A Lesson at the Beginning of 1L

About a week into my first year of law school, I was sitting in the library preparing for contracts class. I opened my casebook and got to it. The assignment was very short: two cases, heavily abridged, totaling only five pages with notes. Reading cases, particularly at that point in one’s legal education, takes time, but with only five pages assigned, I wasn’t sure how to fill up the three or so hours I assumed I’d need to be fully prepared for class.

I read each case over and over, internalizing every detail, understanding the structure of each opinion, and determining where each relevant piece of information was. By the end of my study session, I felt that I had the cases almost memorized, and I was fully prepared for tomorrow’s class discussion.

As class started, I felt so prepared that I was hoping that the professor would call on me so that I could display my deep knowledge of all aspects of both cases. To my disappointment, someone else was called on, and I was forced to observe and wait for another opportunity to show my chops.

Disappointment quickly turned to relief as the professor, using the Socratic method typical of law school classes, led us through a labyrinth of legal doctrine, policy considerations, microeconomics, and business concepts, none of which I had anticipated in my preparation for class. I was bewildered, struggling to keep up with the professor and his unfortunate interlocutor, and wondering how I could have spent so much time on so little material, only to be completely unprepared for class discussion.

In some ways, law school is a continuation of the academic and intellectual training that law students have engaged in for their entire lives. In many important ways, though, law school is something new and different, similar to landing on a foreign shore and having to learn the local language from scratch. Reading and understanding a case is different from reading and understanding any other piece of writing, and the method of thinking that one learns in law school, while sharing similarities with many other disciplines, is unique.

Looking back on this episode, I now realize that I didn’t appreciate how different law school was from what I had done before. I approached my class preparation as if I already knew the language, when in fact I had only begun to build a vocabulary and understand the most basic grammatical rules. The learning curve is steep, but the first couple of months is bewildering. The key is to have the humility to appreciate the difficulty of the task while remaining confident in your ability to complete it.