Law School: What is it? How does it differ from undergraduate education?

Last updated: July 7, 2013

Edited By Abbie Willard, Ph.D.
Georgetown University Law Center Student's Almanac
* Reprinted with Permission. Copyright by Georgetown University Law Center.

WHAT IS THIS BEAST?  Some might call it a trial by endurance. Other, more idealistic souls might see it as an intellectual challenge embodying classical exercises in reasoning, logic, and persuasive dialogue. Whatever you call it, it may not be the easiest way to spend three or four years of your life. Law school at its most effective and its most grueling -- is an academic means to a practical end. From this you will develop intellectual skills that you may not have imagined yourself having.

Forget Perry Mason

The most useful way to view law school is as the shaping of a lawyer. Louis Schwartz, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, and now a professor of law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law summarizes the professional ideal of a lawyer:

The lawyer is a planner, a negotiator, a peace-maker. Despite the popular stereotype of the lawyer as contentious adversary, the peaceful ordering of human relations overwhelmingly predominates in his activities. In the drafting of commercial and labor contracts, treaties, wills, constitutions, he or she is concerned with achieving orderly arrangements and with avoiding or settling controversy. This requires imaginative and anticipation of contingencies, changes of fortune, tragedies, betrayals, and social change.

The lawyer is a counselor, advising individuals in their varied and complex relationships with one another and the state. Similarly the lawyer advises groups, corporations, unions, ethnic communities, cities, states, federal departments and agencies, and international organizations. In giving advice he or she brings into play the lawyer's specialized understanding of the formal structure of society and law as an instrument of social control and betterment.

The lawyer is an advocate, representing the views, needs and aspirations of others more effectively than they, un-counseled, could do by themselves.

The lawyer is a defender of the rights of the individuals against the conformist pressures of society.The lawyer is an architect of social structure, responding creatively to the needs of a rapidly changing society.

The lawyer is a social scientist, drawing upon economics, history, sociology, psychology, political science, and anthropology to deal with the problems of individuals, organizations and communities.

The lawyer is an educator, especially a self-educator. The process of educating a lawyer never ends. In every controversy he or she must refresh expertise or acquire expertise in a new factual domain.

The lawyer is an humanist. To study law is to look through the greatest window on life. Here one sees the passions, frailties, the aspirations, the baseness and nobility of the human condition.

The lawyer is a leader. All other qualifications converge in thrusting upon the lawyer leadership and responsibility in community life.

You are a lawyer - of sorts - not from the day you graduate or pass the bar (though the importance of these milestones will weigh a lodestone on your back) but from the day you start classes. Not that you should think of yourself as Perry Mason. Television and the press - even Shakespeare - have done us all a disservice with their narrow, stereotyped portrayal of The Lawyer who single-mindedly practices The Law and in so doing serves mankind all while garnering great wealth.

Unlike your media counterpart you will probably become a master of many trades. Law school will prepare you for some of these, but not for others. The skills, the attitudes, the intellect that got you here will have to suffice for the others. So, be realistic about what law school can and cannot do. Another law professor, Michael Josephson, who has taught and lectured widely maintains that law school will not teach you "how to" do what most lawyers do. Instead, you will learn how to defend against the Socratic onslaught (we'll talk more about that later), brief a case, and complete a two-hour exam in one hour. You will learn to think in a different way and to approach facts and problems with a perspective untried in your pre-law school life. That is what makes law school difficult for many students. The skills and behaviors that made you successful in undergraduate school will not necessarily work here. At least not in the same way.

Remembrances of Colleges Past

Law school is different from your undergraduate education in almost every way. The teaching methods, the professors themselves, the types of students, even the very goal of the educational process will all require your skills in adaptation.

Pedagogy:  How They Teach Me What I Need To Know.

They won't. Law school professors will not lecture and expect you to regurgitate those lectures on regular or frequent exams. You will have only one, perhaps two exams during a course. These exams will test your ability to apply what was discussed in class. The application may not even remotely resemble the fact pattern or hypothetical actually examined in class. The method of teaching will no longer focus on the content of the lecture of the text, though you certainly will want to be able to recall some of this substance. Rather than content, your way of thinking about that content will be the professor's primary concern.

Professors:  How Can I Match Their Wits?

You probably can't and shouldn't expect yourself to. In your undergraduate experience, your interchanges with professors were probably questions and answers - you did the asking and they provided the answers. The tables now turn. They ask and you respond. If you ask them a question - and please do - they will probably answer it with another question posed to you. (And why not?)  This is part of the process of learning to think like a lawyer.

Most undergraduate educators stand behind a college podium because they A) love to teach, or B) want to do research in their field, or C) both of the above, if you are lucky. Most law school professors were selected for their jobs because of their outstanding performances in law school, their practice or both. They may or may not be experienced teachers and they may or may not write in the subject area they have been selected to teach. They are, however, masters at the very process - thinking like a lawyer - which is so new to you.

Students:  What Is My Competition?

No longer are your dorm-mates or teammates. And no longer does the academic performance of those around you vary widely. Everyone who gets into Georgetown is bright, motivated, and skilled intellectually. The undergraduate grade point averages and Law School Admission Test scores place our students in the top ten to fifteen percent of the entire U.S. law school applicant pool. You are among the best of the brightest.

You will encounter competition, of course. But, if you can compete cooperatively (no, not a contradiction in terms) with friendly interchanges, study groups, shared notes, and off time socializing, the pressure will be manageable. You will find your new colleagues to be very interesting and fun people. Remember, you are all in this together.

Educational Goal:  Why Are They Doing This To Me?

If you keep in mind that process not product, methodology not substance are the primary focus here, you will have touched (if not felt) your reason for existence over the next three or four years. Undergraduate institutions that seek to make you a well-rounded, educated member of society assume a small task compared to the agenda law school has in mind. Law school aims to train you in several disciplines. It wants you to gain analytical reasoning, an ability to identify legal issues, an understanding of legal process, and a knowledge of substantive law. At the same time it wants to shape you into effectively communicating (orally and in writing) all of the above. And, it wants you to do all of this as a decent, ethical, contributing member of society.

At their worst, these goals contribute to the commonly held belief that law school is an impersonal, anonymous, alienating experience. Do fight the too-smug tendency to write off the experience for its negative possibilities. Instead, try to focus on the enormous opportunities to learn, challenge, be challenged, and respond. You will certainly change because of the experience. Try to enjoy the process of that change.

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