Misconceptions About Law School: What Law School Is Really About

Misconceptions About Law School: What Law School Is Really AboutThis week we hear from law student Justine Huang about what she’s learned in her first semester of law school about what law school really is.

The main expectation I had going into law school was that it was going to be a lot of reading. While that turned out to be true, life as a law school student wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. Having been through one semester of law school, I hope to give you a sense of what 1L year is like.

1. Ambiguity is your friend

As an economics major in undergrad where there was often one right answer, the concept of not having a right answer was one of the most difficult things for me to get used to. I had to become comfortable with ambiguity and change my mindset to look at a situation from various perspectives.

A common example of how there are no clear-cut answers is the law, “No vehicles in the park.” This sounds like a simple and clear enough rule, until you start to ask: what about electric scooters? Food trucks? Emergency ambulances? There are no right answers, only competing arguments you can make. You could look up the definition of a “vehicle” or the reason behind the policy (e.g. to keep the air clean or keep pedestrians safe) to make your argument. In a similar way, much of the law involves gray areas and can be interpreted to reach different results. It is the lawyer’s job to craft legal arguments to support the client’s position. That is why, as my Contracts professor put it, law school is actually more like “arguing school.”

2. Classes Focus On The History Of Our Current Law Through Cases

I had a mistaken assumption coming into law school that class would be filled with heated debates on philosophical issues and current events, like abortion or gun rights. At least for 1L year, our classes focused on learning the rules through analyzing actual legal cases (including cases from 19th c. England!). The law is more practical than abstract or theoretical. Some professors might feel inclined to bring in policy issues as relevant; for example, my Torts professor often incorporated commentary on how our social values have shaped the law. However, we mainly learned about past cases and how they have formed the law as it is today. Thus, class was less about problem solving; professors mostly imparted knowledge to us and used the Socratic method not to get our opinions about a case decision, but rather to make a point and get us to a position to see their key takeaways.

3. Issue Spotting And Applying The Law Are Key On Exams, Not The Final Answer

Whereas the typical college course might have midterms and other papers or assignments in addition to the final exam, in law school your grade is likely to be solely based on the final exam. Since a lawyer’s job is to apply the law to a client’s individual situation, our exams mirrored this. While we had some multiple choice, our exams mainly consisted of essays where we were given a dense hypothetical fact pattern, from which our job was to spot the most relevant issues and untangle them to analyze whether the client is likely to prevail on each issue. While each professor has a unique method for grading exams, and you should make sure you understand what each professor looks for, generally the bulk of the points comes from how comprehensively you spot the relevant issues and how thoroughly you analyze them. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if your final result came out differently from the professor’s, as long as you explain your analysis and reasoning clearly. Also, our exams were all open book, so we were tested not on how well we memorized the rules, but rather, how well we understood the concepts underlying the law and applied it to new facts and unfamiliar situations.

4. You Are in Control of How You Study

One thing I didn’t anticipate was having a lot of flexible time to use as we wanted. I was done with class by 3:30 at the latest each day, so basically had the rest of the day to do readings. Unlike in college where we received a lot of individual assignments, in law school we rarely had assignments due; the professors relied on cold calls to incentivize students to do the readings for each class. Therefore, it’s up to you how much time to spend preparing for class and for exams – professors are never going to see your outlines or practice exams. Also, as 1Ls, we didn’t have our schedules filled with extracurriculars (orgs, journals, clinics, etc.) like the upperclassmen do – all we had to focus on was classes. The challenge with that was maintaining motivation and disciplining myself to finish the readings and case briefs, work on outlines, and eventually complete practice exams. It was crucial to treat the semester as a marathon rather than a sprint, because burnout is real! In the couple of weeks leading up to finals, it was especially important to maintain a sustainable balance between studying and taking breaks.

Law school is likely quite different from the undergrad experience you had, but it doesn’t have to be significantly more difficult. Many of the study habits that worked for you in college will continue to work in law school. Knowing what you’re getting into will help ease the transition as you begin law school.

For more, check out the Law School Toolbox experts who share the misconceptions they had about law school!


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About Justine Huang

Justine is a 1L at USC Gould School of Law interested in energy and environmental law. She grew up in Orange County, California and graduated with an economics degree from Wellesley College, where she played on the tennis team. Prior to law school, she worked at an environmental consulting firm. In her free time, Justine enjoys playing the piano, traveling, and hiking.

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