Law school preparation:
Get ready before you start school

So you read this before school, wondering, "What sort of law school preparation should I do? Should I do any?"

Really, I think there are three courses of action. To me, the third option--the middle course--is the best one.

Law School Preparation, Option 1: Do nothing and relax

You can continue to do nothing--maybe just watch TV all day, travel the world, do everything fun you are going to do because all fun ends with law school. Or maybe you have been told that there is no pre- law school preparation that will help you.

Wrong, on both counts. Personally, I think it is a mistake to do nothing at all the summer before.

First, law school is a lot of work, but for many, it is actually fun. Especially if you like to drink. A lot.

(An aside having nothing to do with law school preparation: if you dislike drinking or your religion prohibits it, the fun in law school is somewhat different. You can go to parties, eat Doritos, and make side bets on which classmate will pass out first or indiscriminately kiss someone first. My roommate, a very friendly and extremely tolerant man who I'm still friends with, said that my escapades--many of which woke him at night or left him messes to clean--would make me the main character in his repertoire of cautionary tales for his children as to why Mormons are better off not drinking. Anyway...)

Second, as I explained before here briefly, pre- law school preparation can help you. By gaining at least a rudimentary understanding of the all of your first-year subjects, you will take more effective notes and write better outlines simply because of repetition.

In short, follow this rule of thumb: the first time you learn about a legal concept should not be during a professor's lecture.

Why? Because while your grades depend on your ability to apply black-letter legal rules to a fact pattern, during class, your professor will do anything but tell you the black-letter law.

Watch The Paper Chase, or read One-Lby Scott Turow--you'll see the Socratic method in action. Harvard's Christopher Langdell helped start, over one hundred years ago, an official method for confusing first-year law students.

A skeptic, such as myself, would even go further and say: it's not just that the Socratic method doesn't lend itself to teaching the black letter law; law professors don't teach you black letter legal rules on purpose. That would be too easy. This is professional school, and if what they did was easy, they couldn't consider themselves geniuses, now, could they? And they have to justify the enormous sums of money you are borrowing to pay for school.

Here's an example. You read a case for your tort class. It's a simple case: a man drives while talking on his cell phone--not illegal in the state he was in--and hits and kills a pedestrian. The court finds that the man is liable to the pedestrian's family for negligence because he did not take the ordinary care a reasonable person would take while driving, even if talking and driving at the same time was not against the criminal law of that jurisdiction.

In class, your professor calls on you. What did the court decide, and was it right? You answer that it was rightly decided and explain why.

At this point, the professor will do one of two things, neither of which actually helps you learn the legal rule you need to know to do well on your final exam for that class.

(1) He (unfortunately, it's usually "he" still) may take the other side that the case was wrongly decided and debate you to get you to make your reasoning super clear. He will continue this for 10 or 15 minutes until you feel that you're wrong, and then he'll rehabilitate your position and show you arguments better than the ones you made.


(2) He may given you hypothetical variants of the case, using the phrase, "what if?" to get you to think about how and whether the court would have reached a different result. What if the call was from the man's pregnant wife? What if the man was Batman and he had received a call from the commissioner? What if it was the pedestrian calling him to say, "look out, you're about to run me over!" What if the pedestrian was brandishing a gun?

If knew nothing about negligence before that class, the professor's questions would seem difficult, even confusing, and you'd feel compelled to write everything down indiscriminately because you think it's all important.

But if you already read about the elements of the tort of negligence and defenses to it, you will know when the professor is saying something really important, something that you will be tested on.

This may sound weird, but the way to hack the system here, and ultimately save yourself time an energy, is to invest some time up front and do some pre- law school preparation, learning the substantive law of the six or seven areas that are always part of the first-year curriculum: contracts, property, torts, civil procedure, criminal law, and (sometimes) constitutional law.

The question is, how.

Law school Preparation, Option 2: Pay for an expensive law school preparation course

I have seen ads for law school preparation courses. Many of them cost even a thousand dollars or more. Some are taught by famous law professors from prestigious law schools.

Now, I did not take one of these courses, and I don't know anyone personally who has. I have absolutely no idea if these courses work as advertised (one major law school prep course claims that its median student graduates in the top 20% of her class).

My thought is that if they are not teaching you patently bad habits or study strategies--such as writing case briefs, and you don't mind paying the money, more power to you. If the course just provides a high-level overview of the major subjects of law you will study, then that's fine.

Now, many people can't afford to pay over a thousand dollars. My sense is that you don't need to: there is means of law school preparation that you can do by yourself, without spending too much money. That would be . . .

Law School Preparation, Option 3: Study law by yourself! (My recommendation)

What you can do before you start law school (I would recommend no more than one month before, and no less than one week before) is to purchase or borrow several different products: commercial outlines, treatises or hornbooks devoted to first-year topics. You could also simply print out free outlines from the internet.

What are these books? I describe them on this page [I'll add the link later]. These are all different from each other, but are similar in that they describe black letter legal rules--defining them, laying out their elements and defenses, and listing examples. They are unlike the case books you read for class, which are full of confusing judicial opinions that force you to play hide-and-seek with the black letter rules that you are trying to understand.

You don't need to spend a fortune on them, and you can even ask to borrow them if you have a friend who is a couple of years ahead of you in law school.

Here are some more tips on how to "pre-study" for law school:

  • In doing some pre- law school preparation,you do not have to completely master all of the material you read: That is what law school is for. Read with the aim of obtaining a general understanding of the subject so that the key legal concepts are familiar to you when your professor discusses them or you come across them in your case book reading.

  • Do not read more than one book per law school subject (like contracts). Do not over do it and purchase three books on contracts; this will either be repetitious or just make you confused. What we are aiming for is just an initial understanding that will make your professor's lectures easier to understand; you just need to read one book on a given topic.

  • Try to buy one of the shorter books or outlines. A Gilbert's or Emanuel outline or a "Nutshell" series book instead of a full treatise or hornbook. All you need is a basic familiarity with the key concepts or doctrines of law. A full hornbook or treatise is meant to comprehensively catalog all relevant law on a given topic to help practicing lawyers do research. This is way, way too much information for you, and it may actually serve to confuse you.

  • Once the semester starts, refer to these materials again, but only to understand the black letter law. You want to be familiar with the law before you start to go to class and listen to the professor. But during the semester, you want to really capture the professor's voice in your notes. If you want to get good grades, your job is not to study the law. It is to study the law as understood by professor X or Y. The model here is to understand the law before the semester, and then during the semester master the professor's version of the law.

Now, what books do I recommend to help you prepare for specific classes?

I describe them on this page on law school books, but basically, anything will do that describes the black-letter law clearly.

In case you want to know what I did: I met a friend who was just graduating from law school, and he brought along a one-volume Bar/BRI mini-review book (called the Conviser Mini Review) that contained all of the subjects I wanted to study. I read from the book as we took buses and trains around Spain.

(Also, a quick plug: If you want a more organized course to learn to pre-study for law school, review my product 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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