Having been out of law school now for a number of years, I think I can look at the educational experience in a pretty objective way. Before law school, I had always sort of held it in awe. I never really considered myself as smart enough to get in, much less make it through law school. And even when I did well on the LSAT and was accepted into a top school, I secretly suspected that somehow, they had made a mistake. For the first few months after acceptance, I half-believed I would receive a letter stating: "Dear Mr. Sedberrry: We regret to inform you that your acceptance has been rescinded. We've decided that you were simply lucky on the LSAT and believe that there is no way you will make it through this prestigious institution. We wish you much success in your fast-food career."
Of course, it never happened. But my point is that many law students tend to be high achievers. And perhaps a bit paranoid. It simply comes with the territory. We are always looking over our shoulder and ahead to the next treacherous curve, at the same time. It's what makes us good at what we do. We worry, so that our clients don't have to. We anticipate unintended consequences. We plan for the worst.
As I think back about some of the misconceptions I had about law school, I realize now that law students who have a sober view of the process will probably do better than those who don't. This is because, the mature law student can focus on the real "money" activities- those that deliver the most bang for the buck, grade-wise. And no matter what anyone tells you, make no mistake about it, grades are critically important in law school. Grades are curved among a bunch of the best and brightest and most competitive students around. And grades determine who gets jobs.
So, here are some of these misconceptions, or "law school mythology" as I like to call them:
1. "We're All in This Together." This attitude, although true on one level, is dangerously misleading on another. Some students tend to huddle together, in study groups and social cliques, in the hopes that no one can drown, if they all simply hang on to each other. And having a social network in law school can be comforting. But, here's the problem with this myth. If you hang with the pack and do the same things as the pack, then your grade will be a result of the pack's actions. And as I said, law school grades are rendered on a curve. This means that of the 10 people in your group, one or two might get "A's", two or three will get "B's" and the rest will get "C's" or lower. In other words, although you may think of your group as compadres, some will succeed and others won't. The curve takes very close grades and forcibly distinguishes among them. Someone in your group will get an "A". And it might as well be you. The trick is to figure out methods and a process to make it happen.
2. "Professors Know Everything." Well, you might not absolutely buy into this myth, especially if you are a young, cynical rebel. But even if you are, you may mistakenly believe that your professor is a subject-matter expert. In fairness, she might be. But then again, she might not be. It's just that someone had to teach the Partnership Tax course. So, you should certainly listen to your professors. And learn from them. But make sure that you have a basic, and broader understanding of the material. You do this through outside reading- treatises, hornbooks, whatever. You need to understand the general picture of the course but also enough detail to spot issues and analyze them.
3. "Legal Recruiters Pick the Best Candidates." I've just told you that grades are curved. I've also told you that grades mean everything to prospective employers. Are you starting to get the picture? There are plenty of "A" students who can't lawyer their way out of a wet paper bag. Granted, there are also "A" students who are geniuses, destined for the Supreme Court. But, what about the students who simply had a bad break- a bad professor, a bad exam, or simply that they were a little slow out of the starter blocks that first year. These students may ultimately become brilliant lawyers. But they have a very hard time finding a job because of the foregoing. It's not fair. But it is the way it is. And your strategy from the day you start law school, if not before, is to do everything you can to avoid unfair circumstances. As they say, "you make your own luck." If you are thinking about law school, or planning to enter in the near future, now is the time to begin planning your law school strategy.
4. "Good Lawyers Are Born and Not Made." You see symptoms of this every semester, just after grades come out. Students who killed themselves on studies, end up with "B's". They see others who worked half as hard as they did, and yet pulled "A's". They get depressed and dejected. They begin to believe that they just weren't born smart enough. But as Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." There are countless lawyers who graduated in the middle of their class, or worse, and have won some of the biggest cases in history. Law school is about excellent performance over a very short period of time. Law practice is about excellence over a sustained period of time. Simply, you can make up for that self-perceived lack of genius by outworking the other guy.
If you are a law student or a recent law graduate, I would love to hear about your own law school myths. I know that mine have just scratched the surface.
Finally, if you are in law school, stay the course. Try not to get discouraged. Don't give up. It will be well worth it someday. I wish you much success in your legal career.
When I was beginning my preparation for the Texas bar exam a number of years ago, one of my classmates made a comment that became the genesis of the idea for my book "Law School Labyrinth." She said, "You know, all it really takes to become a lawyer is patience." Naturally, I was curious about her comment and asked her what she meant. She replied, "From law school applications to passing the bar and everything in between, if you're willing to just keep at it, you can become a lawyer. There are so many gateposts to the process if you just hang in there, you eventually will cross the goal."
That simple conversation really does sum up the process of becoming a lawyer.
I certainly don't want to take anything away from anyone who has gone through this process. There is no question that law school is one of the most demanding programs, the bar exam is one of the most difficult tests, and the practice of law is one of the most challenging professions. And some of the lawyers I have encountered along the way are simply some of the smartest people I have ever met. I deal frequently with outside counsel (I am the general counsel of a corporation) and I am often amazed with their creativity and insight, and especially with their expertise in a particular field of law.
But there are different kinds of intelligence. I believe that just about everyone has brilliance. Maybe yours is rocket science. Maybe it's cooking. Or perhaps you can work Sudoku puzzles in record time. I used to think that in order to become a lawyer, you had to be brilliant. Starting with the percentile rankings of the LSAT, we are conditioned to rank ourselves in terms of performance against our peers. In law school, the grading curve can be brutal, forcing law professors to make marginal distinctions between "A" exams and "C" exams.
And intelligence, without action is pretty much worthless. Brilliant people who do not apply themselves can end up homeless. And less than brilliant students can make "A"s if they work hard enough.
The irony of law school is that hard work may or may not result in "A"s. Intelligence also does not ensure top grades. As I discuss in "Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education" (Kaplan Publishing, 2009), success in law school certainly requires hard work. It also requires at least a certain degree of intelligence. But really successful students either intutively (or perhaps with some good guidance from Lawyer Mom or Dad) understand that law school simulates the practice of law. So the succeed, the student has to be able to solve legal problems in a lawyerly way- through cogent analysis, identifying and discussing all sides of the issue and law, and doing it in a clear and effective way.
But law school is only the beginning of the labyrinth. You must also obtain your license to practice law- from the character and fitness requirement, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, and what will probably be the most demanding test you well ever take, the bar exam.
Which brings me to the point. If you are facing the LSAT and struggling with Logic Games, the following applies to you. If you are in your second semester following a mediocre performance in your first year of law school, the following applies to you. If you are facing what appears to be the Herculean task of the bar exam, it applies to you. And if you are a first year associate, intimidated by the thought of actually practicing law, listen up.
The study and practice of law are simply a labyrinth of sorts. They are a winding journey of opening and closing passages, full of intimidation and discouragement. But don't be discouraged. In this labyrinth, if you want to find the Minotaur, simply look in the mirror. You are your own worst enemy.
If you had a bad LSAT, you have two choices. You can either pick yourself up and go at it again, or you can give up on your dream of becoming a lawyer.
If you don't get into Dream Law School, you have two choices. You can go to Local U, or you can give up on your dream of becoming a lawyer.
If you just graduated and can't find a job, you have two choices. You can give up and go home, or you can keep sending out resumes, searching the net, and making calls to law firms.
Wherever you are in your journey through the Labyrinth, you have a choice. You can keep pushing or give up. But I am here to tell you that if you want to become a lawyer, you can. A door closes, two windows open. Climb through one. But if you want to become a lawyer badly enough, you will. You just will.
Best wishes in your legal career.
In my opinion, the answer for the vast majority of you is a resounding "yes." I entered law school following a twenty-year hiatus from what were at best mediocre undergraduate studies. If I can survive it, then rest assured, you can as well.
I think that, despite all of the lore about how difficult it is, for most of you law school will be an absolutely exhilarating experience. You will interact with a group of incredibly bright and motivated students. You will work with a group of accomplished professors, many of who had substantial careers in law practice prior to teaching.
One of the keys to surviving, and thriving in law school is to have a solid plan of attack, regarding your studies. One way of thinking about this is as described in "The Law School Labyrinth", and specifically what I refer to as The Pyramid Outline Method. The purpose of this methodology is to provide you with a framework upon which to place the entirety of your legal studies- your case reading, information you glean from classroom discussion, your commercial outline reading and study groups.