The Incoming One-L FAQ

By Charles Glasser

This Frequently Asked Questions file was prepared because of the same concerns that most incoming ONE-Ls have. The statements below are editorial in nature and do not represent the views of PublicLegal.

  1. This FAQ
  2. How Can I Hit the Ground Running?
  3. How Can I Get Ready For Law School?
  4. What Classes Should I Take?
  5. Are Study Groups Good?
  6. Mental Health
  7. Hornbooks, Outlines...What's The Deal?
  8. How should I take notes?
  9. Socrates Unplugged
  10. Exams... Am I Doomed?
  11. Grades
  12. Not Losing your Mind
  13. Recommendations

[1] No one set of answers is going to apply to every school, nor to every individual. Nonetheless, there are some commonalties among all law students and law schools. This FAQ is just a general guide, and to be sure there are things not covered here that ought to be.

When you do arrive at law school, try not to put too much faith in third-hand cafeteria info. One-L's tend to filter out the real information in this stuff and generally pass along only the most paranoia-inducing stuff.

If you can acquaint yourself with a 2 or 3L that can spend time with you, you'll be doing yourself a big favor. Also, try and meet a 2 or 3L that has taken the same class with the same professor. He or she might clue you into their style both in the class and on the exam. More on this in "Exams."

Develop a good BS detector. Anecdotal evidence is usually suspect, especially when it's been passed around for years at a law school.

[2] How can I hit the ground running?
This is a question that appears often. Law students are generally a more motivated type, and its understandable that one might want to get a "head start."

Unfortunately, law students are usually as equally paranoid as they are motivated--a dangerous combination.

Law Schools do not expect you to know either substantive law, nor forms of legal analysis before you get there. Try to remember that the fact that you got in means that they believe that you have the requisite ability to learn both. Let it happen at the pace that the school has designed for you.

As to the summer before one-l, you might read something fairly erudite and law-related, like Holmes' "The Path of The Law," or Llewellyn's "The Bramble Bush," but for the most part, you should take this time to relax your mind, and get the other parts of your life in order.

[3] How can I get ready for Law School?
As mentioned in answer 2, there isn't much that you have to (or should) do to be intellectually prepared.

However, there are a couple of things that you should do to make your life easier during one-l. Take care of business that might possibly distract you, or eat up large quantities of time.

Are you sitting on the fence in a relationship? This is the time to fall off the fence, either one way or another. Do you have a place to live? Are you planning on getting dental surgery? Take care of these kinds of things *before* school starts. Likewise for financial aid and scholarship stuff. Try to get any problems squared away *before* school starts. In every class there is always that one student that is freaked out in the middle of the semester about money and tuition, when her mind should be on Conditions Precedent To Contract.

Are you in a band, or have a part-time job, or involved in some creative endeavor that requires a commitment of time? Be honest with the other people in that group and back out *now*. Unless you are going to night law school, you simply will not have the time to do both, or at least, to do both well.

[4] What classes should I take?
In most ABA schools, first-years don't have a choice. You are assigned a "section" and the whole lot of you have the same schedule for Contracts, CivPro, Torts, etc.

[5] Are study groups a good idea?
This is a very subjective call. A lot of this depends on your studying style, interpersonal skills, and the class method in question. They tend to sink to the level of the "slowest" person in the group. Out of kindness, study groups tend to slow down, making sure that everyone understands the material. This might annoy you, this might help you. The study group *should* have a defined method before starting. Not that anyone goal is better than the next, but you all should decide whether you're going to quiz each other, or compare notes, or work together on finished outlines. Some find study groups to be most useful right before exams. (See "Exams", infra.)

John Sexton, Dean of NYU, strongly suggests study groups to his first-year students, but not just to study. Rather, it allows one-L's to develop small support networks. There is a lot to be said for this. (See"Exams," and "Not Losing Your Mind," infra.)

[6] Other than required books, what else should I buy?
There is a huge industry designed to extract money from your wallet based solely on paranoia. You'll see ads that read "I was failing Contracts until I got Joe Schmoe's Instant Contract Whiz. Now I'm at the top of my class!" There are even people that call themselves "one-L tutors" that charge several hundred bucks to teach you to take issue spotting exams. For the most part, this is pure crap.

If you don't have a great memory, and you are in a class that relies upon a strange taxonomy like Property or Contracts, the flash cards might be useful. (See "Exams," infra.)

[7] Hornbooks, Outlines...What's The Deal?
Hornbooks (or treatises) are in-depth discussions of a specific topic, usually written by professors (and their 2nd-year research assistants). Often, they are companion pieces to casebooks. Others have been around for 75 years and are constantly edited. Should you buy them?

Depends. First, they aren't cheap, usually running about 50 bucks each. And they are available in your library. Second, they may confuse you more than help you. Rather than giving the law student a broad picture of elements of say, Civil Procedure, they are more inclined to go into fine detail about one narrow issue at a time. That means that reading a hornbook for detail without the requisite general knowledge might confuse you more than help. On the other hand, for the more intellectually curious, hornbooks are the best way to flesh out parts of a narrow argument or concept. (See Recommendations, infra.)

Outlines, such as Gilberts and Emmanuels on the other hand, are about as general as one can get. They serve as a kind of road map, giving the student an overview of the topic that helps one get the general idea before reading the assigned cases themselves.

In every class, there is always one person that sniffs at them, ridiculing others for using them. By the end of the semester he or she is using them. They are not definitive, they are not always accurate, but they serve a purpose well. WARNING! These commercial outlines are not substitutes for reading the material assigned in class. Even if they cover the same material as the professor assigned, they often arrive at different conclusions.

Canned Briefs, or "Casenotes" are the bottom-feeders of the legal publishing world. These pre-digested notes are tempting, as they are published to "track" your casebook. But learning law really doesn't mean memorizing a bunch of rules and cases. It means learning to analyze and extract theory from a set of circumstances, and these books negate the need for you to practice that skill.

[8] How should I take notes?
Use a pen. *rim shot* Seriously, you got through undergrad, you already know how to take notes. Many thoughtful students' best notes are taken *the night before* class. Huh? That's right...

Don't just read the cases the night before, or fall prey to the highlighter syndrome. As you are reading the cases, devote at least one page to each case, and brief it in some variation of the following: Name, Jurisdiction, Posture, Facts of the Case, Rule Applied, Court's Reasoning. Also, if something about the case throws you, or if you are confused about something, write it down. If it doesn't get answered in class, you can at least ask the professor about it.

Now, the next day in class, as the case is discussed, you can go through your list as it is being discussed, and check off what you got right, or correct what you missed. No frantic writing or missed words. And if you are "hit" (See "Socrates Unplugged", infra.) you have it all in front of you.

[9] Socrates Unplugged
The Paper Chase was a movie. This is the real world. The fact is, that at most top schools, it is considered very bad form among professors to torture students publicly. Some teachers hit students randomly, others call on the same people, looking for someone to parrot their take on things, yet others go in the order of the seating chart in a democratic fashion.

The fact is, that answering a question incorrectly in front of a hundred people is a rite of passage, and it has to happen to everyone sooner or later.

The best thing to do is be good-natured about it. The professor may tease you a little, and the class may laugh, but this laughter is more often than not nervous rather than malicious. Most of them are thinking "Thank god it's them and not me." So if you *do* say something dumb, or stumble, or both, laugh right along with them.

[10] Exams... Am I Doomed?
Sort of, but it's not as bad as you think. Larry Kramer, formerly a Professor at University of Michigan and now at NYU says that after an exam, "your hand should hurt, your vision should be bleary and you should be totally exhausted."

Law school exams are like *nothing* you had as an undergraduate. In most cases, you'll have something like three or four hours to answer two or three fact patterns. A fact pattern is a heinously long story, the point of which is to get the student to extract each possible theory and define, apply and conclude it. Some professors throw in a "policy" question to let you run with the ball a bit, but it is usually a request for you to echo their ideology.

Many schools keep old exams and even model answers on file at the library. Look at them about half-way through the semester, and try to ascertain what wave-length that professor is on. Most professors want the kitchen sink on their exams. Others want a tight, clear exposition on the relevant facts and points of law.

Exams alone could fill pages of an FAQ. The general rule here is to practice taking full length-exams well before exam week. This is where study groups are helpful. Each person in the group should take the practice exam alone, and then get together to compare answers. You'll be surprised at how many issues you miss at first. But with practice, you'll fall right into line.

This period is when you are at your most vulnerable. Avoid those students that feel the need to play head games with others. You'll hear students say things like "I studied last night for 11 hours," or "I took the practice exam and aced it, didn't you?" Avoid this junk like the plague. What you need right now is friends, not competitors. The toughest competition is with yourself, not others.

Try to avoid the law library before exams. The tension level is incredible. You are much better off studying in the undergrad library, or at a local cafe. Don't forget to treat yourself well during exam week. See a movie, or a ball game, or have a nice dinner. If you feel under the gun, you won't be relaxed, and are more likely to freeze up.

[11] Grades
Unless you totally freak out and write gibberish, you'll pass. But is passing enough? It depends where you go to school. It isn't fair, but the facts of life are that if you are at a second-tier school, you are best advised to do particularly well. At "top" schools, even the bottom of the class get major jobs.

In the middle of the curve, you'll find that grades are distributed on a pretty whimsical, arbitrary basis. The very best get As, the very worst get D's, and some undefinable nuance is the difference between a Band a B plus.

Don't buy into the BS that these first semester grades are the most important ones of your whole career. The people that propagate this rubbish the most are those that sell courses and aids to first-years. Most firms and judges would much rather see a slow, steady upward trend in grades, than a brilliant start followed by mediocrity.

There are many of you who are in for a big shock. Most law students are used to getting all A's in undergrad. In law, you will be lucky if you get one A in a year. Yes, there are those that fall right into place and pop out all As. But for the first time in your life, you are not the smartest person in the school. Some people have trouble adjusting to this concept, but the sooner you get used to it, the happier you'll be.

[12] Not Losing your Mind...Possible?
Sure. Keep things in perspective. Remember that millions have done this before you, that you're not breaking new ground here. Go with the flow.

Avoid head games. Some students are going to lay all kinds of junk on you. "Inside information" and "my roommate's niece's hairdresser's brother went here and he says..." and other assorted rubbish.

Compete with yourself and no one else.

Remember that the system isn't really as adversarial as it seems, and that most professors are willing to have you come to their office and ask questions.

You might also have a Student Bar Association, or minority law-students group or other organization available. Use these resources for help and guidance, and don't forget to contribute time and effort in return.

If your law school has a student newspaper, see if you can join the staff. Usually, nobody knows more about what's going on at the school than they do.

Have a life. Enjoy what ever cultural amenities your city has to offer. Parks, museums, movies, whatever. Well-rounded people with mediocre grades get more interesting jobs than straight-A cranks that have nothing to contribute.

Make friends, and support one another. Share your notes and outlines. Encourage those that are having a hard time, and ignore those that think that professorial *ss-kissing and snide put-downs are any kind of skill worth having. If you catch someone hiding a book in the library, or tearing out a page, either report them, or better yet, beat them to a pulp.

Good things do happen to good people. Jerks have to live with themselves.

[13] Recommendations
In outlines, Emmanuels for Civil Procedure, Torts and Contracts are pretty much on the beam, and Gilbert's Property outline is well received. Also, Glannon's Civil Procedure, though more of a text than an outline is a great aid to getting through the sticky concepts of issue preclusion, jurisdiction, and third-party practice.

In hornbooks, Calamari and Perillo's Contracts is excellent, as is LaFave and Scott's in Criminal, Miller's in Civil Procedure, and Prosser on Torts.

Law-in-a-Flash are a good tool for Contracts and Torts, especially if you face closed-book exams in these subjects.

Use your Internet access for help. Most law students are given free accounts through the server at the university that houses the law school. The LAWSCH-L list is peopled with many who offer help, notes and advice. The only caveat here is to make sure that you are getting advice from a law student, and not some Cliff Claven-type that never went to law school. If you have Gopher or WWW, you can access the Cornell or Chicago-Kent gopher hole or Home page.

A graduate of New York University Law School, Charles Glasser is an attorney in private practice.

© 1994 The Commentator. Reprinted with permission.