Ultimately, You Always Have to Teach Yourself

Teaching YourselfIf you’re starting law school soon, I’ve got some bad news for you. No one is going to teach you “the law.” This seems shocking, right? I mean, you’re paying a truckload of money to go to law school – you’d think they’d teach you what you’re paying to learn. But, that’s not the way it works.

The good news is that you probably already know this, if not consciously. In reality, you’ve been teaching yourself things for your entire life. I’ve been thinking more about this topic for the last couple of months, since I moved to Mexico City to learn Spanish, so I’ll share a little of what I’m learning since I think it’s applicable to learning just about anything.

Just Showing Up Isn’t Enough

In the beginning, I took the “dutiful student” approach and went to classes at a nearby language school. I figured if I paid them (quite a lot of) money and showed up for the scheduled four hours a day, I’d be fluent in no time. Well, it didn’t really work out that way. The only available classes were too easy or too hard, so I ended up with a private tutor at the school for two hours a day. She was quite good, but I found myself filling out worksheets that weren’t particularly relevant for half the time, so I quit after a week and got a private tutor.

Hooray, this was definitely going to work! How could it not? A teacher uniquely dedicated to me — surely I was going to be talking like a native in a matter of weeks. Again, not so much. Sure, it was helpful to have someone to talk to regularly, but it rapidly became clear that my tutor wasn’t a miracle worker. There’s no way for him to download his knowledge of Spanish into my head, which is a real bummer. If only learning were like putting a USB stick in a computer! Insert, transfer the files, and you’re done. Sadly, it doesn’t really work that way.

What Works for YOU?

As time has passed, I’ve started to realize that — ultimately — I have to figure out what’s going to help me learn Spanish, and I have to take action and actually do the things I’ve identified.

For example, I know that I’m a very visual learner and that I need the big picture view before I can understand anything. In law school, I spent much of my time drawing and making colorful flow charts (which most of my classmates found crazy). But it worked for me.

With Spanish, I thought perhaps I could take a similar approach. I haven’t started drawing pictures (although that’s not the worst idea!), but I bought a pretty pink Moleskin book that I’m using to record all the words I think of that I want to know. Because I’m writing them down, not just looking them up or asking someone to tell me what they are, I can see them, and look back over them regularly to imprint them in my head. It’s not a miracle solution, but it’s definitely helping.

Similarly, I know that my brain processes a lot of information in the background, when I’m not actively thinking about something. (This is why I found it helpful to read all of the questions on a law school exam before answering any of them — a strategy that would drive a more focused thinker crazy!)

To get the big picture, I committed educational blasphemy yesterday, and sat down and read an entire Spanish verb workbook without doing a single practice exercise! Most language teachers would probably say this is a terrible idea. Why read the entire book, which contains every possible verb tense, at once? You’ll just confuse yourself and get overwhelmed! And you’ll never remember the endings anyway. It’s a waste of time and probably counterproductive.

Conventional wisdom perhaps, but not true for me. Now that I have a better overall sense of the structure of the language, I can start filling in the details. But, out of context, those details (exact conjugations, irregular verbs, etc.) are meaningless to me. I need to see the big picture, even if I can’t actually use any of it yet!

How This Applies to Law School

Law school is similar. The traditional wisdom is that you have to build your knowledge of the law case by case, but that’s ultimately confusing for many people. If you’re a more of a big picture thinker, you’ll need the overview, from a commercial outline or hornbook, before the details have any meaning.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. Lawyers do it all the time! When I worked as a patent litigator, the first place I went after any new assignment was to the library, where we had a copy of Chisum on Patents. The idea that you’d start from case law to research the basics of a patent law concept would have been considered crazy! It’s totally inefficient and unnecessary, so you’d go read Chisum for the basics, look at the footnotes to get started on more detailed research, and then move to Lexis and Westlaw for the most recent cases, and for any very detailed legal positions you needed to support.

As you move through law school, pay close attention to the whether the advice you’re getting makes sense for you. If it doesn’t quite seem to fit, don’t be afraid to chart your own course.

In the end, what matters is that YOU learn the material, using whatever techniques make sense to you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some verb endings to memorize. Hasta luego!

Read On

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