The Different Modes of Law School Learning

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Your first law school classroom experience might be strange, especially after 16 years of schooling. There are a number of different modes of learning and methods of teaching. Here’s a look at just a few:

The Traditional Socratic Method

I was fortunate enough to experience, what I thought was, a very motivating, and sometimes terrifying style of teaching. The classic “Socratic method.”

My contracts professor would call on one or two people per day. He would continuously ask questions until it seemed like the on-call student got to an aha moment. Even when we weren’t on call, we’d try to follow along and see if we could answer the questions and even predict where the professor was going.

This style of teaching worked for some. I loved it. It did not work for others. A couple of years back a student broke down in tears in the middle of class.

The Musing Lecture

You’re likely to see some version of the Socratic method in your 1L classes. Upper year classes, however, can be very different. You might be frustrated to run into a professor who seems largely uninterested in teaching, and seems to be more interested in thinking out loud. You might get called on to answer some obscure question that might have as little to do with your assigned reading as with that week’s episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians.

If you’re fortunate enough, class attendance will be optional. By your second and third years, you’ll also feel pretty confident in your ability to teach yourself the law.

But even this type of teaching style works for some. Those who love their rambling professors, often find some brilliance in what strikes others as mere chatter.

The Teacher

Some of your professors will actually be fantastic teachers. Instead of giving you two-hundred pages of mostly useless reading per week, these professors will give you short but helpful reading assignments, so you can learn exactly those rules and concepts the professor will test.

One of my professors would have us read only certain parts of a case, and carefully selected commentary in our textbooks (called “casebooks” in law school). He would then illustrate every concept with drawings, stories, and examples.

For this type of professor, going to class is actually useful. Everyone is learning. But one problem is the fact that law school exams are graded on a curve. For example, only 10% can get an A, another 20% a B, and so on. If everyone knows the material really well, grading can be tough, not to mention surprising. You’ll often have to work even harder in a class like this, just because everyone’s so well prepared, thanks to your rock-star teacher.

The Clinic

By the time you’re a 2L, you’ll be sick of classrooms. If you’re ambitious enough, or if you just find something that seems interesting, you can join a clinic. Clinic students, for example, work as mediators, they represent asylum seekers, they help startups get off the ground. The work is hard, and long, and you learn on the go, but it can be extremely satisfying.

A few days ago I learned that some of my friends won asylum for their client. They forever changed a person’s life for the better. Compared to a traditional law school class where your accomplishments are measured in pages read and outlined, clinics can be a welcome chance to do something that matters.

The Externship

Like clinics, externships can be a lot of fun and a great experience. Externships will be less intensive than clinics, but you’ll get a chance to work for what could be a future employer. Many of my friends and I have worked for prosecutor’s offices, government agencies, judges, and NGOs.

Experiences may vary, there are some externships where you’ll spend hours doing work you could have done in high school––indeed your co-externs might be actual high school students. Ask around before you dive into an externship. If you find the right fit, an externship can be very good way to build some practical skills for your future job as a lawyer.

There is more than one way to do law school. Try to figure out very early on what you want from your law school experience, and then talk to your advisors and mentors about what you can do to have such an experience. Take charge of your own experience. There are so many interesting opportunities in law school, it’s a shame to just get through the years. Do something that you’ll be excited about.

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