Today I’m talking to you about I wish I had known going into law school. I’m a 1L going into my winter quarter we’re on the quarter system here, but most law schools will be going into their winter semester.
I was actually super apprehensive and anxious going into law school and, you know, throughout the whole process because once you accept your law school and decide where you’re going, that’s a moment of…you know, real triumph and excitement, and it feels like a huge decisive step but then after that, you have this sort of blank period of waiting.
And for me personally, I felt like I should spend all of that time prepping or doing something to get ready, and I didn’t know what that should be. If you are going to law school, you probably type a personality or sort of type A adjacent, and those of us who have those personalities, always like to go into a situation as prepared as possible. But with law school, it’s not always possible to does that, and in fact, it’s not super helpful to try and pre-learn the law.
I mean, I remember the sensation of trying to read this book on the history of the Constitution, which I had never studied before (in-depth), and thinking oh my God, I have to get through this book, if I can’t get through this, how will I get through law school?? And just really stressing myself out over the summer before law school started, and in the end, none of that mattered at all and had nothing to do with how well I did in school.
I wanted to make this video now because a lot of you probably are getting your acceptance and starting to make that decision. I know that sort of anxiety process is beginning in some of you it was for me. I also wanted to wait to make this video until got some of my fall quarter grades, to know whether I would be, basically, qualified or not to make this, and, turns out, I am. So! Here we go.
The first thing to note is that law school is going to test you on two very separate skill sets. When you’re in the daily grind of classes, it’s going to feel quite different from when you’re taking your exam, which for a lot of schools is what determines your entire grade for the class. It’s not going to be like in undergrad where you had you know, problem sets or shorter papers plus participation.
For the most part, your beginning classes are going to be determined by a single exam. For us at Stanford, we basically sat for 3-4hours in a room all together and typed as much as we could, as quickly as we could, and that 14-20 page essay that we generated was what we were graded on. All of that is very different from what you need to do to prepare for class.
It’s important to keep in mind, first of all, that some people are going to seem really brilliant in class because they talk all the time. For one thing, the amount of speaking you do in class, and your understanding of the material are not exactly always correlated people have different approaches to speaking out loud in class, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to speak just for the sake of speaking.
Secondly, being prepared for class means knowing the minutiae of cases really well, and understanding the issues of each particular case, and while you will be tested on issues in the final exam, it’s not always going to be the same sort of stuff. So for example, in class if you get cold-called the professor might ask you about the procedural history of a case stage of the trial the case went through, like did it gets appealed.
Where was it first heard, what sort of court all of that will feel extremely important in the moment of class, where you’re speaking in front of your classmates, and the spotlight’s kind of on you. but for the vast majority of cases that we studied, none of that procedural history really came upon the final exam at all, because it’s not super relevant to the application of these cases to the blackletter law itself.
Blackletter law is basically the actual rule that the case created. So that’s one thing to keep in mind. your class skills and your exam skills are two separate things, so you do want to be very prepared for class, but keep in mind that at the end of that road, you’re going to be asked to do something fairly different which is analyze everything that you’ve learned in that class sort of, holistically.
They use the metaphor of the forest and the trees a lot, so for the exam, you’re going to do a forest-type approach but when you’re going from class to class day today, it feels very much like you’re in the thick of the forest, and it’s easy to lose sight of the final goal, which is to get an overall understanding of the material.
Which brings me to my second point? In your orientation, you’ll most likely learn the basics of briefing a case. The word ‘briefing’ is kind of…it was a little bit confusing for me at first, because it means different things. Briefing a case in that situation is just reading the case in your casebook and writing yourself a mini-outline of the important points so that you can later talk about it in class or study, you know, make your outlines for finals from it.
You’ll also be writing briefs which are another thing entirely, so don’t get those mixed up. We taught a sort of standard briefing structure which is first, facts what are the facts of the case? What literally happened? The procedural posture which is what the court did it start in…How did it end up in this court issue the issue of law that the court’s opinion is trying to determine, the rule pretty straightforward?
What rule is going to be passed down from this case, the holding is basically another word for the outcome of the case, but holdings can be construed broadly or narrowly, so a holding might be something like in every case involving as hip of this kind, x will happen or x will apply, that sort of thing.
The reasoning of the court in coming to that holding or conclusion, and then any dissents that might be interesting or useful to understand the issue. Dissents will be most important in Supreme Court cases. That’s the basic structure of briefing a case for class. So again facts, procedural posture, issue, rule, holding, reasoning, and dissent.
That’s how I basically structure them. Every case that I read, I try I really try but you know you can’t always, sometimes you run out of time but I try to write out all of those categories and then put, you know, little bullets under each one.
Some people have different methods, and it’s actually important to note that briefing the case for a class that is just for you, so whatever method helps you understand more fully what the case is about is the best method.
So for some people, they switch the order of the categories, so maybe the reasoning goes before the holding or the rule comes after the holding. That doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense to you.
You might also add different categories, so some people like to split the reasoning into the plaintiff’s argument, the defendant’s argument, and then the court’s approach to synthesizing those arguments or picking one side over the other.
Don’t get bogged down by the categories and the need to produce a perfect product in your case brief. It’s really about making something that is functional and that will help you approach your classes. The third point I would emphasize is staying on top of your daily notes.
Of course, going to class is very important, and taking good notes is very important because when you sit down at the end of the quarter or semester to try and pull together your outline, your notes are going to be the foundation of your review.
Most of us going into law school were strong students, and we feel that we know how to study, and that’s true, but for me, anyway, law school involved a much greater amount of detail that I wasn’t particularly super interested in. For each case, there are a lot of minutiae that you need to keep track of, things that also feel counterintuitive because they have historical roots in law.
It’s not always clear exactly how we got to that point. It’s very important to keep track of all that because if you fall behind, it’s very difficult to catch up. Making sure that you have a well-structured note-taking system that makes sense to you and that you keep on top of it every day, every week feels very tedious and difficult but it’s going to pay off at the end when you’re trying to make that outline. We have a database called SLATA and we use those outlines.
Former students of a class can upload their outlines and you can use that as a guide for creating your own. I did that, but it’s not enough to just rely on that because obviously course material changes from year to year so it’s very important to have your own notes to rely on. It also feels weird to try and go off of someone else’s notes because it’s like picking someone else’s brain.
Things are organized differently, and things are emphasized differently. Having your own notes is very important. The last thing I’ll mention is how important it is to try and carve out time for you. I talked to current students here before coming and they did tell me that the fall semester was going to be extremely difficult and honestly, going in I was like, “I was an English graduate student; I used to sit and read for like, 8 or 10 hours a day. How much harder could it really be?
“It’s harder. Fall quarter we basically had 4 hours of class a day, and literally almost the entire rest of the day I would spend reading for the next day’s classes, and I would also spend all of the weekend reading, except for Friday nights and maybe like, one morning or afternoon, like Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon but most of the weekend was also spent reading and it was very, very difficult not to burnout.
Luckily, my boyfriend now fiancé was living with me and he really helped take care of me and made sure I wasn’t totally just getting this tunnel vision, but beyond that, you really can’t rely too much on other people to take care of you. You need to look out for yourself, and part of that is making sure that you put your body and your health as a priority. So those are my very basic, very general tips, things that I wish I had known going into the fall quarter.
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