Law School, Actually

What? Me? No, I was totally paying attention. Can you repeat the question?

Law school classes are very different from undergrad classes. Here’s how.

1. Cold Calling

One of the biggest differences from your undergrad experience is that most law school professors will cold call students from a seating chart or list of names. Law professors don’t like to wait for volunteers. What this means is that you’ll have to be prepared for most of your classes, instead of leaving things for last minute cram sessions at the end of a semester. Cold calling also means you’ll get grilled in front of about 100 other law students, which can be a bit overwhelming. Here’s how it could go:

Professor: Is . . . Mr. Soandso here?

Mr. Soandso: Here.

Professor: What were the facts in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.?

Mr. Soandso (profusely sweating) : Well Mrs. Palsgraf was hurt after a luggage scale fell on her. A couple of the railroad’s workers pushed a man onto a train, or helped him onto the train and—

Professor: Well which is it? Did they push him or help him?

Mr. Soandso: Ah well sort of both. They pushed him to help him onto the train. The employees knocked a packet of fireworks out of the man’s hand, the fireworks fell and exploded. The explosion caused a large scale to fall on Mrs. Palsgraf, injuring her.

Professor: Good. And what was the holding? Ah but first, who was the judge?

Mr. Soandso: Umm . . . umm . . . (trying to look it up)

Essentially, you will always be asked about the facts and the holding. Some professors will be very picky about how you frame the facts. They will also ask questions you’ll feel like you should know the answers to but that just didn’t occur to you when you were reading the case, like, what the judge’s name is.

Here’s the thing about cold calls. Almost everyone will bomb a cold call at some point, but it does not matter. No one will remember, and it will have zero effect on your grades. By the time you’re a third-year law student, you will just tell the professor you’d like to pass when you’re not ready for a cold call. Simple. Easy. However, some professors will be a little more intense. A cold call with an intense professor might go something like this:

Professor: Mr. Soandso, when I assign a case for you to read, I expect you to have read it, taken notes on it, and to have discussed it with a classmate in preparation for a possible cold call. I don’t want to see you leafing through your book to find an answer to my question. So do you have it? Who wrote the opinion? What’s the judge’s name?

Mr. Soandso (very flustered and terrified of the next question): It’s Benjamin Cardozo.

2. Push back

Unlike in undergrad, where you’re mostly asked to recall some detail you’ve read or give an opinion on a question where there is no wrong answer, law school professors will often make you commit to a position and then push back on whatever you say. They’ll make you develop arguments. Here’s what that looks like:

Mr. Soandso: So the Court held that Mrs. Palsgraf could not win damages for her injury because the effect of the employees’ actions was too remote and unforeseeable.

Professor: Do you agree with that?

Mr. Soandso: Uh yeah well it seems—

Professor: You think it’s too unforeseeable that someone might get hurt if you’re trying to shove people onto a moving train? Or is it too unforeseeable that an unsecured heavy object on a busy train platform might fall on someone and hurt them?

Mr. Soandso: Well, no I just think that they didn’t know that the man was carrying fireworks.

Professor: Shouldn’t the railroad have tried to keep passengers from bringing dangerous explosives onto their trains? How about a simple warning sign? “No explosives.”

Like with cold calling, there’s a great deal of variation among professors and how hard they’ll push back, but be ready for some back and forth.

3. Depth in Class, Breadth on the Exam

You have to quickly disabuse yourself from the idea that the point of attending class is to prepare you for the exam. In undergrad, professors will more or less directly test you on what they’ve been teaching you. You simply have to memorize what was said in class and repeat it on your exam.

Law school is a bit different. While what you learn in class is certainly relevant, it won’t be tested directly on the exam. Instead, you’ll have to take the rules you’ve covered and apply them to a completely new, vague set of facts. Class time, on the other hand, is more about exercising your critical thinking skills and having a bit of fun while discussing cases in great detail. Often professors will go into every nuance of a case. On the exam, you will not be asked to analyze any cases. Instead, you will be asked to apply the rules you learned from about a hundred different cases in about three hours. This is a very different skill that you have to prepare separately from your class preparations.

I hope this down and dirty intro to law school classes helps you be a bit more prepared for law school. Good luck!

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