You may have heard that law school is difficult and stressful. For those who enter law school unprepared, this is the reality. However, if you enter law school equipped with the right set of tools and with the knowledge of exactly what to expect, you will be miles ahead of your peers, who will 100% be struggling to keep up.
So what is law school like for someone who is prepared? Law school is an intellectually-challenging environment where you will meet some of the smartest peers, mentors, and professionals you have ever met in your lifetime. In addition to learning about different areas of the law, you may have the opportunity to be part of many diverse communities focusing on anything from criminal law reform to counseling startup companies. Law school is truly an exciting start to your legal career.
In this article, I’ll discuss in detail what it’s like to be in law school. This includes a discussion about the types of classes you’ll be taking, how lectures are organized, how law students are graded, when students apply for jobs, and so much more. Buckle up.
- What types of classes do law students take?
- What classes do first-year law students take (1L)?
- What is the Socratic method?
- How are law students graded? How does the law school curve work?
- What is a law journal and Moot Court?
- What classes do second- and third-year law students take (2L and 3L)?
- What are law school extracurriculars like?
- When do law students look for jobs?
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What types of classes do law students take?
There are three types of law schools classes: (1) doctrinal, (2) seminar, (3) clinical, and (4) simulation. Each type of class is aimed at providing a different way for students to learn specific areas of the law and to apply it.
Doctrinal classes constitute the majority of classes you will take during your law school career. These classes are considered foundational because they teach students black letter law. Black letter laws are well-established legal rules that are, at the time of teaching, not subject to reasonable dispute.
Law professors teach black letter law by example through statutory law and case law. Statutory law is law that has been passed by a legislative body. An example of statutory law is a criminal statute prohibiting the intentional killing of another human being (murder). Case law is a collection of past legal decisions written by judges, which analyze the application of the law.
Your reading assignments for doctrinal classes may range anywhere from 30-60 pages per class.
Seminar classes are generally smaller in size and may focus more on advanced legal policy via diving deeply into legal academic journals. What goals does this particular law accomplish? How does it incentivize the individuals or entities it governs? Could there be any adverse consequences from the enforcement of the law in its current form?
In other words, you will learn to question why the law is the way it is and to even propose what you think the law should do and be.
These types of courses are primarily discussion-based, and you may be tasked with producing a 15-50 paper by the end of the semester on an advanced topic of the law.
Your reading assignments for seminar classes may also range from 30-60 pages per class.
Law school clinics, also known as legal clinics, double as a legal course and a program aimed at providing free legal services (pro bono) to various clients and communities. Legal clinics are a very hands-on experience for law students to practice their lawyering skills, which is something students are not usually able to do in a doctrinal course.
For instance, you may be filing documents in court for clients who were wrongfully evicted from their properties. You may be helping a social enterprise structure their business to mitigate tax consequences. You may even help a small business draft a contract.
Simulation classes teach law students practical skills in areas such as contract drafting, negotiations, and even the deal-making process of a merger and acquisition. These are highly sought-after by students as they are commonly viewed as being the most useful courses in law school.
To make things less ideal, these classes are usually small in size so there is never enough room for everyone who wants to take the course. During course registration, these classes fill up first.
In a simulation class, you will directly participate with your classmates in various lawyering exercises. For instance, in a negotiations class, you and your partner will actually negotiate on behalf of imaginary clients. In contract drafting, you will negotiate the terms of a contract with a classmate and work together to draft the contract.
What classes do first-year law students take (1L)?
The first-year curriculum slightly varies from law school to law school, but first-year law students will generally take the following courses:
- Criminal Law (or Criminal Procedure at certain schools)
- Property (at most law schools)
- Constitutional Law (at most law schools)
- Civil Procedure
- Legal Research and Writing (called “Lawyering” at certain schools)
All of these classes except Legal Research and Writing are doctrinal courses. You will study case law, using it as an example, to learn to apply black letter law.
Legal Research and Writing is a seminar course where you will focus on learning how to conduct legal research using specific online tools such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, how to write a litigation brief or a memoranda, how to negotiate contracts, and how to argue a rudimentary case.
What is the Socratic method?
Some of you may have heard about the infamous Socratic method. The Socratic method is essentially an academic dialogue between a law professor and a student cold-called upon during class.
Most law professors teaching doctrinal classes employ this method to teach the material. When you attend a doctrinal class, you are expected to have completed your reading assignments and to be familiar with the case law assigned.
During these cold-calls, students are expected to answer anything from simple inquiries about the facts of the case to anything more complex such as applying the case law to a novel set of facts. Some law professors will call on multiple students during one class period and others will stick with the same student for the entire class.
The Socratic method generally causes some anxiety among first-year law students, but you should realize that your answers do not have to be perfect. If you have read the materials and made an effort to understand it, your professor will take note of this, regardless of how well you perform in class.
Also, law students are often especially self-conscious about this. To be honest, no one will remember whether you made a mistake or not during class. The law professor themselves won’t even remember it. People have other things to worry about.
One thing I would recommend when you are on call is to get class notes from another student. You simply won’t have time to take notes while answering your professor’s questions.
How are law students graded? How does the law school curve work?
Law students are graded on a curve. How does the law school curve work? The curve essentially puts a cap on the number of students who can earn an A, A-, B+, B and so on.
So, the top 1% of the class may be awarded an A, the next 10% may get an A-, the next 20% may get a B+, and so on. Most students in your class (about 30-40%) may be in the B+/B range. Every law school has a slightly different cap on the number of each grade that can be awarded.
Thus, even a final score worthy of an A could be given a B or B+ instead if enough higher scores in the class have already received an A or A-. As a result, this system inherently requires success at the expense of others.
Some law schools mandate that the law professor fail the bottom 2% of their class. Others such as NYU Law have a comfortable B- floor for their students. Berkeley Law uses a pass/fail system with no mandatory fails. The trend is that the more highly-ranked the law school, the higher the GPA floor is. This is simply due to the fact that law students at top law schools are more sought-after by employers.
For classes with less than a certain number of students (typically 20 or less), the law school may lift the mandatory curve. This means the professor can theoretically grant everyone an A in the class if they think everyone put an honest effort into the course materials.
For most doctrinal courses, your final grade is determined by a single final exam at the end of the semester. Some professors may have midterms in their doctrinal courses that can constitute up to 20% of your final grade.
In a seminar course, the stakes are much less severe. Since they are mostly discussion-based courses with a final writing assignment, your final grade will be made up of several factors such as your participation in class discussions, small projects here and there, your final research paper, and perhaps a class presentation.
In a legal clinic, your final grading may be based on the following criteria: participation during class discussions, evaluation by your peers and clients, class presentations, and so on.
For simulations, your final grade will be made up of smaller homework assignments and projects. Participation is usually included in the final grade as well.
What is a law journal and Moot Court?
There are two co-curricular activities that hold great importance when applying for jobs. The first is a law journal.
A law journal is a student organization that edits and publishes legal academic papers written by law professors, judges, legal professionals, and even other law students.
Each law school has their own unique set of law journals. For instance, Harvard Law School has an Environmental Law Review, Harvard Business Law Review, Journal of Law and Technology, and so on.
But every law school has a flagship Law Review (usually named “[Law School] Law Review”).. Law Review is generally the most prestigious law journal at each law school. Generally, only top students are invited to join.
In a law journal, your weekly tasks will include checking citations for substance and format. If you hold a board position, you may be tasked with coordinating a symposium or managing a team of staff editors (consisting of lower classmen).
Employers tend to prefer law students on a law journal because of the common perception that it strengthens their legal research and writing skills.
Moot court is a simulation of a court hearing where member students argue a case in front of a fake judge. Some law schools, such as NYU Law, consider Moot Court to be a law journal. There are numerous Moot Court competitions around the nation for law school teams to attend.
While not strictly necessary for employment as a litigator, employers tend to love students who not only participate on a Moot Court team, but also win Moot Court competitions. What better way to develop your skills as a litigator in a low stakes environment than to participate in court simulations?
What classes do second- and third-year law students take (2L and 3L)?
First-year students don’t usually enroll in seminars, clinics, or simulations, but these courses are always open to second- and third-year students. As discussed above, these types of courses allow students to dig deeper into topics they learned about in their foundational doctrinal courses and to build practical skills upon them.
In fact, your law school may require you to take a certain number of credits from each type of course to graduate.
Here is an example of some courses you can take at Harvard Law.
What are law school extracurriculars like?
Law school extracurriculars can cover virtually any legal topic in the field. These are another great way to supplement your legal education during law school. Organizations range from affinity groups to special interest groups such as the Environmental Law Group. Some schools even have a Cannabis Law student organization.
Some schools will even pay for their student groups’ trips to other cities in the United States for conferences and events or even abroad to other countries.
For instance, at NYU Law, member students of the Social Enterprise and Startup Law Group had the opportunity to travel to South Africa in 2018 to meet with startups and social enterprises completely on NYU Law’s dime. The next year, the group flew to Vietnam during winter break to meet with startups and social enterprises for a week.
When do law students look for jobs?
There are a few events that will ultimately lead to an offer for post-graduate employment. The first is your 1L summer internship. After your first semester of law school, you will begin applying for summer internships.
Your 1L summer will be an opportunity for you to get some hands-on experience in the legal industry. Typical summer internships range from interning with a judge to working as a summer associate at a law firm. We wrote an article here detailing the top 4 summer internships for first-year law students.
After your 1L summer internship, you will begin interviewing with employers for your 2L summer internship. It’s important that you do something in the legal field because your interviewers will ask you about it.
Typically, your 2L summer will be your opportunity to translate an internship to an offer for post-graduate employment. For instance, Big Law firms use their 2L summer programs to evaluate the caliber of their summer associates. If they like what they see, they will extend an offer for full-time employment at the end of the summer. We wrote a detailed article here about how to succeed as a summer associate and to get a return offer.
By the time most students walk into their third year of law school, they will have an offer for post-graduate employment in hand.
As a result, your 1L grades are of utmost importance because your interviewers for both your 1L and 2L summer internships will only have those grades to evaluate you.