Malice Aforethought: Getting Through (Law School, Part 3)

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is the third of a series of five posts I offer about law school.

Having obtained admission to law school, you will presumably actually attend it, despite my warning that this plan isn’t likely well-calculated to create happiness. So let’s take a look at what will happen in law school, and because it’s so closely related to law school, the bar exam.

Law school is principally taught by way of the “Socratic method,” which consists of you reading stuff (caselaw and excerpted statutes, mostly) to prepare for class, and then being asked to “stand and deliver” by the instructor. The instructor will pick a name at random from the class roster and ask the student to “state the case,” which means to recite the facts of the case you’ve read to prepare, and then to answer a series of questions about the law and the reasons given by the deciding judge for resolving the case as she did. Not understanding the case, being confused by its reasoning or language, or “passing” and thus admitting that you failed to prepare, are unacceptable and will result in a public shaming before your peers.

This is hazing, of course, but it is also a surprisingly realistic preview of the experience of going to court.

It’s common to refer to one’s progress in law school with the jargon “1L,” “2L,” and 3L,” referring to first, second, and third year. This only works if you’re referring to full-time, day-section students. Lots of law schools offer night courses and significant numbers of students work during the day at real jobs and study law at night, pacing the program out over four years. Not easy, but perhaps the only viable alternative available to those with families and responsibilities.

First-year law school classes are often divided arbitrarily into sections. Most of your first year will be structured for you by the school. By convention, law schools necessarily include in their core curriculum classes in a) contracts, b) substantive criminal law, c) Constitutional law, d) torts, e) evidence, f) legal ethics, g) civil procedure, and h) real property.

There are several kinds of optional classes and you will have more and more flexibility as a 2L or 3L to control your schedule. First are “bar classes,” which address subjects likely to appear on state bar exams, such as i) corporations and similar business entities, j) marital or community property, k) conflicts of laws, and l) remedies. You’ll likely want to take a lot if not all of these, although they typically aren’t much fun compared to electives.

Second are “electives,” which students self-select or follow established study guides including various kinds of advocacy clinics or practicums like m) moot court or n) negotiation techniques and the production of peer-reviewed academic publications (that is, o) law review), and specialty classes like p) employment litigation, q) estate planning, r) alternative dispute resolution, s) international transactions, t) taxation, or u) intellectual property. Students will typically have formed some idea of what kind of law they wish to practice after graduation, so they will pick electives designed to prepare them for that kind of work.

For its certification (among other things) the ABA requires that there be at least two intensive writing segments, which can be v) legal writing classes or can be incorporated into substantive classes. Back when I went to law school, a separate mandatory class was part of the mandatory 1L program in w) legal research techniques but a look back at the curriculum now reveals that this seems to be incorporated into other classes rather than being taught as a standalone subject.

Finally, most schools have some form of breadth requirement to learn about deeper philosophical or social issues touched on by the law – here, you’ll see a wide variance of things that interest the faculty. A look through my own alma mater’s courses offered for the fall 2012 semester shows specimens of this nature entitled x) Civil Rights Litigation Seminar, y) Jewish Law, z) Law of War Seminar, aa) Women and the Law, bb) Human Trafficking Seminar, cc) California Legal History, and dd) Law, Medicine, and Ethics at End of Life.

Between your various classes, the reading will often be hundreds of pages every night. It can be daunting even for the most studious among us. Again, it proved to be something of a preview of the quantity of reading demanded of a practicing lawyer, albeit qualitatively different than what reviewing evidence turned out to be like.

The weight of the workload forces you to plan out when you will study particular subjects and leaves little time for rumination and contemplation. For me, this was the value of study groups, because the concepts extracted from the reading requires playing with them. Of course, everyone has trouble with certain concepts like the “battle of the forms” and “proximate causation,” so when you’re dealing with them, the study group becomes a place to vent frustration rather than an intellectual playground. Once your section graduates to 2L, students divert themselves into varying study programs, and the study groups typically dissolve. Hopefully, the friendships linger.

In most classes, you will be tested with an end-of-course essay examination. Typically, you will be given a hypothetical factual scenario dreamed up by the instructor, and asked to identify and evaluate as many issues as you can from it. 100% of your grade in the class is dependent upon your performance on the exam. Some classes are graded on papers, and again it’s typically an all-in, one-shot affair.

Most schools grade on a curve. This is in part because unlike undergraduate school, everyone in law school is smart. This may be a bit of a shock when its reality first sinks in — as a smart undergraduate, you’ve probably become used to being in the top 10% to top 20% of your college class with what feels like relatively little effort. You’re also used to thinking of “A” and maybe high “B” level grades as coming to you roughly automatically. Not so in law school — minute comparative differences between you and your equally smart classmates will produce what appear to be major disparities in scores and thus your all-important rank in the class. Sometimes, this has a toxic effect upon student culture, sometimes it crushes a student’s ego. Hopefully not in your case.

Many law schools have a public service requirement; students must fulfill “X” number of hours of pro bono work which combines both practical work and community service. This could be a ee) legal clinic, where the student will assist economically disadvantaged (it’s law school, so don’t use the word “poor”: why say in one syllable what can instead be said in nine?) people with tax appeals, denied welfare, evictions, or unemployment benefits; or maybe an ff) externship with a public service law firm or a court.

There are three big extracurricular activities that you pretty much need on your resume if you’re going to be looking at a Biglaw job after school: 1) moot court and/or trial advocacy (preferably both); 2) law review; and 3) judicial clerkships. In my own legal education, no one told me that judicial clerkships were the most important entrée to high-paying jobs after graduation[1] when I was in law school, and consequently I did not push very hard to get one. Would getting one have got me into Biglaw and a world of greater remuneration than the middle-class sorts of income I’ve had ever since? I’ll never know.

There are typically an abundance of student organizations, ranging from the political (e.g., the Federalist society) to the social (e.g., intramural basketball). My suggestion here is that you join with caution – these things can suck in a fair amount of one’s time and time for study and maintenance of some semblance of a personal life during law school is precious. Limit yourself: pick one or two at most of these groups to join and if you are in more than one of them, pursue a leadership position in only one. If you achieve some success in moot court, trial advocacy, or law review, then you need to let other people lead the groups you participate in so you can invest enough time to do these marquee-level extracurriculars the justice they deserve.

I drank a lot more in law school than I did in college. In fact, I probably drank more in law school than I ever did at any other phase of my life. This seemed to be true for many of my classmates, too. Law school was almost the only time in my life that I’ve indulged in cigarettes. This was in part my choice and my youth, in part a peer group from better economic circumstances than I’d been used to previously (or since), and in part the stress from a heavy academic workload and more intense competition from my fellow students. YMMV.

There is a definite arc to the course of legal education. You may have heard that in the first year of law school, they scare you to death. In the second year of law school, they work you to death. In the third year of law school, they bore you to death.  I found the trope more true than trite.

Getting your J.D. is not the same thing as getting your license to practice law. For that, you need to pass the bar exam. A lot of people say that they are scared of the bar exam. I found it more drudgery than daunting. If you have good study habits and actually learned anything in law school, then the steps needed to pass the bar exam the first time you take will be well within your abilities, if only you have the willpower to basically extend your law school mentality for another three months or so after graduating.

In a previous comment, opinions were solicited concerning about the effectiveness of the bar exam as a filter for success in practicing law. By way of my response, I note that “success” in practicing law may not be a well-defined term: if it means either “will win a lot of cases” or “will make a lot of money as a lawyer” the answer is the bar exam does not filter for those things at all. If “success” means “will be able to correctly identify problems and steer cases towards resolution” then the answer is that the bar exam tests to see if a prospective lawyer is “minimally competent” in the law generally. There is no incentive to excel on the bar exam; it is pass-fail. Getting every answer right produces a bar card which is the same color as everyone else’s. If you can show that you are at least “minimally competent” then you’ll pass. And so I can assure you from actual practice that there are a lot of real lawyers out there in real courts handling real clients, who are well-described by the phrase “minimally competent.” Fortunately, many if not most real lawyers exceed this standard, at least within the subject matter areas where they focus their practices.

In California, the bar exam is three days long. The first and third days are essays: one long essay (three hours) and three short essays (three hours). The second day is a multiple choice exam, with two three-hour segments of (IIRC) 100 questions in each segment. Your state’s exam may be different than this, but no matter where you go, your minimal competence with respect to the core concepts — torts, con law, contracts, crimes, remedies, marital property, procedure, and ethics — are going to be measured and it is virtual certainty there will be a blend of essays and multiple choice questions. Burt Likko’s formula for passing the bar exam and gaining admission to the practice of law, the first time you try, consists of nine steps.

  1. Go to a good law school, which will be roughly congruent with ABA accreditation.
  2. Pay attention during law school, such that you actually learn the stuff they’re teaching you.
  3. Submit your moral character application to the bar at least six months before the bar exam so that this hurdle is out of the way by the time you take the test. You’ll have to gather a lot of trivia for it like all the addresses where you’ve lived for the past ten years, which in my case was a rather tedious process to research.
  4. Study for, take, and pass the MPRE (the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination) during your second-to-last semester of law school, so that’s out of the way by the time you take the test. This test is a snap if you paid attention in your legal ethics class and study for it beforehand.
  5. Take a professional bar exam study course after graduation tailored to your state’s exam – this will refresh your memory of the critical classes and teach you the techniques necessary to show off that you know enough about the law to be trusted with a degree.
  6. Treat studying for the bar like a full-time job after graduation: do it at least eight hours a day, six days a week.
  7. Register for the test and pay your fee on time. Stock up on #2 pencils and a therapeutic wrist support for the carpal tunnel syndrome you’re about to give yourself.
  8. Refrain from using mind-altering substances, including alcohol in any substantial amount, when they could affect your exam performance. You can party down when the test is all done.
  9. Repeatedly remind yourself: “Thousands of chuckleheads have passed this test. I can be one of them.”

Results can take several months to get back. (You’ll need some means of financial support during this period of time.) When you get the news that you’ve passed, there may be some paperwork with the bar or your state’s supreme court for formal admission. Most law schools schedule a swearing-in ceremony where a notable judge shows up and administers the appropriate oaths. The last steps are getting your bar number and bar card and participating in a swearing-in ceremony, which are routine and can even be pleasant. Memorize your bar number. Welcome to the Guild.

Of course, what you study is a very interesting question, but in retrospect I think the more interesting question is how exactly you intend to pay for all of this. Averaging by enrollment, a student at a USNWP top-25 law school can expect to pay an average of $46,235.96 per year in tuition alone.[2] Books and other study materials are expensive even by the standards of academic publications, so count on spending $3,000 a year or more in reference and study materials. Then there’s room and board. The top-tier law schools are almost all located in areas which tend to have high costs of living. If you can live on as little as $1,000 a month for rent, food, clothing, and transportation, you’re still looking at spending $60,000 or more every year to go to law  school. And as I note above, there can be rather a lot of drinking.

Maybe you come from enough money that this can all be paid for up front. If so, good for you. Maybe you can get grants and scholarships. Back in the day, I looked around and found nothing but lenders. Payments on student loans are typically deferred while a student is still in full-time enrollment, but interest still accumulates. Anticipate something approaching $200,000 in debt coming with your brand-new bar card. That much debt works out to a monthly payment of roughly a thousand dollars a month, for twenty years. This debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, at least under current laws. You must pay it, no matter what. If you do not come from money sufficient to pay as you go, you will have to find or create employment sufficiently lucrative to keep up with this.

Although I touched on the subject in my first post in this series, next we’ll discuss compensation and what you’ll be doing in exchange for it.


[1] That is, for people whose blood was insufficiently blue so as to have an “in” with a family or other similarly close connections such that postgraduate employment in a prestigious, well-paying firm is reasonably assured. Which isn’t to say that people who get jobs that way aren’t qualified for them – it’s to say that their connections and caste mattered more than their credentials.

[2] Weighted by size of student body. I used the lower in-state tuition numbers for law schools within state public university systems.

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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16 thoughts on “Malice Aforethought: Getting Through (Law School, Part 3)

  1. Some jurisdictions do not let you complete your moral application before taking or passing the bar. Some NY Jurisdictions let you do it after the bar exam is complete. If you took it in Manhattan like me, you need to wait until you passed.

    I took the California Bar in Santa Clara. The convention center was attached to the Hilton. It was very nice to unwind at the end of each testing day with a beer by the pool. Then again, I have always been a glass of wine or beer with dinner kind of guy.

    I agree that BarBri or a comparable course is mandatory. I know some people who tried to go solo or use an alternative/cheaper program without great results.

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    • *Raises hand*

      I did pretty well using solo programs for NY and then NJ a few years later. However, I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone – these were the second and third bar exams I sat for, and I used Barbri for my first exam (VA). By the time I sat for NY and then NJ, I knew what to expect for the multi-state and really just needed a refresher course. It helped that NJ didn’t require any major jurisdiction-specific knowledge for its essays. For NY, I quickly figured out that my best bet on the essay portion was to take my initial impulse from the VA exam and then just write the opposite.

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    • I don’t know about this one way or the other. A classmate with whom I later became law partners was in the National Guard during law school, having deferred admission a year or two because he was activated for service during the First Gulf War. But since he served in the regular units and not JAG I don’t think he got any particular help from the military.

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  2. About JAG/military:

    1) If somebody served before school, there will be some sort of GI Bill-type educational benefits (probably not enough to cover law school, but at least something).

    2) From what people say on the blogs, JAG is now very competitive to get into, so that probably applies to any JAG law school scholarships.

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  3. “minute comparative differences between you and your equally smart classmates will produce what appear to be major disparities in scores and thus your all-important rank in the class”

    One thing I observed about some of my equally smart classmates was a tendency to have trouble seeing different sides of an issue or problem. Most often they had a natural compassion for the perceived victim in the hypothetical, and a blind sport for legal rights or defenses available to the other side. Tests are often written to see if you can spot all of the legal issues that might be implicated, not just the best ones and not the just the ones you prefer.

    This may relate back to the reasons they went to lawschool: “Something Is Terribly Wrong With The World And I Intend To Acquire And Use Super Attorney Powers To Fix It.” In my day, those students got fun, though not lucrative jobs in public interest.

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  4. Law school is principally taught by way of the “Socratic method,” which consists of you reading stuff (caselaw and excerpted statutes, mostly) to prepare for class, and then being asked to “stand and deliver” by the instructor.

    Not a whole lot of Socratic method at my law school. When we were called upon to discuss a case, we generally knew beforehand. Most times, the professor just called on people who raised their hands.

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  5. About the only bit of good news is the huge falloff in law school applications. They are down 38% from 2010, which when you think about it is a massive decline. It’s especially surprising in that so many people in their early 20’s have raging cases of Nothing Bad Can Happen to Me syndrome. Not to mention the fact that the non-quantitative sorts who traditionally flock to law schools may not have many other decent job options with their BA’s.

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    • If I remember this correctly, what’s really depressing is that the better students are the ones who have stayed away. So even within the good news that kids are starting to listen, the wrong kids seem to be listening.

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    • ” It’s especially surprising in that so many people in their early 20?s have raging cases of Nothing Bad Can Happen to Me syndrome.”

      It’s not really that. It’s academically successful students doing what society tells them to do, and what they’ve been doing and rewarded for for 16 years. And also the simple fact that ‘law school’ has massive prestige, far above what most of them should have.

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