Best of Wolters Kluwer Law School Tips: Week 1

So, you’re about to start law school.

Week 1: So, you’re about to start law school.

Imagine that you are suddenly sitting behind the wheel of a car without knowing how to drive. Many things look familiar—the steering wheel, the road signs—but you don’t know how the many buttons, levers, and pedals inside the car work, and you certainly don’t know how to respond to everything going on outside the car.

The first year of law school can seem similar. You don’t know the concepts, the vocabulary, or the context for the material that you are supposed to be learning. Even if you can understand the words of a sentence, you can’t figure out what the sentence means or what you should be learning from it.

The first and most important thing to understand about law school—especially the first year—is that you cannot be a passive learner, merely absorbing information. Unlike many undergraduate and graduate courses, law school classes are not primarily about conveying information. Instead, law school has three purposes:
1.    to explain basic legal doctrines,
2.    to develop your ability to use those doctrines, and
3.    to teach you to teach yourself the law.

The first, conveying basic legal doctrines, is the least important during the first year. While you will be learning some basic information about legal doctrines (sometimes called black letter law), the primary purpose of the first year of law school is to teach you how to use legal doctrine: how to analyze and make legal arguments, how to solve legal problems, and how to communicate your legal ideas to others.

In other words, you are not just learning the law; you are learning to be a lawyer. And since the law is not static, lawyers also need to be able to continue learning after they leave law school. Law school therefore also teaches you how to teach yourself the l aw. It prepares you to learn (and use) new legal concepts and to adapt to the changes in the legal landscape that will inevitably occur over the course of your career. To return to our earlier metaphor: Once you learn to drive a car, you never lose that ability—even as cars, roads, or traffic conditions change.

Law school is thus not about identifying the “right answers” to legal questions, but about developing abilities, tools, and processes for constructing those answers and solving problems. You can’t do that just by listening and reading. You have to be an active participant in your own legal education.

Law school’s different focus—on how to be a lawyer rather just on learning the law—is reflected in three different aspects of the first-year experience. The material you read, the method of classroom instruction, and the first-year curriculum are all designed to serve the purposes of legal education. All three require your active participation.

Extracted from: What Every Law Student Really Needs to Know: An Introduction to the Study of Law, by Tracey E. George and Suzanna Sherry.

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