manual for succeeding on law school exams. There is not a single page of advice on precisely how to write an excellent law school exam, i.e., one that will convince your professor to give you some kind of an A. There is some general advice on how one prepares for exams, but not what to look for or what to write or how to write an answer on an exam. To me, this is a big lacuna in a book devoted to law school success.

The Good About Law School Confidential

Let me back up a moment -- I do have some good things to say about Law School Confidential.

First, it is a post-apocalypse treatment of whether to go to law school, and is full of a lot of sensible information. That is, this book was revised after the great implosion of the legal job market in late 2008. I think much of the book fairly reflects the new post-apocalyptic reality.

Second, Law School Confidential is very well organized, well laid-out, and easy to read. This may sound like faint praise, but good organization and good graphic design matter. You want a book to be easy to read and approachable, and this is extremely easy to find what you need or learn, very quickly, what this book does not provide. (By contrast, Planet Law School -- a book I otherwise regard as substantively superior to this one -- is poorly organized.)

Third, the book is comprehensive and starts from the basics. The book covers everything from the application process to law school itself to graduating and passing the bar. Miller does not assume that you know anything about law school, so you can read this and really grasp the basics about what it takes to apply to law school, choose a good one, excel, and graduate.

Fourth, I do like and agree with much of the specific advice Law School Confidential gives. For instance, at pages 150 to 154, the book suggests that you avoid writing case briefs because it is a colossal waste of time. I could not agree more. Miller also suggests, at pages 135 to 136, that you purchase certain supplements and read them no matter what the professor says (and they are usually tell you not to buy them). I also agree completely -- reading cases and allowing the professor and a confused student to scramble your brains with the Socratic method are not recipes for success.

Fifth, and finally, there are a couple of interviews that alone are worth the cover price of Law School Confidential. One is an interview (at pages 51 to 72) with Cornell Law Schools' admissions officer, and another is an interview with two heads of recruiting for major law firms (see pages 284 to 313). I doubt interviews full of such valuable information are available in free, public sources; not that I have seen, at least.

The Bad About Law School Confidential

First, as I mentioned in my summary, my major complaint about this book is the lack of concrete tips concerning how to write good law school exams or, failing that, any advice as to where I else I can turn beyond this book on how to get such tips.

How did Miller get good grades? Do I use the IRAC method? Do I take Wentworth Miller's LEEWS class (no relation to Robert H. Miller)? Should I read Getting to Maybe? Should I just do nothing?

Not a word.

In the only couple of pages dedicated to "Examsmanship" (pages 212 to 216) there is very general advice, such as "budget your time" because the failure to do so is the "most common and most destructive exam mistake made by first-year students." (p. 213). True enough. Also, the book suggests taking time to just read the question and to spend time outlining an answer before actually writing it. Again, totally agree as to both points

But what and how do I write on the exam? Law School Confidential doesn't say. Assume that I budget my time and read the question and outline an answer. What should the answer look like? What is a good answer? What is a bad answer? Again, silence.

Second, the advice at times is trite, which is too bad. Really, is it necessary to tell people to "[m]aintain a sense of humor" (p. 172)? Or to tell future law students not to act like arrogant jerks towards other students (p. 174-176)? Perhaps I overestimate law students, but I would think that such advice should not be necessary, and in any case, a couple of paragraphs in a general book on law school are not going to convince humorless people to take law school lightly, or arrogant jerks not to act as such.

Third, the testimonials on the book are quite vague. Is there a single person who read this book and as a result earned As or get better grades than they had before? No? Then what benefit are the students getting? To me, tellingly, the testimonials near the front cover are book reviews by other publications; not a one is by a student who read the book before starting law school and excelled as a result.

Fourth, the book chooses completeness over clarity and priority, which to me is the disease of mediocre lawyers and law students. For instance, one of the most confused sections is the chart called "First Semester Performance Evaluation" (Pages 218 to 222) It is supposed to be a post-mortem, self evaluation asking you to offer information as to 35 different factors, including "Did you write in blue or black pen?" and "Did you take a bathroom break to clear your head?"

Seriously? Blue or black pen? Did you go pee-pee?

To me, this chart is almost a parody of the paranoid, common-sense free mindsets that law students often adopt. It is a comically comprehensive chart that no one will actually use. There is also no evidence of anyone ever having used the chart to accurately self-diagnose and correct habits to get excellent grades.

But it all begs the question: what really matters? Can 35 different factors really influence your grades (the most important thing in your time at a law school)? Enough rhetorical questions from me. The simple answer is: it doesn't matter if your wrote in blue or black pen. What matters is: did you understand the law (i.e., do you remember each and every element of each cause of action or defense that may be relevant), and did you apply it coherently and intelligently (and for an A, creatively) to the facts?

If you haven't practiced writing a good law school exam -- and you're on your own because law professors will never teach you how to do this -- then everything seems like a crap shoot. You might do well or you might do poorly, depending on, I don't know, your pen color and your bladder's fullness.

Conclusion

I really wish this were a better book, especially since it is one of the better selling ones out there. In my view, any book that purports to dish secrets on how to do well in law school (why is it called "confidential" otherwise? and if you don't want to do well, why are you buying a book instead of beer, anyway?) must dish some secrets on how to succeed on law school exams.

Without that critical component, what is the point? Do I need a book to tell me to use rudimentary table manners at a law firm lunch ("When you sit down, don't forget to place your napkin in your lap.") (p. 281)?

Here is my bottom line. If you buy only one book on law school success, skip this one. If you buy three books on law school success, then consider buying a copy of Law School Confidential as your third book.

But most people should not buy three such guidebooks.

(Of course, I really think you should buy my online course on how to study law, called Law School Exam Hacker.)

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Manny Recommends:

Here are my personal recommendations for products and services that I have reviewed that can improve your results in law school.  This list is short because I include only my top picks.  

LARRY LAW LAW - Get top grades in law school.
Planet Law School - The best book on understanding the law school game.


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