Law School Recommendations #1 — Summer Activities

I promised a long time ago to have notes for the incoming UC Davis Law School Class of 2015. My apologies for being so late; after six weeks of unrelenting family issues, I finally have some time.

Some background first of all. I am a UC Davis Law School Class of 2014 member. I have not made the best grades in class. I am also far from the worst. Nonetheless, I feel disposed to give public advice for the entering members of the class. Why? First of all, no one else is doing it. Second, though not at the top of the class, my law school experience has been a solid one;my rank has improved and I have made solid marks in the vast majority of my classes. Third, I think those of us who are in middle age (I came to law school rather later than most people) have an ingrained need to give advice. We’re well aware of the mistakes we’ve made in life and very much want those who follow us not to make the same ones.

Giving advice can become a nasty habit, and I try to keep it under control. Nonetheless, those of you coming to law school are about to enter a new realm. This is very different from anything else that you have ever done. And, if approached correctly, it can be a lot of fun. And I can help with that.

General Material

#1: Buy and read Law School Confidential by Robert Miller. If you have not done so yet, you’ve already missed his classic advice on choosing a law school. Though since you chose UC Davis, that oversight can be forgiven.

Virtually all of the advice given in Miller’s book is on target. The biggest deficiencies are his lack of information on how to perform on tests (made up with #3 below) and his handling of technology issues which is ten years out of date (I will handle this in a later post).

I cannot recommend Miller’s book highly enough. Get a copy to read and finish it completely before starting classes. Keep the copy with you and revisit it from time to time during school.

#2: Exercise. Go out and visit friends. Enjoy yourself. Soon you won’t have time. Don’t fool yourself that you’ll always find time; you won’t. Law school is an intellectual marathon, one that starts medium-fast then slowly accelerates until by two weeks prior to finals you don’t have time to brush teeth, let alone call your family.

Don’t let this impending time crunch scare you too much. The all-embracing aspect of a legal education and career is one of the law’s attractions. There is always something new to learn, even after you get out of school. And the people who study law are typically self-motivated to seek out new concepts and ideas. As a law student and future lawyer, you will never be bored for lack of new material.

#3: Sometime soon, but not so high on the list as Law School Confidential, purchase a copy of Getting to Maybe by Fischl and Paul. This is the primer on handling law school exams. It is crucial that you do well on these exams; for many classes, the sole source of your grade will be a three hour, multiple essay final. Read the whole book and give each section your time and attention; unlike other self-help titles, this book really packs data and good sense into each page.

It is not entirely necessary to read this book before starting school, but have it on your shelf. Read it early, certainly before midterm exams. Don’t start reading it two weeks before your first round of finals (like I did — see, I’m already helping you avoid my mistakes).

UC Davis Specific Material

When you start in August, there will be a mandatory one week introduction to law. The class is a lot of fun, you get a good overview of the law and you meet the people you will be spending the next three years with.

When classes start on the second week, you will be split into three groups of roughly 65 students. You will go to all of your classes with the same group throughout your first year. You will get to know these people very, very well. The other 130 students will be relative strangers to you . . . I only know about two dozen students from outside the A/B section that I was in.

Soon after sections are assigned, make sure to create a Facebook or other social networking system so that the entire section can trade information. It’s a godsend to communicate quickly and clearly with your fellow students. For instance, it comes in handy when you don’t have the reading assignment for the next day and need it fast. And you’ll want to do this with a section-specific group rather than the general class group. The other two sections will have their own, independent issues and concerns.

The first four classes that you will have are Torts, Property, Constitutional Law I and Legal Research/Writing. I enjoyed all of them (Pruitt, Wiecek, Bhagwat were my professors for the first three; my LRW professor has moved back to Los Angeles this year). It’s a classic law school offering; the classes were informative and stimulating in a way that left me pleasantly shocked. I unexpectedly found myself enjoying law school my Fall semester and my enjoyment continues today.

You won’t have a reading list until you are assigned a section and each section will have its own professors with their own individual syllabi. Until then, you won’t know what material to read in advance for any of your classes.

The one book I recommend reading prior to entering the Fall semester is Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies by Erwin Chemerinsky. This book is Constitutional Law’s bible. It is well-written and easily understood, which makes it unique among serious works on Con Law. Virtually every law student uses the book to understand the difficult issues that arise in the subject. For those feeling ambitious, I’d suggest getting this book early and starting to read it. Your class in Fall Semester will cover Chapters One through Five; Chapters Six through Twelve deal with fundamental rights, which are typically the study of Con Law 2, an optional course for your 2L or 3L years.

But please note that #2 above (exercise, time with friends and family) greatly outweighs any benefit from reading Chemerinsky now. Plan your life accordingly.

UC Davis is different from other law programs. My friends and colleagues at other schools report a more competitive, beggar-thy-neighbor attitude among students. Law students everywhere are awarded grades on their relative merits (Is Johnny better than Cindy? Then Johnny should get an A …) rather than their absolute merits (Did Johnny really understand Torts? Then Johnny should get an A …). This leads some students to work nefarious tricks to improve their grades: hiding essential books in the library, refusing to share notes or outlines, circulating purposely misleading class outlines and the like. By reducing Cindy’s test scores, Johnny gets a better grade.

While such tricks are not completely absent from UC Davis, they are notably rare. Most students share their outlines, outlines from previous class years are generally available, and both students and faculty go out of their way to be helpful. During Contracts last year, our professor was noted for his extensive and complicated daily whiteboards. Every day we arrived to find four to five full whiteboards of closely written text. The teaching assistant recommended arriving to class thirty minutes early in order to have time to copy down all of the text. In our class, the whiteboards were photographed daily by different students and posted on our Facebook section page for everyone to share. This would not have happened in most other schools.

Why is UC Davis different? I don’t know. But it works. UC Davis graduates have a far more proactive group of alumni to work with when it comes time to network and seek employment. The supportive culture nurtured here continues on in later life. I suspect it has much to do with the school’s rising reputation.

I’m pausing with my recommendations here. I have more material I want to share, but it’s better to see what comments are generated first before continuing. [Edit: the second part is located here.]

2 Responses to “Law School Recommendations #1 — Summer Activities”

  1. Andrew says:

    All solid advice.

    I’d like to add a bit on outlining, as it was key to my success during 1L.

    As an undergrad, I never outlined. There was never any need. However, in law school the work will pile up quickly. There’s a lot of reading, and you will often move from one concept to another in a matter of days. By the end of the course, you will need to know each concept, as well as how the concepts relate to each other. Outlining will help sort it all out.

    As with anything study-related, your outlining style will likely be unique. However, I preferred to begin outlining early, rather than throwing outlines together during the final weeks of the semester. Outlining materials soon after learning them will allow you to synthesize and organize concepts while they are fresh in your mind. It’s not fun to flip back through 2 month old notes and “re-learn” stuff that you haven’t reviewed in a while.

    Here’s my process, which worked well for me:

    1) Take very, very detailed notes in class. Take down anything remotely important that the professor speaks about, including hypotheticals (which will be helpful when reviewing the material in the future). Don’t worry about spelling, or organizing your notes while in class. Just get it down.

    2) Do all of the readings. Brief cases, if you find that helpful, or if you find it’s required for speaking in class. I only briefed cases when I anticipated being called on in class, so that the material would be easily referenced. I found briefing to be useless for study purposes (but make sure you give it a shot before deciding whether it’s helpful for you).

    Instead of briefing (typing or writing out a document with the basics of the case), I used multi-colored highlighters and wrote in the margins of my casebooks. I used the following scheme: green (facts), pink (procedure), blue (issue/question), orange (rule/holding), yellow (generally important). I was selective and thorough; the highlighting actually took quite a bit of thought and time. By the end of the semester, each of the cases I read was easily and quickly reviewed.

    3) Within a few days, perhaps a week, condense/summarize/organize your lengthy, messy notes into a clean outline format. Turn it into very simple, straightforward, reworded explanations that will make sense to you in the future, when you’re studying for exams. You’ll need to remember all of this stuff, and you’ll be surprised how much of it you’ll forget by finals week. Your outline – however you format it – should remind you of all of the key points and be organized in a straightforward manner. Include examples in your outline, if possible. Take a look at other outlines created by past students (available on the law school website) for clarification and augmentation. However, don’t merely copy another person’s outline. At the very least, reword it.

    4) By the end of the semester, you will ideally have a lengthy, but clean, exhaustive, and straightforward summary of everything you were taught in the course. Try to have all of your outlines (one for each course) nearly done by the end of the semester; you will want the entire week prior to each exam to study, re-learn, and memorize your outline.

    If your outline is complete and thorough, you can quite literally ignore your messy class notes and even many of the readings/cases. Each of my outlines was approximately 50-60 typed pages, but they contained ALL of the relevant, important information I needed to know. I probably spent 80 percent of my finals just reading and re-reading my outlines (until they were practically memorized), and applying what I had memorized to practice exams.

    This process worked quite well for me. Of course, you should experiment with what works for you.

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