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I started law school at the tail end of the era of the “Paper Chase” mentality, when the Socratic method reigned supreme and professors delighted in asking impossible questions designed to humiliate students who could not produce precise answers in 10 seconds. Now law school is much more consumer-friendly, and most instructors have dropped the Professor Kingsfield shtick in favor of real teaching. Professors seem to have relaxed their style, and have begun to facilitate learning in lieu of educating by intimidation. While the result is not necessarily an unconditional lovefest, first-year law students enjoy a much more pleasant experience these days. Nevertheless, the confusion of the start-up process is not to be underestimated. After a dozen years of teaching first-year law students, I have conjured up a list of the top 10 survival skills that seem to be the most meaningful. Here they are, in somewhat random order. I hope you find them useful. 1. Be prepared. This may be the Boy Scouts’ motto, but it’s also the perfect mantra for law school. Read the cases in advance. Read them again, because you won’t understand them on the first read-through. Really brief the cases — book briefing (a combination of highlighting, underlining and margin notes) will not be sufficient at the beginning. It’s time-consuming, but it’s the only way to build your skills. 2. Say the law out loud. Learning the law has to be an active process. Reading case books will not lock the material into your memory at first. In your study group, practice stating the issue, rule and holding out loud to each other. If you are a loner learner, state these elements for each case to the bathroom mirror. This is particularly effective right before class. 3. Trust yourself. If you are confused, it’s because law is confusing, not because you are inadequate for the task. Never, ever sweep ambiguous or unfamiliar matters under the rug — law is about ambiguities, not clear-cut matters. I always tell my students to stop seeking the black-and-white version of legal principles — lawyers are involved in the gray areas. If something is hard to understand, keep at it. Look up all new terms in the law dictionary or ask someone for help. If a fact could have mixed legal significance, note all possible interpretations. A good lawyer appreciates the complexities and does not attempt to hide from them. 4. Fill in the blanks. If you don’t understand something in a case, welcome to the profession! The difference between seasoned lawyers and novice law students is that experienced attorneys take the time to find the answer to questions that are confusing. Hornbooks (scholarly treatises on law school subjects) or commercial outlines often explain legal matters better than judges who write decisions or professions who teach them — take advantage of these excellent “tutors.” I have had students who have made a habit of looking up the full decision in the case reporter because they found that the full opinion plus headnotes was clearer than the excerpted version in the case book. 5. There are no shortcuts. Shortcuts are common currency for undergraduates, but they don’t work very well in law school. There is no substitute for reading and briefing the cases in your case book — on your own and from start to finish. Canned briefs are helpful to confirm your understanding, but that’s about it. Swapping briefs or course outlines in your study group is useful as a supplement, but you still have to do the work yourself in order to learn the material. Never leave assignments to the last minute, especially in Legal Research and Writing. Everything takes longer than you expect! 6. Talk the talk. One of the most common errors my students make is that they don’t use legal vocabulary when they explain a statute or decision. They try to write or speak by rephrasing opinions or statutory law in plain English. This may work well for journalists but it is not effective for lawyers because it tends to eliminate the legal impact or significance. Although legal jargon has detractors, I find that legal terminology is inherent in accurate statements of the law. Start building your legal vocabulary right from the start. 7. Figure out what’s what. In one class, I was talking about the bystander recovery rule with my students. This rule states that a person who acts negligently toward a victim may also be liable to certain other persons who witness the event, even if those persons are not themselves in danger. Bystander recovery is one very narrow aspect of negligence law in Torts, but a couple of my students thought I was giving them a rule for negligence in general. This kind of confusion is natural. For clarification, ask the professor, check the table of contents of the case book, or consult a hornbook or commercial outline. You need to know how everything fits together — if it does! 8. Cases are not novels. First-year students tend to get hung up on the facts of cases, especially in criminal law and torts. Try to shift your attention away from the plot and focus instead on the legal issues, the rules applied by the court in this dispute, and holding (the rule combined with the outcome of a specific dispute) of your cases. Memorizing the facts is not your main objective. Your job is to identify legal issues, rules and holdings, not to praise or dun the story line. 9. Be an active learner. It is very tempting for first-year students to think they have learned the law by reading the cases. You haven’t! Cases are offered to illustrate a legal principle. The main objective of legal education is learning how to apply such legal principles to brand new fact situations. Purchase a copy of Emanuel’s First Year Questions and Answers, Fleming’s First Year Workbook, Segal’s, Gilbert’s, or another commercial guide with sample questions, and start trying to answer the questions. Multiple-choice questions are also a great study device if the booklet provides answers and explanations. Read the model answers or explanations carefully. Self-testing is the most valuable way to learn the law. 10. Don’t try to learn everything at once. Be kind to yourself. You won’t be able to absorb everything right from the start. Law is one of the few disciplines that improves from repetition. Even if I have taught a case for nine years, I find something new in it every time I read it, and often one student will interpret a case in a way that completely surprises me — and the other students. There is no hard and fast meaning for cases and statutes; they are almost always subject to interpretation. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. I could write 10 more columns on the same subject and still have more to say. Meanwhile, best of luck in law school! You’re going to do a great job. Lois Schwartz is an Adjunct Professor at Hastings College of the Law, Santa Clara University, and Golden Gate. Because she also believes that faculty should practice what they teach, she is currently on special assignment in the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office in California.

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