Thursday, August 16, 2018

3Ps for 1Ls: Advice for the new law student

We have 96 new faces at UMass Law School this fall semester.  New students often ask for advice: how best to prepare for class?  There is no easy answer.  That is, the answer is easy to understand, but there is no getting around the fact that effective law school work is hard.  Here are my three Ps for 1Ls: preparation, perspiration, and postparation.

The first P is preparation.  You have a homework assignment and need to do it.  Especially in a large class, you will be able to hide, so I can’t guarantee accountability.  But not doing the assignment will be your loss.  So many students find themselves too far behind late in the semester, unable to compensate for poor choices early on.  That deficit can become amplified throughout law school.  When class doesn’t cover every aspect of an assignment—we skip cases, or don’t engage with all parts of a case—the student can be misled into thinking that the entirety of an assignment is not important and that the game is in trying to pare down assignments to just what one needs to know.  Make this mistake at your own risk.

Learning in law school is an organic and partly subconscious process.  When you read, for example, an appellate opinion, you are learning much more than what we have time to discuss in class: about jurisdiction, motion practice, client representation, style of argument, standards of review, judicial temperament, and legal writing techniques—not to mention overtones of politics, economics, and culture.  Reading such content across the 1L curriculum is your inculcation of American legal culture, so-called “thinking like a lawyer.”  If you opt out of this process, you will find yourself increasingly lost in law school in a way that will be difficult to put your finger on.  The materials assigned to you have been carefully selected and edited to communicate lessons on the face of the text and between the lines.  Don’t waste the opportunity; you’re paying for it.

The second P is perspiration.  You don’t have to worry about this, because it happens naturally: sweating through class.  Students often are frustrated at the start of law school.  What you thought you prepared thoroughly turns out not to answer the questions asked.  The professor seems not to be giving you “what I need to know.”  Questions often are answered with more questions.  If that’s not often happening in your law school class, then you’re not getting your money’s worth.

Legal education is not like other programs in higher education.  Contrary to popular belief—a belief held even by some misguided university administrators—the job of a law professor in a core course is neither to prepare you for the bar exam nor to prepare you for practice—at least not directly.  To be clear, we calculate that what we do in a core course advances you toward those important goals.  But our aim is not so narrow and not so shallow.  That inculcation of American legal culture again: that’s our aim.  If you can memorize rules and learn IRAC techniques of legal analysis, then you can pass the bar exam.  You don’t have to go to law school for that; you certainly don’t need year-long, five- or six-hour classes for that.  As for the practice of law, that’s much more than we can do in any one class.  The practice of law will be the culminating result of your inculcation of legal culture.  This is the archetype of the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In legal education, the job of the professor is to help you help yourself.  The student bears responsibility for learning.  The process is one of much investment, trial, and often, error and correction.  The professor shows the way through assignments and class work, sometimes correcting the student’s course.  The professor supports you with formative tools; an exam is one of those.  The professor cannot do the work for you, and the professor’s job is not to make the road easy or smooth.  Sometimes a student struggles in dialog with the professor in class and is embarrassed.  There is no cause for embarrassment.  If the student struggled for failure to prepare, then one’s energy would be spent best by circling back to the first P.  If the student struggled because it took time and investment to work toward a productive answer, then the struggle should be worn as a badge of honor.  This is the archetype of growth through adversity.

The third P is postparation.  I’m not the first to use the term.  In legal education, it’s the work you do after a class, related to that class.  As a general matter, you should budget the same amount of time for preparation and postparation.  Both are critical; the learning process is only halfway done when class ends.  Postparation is the time to review what you learned; to pick up the pieces of what you misunderstood or mis-prioritized; to identify remaining knowledge gaps that you will seek to fill by consulting study aids, peers, tutors, TAs, professors; and to build your newly acquired understanding into a comprehensive recall system going forward.  An immediate goal of postparation is to outline a review for the final exam.  By semester’s-end reading days, it will be too late to outline effectively for all of your courses.  More importantly, though, postparation is reinforcement.  Ample empirical research in education has demonstrated that knowledge is committed most thoroughly and fluidly to long-term recall through multiple engagements—at least three.  If you’ve already invested well in the first two Ps, don’t throw away that investment by skimping on the third.

Law school is hard work.  It involves the training of your mind in a new way of approaching problems—not just legal problems, but social and economic problems of public policy.  It takes times and patience to train the mind in a new discipline.  The speed of this acculturation is not necessarily a function of intelligence nor purely a function of determination.  Legal acculturation changes a person, often with collateral ramifications for social, psychological, and even physical health.  Working to the endgame can nevertheless prove worthwhile.  The law is a powerful tool for those who would shape our world.  


Suggested Further Reading:

  • Andrew J. McClurg, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (3d ed. 2017) (Amazon).
  • Helene Shapo & Marshall Shapo, Law School Without Fear: Strategies for Success (3d ed. 2009) (West Academic).

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