Thoughts from Former SMU Undergraduates on How to Best Prepare to Succeed in Law School*
You are special... but not that special.
Lots of SMU students before you pondered going on to law school. Many did. Below you will find comments from some of them in response to my question "What did you do at SMU that has turned out to be good preparation for the actual study of the law?" I asked them to be blunt and truthful. Their answers, many tendered during their first year of law school, may surprise you. They certainly should edify you. Realize, too, that what is below are the reasoned opinions of bright and successful people who made the transition that lies before many of you. What they say is not offered as truth or gospel, but as suggestions from those who know about where you are, where you want to go, and what you will need to make the trip.
ALSO, you may have seen this as it went viral on the web in Fall 2010, but this video ("So you Want to Go to Law School") -- though nihilistic to an extreme -- is clever and does lay out some of the costs associated with law school. It does call attention to the fact that law school is not something to mess with if you are unclear about what you want to do after you graduate or if you are pursuing it because it is a "flexible degree." It isn't wholly rigid, but then again it's not flexible like, say, a liberal arts degree. It is a professional degree which, by definition, is narrowing.
Lindsay (Abbate) Ballotta, Emory University
Jessica Bartlett, University of Illinois College of Law
Oscar Carr, University of Memphis
Michael Correll, Stanford University
Jamie (Blain) Craver, University of California, Berkeley
John (Andrew) Crawford, Stetson University
Matthew Dalrymple, Southern Methodist University Law School
Christopher Dodson, University of Texas
Megan Dredla, Washington University School of Law
Susan George, Brooklyn School of Law
Lindsay Goodner, University of Oklahoma
Alicia Harden, University of Kentucky College of Law
Amanda (Roisman) Harvey, Southern Methodist University Law School
Ben Hatch, EmoryUniversity
Roshanak Khosravighasemabadi, Southern Methodist University Law School
David Lacy, William and Mary
Elizabeth Myers, University of Texas
Natasha Nassar, Southern Methodist University Law School
Allison Neal, Emory University Law School
University of Virginia
Sean O'Connell, Temple University
John Perkins, Texas Wesleyan School of Law; SMU Law School
Courtney Sartor, Boston University School of Law
You might also be interested in this intelligent, witty, and interesting oldie but goodie from Dahlia Lithwick, legal correspondent for Slate magazine and frequent contributor to NPR.
While your immediate goal is to attend law school, your long-range goal will be to become a competent lawyer. As such, I encourage you to seek classes that demand analytical thought, rather than regurgitation of lecture notes. As a lawyer, the majority of your practice will not require that you recall a minor fact at a moment’s notice, but rather to look at a set of facts and formulate the best approach to serve your client’s goals. Take classes that demand independent reasoning. Additionally, basic business knowledge, while not particularly helpful during law school, will become invaluable in the practice of law (particularly if you are a transactional lawyer). I would encourage you to take a basic accounting class if your schedule permits.
As an aside, your undergraduate years will be the last time you have the opportunity to take a broad range of classes. Take several courses in topics that interest you, such as art history class or music. In law school, you will study the law exclusively. Enjoy the opportunity to learn about a broad range of subjects.
Should you elect to pursue law as your ultimate career, the law school application process will be the first step in a series of hurdles (e.g., LSAT, law school exams, the bar exam and finally, the ever-challenging practice). At the time, each hurdle seems all-encompassing and insurmountable, but this too will pass. You may even look back on your law school days fondly.
The first year of law school is less about law and more about analyzing. The first year courses teach you how to think and analyze legal problems and fact patterns. Learning a new way of thinking is not an easy exercise and most law schools begin the training in a whirlwind tour that shocks the conscious. The only grade you will receive will be after your first exams – nothing else is graded and there are no performance evaluations to help ensure that you are actually learning how to analyze legal fact patterns.
Cold calling is initially a nerve-wracking enterprise. The only way to really combat the nerves and ensure that you are not unnecessarily the butt of jokes later is to ensure that you are prepared for class. Attending class is necessary, so is being prepared. Everyone gets some analysis wrong in their first year, and your colleagues and professors will not think badly of you because your analysis was not spot-on. It is a different story if you do not know the case at all and cannot even answer the simplest questions about the facts. What this means is that law school is a lot of work. The volume can be daunting – especially with all the outside activities run through the law school: student groups, lectures, happy hours, and networking receptions.
Unlike college, many law students find that their entire life is somehow based in the law school. Keeping up with your personal life outside of law school is difficult. It really is necessary to make a conscious effort to keep up with family and friends. Since I am single, I’m not sure how couples handle one member in law school. I have seen failures and successes – couples who get married and couples who get divorced. What this probably means is that law school is difficult, and not just for the student, but it need not doom a relationship.
For me, law school has been a wonderful experience. I am challenged every day to analyze fact patterns and problems differently. I worked very hard and accessed opportunities. It is through those opportunities that I have found my greatest and most rewarding success as a law student. My only real advice in picking a law school is to pick one where you think you will have the most opportunities. My school has been great because the faculty sincerely enjoys spending time with students. I chose my law school for that reason and it has really paid off. I did not pick my law school based on where I might want to work, and that has meant more time networking because I have to do so outside the school and on my own time. Fortunately, we have an excellent alumni network, which is invaluable. More importantly, I found that my success in law school and the opportunities I accessed in my first year opened doors to nearly any type of firm or job. If you access the opportunities you find interesting and work diligently – you’ll find the freedom to follow your interests.
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Walter Buzzetta (SMU Class of 2001,
Duke University School of Law)
Sent: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 1:43 PM
The thing to remember when selecting classes based on "what will help you in law school" is that while your GPA may help you get in to law school, only the skills you actually develop will be of assistance once you are there. If you're not going to be able to succeed when you're there, there's little point in getting in the door to begin with. The first year of law school is more demanding than any coursework you are asked to perform in undergrad, and the course load is designed to grow from first to second semester (culminating in the usual briefing assignment, journal and moot court competitions). If you're not armed with the right skills, the learning curve will prove to be painful.
As far as preparation for law school, I can tell you that no coursework at SMU helped develop the analytical skill required for law school better than Professor Kobylka's courses. Whereas most of the business courses I enrolled in required mere mindless regurgitation without any retention to succeed, Professor Kobylka's courses demanded critical thinking, analysis, and serious investment in reading the materials. The earlier you have experience and are accustomed to reading and briefing cases, the easier your first year of law school will be. So much of succeeding in law school (and as an attorney) will be understanding, digesting and rebutting argument. Undergrad courses that provide you with this challenge (i.e. Kobylka's law politics and the supreme court, constitutional law, civil liberties, civil rights, and criminal process) will best prepare you.
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From: Oscar Carr (SMU Class
of 2004; University of Memphis School of
Sent: Tuesday, February 08, 2005 9:15 PM
Subject: Thoughts on Law school
Here is some wisdom from the trenches. Law school is mostly about tenacity. Those that want to excel and not just get a gentleman’s C must be tenacious. Everyone in law school is there because they are intelligent at some level. Reading the material and showing up to class is not going to get you B plus or an A as it did in undergraduate school. You must digest the material and understand the consequences of that material. It is not enough to have the every case memorized. You must be able to relate the rules that you extrapolate from the cases to hypotheticals that will be on the law school exams. Most exams will not ask you one single question about a case you read for class. It is all about analyzing a totally new situation based on what you have learned from the cases. You little cynics may be saying: So what? Here is what. You should take classes that require tenacity, analysis and tenacity. It is cliché but there are no shortcuts. Take Kobylka. He is the closest thing to law school there is. Imagine taking five Kobylka classes at the same time and that is what law school is like.
Also, people always whine-What does the LSAT have to do with law school? Unfortunately, It has a lot to do with it. The hypotheticals on the exams require the same type of skills that are required on the LSAT: critical thinking and analysis, etc. If you are not good at the LSAT, how do you compensate? Tenacity and preparation. Take classes that require you to read a lot, think a lot, and do a lot. Those may be hard to find at SMU but they are out there. In the history department Hopkins and Niewyck are good. In philosophy take Hausman and in Political Science take Kobylka and Lusztig. On another note, to those that are liberal arts majors (and I was one), think about taking some accounting. If you don’t want to be a prosecutor or a trial lawyer you may want to know something about businesses beside the fact that you are going to sue one someday.
Last bit of advice. Know why you are going to law school before you sell your soul to the devil. It helps get you through the grind. It should not be because “I want to try it,” or “I’m good at school so why not continue?” On the other hand, I suggest a more concrete reason than “I have always wanted to be a lawyer.” I know a couple of people who dropped out of law school after the first semester including a guy who was in the top 10% of his class because they realized that it was not what they wanted. Think hard about it. I would also suggest that you take a year off from school. Join the Peace Corps, travel, work. Do what you have always wanted to do for one year. Get a little perspective. Then, if you still want to go law school then, bring the pain.
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Michael Correll (SMU Class of 2006;
Stanford University, 2009)
Sent: Monday, February 14, 2011 9:18 PM
To: Kobylka, Joe
Subject: Law School Advice
So you think you want to go to
law school? Great. And you are thinking about it now rather than after
enrolling and plunking down the first $20,000+ installment? Even better. You
are way ahead of the curve. Here are few pointers on how to stay there.
1. Figure Out What You Actually Want
Law school is a terrible fallback option. It is expensive. It is hard. And (wait for it) its primary goal is to produce lawyers. If you don’t want to be lawyer or haven’t thought about what that entails, you might want to think about whether you are willing to incur $100,000 worth of student loans (that would be $1,200 per month for ten years give or take in case you were wondering) to pass three years of your life engaged in rigorous academic competition with 200 very determined classmates.
If you do want to be a lawyer, go deeper. You have time in college to work for lawyers. Do an internship. Get a summer job. Try it out. I spent one summer working with the JAG Corps, a semester interning with a small claims judge, and over a year working for a very large firm learning about what it means to practice law. By the time I showed up for law school, I knew (at least a little) about what I was getting into and what was waiting for me---an invaluable motivator on those days when I asked myself what in the world I was thinking when I decided law school was a good idea. You don’t have to do all that, but at least take the time to talk to lawyers and learn what they do. You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive. Don’t pick a career without doing a little shopping.
Write. Write a lot. Write for professors who don’t like your writing and learn how to write in a way that satisfies them. Write in disciplines other than your major. Just write. Law school teaches you to think about difficult concepts and address tricky problems. Understanding all of that does you no good if you can’t communicate it on a final exam or paper. You will get some writing instruction in law school, but it isn’t designed to teach the basics. It is designed to teach you to write for a judicial audience, clients, and partners. Use your time at SMU to find your authorial voice and master it. That way you can spend your time in law school learning the material and knowing you can demonstrate your knowledge when it counts.
3. Take a Poetry Class
Weird, I know. But I used Dr. Spiegelman’s “Doing Things with Poems” class on every exam I took and in every paper I ever wrote in law school. I still use it in every brief I write. Studying poetry teaches you to focus on individual words, carefully chosen punctuation, and the subtleties lost in a casual skimming. In short, studying poetry not only makes you a better writer but it teaches you to pay attention to detail in a written form---a crucial skill for a law student trying to do a better job than the rest of the class spotting legal issues in a four-page, single-spaced fact pattern.
4. Start Competing with Yourself
Finally, you’ve heard it before, but it bears reiterating. True---a high GPA in college and a high LSAT score are critical to getting into law school. Unfortunately, those things doesn’t necessarily equate to success in law school. You are going to be on a curve. Everyone in your class will have had a high GPA. Everyone in your class will have had a high LSAT. So something else will need to set you apart.
That thing will be your ability to compete with yourself. Ironically, as you move to a system that grades on curve and pits you against your classmates, you must become your own competition to succeed. Smart complacent people don’t succeed in law school. Hard working, driven people succeed in law school. Use college to learn to push yourself just for the sake of it. Do hard things to prove to yourself that you can do them. When you get to law school, that experience will help you through the doldrums and provide you with the well-exercised work ethic necessary to rise above the very bright, very capable crowd of students that will surround you.
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From: Jamie (Blain) Craver (SMU Class of 1998, University of California-Berkeley)
Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2005 1:10 PM
Subject: ok, here it is.
Let me know if this is what you had in mind. . .
Just so you know, this email is stressing me out cause I would have to look back at my transcript to remember what I took in college. I guess that means most of my classes (outside of yours and Simon's) were not very memorable - and thus, not very helpful either. I could say ballet really helped me with my poise - but no one ever cared about that. I could say bio for premed helped me with those intellectual property classes - but I never took any of those despite my school's ridiculous reputation for them. I do think my time abroad in Asia made me (and my essays) more interesting - but the classes themselves were never the key to that experience. Alas, I digress. So here it goes.
From my perspective, at least when you are coming from SMU, your recommendations and LSAT score are going to get you into law school. Your grades need to be good, but they just are not going to set you apart in a way that will matter. If you are rationalizing your decision to take more easily graded classes because others will hurt your chances of getting into law school - I think you are fooling yourself. A law school will look twice at you if you meet their minimum standards - it is in this second stage where it is important to stand out. That being said, law school is not medical school. If you want to go, you'll go. So no worries. All is good in the world.
Classes that make you read, study, think, and write help the most. Classes that make you read and study prepare you for law school because that is what you do there (at least in your first year)- you read, you study. For me, law school was about learning how to think about problems differently, and after that, about studying and then studying some more. If you come into law school already having prepared for one of Professor Kobylka's or Professor Simon's exams, you will be able to prepare - at least in part - for a law school final. This advantage is huge. Your law school will try to equip you with study skills. For me, the key was using what I already had - and what I already had came from the experience of taking many (ok, all) of Professor Kobylka's classes and improving how I studied each time.
Classes that make you think are even more helpful. You aren't ever graded in law school for thinking on your feet - but you save yourself a ton of embarrassment if you know how to take information you have read and build upon it practically and theoretically. Most of the time you are not going to be called on in college and expected to know what you were supposed to have read the night before - but if you can force yourself to engage, it will only benefit you. If you take classes where the format allows for an exchange between the Professor and the student, you will be in better shape. There are not tons of these at SMU and, of course, Professor Kobylka's and Professor Simon's were exceptional.
Classes that make you write (really, really write) are going to prepare you the most. You don't want to arrive at law school not knowing how to write clearly and effectively. I read my thesis sometime last year and I could not believe I had actually written it (meaning now I write like a lawyer - ugh). Professors Kobylka, Simon, Jillson, and Ippolito were all willing to talk to me about the papers I wrote for their classes, and provide feedback along the way. I would point to each of their classes as immensely effective in making me a better writer.
Ok, my last bit and then I am back to work. I have not found many mentors in my life. Many teachers are so interested in themselves and their own work that they no longer find success in helping others to succeed. At this moment, you all have my mentor at your fingertips - you will never find a better one. Professor Kobylka's recommendation helped secure my acceptance into a top 10 law school and was the reason I was offered a federal clerkship (no kidding, after my interview, I was in a holding pattern until my judge received his rec). I also attribute my position on law review to him - given that we were asked as part of the application process to write on a topic we had yet to see in law school but had been covered in Professor Kobylka's First Amendment class. (HE would credit himself with "introducing" me to my husband, too, but becoming a "Craver" was all my doing.)
Professor Kobylka is an endless source of advise and knowledge - all of which he offers for free!! - and his classes will be a hell of a lot more interesting than those you will take in law school. That's it. Best of luck in life.
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From: Crawford, John (SMU, Class of 2001; Stetson University School of Law)
Sent: Thursday, March 14, 2002 8:53 AM
Subject: "How Classes at SMU helped me prepare for law school?"
This is going to be a long email. The few business classes I took at SMU are of no help in law school, but let me focus on the political science classes I took at SMU or else this email will run for 100's of pages.
Political science classes at SMU were of two types. First, if the teacher could lecture, I went to class, and took notes. However, I barely read because the Professor gave such good lecture notes over what we read it seemed pointless to read. Professor ***, Professor ***, and Professor *** fit into this first category. The second type of political science classes had professors who were not good lecturers, and virtually nothing they talked about in class helped with the reading or was on the test. For these classes I usually skipped, if there was no attendance policy, and read the class material.
In law school you cannot do any of this. First, the ABA has a specific mandate of how many classes you can miss based on the type of hour class it is. Moreover, the individual professors take a daily attendance and have their own system, similar to yours, where if you miss a given number of classes you final grade is lowered. Second, you have to read the material because, as in your class, there is a 10% participation grade usually in every class. The law professor randomly calls on people for either the entire class period or for about 15 minutes. Trust me, I know, there is nothing more humiliating than trying to BS you way though an entire class period when you are called on by a trained attorney.
Your classes have been helpful in a number of ways. First, knowing how to brief is essential. Many of my classmates spend hours typing pages and pages of case brief. Thanks to your class I am able to "book-brief" using different color highlighters for the facts, issues, holding, etc. Second, your oral presentations helped overcome some of the nervousness when called out in class, and helped when giving oral arguments in front of a professor posing as a judge. Third, and most importantly, you exams and research papers help in writing law school exams answers, time management, and most importantly how to do quick and effective research. However, legal writing and exams are very different. When we are given a paper in Research and Writing, we are given the exact format in which we are supposed to write it, and sometimes our sources are given to us. But, the writing is much more complicated. Each individual court has local rules on how something has to be written. Those must be checked, not to mention the jurisdiction of the sources. Also, your exams have fact specific questions, such as "Did the Rehnquist Court change the holdings of the Warren Court?" Law school exams involve hypothetical stories, and we have to apply the law. We can even bring in all our notes and commercial outlines, but you either know the law or you don't. You can study be memorizing the law, but it is crucial to apply to the facts. Also, I am familiar with a vast amount of cases already since i read them for your class.
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From: Dalrymple, Matthew (SMU
Class of 2002,
SMU Law School)
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2004 10:20 AM
This question can be answered in two ways: 1) objectively (what I believe all undergraduates should seek out in their undergraduate classes) and 2) subjectively (my personal experience at SMU). It seems as though students are confusing education with test preparation. I have responded accordingly.
Which classes at SMU helped me prepare for law school?
First, Professor Kobylka's classes. The material is interesting and fun, and difficult. The reading load is difficult, tests are difficult and what Prof. K demands in class is difficult. You will find that the truly rewarding things in life require difficulty. Its about turning the mush in your head into a well-oiled thinking machine. When I was at SMU, and I agree with Dodson, there were only two poli sci professors that demanded what they should be demanding of students. Left to their own devices, mustangs will not mature intellectually if they are not threatened by bad grades or public embarrassment. Once they get over this hump and realize that an education is a good in and of itself-that is, apart from being a means to any other good-the sky's the limit.
Second, Philosophy, English and Mathematics classes. Stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic. Not business courses, arts, communications, advertising, video games, etc. This has nothing to do with the merit of such courses or whether or not you should actually take them. Do what you love, for love's sake, because it will make you happy, but just know these classes are not a means to doing well in law school.
What class at SMU helped me prepare for the LSAT?
Introduction to Logic. Want to make your Princeton Review or Kaplan course a refresher rather than a frightening introduction to logic? Take this course. This course teaches symbolic logic: how to diagram an argument into mathematical terms. This is how to solve the logical games section of the LSAT. And even if you are analytical already-which probably means you got it in a private or parochial high school since SMU does a poor job in requiring students to learn about this stuff-it still helps to be able to formally recognize the distinct methods of reasoning: induction and deduction. Why is this important? Because this will also help you prepare for law school (see above). In law school, the opinions of the judges that you will have to read for class and that you will be interrogated on often have the judges pointing out the logical fallacies of the disagreeing judge(s). Ex: slippery slope, parade of horrors (ad terrorem), post hoc ego proper hoc, etc.
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From: Christopher L. Dodson (SMU Class of 2002, University of Texas Law School)
Sent: 17 March 2001
Subject: law school prep
Disclaimer: I am writing this as a 6th year litigation associate at a large Houston-based law firm. I started at my firm after graduating from The University of Texas School of Law in 2005. I've been here ever since. As such, I have the benefit of additional hindsight.
Make good grades. Law schools (in my opinion, wrongly) focus their admission standards almost exclusively on undergraduate GPAs and your LSAT score. Its largely a rather simple calculation. And, as you probably know, competition for admission to the nation's top law schools is fierce. But, they set the framework and you have to play by their rules. Given these largely formulaic admission standards, a high GPA is critical. One bad semester--even early in your undergraduate curriculum--can impact negatively your law school admissions years down the road. So, in whatever classes you take, do well.
Of course, graduating with a high GPA has little to do with how successful you will be in--or preparing you for--law school. To prepare for law school through your coursework, first and foremost, take a wide-variety of classes. Take advantage of SMU's broad-based liberal arts curriculum. This will not only prepare you for law school, but for the practice of law. If you become an attorney, you will likely encounter a wide-variety of clients, participating in a broad-spectrum of industries, each with different needs. You may represent a client starting a private equity fund focused on investing in the food and wine industries, you may represent the criminally accused, you may represent a large company over a disputed accounting methodogy, you may represent a client over claims of false advertising, and so-forth. Just for these off-the-cuff examples, coursework in marketing, the First Amendment, sociology, accounting, finance, and math may prove helpful to your practice. And, in law school, diversity of classwork is also helpful. So, from a topical perspective, I recommend you touch on the many different types of classes that SMU provides.
You should, however, give special attention to classes that require you to write and think critically. Both of these skills can be improved by taking the right classes, and both will be critical to your success in law school and as a practicing attorney. Learn how to write well. Take an English class that requires analytical papers, take political science classs that encourage analytical thinking and papers (Kobylka and Simon), take a seminar. Go beyond assigned reading and learn to think critically about it. Learn how to effectively express yourself on paper.
Finally, I don't subscribe to the don't-go-to-law-school-unless-you-want-to-be-a-lawyer line of thinking. (Easy for me to say, I suppose, since I've been a practicing attorney since law school and attended a (relatively speaking) low-tuition public law school.) Don't get me wrong, you absolutely should evaluate the cost of law school vis-a-vis your professional goals. And, I don't believe you should go to law school by default, or because you can't think of anything better to do. That said, after thinking about all of these things, if you want to go to law school, but don't want to be a lawyer, so what? There is a lot to learn in law school and (gasp!) most of it has nothing to do with practicing law. Sure, you'll continue to improve your writing and analytical thinking skills, but you won't learn too much, if anything, about how to prepare a debt financing, how to fight over child custody, how to take a company public, or how to draft a lawsuit. Many business executives, investment bankers, teachers, and stay-at-home moms have law degrees. It is a personal decision, of course, but so long as you are confident you can afford law school after graduation and are prepared to spend three more years as a student, then go for it, regardless of whether you want to be an attorney or not.
And, don't forget to have fun. It is college after all.
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A long, long time ago, a wayward undergraduate sat in a certain political science professor’s office (we’ll call him “Kobylka”) opining (okay, complaining) about how the amount of reading for a certain Civil Liberties class proved too onerous a burden for her 19-year-old brain. The compassionate response from the man known affectionately as Cubmaster J (or not so affectionately as “Dr. Death): “GEEZ…this is almost like COLLEGE…”
I must confess that when I was overwhelmed during my first year of law school (which was a majority of the time), I would pull myself up by my metaphorical bootstraps by reciting what became my mantra: “Geez…this is almost like law school.” Law school is tough. This is no secret. But, if you sought out tough courses in undergrad, facing this type of a challenge will be nothing new. The fact that I faced adversity (in the form of a 6’4.5” Czech) in undergrad classes proved a great comfort in those panicked days of my One L year.
Kobylka’s, Simon’s, and Wilson’s political science courses are the best preparation for law school. The reason is quite simple: these courses represent what college courses should be. You are not spoon-fed material. In order to succeed in the course, you have to take a lot of information, internalize it, boil it down it into something manageable, and then attempt to draw parallels and define relationships that were not apparent at first glance. That, in a nutshell, is what you do in law school—only on a much larger scale and at a much faster pace. I must say that Kobylka’s courses inflict a moderate amount of pain. However, the tolerance you develop in the present will soften the shocking pangs of law school later. A rule of thumb: Any undergraduate course that is challenging enough to cause you stress is good preparation for law school.
The thing about law school is that it is full of really smart people. If the admissions committee let you in the door, you are bright—but so is everybody else. The only way to end up in the top (or even just in the middle) of your class is to arrive on the first day prepared for what is ahead. I have seen a lot of people take the statistical approach to preparation for law school, namely, GPA and LSAT. Inflating your GPA with classes full of rote memorization and multiple choice exams or hedging your bets on a stellar performance one morning in October, February, or June may prepare you to get admitted to law school but it will NOT prepare you to succeed in law school. And, remember, on the first day of law school, everyone is back at square one and it is a zero-sum game. Come prepared.
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Susan George (SMU Class of 2003, Brooklyn School of Law)
Sent: Wednesday, June 7, 2009. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just finished my first year of law school and offer the following advice on what I did and what I wish I had done at SMU to prepare for law school. I would recommend taking classes that require you to think and write critically and analyze text, entering class discussions, and working in study groups.
It was helpful to take courses at SMU such as all of Kobylka’s courses, which introduced me to legal terms and cases. In addition to requiring me to think and write critically, these courses gave me a solid foundation in American government and politics. Taking Constitutional Law this past semester was so much easier for me because I had a basic understanding of many of the cases and how the different Courts have affected case law. Taking these courses also help you learn about yourself and whether you will enjoy law school. One of my favorite things about my political science undergraduate courses and my law school courses is that they are case driven which means I get to read stories all day long. And even better, this summer I get to work on pending cases which means I get to read ongoing stories and see how I can help resolve the dispute.
It would also be helpful to take courses which are reading intensive so you get accustomed to reading and digesting large amounts of dense materials. I did not read in undergrad and although I was able to get through the assigned reading in law school, I feel I would have been much better prepared for the reading marathon had I read in college. So my advice is simply to take reading intensive courses and then actually do the reading! On a side note, when you are in law school, you should go to class even if you didn't get through all the reading and are afraid of getting called on. You will lose much more by not being in class than you will gain by not having to confess you are not prepared. Almost every law student is caught off guard at some point and once the day is over no one else will remember what you said (one exception: if you are a complete jerk or make arrogant comments, then you will likely strike a chord in others which will be remembered!).
While gaining a basic understanding of legal terms and cases is helpful, your law professors will teach you what they feel is important in gaining a general understanding of the subject (this is especially true since law schools consider which state bar most students at their school will be taking). Before coming to law school, I had three months off before beginning law school and decided to read the “Nutshell Series” on various first year law school topics. The reading introduced many legal terms and cases, but overall did not help me with the final exams which were much more dependent on the particular professor I had rather than any generic introduction of the subject. So more important than the actual substance of the undergraduate courses you take is the level of analysis that is required in the course.
It would be helpful to take classes that require you to tear sentences apart. In law school, you will analyze every word, comma and clause in dense statutes such as the Model Penal Code and the Uniform Commercial Code. I took foreign languages in graduate school which helped teach me those pesky grammar rules that I should have learned as a child but never did. Again, it’s not as important what the subject is as long as the course requires that you read dense material where great weight is placed on every word.
I also recommend you practice forming reasoned opinions orally which in turn will refine your writing as well. Two ways to do this is working in study groups and entering class discussions and debates. I worked in study groups to prepare for Kobylka’s final exams and found them to be fantastic. Through the study groups I was able to think through my ideas and understanding of the cases but also gain an understanding of different perspectives as well. This is important because there is rarely a clear right and wrong answer in the law. Rather, legal analysis hinges on your ability to understand and interpret the binding law and address counterarguments. For the most part law professors don't care which conclusion you reach; they care more about how you got to your conclusion and whether you can appreciate the ramifications of that choice and address counterarguments. I have found study groups in both undergrad and law school invaluable and will continue to use them.
Another way to develop a practice of forming reasoned opinions is one that I did not practice in undergrad, but wish I had. I would encourage you to actively participate in classes and not shy away from putting your ideas out there even if you are unsure whether you are “right”. Again, learning to articulate your ideas in a classroom setting is another way to develop your own analysis and also teaches you what works and what doesn’t. Because the law constantly changes or is refined, the goal is not to memorize a set of tests to apply but to become comfortable working with a dynamic set of laws and customs that can be applied to an infinite number of situations. This past year was challenging but also interesting, engaging and eye-opening. I see the world differently (and not just in a jaded cynical way) and perhaps enjoyed my first year more than most. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions and good luck!
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Goodner (SMU Class of 2004,
Oklahoma Law School)
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2004 5:06 PM
How classes at SMU helped prepare me for law school?
The classes that helped me the most and prepared me the most for law school were of course JFK's. After the first one I took with him I thought no more ... that takes way more time dedication for an undergrad class. But then as I became more wise over my college years I realized law school was going to be harder than JFK and that would only help prepare me. I suggest to everyone who wants to go to law school to take every class JFK teaches. Everyone stays away from him and says oh he is Dr. Death. Well if you feel that way now don't go to law school because it is worse. They don't care about anything. Whereas JFK was always caring and willing to help those who studied. JFK classes helped me to become familiar with reading supreme court cases and getting into the habit of reading the justices' opinions and even old opinions from the early 1900's. JFK also helped teach me to brief whereas when I came to law school unlike everyone else I knew how to brief and didn't waste the first month of law school learning just how to brief. I definitely recommend taking all of JFK's classes and any other challenging professors at SMU. Law school is only harder and you will not gain anything by running from it now.
I think the first and foremost important thing needed to go to law school and succeed is to be driven, motivated, and have well developed study habits. It is extremely important to be dedicated to what you want to do whatever that may be and give it your all from there. I decided I wanted to go to law school when I was 5 years old and have planned my life according since. I realize some people decide later in life and that is fine. But, whenever you decide and if you go you have to want it. Law school is a long 3 years that is not just to goof around with.It is hard, challenging, stressful, very demanding, etc. I thought I studied a lot in undergrad and I studied a ton. I didn't realize what studying was. I now get up for class and go to school from 8-4.Grab dinner from 5-6 and head back to the library until it closes at 11. I then wake up and do the same routine everyday. Of course like any job some days it gets old but it is worth it if it is what you want to do. During my first semester of 1L finals I was sitting in my 3rd final which was a 5 hour civil procedure final and during the middle of it I sat there and thought is this what I really want to be doing with my life? I have that question about once a week I think but it is definitely what I want. I just want you to make sure this is what you want before you get involved. It is not undergrad and if you went through undergrad opening no books and studying the night before a test and making a B don't count on that in law school. It is a different ballgame and you are surrounded by brilliant people who want this as bad as anyone and who work their tail off to get where they are.
Study habits are extremely important and I suggest if you don't have good ones now you start developing them. I luckily have had good study habits and can sit down for 8 hours at a time and look at the same 10 sheets of paper to study. Most people in law school can't do that because they are not used to sitting down to study like that. Learn it now if you don't already do it. I think 80% of law school is hard work and 20% is intelligence. The harder smarter workers are at the top of their class. Not the 172 LSATs who don't study. Learn to sit down and study and make it a good work habit. It will set you ahead when you get to law school.
If anyone has any questions please feel free to email me at email@example.com. I was very stressed applying for law school as JFK knows. I am not a great test taker and did not do awesome on the LSAT but had good grades and I had the desire to go to law school. Remember if you want it bad enough you will get it and succeed. Go after what you want in life. I had to go after my dream of law school. It didn't come to me and I got it. I have to say I was obsessed with getting good grades in undergrad because I knew I didn't test well and that would compensate for my low LSAT. I was correct. Some people will disagree with me but a ton of weight is put on the LSAT and if you are not a good test taker YOU DO NEED to have good grades in this economy to get into law school. It is extremely competitive right now and don't let someone kid you that you don't need to either have one great one or the other. YOU DO! But you can do it if I did. Good luck, please email if any questions.
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Alicia Harden, University of Kentucky College of Law (SMU Class of 2004)
Sent: Wednesday, 12 May, 2010
As I write this, six years have passed since I graduated from SMU. As such, some of my memories of my classes and my work habits have faded. I can think of four things I did at SMU, however, that helped me to be successful at law school.
1. Attend Office Hours
This goes for any class, whether you are doing well or not. If you are not doing well, go find out what you are missing (but always go prepared . . . . do no show up looking for a regurgitation of a lecture). If you are doing well, go talk about course information more in-depth or information outside the course.
Making these connections not only put you on your professor’s radar, but they can also help you when you are seeking recommendations.
2. Learn to Analyze and Synthesize
Take classes that force you to take lots of different pieces of information, synthesize those pieces of information succinctly and cohesively, and perform a coherent analysis. Professor Kobylka’s classes, when done right, are excellent examples of what it means to synthesize and analyze.
“GPA boosting” classes might pad your GPA, but multiple choice tests and tests that simply ask you to regurgitate class notes and PowerPoint’s will not help you in law school. Even law school multiple-choice tests will force you to have analyzed course material. Besides, no one ever won their case by arguing, “Why, that would be B, your Honor.”
3. Always Prepare for Class
Do the reading before class. This allows you to stay engaged in the material and enables you to focus on the lecture/discussion your professor is leading. You might even find yourself actually engaging in the material in a critical manner – this can be very rewarding and can only help your understanding of the class.
Law students, or at least those who want to succeed, read for class. Get in the habit now.
4. Get in the Habit of Good Writing and Careful Editing
Legal documents have their own writing style that is very different from scholarly writing, but good writing and editing skills are necessary for both. Hone your research skills and learn how to cite appropriately. You will learn how to Bluebook at law school, but you need to know how to avoid plagiarism before you walk in the door. Practice using your research to support your own ideas in logical, articulate, and instrumental ways.
Develop good writing habits at SMU and edit your work as many times as necessary. Learn to be critical of your own work as the law school honor code might preclude you from having a colleague edit your paper.
Work hard at SMU, but have some fun, too. If you aren’t sure if law school is right for you, do not hesitate to take a year or more off before matriculation. Lots of my classmates are my age and we all agree we are better students for it.
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From: Amanda Harvey
(SMU Class of 2001, Undergraduate;
SMU Law Class of 2004)
Sent: Friday, December 31, 2004 10:40 AM
Grades are important – but they are not everything. I have read what everyone else has written and agree
with most of it - so I am going to put a different spin on the issue. What helped me through the law
school process was this:
Realize you can’t control everything:
Applying to law schools, and the decision
to go to law school, is extremely scary and I think students WANT grades to be
everything because it appears to be something the student can control. The
student can decide to take the easy class and the student can decide to study
hard – and all this is done to create the illusion that the student is in charge
of his or her fate. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I know people who had
amazing grades and still didn’t get into the school of choice. Why? This is
because grades are not everything.
The law schools want to see the types of classes taken and will read the letters of recommendation. I understand the desire to control every aspect of your law school application – but there are some things that we cannot control. I understand the fear of taking a hard class because of the feeling that we will lose control of getting that easy A. But remember, law school will throw out a series of events that are beyond your control – standing up in class while the professor attacks you with what appears to be unanswerable questions and the dreaded curve where your grades are dependant upon how your classmates do as opposed to grading you as an individual.
My best advice is to make yourself desirable to the law school – volunteer, work part time at a law firm, and join organizations. You need to show the school that you are unique and should be chosen. Work on your personal statement and have professors edit it and listen to their comments. They are there to help you.
Take Classes That Will Prepare you for Law School:
Law school is not easy. Never think that you can take it easy now and start studying hard when you get to law school. Remember, this is all a marathon and you need to pace yourself and train accordingly. Your study habits from undergrad will haunt you your first year. Thus, take classes that will prepare you for law school. I took the Art of Acting. It was an easy class, but it made me feel more comfortable speaking in front of the class and being put on the spot. Philosophy classes helped me to think “outside the box” and political science classes helped me to read and analyze case law. Even though he refuses to admit this - Professor Kobylka’s classes are similar to that of a law school class. He truly makes you a better student. Additionally, he is available to answer questions and aid students through this frightening process – take advantage of that.
I hope this helps! Good luck!
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From: Benjamin D. Hatch (SMU Class of
Emory University Law School)
Sent: Thursday, January 22, 2009 10:46 PM
Subject: Submission for your Law School Wannabes Page (email 1 of 2)
After several perusals of this page (both as an undergraduate and now, in the midst of my second year), I note that there is a great deal of useful information presented by others who have walked the way of the lawyer. I will do my best not to repeat their wisdom.
To be frank, I found very few classes at SMU to be of any help, whatsoever, in preparation for the intellectual rigors of law school. Too often course grades were determined by class attendance, and too infrequently did they turn on substance (papers, examinations, or anything that evaluated analytic capabilities and grappling with the material). Often, the “right answer” is all that is sought. No scoring is assigned to the right analysis. You will find that in law school, the reverse is true. You will be judged on cases in which there is no right answer. If there was a right answer, your help would not be necessary, there would not be 150+ law schools each taking at least 150-200 students, and there would be only 1, not 9, judges on the Supreme Court. Rather, you will be evaluated on your ability to spot issues, to analyze them in light of the law that you have (presumably) read, to make arguments from both sides, and then to sift those arguments leading to your conclusion. The overwhelming majority of points on these exams are assigned based on your competence in applying the relevant law to the fact patterns presented. Your conclusion, if it counts at all, will be of minimal value in calculating your grade. Additionally, you will be graded (assuming you go to an institution that still values the competition inherent in the adversarial process) against other students – not against the examination. (And you thought Kobylka was a merciless grader.)
If you haven’t deduced that I both (1) found Kobylka’s classes to be the rare exception to the rule that SMU classes didn’t prepare me for law school, and (2) recommend that you take more of his classes, given the fact that this statement is appearing on his site, filled with other, similar statements, law isn’t for you. But other than Kobylka’s classes, I would recommend that you take as many classes with Professor Lusztig that you can. My Constitutional Law class in law school was a poor substitute for Kobylka’s Law, Politics, and the Supreme Court and Civil Rights; and my Jurisprudence class was probably less comprehensive than Lusztig’s Comparative Rights and Representation. It would be impossible for me to overstate the usefulness, intellectual quality, and value of these classes.
As much as you can, avoid “easy” classes. Challenge yourself. Granted, the GPA game may serve as an incentive for you to take some fluff class with an “Attendance/Participation” requirement weighted at 98%. Treat such classes as a well earned reward, not the bread and butter of your usual schedule. You may suffer in taking Chinese, or Civil Liberties with Kobylka, or Econometrics. Bear your burden with a grin, knowing that what you’re doing in that 1 class every day is what you’ll be doing for 3-5 classes every day in law school. Enjoy your extracurricular activities now. You won’t have time for them the first year, and those extracurriculars that actually matter in law school won’t be half as much fun as Student Senate, the Debate Team, Greek Life, or [insert other activity here].
Law school is difficult. The toughest part is the daily grind – doing the same thing day after day. But the payoff is good. As of this writing (January 2009), many big firms are paying over $3000 a week for a second year Summer Associate position. If the economy improves, you too may have a chance at making the big money. But unlike your current experiences, things aren’t going to be handed to you based on your connections, your good looks, or that funny joke you tell at parties. In the end, law is a business. If you generate business for your firm, you get to make partner. If you don’t, you get to recycle that joke at your next interview.
In summary, the
most important thing you can do is challenge yourself. Test yourself. See what
you’re made of. If you can pull it off now, you should have more self confidence
going forward. Avoiding difficult tasks is not “intelligent,” “street smart,” or
“cute.” It’s setting you up for a huge disappointment, and it will make you a
lousy advocate. Learn your limits. SMU has a lot of hidden gems that will help
to prepare you, but you have to look for them. Thankfully, if you’ve come to
this page, you know Kobylka is one of them. And don’t just sit in his class, and
smile at his quotations from Genesis. Learn from him. Seek him out at office
hours, and chat with him. He’s a really smart guy, and more importantly than
that, he can be a great friend. SMU is what you make out of it. Broaden your
horizons, and work hard.
From: Khosravighasemabadi, Roshanak, (SMU Class of 2000, Dedman School of Law, SMU)
Sent: Tuesday, June 28, 2005 9:54 PM
1) Go to law school because you ultimately want to be a practicing attorney. It’s no fun and it’s not something everyone should try. Don’t do it because you can’t find a job or don’t want to look for one. Don’t do it because your friend are doing it or because a professor or family member told you you’d be a good lawyer because you love to argue. I wanted to be an attorney since I was 8 years old and I still had a heck of a time in law school and found myself hating it sometimes. Look at the big picture. Can you see yourself practicing? Reading and writing and researching and solving other people’s problems for a living? Don’t focus on the potential pay off. There’s a lot between you and a big paycheck. There are billable hours and office politics and the partnership track and a host of other pressures and stresses. Don’t forget about the bar exam. Just because you survived law school, doesn’t mean that you’re done. You may have the big job and the diploma but the board of law examiners determines whether you can practice. The bar exam was one of the hardest, most unbearable, stressful, and frightening experiences of my life. It’s a 2.5 day closed book exam on 22+ law school topics. There’s short answer, multiple choice, and essays. For me, it was my life long desire to practice law that motivated me to get through it all. I can’t say it enough. Go to law school because you ultimately want to be a practicing attorney.
2) There’s a reason why the common theme in most of these responses is classes with a heavy concentration of analytical reading and writing. That’s all you will do from the first day you start law school until the day you stop practicing law. I’m not saying this to scare anyone away. That’s just the way it is. Law school isn’t about the stuff you see in Law and Order. In fact, for the most part, neither is litigation. Most of the time, cases are settled out of court, which is usually because some lawyer somewhere found a case and was able to analyze it appropriately and fashion a winnable argument out of it. Take a lot of Kobylka classes. English, History, Political Science..these are all great majors that will at least get you accustomed to reading and writing a lot. Sure, marketing was a fun major for me but I was really glad I also majored in Political Science. You can never have enough practice reading and writing. You want to practice these skills as often as you can and work out as many of your kinks before you get to law school, if possible, and definitely before you practice. In law school, you will get written critiques on your exams and papers from a professor and it may affect your grade. Once you start practicing, a judge, a client, and often times a partner at the firm you work in will be reviewing your work. Their purpose is not to help you become a better writer; they expect you to have taken care of that already.
3) Make sure you can take criticism and have the tough skin necessary. I didn’t realize how important this was until I started practicing a little while ago. Practically everyone in law school is going to be the cream of the crop. It’s going to be a lot harder to get an A and staying up all night to work on a paper will no longer be enough to help you squeak by. You’re going to have to draft and re-draft papers and briefs several times before you reach a final product and even then, a professor or a partner will have edits. Be ready to take criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. Your true and honest desire to practice law will help you make it through all of the criticism.
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From: David Lacy (SMU Class of 2001, William and Mary School of Law)
Sent: Friday, August 23, 2002 11:30 AM
Subject: RE: corporations
lawyer school has begun, and i am once again forced to prove myself the intellectual giant that i am. thus far, during the first week known as 'law camp,' we've been discussing philosophical issues regarding ethics, jurisprudence, and things of that nature. we also did a brief and a memo. obviously, the brief was fairly easy to do, but the memo, pretty tough. i suppose that's because i've never done one before.
i can safely say that the classes i took at smu have given me a significant advantage over many of my classmates. you might describe the advantage as such: i already know what i need to work on, whereas most of these students have no clue what their weaknesses are. in particular, your classes have prepared me for the fundamentals of reading, interpreting, analyzing, and finally writing about the law. (i should also give a shout out to the english department, because out of the 76 questions concerning grammar they had us correct, i only missed 13, 6 of which came in the last 20.)
all that having been said, one thing has remained constant since taking your classes. at smu, there were a bunch of kids who wanted to be law students instead of poli sci students. at w&m, there are a bunch of kids who want to be lawyers instead of law students. but i guess it's not all academic.
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From: Elizabeth Myers (SMU Class of 2001, University of Texas Law School)
Sent: Thursday, February 06, 2003 10:21 PM
Subject: RE: Update
Classes continue, though the frantic rush of adrenaline that I experienced on a daily basis last semester has disappeared. I'm no longer scared, but also no longer quite as intrigued or impressed every day. Con law is still pretty interesting, but I covered a lot of the information in your classes and we are moving VERY slowly (still haven't finished Marbury).
As for the blurb on classes, if you need something official, let me know and I'll get it to you in the next few weeks. Unofficially, any class that concentrates on case law is a good thing to take. Also, any class that pushes writing development will help.
For me, the best classes were yours. I took a class with **** on judicial process that was pretty good as well. Last semester none of my classes really focused on stuff that I covered in your classes, though I think at other schools the criminal law class you teach might be more helpful as far as the specifics of the law go. We just concentrated on the TX penal code, so the constitutional aspects of criminal law never really came up.
Con law is a virtual replica of the stuff we did. From the looks of the syllabus, we are going to concentrate more on the set-up of the system (federalism, judicial review, general notions of equal protection), so I'm guessing it will be very similar to the more general overview of constitutional law that you teach. From what I hear, Con Law II (next year) gets into the more specific rights--more along the lines of your civil liberties class.
The advantage I have from taking your classes isn't really tied to any particular subject matter, though. It really is just more about knowing the process, knowing how to read a case and get the main points, and making sense of the development of law. Your exams are very similar to law school as well. We do have more issue spotters and less policy questions, but it definitely helped to know how to outline the information and formulate an argument with citations back to the cases. I think even the reading loads are pretty similar. For daily classes, I probably had more to read for you, but the weekly average is about the same. The biggest jolt was getting used to having that load for all my classes. Up until the month before exams, though, I never studied or read more than an hour a day for any one class and a lot of the time it was substantially less than that.
As for classes I wished I'd taken, the only one I can think of at the moment is economics. I took an intro class to fill some sort of
requirement, but I do wish I had taken some upper level classes. I'm not all that interested in economics, but a lot of my classes last semester, especially property and contracts, drew heavily from economic theory. Even torts this semester has a capitalist undertone to it. I never felt totally lost because the concepts are pretty basic, but I do wish I had a better foundation to understand the policy arguments, especially in contracts.
I think the biggest adjustment for me was in dealing with the class size and with the professors. Speaking in front of 140 people still isn't a whole lot of fun, but it's getting better. As for professors, I had one really good one last semester. The rest are all excellent scholars, but I often get the feeling that they don't teach out of desire to teach; I think for a lot of them it is more of an ego thing. The socratic method sort of exagerrates that feeling as well. It often seems like the professors are competing with us rather than cooperating. A lot of that has dissipated with my fear, but it was upsetting for a while.
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Natasha Nassar (SMU Class of 2001,
SMU Law School)
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2004 9:23 AM
I will give you my advice- but it is going to cost you $160 an hour....
STOP OBSESSING ABOUT YOUR GPA!!!
I almost made the same mistake many of you are making, which is to obsess about my GPA when selecting classes. DON'T DO IT!!
My story is classic- I took one Kobylka class, got a B-, got mad and swore never to take another one because I wanted to go to law school...but then I realized that I learned so much more in his class (and Lusztig's) that may help me once I got into law school. I think I took 5 classes from Kobylka, never getting an A or even an A-...but when it came time to apply to law schools, Kobylka wrote me a letter of recommendation, explaining my grades, and how actually B+ was good in his class, he also wrote about my perseverance in taking all of the difficult classes (showing I never shied away from a challenge) and how even though I knew my GPA wouldn't be as high, I took the more difficult road. And you know what? I got into law school- in fact, I got into 4 law schools... If you take the tougher road, law schools will know. They are more impressed with a tough course load than a 4.0 in basket weaving, because the 4.0 basket weavers are the 1/3 of the first year class that fail out (and yes, it happens).
You really need to think about the big picture- if you are serious about getting into law school, then you will. But you need to think about what happens next- you need to prepare yourself to succeed in law school (which is very difficult) and then you need to succeed on the bar exam (which is worse) and then you need to succeed in finding a job and doing well at that job.
If you think that taking easy classes are going to help you at all, then you are sadly mistaken. Taking a mix of Kobylka's classes and Lusztig's classes were the best way to prepare for law school. Now, of course law school is VERY different from those classes, but they are about as close as it comes in undergraduate studies (long reading assignments, vast amounts of material to analyze) See Dodson's e-mail on this topic.
Please feel free to e-mail me any questions.
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Allison Neal (SMU
Class of 2001,
School of Law Class of 2005)
Sent: Monday, February 14, 2005 12:38 PM
The classes that I found most beneficial in preparation for law school were the classes that challenged me. I think that ninety percent of law school success (in terms of happiness and grades) is effective time management. If all you take in undergraduate are blow off courses so you can have a good gpa or more downtime, law school will be really overwhelming. First year law school is a ridiculous amount of work (in volume and in the sense that it might take you awhile to "get" a certain concept), and if you have no experience managing your time you risk a miserable first year or a nervous breakdown. To paraphrase Kobylka, how are you going to put the pedal to the metal if you don't know where the pedal is?
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Serenity Norman (SMU Class of 2003,
University of Virginia School of Law)
Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 2004 1:39 AM
DISCLAIMER: This message is incredibly long...only read it if you have time...and by all means, stop reading whenever you get bored. I'm just doing this 'cause I know some of you are wondering what happened to me (and I didn't wanna study contracts...). This is the shorthand way of getting information out.
I am 3/4 of the way through my first law school exam period. I have taken the exams in Torts, Crim Law, and Civil Procedure. [I will not have any idea how I did until mid to late January...I did the best I could...we'll see how that works out grade-wise.] They were all incredibly hard, and I feel mentally drained and overloaded and significantly humbled. So, since I didn't wanna study, and I've fallen off the face of the earth for most of you, I thought I would give you a synopsis of the question I know you're all going to ask: how was the first semester of law school? I can only answer this question by waxing philosophical for a bit and discussing some of the "lessons" I've learned both in and, perhaps more importantly, out of the classroom. These lessons obviously don't apply to everyone who goes to law school or even to everyone in my small section (for those of you who don't know, they divide the entering class into "sections" to facilitate schedules and social interaction)...this is just my own little diatribe...
Law school is easier AND harder than "they" tell you.
The workload this semester was not intimidating. Considering I survived Rick Halperin's class and several of Dr. Kobylka's ass-kicking classes during undergrad while working a lot and being very active and having a social life, just going to school was actually a break. I didn't have the added stress of waiting tables or dealing with student senate or trying to come up with creative debate cases to weird out those crazy southwest texas kids. Furthermore, because I am a HUGE nerd, having 4.5 classes (I count Legal Research and Writing as half of a class) all about law was like my idea of a great first date (not that I've had one of those in a long time...but that might come later in this diatribe). Also, I didn't have papers and midterms and quizzes to deal with through the semester...which somehow made the first 2/3 of the semester seem easier.
On the other hand, not having any graded work except the final is its own form of stress. It is the black cloud hanging over everything throughout the semester. I had no idea how to prepare for the exams, although I had the sense that I should be doing something in preparation...which meant that sometimes (a lot of times), I felt like I was trying to play monopoly without knowing what piece was mine (or some other simile equally as confusing). The material was challenging: the sheer volume of information I have spent a semester cramming into my head literally takes up about 4,000 pages. Plus, trying to figure out the meaning of words like "negligence" (which doesn't mean what you think it means) or "estoppel" made me question whether I actually had a grasp on the language I thought I spoke. Reading real cases also adds to it: we have to know this stuff or someone may go to jail, or lose the land that's been in her family for decades, or be forced into bankruptcy because a surgeon left a sponge in during surgery (that's actually a pretty easy case...but you get my point). Throughout the semester you fear that you'll fail the exams or, if you actually graduate, that you'll end up being the lawyer that dropped the ball and is memorialized in the 45th edition of your (former) professor's text book.
Ultimately, the first semester of law school was an exercise in confidence, disbelief, fear, perseverance, hopelessness, hilarity, disillusionment, triumph, confusion, and frustration...sometimes all at the same time...and several times throughout the semester, I asked myself:
Why did I wanna come to law school?
Law school, contrary to what some people may say, isn't just something you do because you can't figure out what to do or because you wanna postpone "real life" for three more years. It's hard and expensive and humiliating...no one should consider law school unless he's ready and willing to deal with the reality of it. It really isn't worth it. Save your loan money.
I applied to law school "knowing" I wanted to "save the world," fight for justice...or some other equally trite platitude. This first semester has taught me that the "white horse" mentality is great for John Grisham novels and personal essays. In order to be a good attorney, though, you have to realize that the "just" or "right" outcome isn't always the one the law supports...(I kinda learned that from Kobylka...) but that isn't a reason to give up. The law is made by people just trying to figure out the best way to do things. Sometimes what's best in the long run isn't the "just" outcome in the instant case. (Or sometimes the law itself just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.) You have to deal with that. Your job is to do your best for your client at the time...and sometimes, in striving for justice in the instant case, you actually do influence the "law" for future parties. Cynicism is inevitable: at some point you realize that you may have to tell your client that the law doesn't support the outcome he wants, even if your innate sense of "right" would. You have to accept that changing the law is a long, long process that involves lots of defeat along the way. Maybe that's why law school exams are so tough - they wanna get you used to feeling so totally and utterly clueless and useless...that you learn to keep going. Maybe the goal isn't just to teach you "the law" but also to foster in you the tenacity to change it. After all, I still think that without the underlying "white horse" sense of justice, "the law" is too horribly complicated and voluminous and silly to warrant such dedication.
Being consumed with law school inevitably breeds detachment from things and people that are really important. It's not that you mean to be detached...you just are. Other things not in the immediate world of law school just kinda fall away (sometimes including laundry). You start to eat, drink, breathe, and dream law school (even civil procedure, the least interesting class I had all semester). My roommate, Jenn (who, by the way, gets the "roommate of the year" award), woke me up one morning for class weeks after I had studied the Worldwide Volkswagen case. The first words out of my mouth were "worldwide volkswagen." I've started to see legal issues in movies I have watched a thousand times (whether Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell had a valid contract in Overboard). Thus, escaping the law school world is (and will be) a great adjustment...one that might end up being impossible.
On the other hand, law school (how this happened, I don't know) has made me acutely aware of decisions I need to make. While I will never be a massive "planner" (in the a-type personality way), my tendency to kinda just make decisions – because I don't think "it'll happen to me," don't think I have anything to lose, or I think somehow the gains will be worth the risk – on a whim doesn't work. In fact, it kinda bites me in the, uh, armpit. Through personal experience and extensive discussions of the "risk calculus," I've realized that it's much easier in life to plan for or avoid risks than it is to clean up the mess afterwards. Maybe I should have realized this much earlier (perhaps I'm not the brightest crayon in the box), but at least I've realized it now.
One final thought (or stream of thoughts) to my diatribe...I've realized (warning: Hallmark moment coming) how much the people in my life affect who I am and how important my friends and family are to me. Somehow in my crazy, meandering way through life I've managed to find some true jewels. Being in an extremely stressful and overwhelming environment, absent the safety net of support I had taken for granted, I was very lonely and very introspective. I realized some things about myself...some of them I liked and some of them I didn't. The whole time, though, I've found comfort in the knowledge that you guys are out there, pulling for me. Your faith in me (while giving me some cause to question your sanity) spurred me on when I felt like maybe I shouldn't be in law school.
So, a collective thank you...I apologize for the length of this message...but it's so much better than a simple synopsis of the events of the semester...in case you need that, though, here it is: I study, I go to class, I watch movies, I study, I eat, I drink, I laugh at the inane inside jokes that make their way around my circle of friends, and I think about law school and what the experience is doing to me...or, rather, for me.
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From: Sean_O'Connell (SMU/UVA Class of 1998, Temple University Beasley School of Law, 2004; Federal court law clerk, 2004-06) Sent: Monday, February 06, 2006 3:10 PM
There are hundreds of things you can do at SMU to prepare for law school. Here are five:
1. Read Patrick J. Schiltz's "On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession," 52 Vand. L. Rev. 871. This article will not help you succeed in law school. However, it will help you answer the question, "do I really want to go to law school?" If you're already *sure* you want to go to law school, you definitely need to read Schiltz's article. No matter "why" you want to go to law school, being a lawyer is an entirely different animal. Prepare yourself for disappointment early on and avoid the pitfalls of those who walked the path before you. After law school, you care about a lot of things you didn't care about before. That's not necessarily a good thing.
2. Develop active learning skills. If there's one thing that will speed you toward a mid-life crisis it's an inability to break free of passive learning early on. If you've ever complained, "But Professor, you said that wasn't going to be on the test," you're thinking passively and you're expecting your education to be spoon-fed to you (also, have fun watching others get promoted over you and seeing the following phrases on your evaluations, "works well under close supervision" and "powerfully average"). Law schools don't care what you studied as an undergrad, they want to know that you can become an expert in anything and everything. If you do everything on the syllabus and you're still getting Bs, do more work. In other words, care about what you're studying. If you're still waking up hungover and willing to just take the "B" or "C" - don't go to law school yet. Take a year or two off and work. See what it's like to go to a job that you hate day after day and work with people who no longer care about life. Then you'll be ready to take school seriously.
3. Learn how to think critically. Law school tests your substantive knowledge of the law and your ability to think critically about arguments. You'll learn the substance of the law in law school. You can work on your critical thinking skills as an undergrad. Take classes from good professors. Good professors won't let you get away with parroting their views - they'll require you to think critically about the subject material and come up with your own analysis. Taking philosophy or political theory seminars generally helps with this - as do Kobylka's classes. However, if you're too busy taking gut classes in order to boost your GPA, I suggest you come up with a well-reasoned, contemporary response to Bertrand Russell's essay 'Why I am not a Christian' or Isaiah Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty.'
4. Learn to write quickly and cogently. So far my advice has been pretty non-specific: know why you're going to law school, learn actively, think critically. Although necessary for your intellectual development and success as a lawyer, it's too easy to forget when the going gets tough. If you're reading this, you're probably looking for something a bit more concrete. Hopefully, points 4 and 5 will help you out. With that in mind, I suggest you learn to write quickly and cogently. One of the biggest mistakes students taking their first semester of law school exams is that they think knowing all the information is enough to get an A. It's not. The difference between an "A exam" and a "B exam" is how the knowledge is conveyed to the professor. There is one group immune to this problem - journalists. In my own non-scientific survey, I find that people who had prior journalism experience had no problem with writing clearly under time pressures, had more time to spot and analyze more issues, and got higher grades. So take some journalism classes or, better yet, take a job as a reporter for a few years after graduating.
5. Rudimentary knowledge of government, history, and business. Although you'll learn all the substantive knowledge at law school that you'll be tested on, it doesn't hurt to know the structural support around the substantive law. The legal world doesn't exist in a bubble. At its best it solves real world problems justly and fairly. If you know the real world predicates to societal problems and concerns, you'll improve your legal frame of reference. Also, the time you spend learning the governmental, historical, and business terminology now will save you time later. Kobylka's Intro to American Government class is good for this. His Con Law class will get you reading some great cases, but don't be fooled - law school isn't nearly as fun.
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(SMU Class of 2004,
Texas Wesleyan University School of Law,
now SMU School of Law)
Sent: Wednesday, February 09, 2005 3:26 PM
Subject: here ya go... have fun
Well, if you have made it all the way to me you must REALLY want to go to Law School. Wow, Those were some real horror stories, eh? Just kidding. Law School is hard, demanding, and everything else you have already read up to this point. To rehash what my colleagues have already said so well, take Kobylka & Lusztig and any other class that really “scares” you. Take classes that challenge you because they will make you disciplined and strong. But also mix in a “basket weaving” class or two for perspective because, to quote the Breakfast Club, “without calculus there would be no physics… but without lamps there would be no light.”
But enough of that, you have already read all about the classes to take and how to prepare for the intense trial by fire that is law school. I would like to offer a few humble bits of advice for coping with law school… hint: some of them can be employed in undergrad too.
Finally, take law school very seriously (or whatever else you decide to do)… but don’t take yourself too seriously… have fun… because “it’s fun to have fun but ya have to know how”
A great man once said that.
Courtney Sartor Gesualdi (SMU Class
of 2008; Boston University School of Law)
(posted 6 September 2011)
As an Undergrad
Law school can be a great start to a career and a wonderful way to continue your education. If you’re prepping for law school or trying to figure out if you want to go, take Kobylka’s classes and take them seriously. They were the closest thing I could find to law school because they are based on case study and analyzing issues, not just regurgitating information. However, his classes are much more interesting than the typical law school class, so be prepared. Make sure you read and brief the cases- you won’t survive his classes or law school by just showing up. You also won’t survive if you just read. You have to analyze the cases, consider both sides, and consider why they were decided the way they were before class, so you’re ready to talk about it in class. The reading is much more comprehensive than in undergrad. Get comfortable talking in class, you won’t have a choice in law school and it’s really not scary. I’d also recommend working in between law school and undergrad. It helps you mature, makes you realize how great being in school actually is and employers like it. I would suggest that you do something challenging and meaningful or work somewhere in the law to make sure you like it, but any kind of work is helpful. However, the top of the class is composed of a mix of people who have worked and those who came straight through. Finally, take classes that make you write. Writing is important for a lawyer and will be important in law school. Although your exams are graded on content, it’s much easier to get a good grade when you can communicate what you understand clearly and concisely. Being a good writer will also help get on a journal, which is an honor. I would recommend Journalism/English classes on top of poli sci classes that have a paper requirement.
Take the application process seriously because it’s expensive and time consuming. Write you essays early, and don’t send the same one to every school. Prepare for the LSAT by taking a practice test at the very least. It is a skills-based test and you can improve your score by concentrating, strategizing and timing correctly. When choosing a school consider what kind of law you want to practice and where. It’s much, much easier to find a job near your school than far away, even at “national school.” Employers typically don’t travel that far to interview, so the programs your school puts on will be for jobs in/near the area. That being said, if you want to go to school in New York and work in Texas it’s possible, you just have to do most of the job search work on your own, which is time intensive. Also, if you plan to be a public defender and want to work in Austin, you may not want to choose a private school where you didn’t get any scholarship money. If you can get the job without going $180,000 in debt, do it. It’s a balancing act. If you want to teach law at Harvard though, you’ll probably need a top 5 education regardless of the cost. Just carefully consider what you want to do and where before you jump into those $2,000+/month loans.
Make sure you read and brief the cases. No one will check your notes or give you pop quizzes, you’ll just look silly if you haven’t read and you probably won’t do well on the exam. Do everything early- read, study, get your resume ready, research jobs, everything. You’ll be surprised at how early everything is done in law school (July after my first year I was applying for jobs for the following summer). Ask questions in class, after class, and in office hours. Synthesize the information as you go, don’t assume it will all come together at the end. Get to know your professors, they will help you understand the material, they could employ you and they will be the ones to write your recommendations. And depending on where you go, they are most likely very interesting people. Perfect your time management skills, that will help you get everything done and still have a life. Have fun on the weekends; your job will likely be stressful enough when you graduate. Finally, understand that law school may help you to “think like a lawyer,” but you will probably still pay for a bar review class before the bar (thousands of dollars) and then your employer will have to train you. Law school is a scholarly endeavor, not job training.
For a brief glimpse of some of the ideas you will encounter, I’d recommend reading The Legal Analyst by Ward Farnsworth. He happens to be a professor of mine, but he’s brilliant and interesting. The book is a good read for anyone, but will introduce you to some of the biggest concepts you will see in your first-year classes.
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*The former students whose thoughts are above gave me permission to post their missives.