1L Tip of the Day: Good Confusion and Bad Confusion

One of my favorite law school professors was fond of saying:

There’s good confusion, and there’s bad confusion. Which one is it?

when a student admitted to being confused about something. DictionaryThis reply was met with more than a few blank stares, but ultimately it’s a helpful concept.

The Two Types of Law School Confusion

What was he talking about?

  • Good Confusion — For any contested legal issue (which is most of them), you’re ultimately going to hit a point where the decision could go either way. There will be arguments on both sides, and, while you might have an opinion or preference about which way the call should go, you can’t guarantee with any certainty that your answer will end up being “right.” Understandably, when you reach this point you feel confused, particularly if you’re a new law student who still thinks law school’s going to teach you “The Law.”
  • Bad Confusion — Bad confusion is an entirely different beast. This arises when you just don’t understand what’s going on. You can’t follow the arguments, you have no idea what the professor is talking about, etc. Generally, this is a language issue. In the first few months of law school, you’re learning a foreign language — legalese. If you don’t know what “estoppel” means, you’re going to have a hard time following a class discussion about it.
How to Handle Each Type of Confusion

You need a completely different approach to each type of confusion, which is why it’s important to differentiate between the two.

  • Bad Confusion — The ideal approach to bad confusion is simple. Eradicate it. If you realize you’re not following a case because you don’t understand the vocabulary, or the relationship between the courts involved, or whatever, stop what you’re doing and fix the problem. Find your Black’s Law Dictionary and look up the words you don’t understand. If you don’t understand how the courts relate to each other, or why this particular judge is opining on a topic, ask someone to explain it to you. Whatever you do, don’t assume you’ll eventually “get it” if you just keep doing the reading. Knowing what you don’t know, and learning it as soon as possible, will pay dividends later on.
  • Good Confusion — Good confusion requires a different approach. If you’re at a point where the law is fundamentally uncertain, there’s a strong temptation to demand an answer, any answer. This is not a good idea. Your task here is to really lean into the confusion, and embrace it. Yeah, I know this sounds really hippie Zen, but hear me out. Your job as a lawyer, and consequently as a law student taking an exam, is to explore the messy grey areas of the law. If it’s a simple question with a binary answer, there’s no reason to pay a lawyer to think about it. Consequently, simple questions are unlikely to show up on exams. The sooner you get comfortable with “good confusion” and learn how to deal with it, the better off you’ll be!
The Bottom Line

The next time your brain hurts and you’re feeling like you’ve hit a brick wall, ask yourself:

What type of confusion is this?

Your answer will tell you what to do next.

Read On:

More law school advice, coming right up:

Return to Surviving Law School 101.

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  1. […] for “the answer” all the time was like having blinders on, it’s too narrow. This great blog post explains the difference between bad and good confusion in law school- bad confusion is when […]

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