Last updated: July 8, 2013

By Ryan VanGrack

Duke University 2001
Harvard Law 2005

“What is assumpsit?” Those were the first words out of the professor’s mouth on my first day of law school. Not “hello,” “good morning,” or a heart-warming “welcome to law school!” It was down to business from day one. Sound intimidating? I certainly thought so. But if you can look past the horror stories – cut throat competition, interminable hours of studying, harassing professors– law school can be quite tolerable and possibly enjoyable.

In this article I will give you a summary of the typical experience of a first-year law student, dispel a few myths about law school, and provide a few tips on how to make it through the experience without losing your self-confidence or your sanity.

Before You Enter

Having spoken with people who attended a number of different law schools, it is safe to say that the law school experience is similar wherever you go. As a first-year student, regardless of where you attend, you will read the same books, cover the same cases, attend the same classes, take the same type of exam, be subjected to the same classroom format, utilize the same study habits and takeaway the same principles of law.

Upon applying, or once accepted to a law school, the next inevitable question becomes what can I do to prepare for law school? Some consider cross registering for a law school course, others may take an undergrad course offering a ‘law-school’ experience, some after graduation may take a prep course on writing law school briefs, and still others purchase books highlighting the law school experience or giving tips on ways to succeed. Everyone is unique and what may be helpful to some might be fruitless for others. All I can tell you is that you do not need to do any of the aforementioned prep work before entering law school. You already possess the tools needed to succeed (or at least survive) in law school: logic, writing skills, and the ability to think creatively. You will have no disadvantage whatsoever if you never read a case or are clueless on how to write a brief. Your law school will undoubtedly teach you those skills, so there is no need to rush out and learn it on your own.

The Dreaded First Year

A. Teaching Method

Law school classes in your first year are predominantly taught using the “case method.” The overwhelmingly majority of your reading assignments will be cases. Although some professors may occasionally include other reading to develop a general principle or elaborate on a particular policy, rest assured that you will be reading case, after case, after case, on a daily basis as a first-year law student.

The case method involves studying the evolution of law through appellate court decisions. A student rarely reads a court opinion from the trial level. Instead, the cases studied are those written by judges of appellate courts who review cases appealed by a party dissatisfied with the result attained at a lower court. These appellate opinions do not focus on the facts of the case, and instead review a particular controversy or issue of law. Each case you read typically discusses the status of or debate within the law, and ultimately the court “holds” that one particular interpretation of the law is the appropriate one.

I wish I could tell you that each case is easy to understand, and that each proposition that the cases stand for is clear, unambiguous and universal in application. If that were the case, then being a law student, much less a lawyer, would not be very difficult. Instead, the first-year law student will find that there is only one certain principle in law school: nothing is certain in law school.

It would be too easy if a lawyer could simply look up the law by reading a case summary or a statute on point. Interpretation of any given law is unique to each individual reader. In addition to such varied interpretations, the law is quite malleable -- laws change, interpretations are invalidated, statutes are passed, statutes are amended, earlier holdings are overruled, holdings are unclear, etc. Moreover, no law can cover every possible scenario. The case method allows students to observe the evolution of the law by reading the interpretations of the judges who are actually creating "the law" with each new opinion.

When reading cases, first-year students typically ‘brief’ the case. Briefing a case is simply condensing the entire opinion into a short, easily understood summary. A brief is often organized by stating, for example, the facts of the case, procedural posture (what has already been decided by the court, what level of court are you in), central holdings of the case, the discussion of the court, and a conclusion. Briefing a case can be a tedious process, but students find it useful to better familiarize themselves with the case and better prepare themselves for class discussion. Whereas the majority of first-year students brief most of their cases, students by their second year are less likely to do so. By that time many students feel that they can process the highlights of a case efficiently, without having to brief. My recommendation is to brief cases your first semester and re-evaluate your decision for the second semester. Ultimately, there is no right way - simply decide what works best for you.

B. Workload

The workload during your first year is substantial, but not unbearable. The material is not too difficult to master, but the amount of cases to read and brief, articles to ponder, and outlines to complete can be overwhelming. There are two important things to keep in mind throughout the entire first year when confronted with this workload. First, nobody is able to learn, process, and remember everything thrown at you as a first-year student. Second, things get easier with each subsequent semester. This is not because the workload diminishes over time. Instead, students are able to handle the material more efficiently and with less effort. What would take two hours as a first-year may only take twenty minutes as a second-year.

C. Classroom Materials

Your classroom materials will likely consist of one large casebook, which will contain all the cases you read during the class. Many casebooks have study aides that feature case summaries –briefs already written on the cases you read (think Cliff’s Notes for law students). Note that these case summaries can often be a bit inaccurate or fail to highlight the principle that the professor thinks is important. Thus, while they seem like an attractive purchase, they are rarely as helpful as they first appear.

Generally only casebooks are required, but many professors will recommend one or more "hornbooks" to accompany the casebook. Hornbooks are narrative outlines of the law in a particular field. They are typically voluminous and tedious. Nevertheless, hornbooks can prove useful in certain courses that are notoriously challenging to first-year students (e.g., Civil Procedure).

D. Classroom Instruction

The dynamics of a law school classroom are??? unlike anything you witness at Duke. Although the format is intimidating to many, the right preparation and perspective can help mitigate much anxiety. Most professors conduct their class using some form of the “Socratic method.” Law professors do not stand up and lecture for hours, while asking for occasional class participation. Instead, the classroom is conducted as a series of one-on-one discussions. Typically, a professor selects a student to introduce a case, the student recites the facts and explains the court’s holding, and then the professor proceeds to ask a series of questions pertaining to that holding. These questions are meant to probe the student for a deeper understanding. It is not enough simply to be able to recite the holding. A student must understand why the court held the way it did and the steps required to get there. Some professors will ask the student one or two questions, others will focus on the same student for 10 or 15 minutes. This method is extremely challenging, but primes students to begin to “think like a lawyer.” 

One of the greatest differences between college and law school is the degree of preparation of the students. At Duke, students often attend class totally unprepared, confident that they can either remain silent or “BS” their way through questions. It is quite rare in law school, however, for an unprepared student to attend class. There is little room for “BSing” in law school. The professors are too smart, and the material is too complicated, for any student to wing it. Even the most diligent student will find it difficult to answer the questions in class.

As bad as the Socratic Method may sound, there is an easy way to avoid the fear and take the entire experience in stride. If you remember nothing else from this article but the following principle, then you will have a much more enjoyable first year experience. There are no consequences to giving a wrong answer. It may sound trite or obvious, but students too often forget that nothing bad can come from classroom participation. Your entire grade in your first year is almost always determined by your exam at the end of the semester. Thus, even if you answer every question with a blank stare or a Nicholson-like “You can’t handle the truth,” the professor can do nothing to you. The intimidation is entirely self-imposed by students themselves. Some are worried about how the professors or other students will perceive them, while others just want to feel that they are capable students. The sooner you get that nonsense out of your head and realize that no harm can come of your answers in class, the sooner you can eliminate much of the pressure in law school. I should note that there is typically no right answer that the professor is looking for – they are just trying to push your ability to understand and work with the principles.

Despite some uniformity in the classroom format, there is no such thing as a "typical" law school class. Everything depends on the professor. Some let the student recite the facts, while others begin consideration of a case by asking a specific question. Some professors are courteous and considerate to students, while a few delight in humiliating and upsetting students.

E. Grades and Exams

Now the part you really care about. With few exceptions, your grade in each first year course depends entirely on one exam given at the end of the semester. In your second and third year, grades are also typically based on a single exam, although many courses (particularly smaller seminars) will require or permit a paper instead. Either way, the majority of classes are graded on a single test/paper given at the end of the semester. This format puts a lot of pressure on students. Whereas undergrad typically features multiple exams throughout the semester, allowing a student to gauge his/her progress and standing in a classroom, law school leaves students unsure about their comprehension of the material until the tail-end of the semester. This format is particularly nerve-wrecking for first-year students. First-year students can be particularly insecure about their abilities and may often question whether or not they firmly grasp the material. There are, however, a few things you can do to better prepare yourself for exams and gain a better sense of your standing in the classroom.

Most first-year students find it helpful to join ‘study groups’ during their first semester. These study groups involve groups of students getting together to review class concepts. Additionally, the majority of students prepare an “outline” of a course in order to prepare for the exam. An outline is just what it sounds like - a condensed version of all the ideas and cases reviewed in class.
Many professors save prior tests online or distribute them at the end of the semester. Going over a practice test before taking an exam can be a great way to gauge your comprehension of the material and get a better feel for your professor’s exam idiosyncrasies. Another useful way to measure your progress is through in-class practice exams. Occasionally professors will conduct a practice exam in class and provide students with feedback on their answers. These practices are typically optional. I strongly recommend that you take advantage of this offer. A practice exam not only forces you to review the material before the end of the semester, but also helps you get accustomed to the professor’s style of testing and method of grading.

The majority of law school exams are in the form of “issue spotters.”  Issue spotters require you to apply the legal principles learned during class to a long hypothetical set of convoluted facts. Some exams may also feature parts in which you are required to discuss or evaluate a particular legal principle or policy learned in class. Many exams are ‘open book’; you are free to use notes from class, outlines, or even casebooks to assist in answering the questions. Unlike undergrad, law school professors are much less concerned with your ability to memorize. Instead, exams are focused on your ability to analyze and think creatively.

There is no correct format to law school studying. Each student is unique in what works best for him or her. One of the reasons that law school gets easier after the first semester is that students gain more insight into what study preparations worked best.

There is added cause for the pressure surrounding first-year grades. For better or for worse, first-year grades are typically the sole rubric with which you are evaluated when applying for jobs as a second-year law student. In the beginning of the second year, you apply for jobs you will hold the following summer. In the majority of instances, the job you hold after your second-year summer is the job you take upon graduation. Consequently, students who perform well in their first year find themselves in a better posture for jobs, even if they end up performing poorly in subsequent years. Nevertheless, there are many factors that go into a job offer. Thus, it is misleading to think that your first-year grades are your only shot at getting a good job. Look at it this way -- good grades in your first year can help you get a good job, but are neither necessary nor sufficient. A good recommendation from a professor or unique work experience can go far in a job interview. Furthermore, a student with good grades that does not interview well will still find the job process very challenging. Moreover, students who improve in subsequent years can utilize their later performance in obtaining a job because students also apply for jobs during their third year (and even upon graduation).

The competitiveness of law schools is quite varied. Some boast a relaxed atmosphere, while others have well-established reputations as a pressure-cooker. Regardless of whether you are at the most intense law school or in the most laid-back program, you alone decide how intense to make your law school experience. The most competitive schools have many laid-back students and the most relaxed schools have their fair share of cut-throat competitors. Decide which one you want to be and go with it.

Final Thoughts

Many students absolutely enjoy law school. It is challenging, thought provoking, and truly teaches you “how to think like a lawyer.”  Others, however, feel law school is a three year marathon they cannot wait to finish. Whether or not law school is right for you, there are ways to make it a better experience. I have already mentioned a few tips throughout his article, but here is one more:

Once at law school do not doubt yourself. Too often students begin to question whether they belong. It may occur after giving a wrong answer, when witnessing other students make comments you did not think of, or if you seem to lack the enthusiasm or diligence others seem to possess. Be reassured that others feel the same way you do. More importantly, law schools today are quite good in their admissions process. Thus, it is very safe to assume that everyone admitted is more than capable of performing adequately.

Although much of the criticism associated with the first year of law school is merited, the first year can also be a very rewarding experience. It literally transforms the way you think. I learned more in that one year, than in any other year of my life.

As for the meaning of assumpsit – who cares? The student in class got it wrong and I still don’t have a clue.