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
Bartlett, University of Illinois College of Law
Van-Ann Bui, Columbia Law School
Oscar Carr, University of Memphis
Jennifer Camillo, Syracuse University College of Law
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
John Limberakis, Southern Methodist University Law School
Mitchell London, Georgetown University Law Center
Paul Montemayor, Stanford Law School
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
Gabriel Smith, SMU Law
Kathleen Tarbox, University of Virginia
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.
Also informative -- and fun -- is this blog posting by Asha at Yale Law school who writes an admissions blog at Yale Law School. I thank my former student, Charanya Krishnaswami (who still owes me her essay) for calling it to my attention.
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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Van-Ann Bui, (SMU Class of 2009, Columbia Law School)
So you think you want to go to law school?
Before getting yourself $200,000 in debt (yes that is not a typo), you should consider whether you actually want to be a lawyer. Many students these days are flocking to law school because they aren’t sure what else they want to do. They think it gives them a few years to think about what they want to do. Yes, a few years and a lot of debt. Before you go to law school, you should think about whether this is something you want to commit the next three years of your life and invest a heck of a lot of money in doing. Take some law classes in undergrad and see if you actually enjoy them (I took criminal procedure, constitutional law and business law classes – all of which I would recommend). Do an internship at a law firm, the legal department of a company or in the government to see if you actually like the practice of law.
Ok, so you’ve decided to go to law school, what can you do now to help you prepare? In no particular order…
There are many other ways you can prepare for law school but those are just a few of the ones that come to mind right now. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Always happy to talk and lend a helping hand.
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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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Jennifer Camillo (SMU Class of 2007; Syracuse University College of Law)
Posted 29 June 2013
What did you do at SMU that has turned out to be good preparation for the study of the law? à I kept these three things in mind: there are no shortcuts, don’t be a wallflower, and today is the first day of the rest of your life.
(1) There are no shortcuts.
Well actually, there are lots of shortcuts. So the title should really be “there isn’t such thing as a free lunch.” AKA if you are the kind of person that takes shortcuts in school, it may have short-term benefits, but eventually you will have to pay for it. This is especially true when it comes to law school. The students that struggled the most their first year in law school were the same students that I heard the first week of class saying things like “I never had to work hard in undergrad to get my good grades”. If you aren’t working hard, you aren’t learning, and other people are and they will be a lot more prepared for law school where the strict curve means their preparation = your poor grades the first year.
So how do you work hard in undergrad? TAKE THE HARD CLASSES. By hard I don’t mean the classes where the teacher doesn’t teach well so people fail, but rather I mean the classes that mimic Kobylka’s classes. The teachers that push you to THINK. The classes where you come into class believing A, and the teacher has you leaving thinking B. The classes where EVEN THE TOP STUDENTS are being challenged and pushed by the professor to be better. The truth is that being smart at your school doesn’t mean that in a law school class you will do better than the students from other schools. Maybe at their schools, all the professors were like Kobylka and as a result they are used to the intense workload and constant pressure to improve.
So even if you are in a class where you can get an A without doing the reading, DO THE READING ANYWAY, and mark it up, and ask questions about it in class or in office hours. Don’t rely on professors or your parents to push you; don’t waste your tuition dollars by doing the bare minimum.
At first it will be difficult, but if you put the work in now it will be a lot easier later when everyone else will be struggling. I constantly have classmates ask me, “how are you always able to pull out the exact detail the professor wants from readings that are over 50 pages?” They are still struggling to read documents that long, that are difficult readings, and be able to pull out the main rule or the reasoning that truly supported the holding when there are rules and reasons throughout every paragraph. I can do it because I had lots of practice BEFORE law school. This is the purpose of writing out briefs in Kobylka’s class, and this is why I always read for all my classes with a pencil in hand – writing out summaries next to each paragraph and then synthesizing the main point in writing at the end of each chapter. This is perhaps the most important skill to learn before going to law school: SYNTHESIS. Most people that wait til law school, don’t really learn it til their last year, and by that time their grades and therefore their future has already been limited. When you hear people say “learning to think like a lawyer” this is what they are talking about: learning to SYNTHESIZE.
(2) Don’t be a wallflower.
I get that the world is full of introverts as well as extroverts, but in law school the professor isn’t going to let you make up for your participation points by giving him a notecard at the end of class with your thoughts on the material or e-mailing the professor instead outside of class. Your first year you will be in classes of 60 or more people, the professor will call on you to answer a question about a specific detail in the reading that you won’t know from skimming, and saying “I don’t know” will not be an option. If you manage to answer, the professor isn’t going to move on to the next person, they will ask you a follow-up, then another, then another. I had one professor who each day cold-called 2 students, and would spend 45 mins on each asking questions.
How do you prepare for this in undergrad? Well first of all, you need to be prepared, aka do your reading for the day. Second of all, you need to start participating. Not just once a week or semester….I would say aim for raising your hand in a class like Kobylka’s classes at least once a class, and for other more lecture style at least once every two classes. This can be with questions or with answers to questions. If this makes you nervous, sit closer to the front of the classroom: I’ve noticed when I am closer I forget how many students are in the class watching me and so it is less stressful putting myself out there by asking a question or attempting an answer.
Last note on participation…here is a little secret about teachers. I learned this from experience because prior to going to law school I taught for 5 years. There is nothing more frustrating than having a Ferris Bueller experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4zyjLyBp64 This is what happens when the teacher asks a question, and no one in the class raises their hand, ESPECIALLY when it is an easy question that anyone that attempted the reading would know the answer. When you don’t answer this is the message you send to the professor: you either (1) didn’t do the reading (2) can’t read at a high school level or (3) you care more about your social status than the respect of your professor. Another secret about this situation…. The professor will appreciate/respect/ and later be more likely to help out for things like recommendations the students who in those situations raise their hand and answer the question so the class can move on. Maybe you don’t currently care what your professors think of you (which you should given you will need recs for law school), or maybe you wrongly assume as long as you get an A your professor will think highly of you. If you don’t care now, you need to care in law school, because not only do most law professors now allow up to 15% of your grade as class participation, but professors have some of the best connections for jobs that you will find.
(3) Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
You need to believe you are capable of being the smartest person in the class. I would argue that 90% of the reason students consistently get B’s or even C’s is because they’ve never been the straight A student and they think those students have some special capability that they don’t have that allows them to get the As. This is simply not true. I used to think this, and I was a consistent B/B- student my first two years at SMU. Well, I got straight As my last two years, while taking only upper level difficult classes. What was the number one thing responsible for the shift? With the help of Kobylka, and his mantra “today is the first day of the rest of your life”, I started believing it was possible and that the only thing the students with straight As had that I didn’t was the confidence that they could get those grades.
This is important because until you believe this you won’t be willing to put in any extra time or effort because you will think, maybe even subconsciously, that it won’t matter in the end because you can’t possibly catch up academically to the students that have made those grades their whole life. But the issue isn’t really about catching up, it is about doing the work now. When you meet with your professors about a paper, ask “what could I have done for this paper to be an A” and if they say “you should be proud, a B is a good paper” tell them that for you it isn’t and that you expect more of yourself and want to know what you can do next time to improve. Another question good question to ask if you meet with them early in the semester, “what do you notice distinguishes the A students from the A- students in your classes”, that usually provokes some good information concerning what the professor is looking for and what you should be doing throughout the semester to meet those expectations.
Good luck, and if you have any questions and want some blunt, honest answers – feel free to e-mail me: JenniferaCamillo@gmail.com.
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: email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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John Limberakis (SMU Class of 2009, Southern Methodist University Law School)
Sent: Friday, 30 September 2011
Who am I when writing this? John Limberakis, 3rd year JD/MBA, full time.
If I could do it all again I would have done it a little differently.
First of all I would have worked for two years in the financial sector before I applied for anything. Or I would have worked in the economics field. I would have gotten some sort of job and gotten work experience. Then I think I would have applied for an MBA and not a JD. The JD/MBA gives me some advantages so that I can be a better business person - but the JD/MBA adds two years to my education and a lot of debt even though I have significant scholarships.
If you don't know law is for you my advice is to get a job in an area you like. If you like baseball, get a job in a baseball ops department (GM department). If you like finance, go somewhere there.
Get some experience before going in. Know that is what you want to do.
One last thing that I think is very important. If you are not a great writer, or writing isn't your strong point make sure you go to a law school where legal writing is NOT a graded class (pass/fail). Because that can be the difference finishing in the top 1/4 of your class and the bottom half. And you want to avoid that if possible.
Good luck with your decision
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Mitchell London (SMU Class of 2007, Georgetown University Law Center) ***
Kobylka Students of the Future,
Greetings from the year 2012! Assuming that scientists have not created a machine that files and answers court motions and a large asteroid has not collided with the Earth, the legal profession is still a profession and you’re still at least minimally interested in it. I recently finished my first year at Georgetown University Law Center, and I have some ramblings that you can either take or leave.
First, a little background: I graduated from SMU in 2007. I took Kobylka for American Political Thought, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law classes. I also did a Tower Fellowship on the constitutional dimensions of the war on terrorism in which Kobylka served as my advisor/sounding-board/coach. After graduating from SMU, I joined Teach For America and taught 9th and 12th grade English in Forrest City, Arkansas, which I highly recommend. After finishing my teaching stint, I moved to DC and worked on K-12 education policy issues for a lobby shop, which I also recommend. If you would like to ask me any questions about either TFA or education policy lobbying, email me.
Just as with undergrad, when you prepare for/ apply to law school, you are inundated with everyone's two cents. Take law school advice with a grain of salt - law school has changed significantly since your parents' generation, and people from your own generation lack the perspective necessary to give truly helpful advice. For example: a parent might tell you that "law school is easy after you finish your first year" (as far as I can tell, this is manifestly false), and a student might tell you that "getting on the right journal is the most important thing in the world" (whereas a practicing lawyer might tell you that journals are a waste of time unless you want to practice certain types of law). Below is a poorly organized list of lessons I've learned/ mistakes I've made in my relatively short experience as a law student.
Good luck, and if you have any questions, please contact me at email@example.com.
***Addendum, 29 September 2013 -- while finishing his 3L year:
Sent: Friday, September 27, 2013 12:38 PM
Subject: The Kobylka Method
Kobylka - Just writing to say that my Con Law II (i.e. Civil Rights/ Civil Liberties) professor, Randy Barnett, is a bizarro-world you. He is incredibly engaging, has similar classroom mannerisms, presents a coherent theory and narrative behind the development of SC jurisprudence... but is a rigid original public meaning originalist and you would disagree about most - if not all - policy matters. His course is excellent, but I'm frequently drawing comparisons to my con law courses of yore.
That brings to mind one additional thing I might tell your aspiring legal minds: the mean quality of professor at a law school like Georgetown is superb. The few lackluster professors I've had are the exceptions that prove the rule. So if you stumble upon some students who actually like doing the work for your class, you can report to them that (at least as of 9/2013), they will have the opportunity to do a lot of fun, interesting work in law school.
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Paul Montemayor (SMU Class of 2010, Stanford Law School)
Sent: Monday, September 12, 2011
First off, I just want to say that I don't think there is any perfect recipe for preparing yourself for law school, doing well in it, or getting in to it in the first place. The first thing you need to do is to get to know yourself. It may sound stupid, but I figured out that there was a lot more to me once I was out from under the subjection of the parents (who are great people, by the way). Once you get a grip on that, I think you will be ready to wade through all the advice and find what advice actually pertains to you and will help you succeed.
Secondly, I know this is supposed to be about preparing to do well in law school, but I put some stuff in here about how to prepare to get in to law school, since I figured that some of y'all would appreciate it.
1. Take Hard Classes
Get B's. Or at least a B+. Do it, try it out for once. It is not as bad as it sounds.
Now, I do not want to understate the importance of grades. They are VERY important. However, you should think of grades as more of a screening process. For the most part, you should aim to have a GPA that makes you competitive for whatever law schools you are aiming to get in to.
However, taking hard classes is really important. First, they prepare you for the rigors of law school, simple enough. Make sure to take classes with lots of reading, the more dense and painful the better. Reading is most all you do for a lot of classes, and, if you are already a seasoned veteran at delving into hard material, it will make reading a lot less painful, and it will help you save time (and you need all the time you can get). Secondly, they make you a better student, which, in turn, is going to help you get better grades in all your classes in undergrad and law school. And, third, their nature will help to prepare you to do well in law school in general and in the more intangible aspects of the admissions process (essays, personal statements, etc.); they build character and maturity.
2. Get to know and build a strong relationship with a professor or two
I most likely would not be where I am if I did not have the professors I had at SMU. I have no problem admitting that.
The most practical reason for building strong relationships with professors is, of course, to provide you with great recommendation letters. They might not be the most important thing in the admissions process, but I am willing to bet (A STEAK) that they can be the difference when you are a borderline case. It's one thing to be able to trump your own character in a personal statement, but it is another that someone, who has seen enough kids like you in your day (YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL), can back you up on it and espouse valuable things about you.
Also, professors are valuable mentors that can help guide you through college and the process of admissions. I don't know where I would be without the guidance of professors like Dr. Kobylka and Dr. Carter. Whatever you might think, they know more than you and have seen hundreds to thousands of students go through the same process you are going through. They might not have every answer, but they sure can provide valuable help for you to arrive at the right answers yourself.
3. Take Classes that make you write.
While you might think that you simply have to be "smart" enough to get into law school, the fact of the matter is, you have to write well, too. If you can't put together an impressive personal statement or some supplementary essays, you are not going to have the edge to get into the more prestigious law schools.
Thinking well and being smart is great, but you are going to be graded in law school on one essay test or paper that you write in most classes. If you cannot write well, you will not do well in law school. Take classes that make you write. This includes not only term papers, but, maybe more importantly, essay finals, especially if you do not know the exact topic beforehand.
Also, while I did not do this, I would suggest taking some extra English courses or maybe something with a creative writing aspect. I think it would have helped refine and hone my writing, which I suggest you try and do as much as possible. For a law school final, you only have one chance, so the better writer you are and the better first draft you can put out, the better law student you will be.
4. Take Philosophy Classes
While I might be somewhat biased being a philosophy major myself, I believe that philosophy classes do a great job preparing students for the reasoning and logic skills that are so important to the underlying concept of thinking like a lawyer. The skills you learn to use in philosophy classes, seem to me, the most readily transferable to law school, besides basic writing skills.
I am not saying that you need to major in philosophy or even minor. But, unless you are in a very rigorous and hour-intensive major, there should be plenty of electives in your schedule to fill. Take a philosophy course or five. There are some really great philosophy professors at SMU. Plus, philosophy courses can not only help you with your logical thinking and reasoning skills, but also can be a great way to practice reading harder and denser material and trying to make sense of it.
5. Try and find Summer internships in the area of law
While this might be a harder objective in this economy, I still think it is something that is really worth trying to do. First, you cannot know if you want to be a lawyer unless you actually know what lawyers do. So, go find out. Make sure you are not going to be wasting your time (and $$$$). Secondly, some experience, no matter how little, will be helpful with trying to find summer associate and clerking positions in law school, with any type of pro bono work you do while in law school, or even with clinical work. Familiarity can go a long way. Lastly, if you want to be successful and get the summer job you want, any kind of connections you can make in undergrad will be the difference. Knowing someone is more than half the battle.
6. Keep Busy
In law school, you will never have enough time for everything. Keeping busy in undergrad is a great way to practice for the time management skills needed in law school. Learn to be efficient with your time. Make sure to learn how to work ahead of time, as you cannot do be successful in law school doing things at the last minute. Organize your materials/notes and study ahead of time, so you do not have to crunch for finals. Do not be afraid of having a semester of 18 hours, because, while it might be hell at the time, it will prepare you for the load you will be taking in law school.
7. Take as many practice LSATs as you can (STUDY THE GAMES SECTION)
While this will obviously not make you better in law school, taking as many practice LSATs will prepare you for taking the real thing. Becoming familiar with the test will not only help you with the questions, but it will make you more comfortable and less stressed out when the real test comes. Also, be sure to learn to know how long it will take you to complete sections; practice being faster. Go over problems you missed, try to understand what you need to work on.
Study the games section. The games section is not natural for most of us. It is vastly different from anything that is on other standardized tests. Don't be discouraged if you do bad on it. I think I might have gotten 25% of the section right the first time I took a practice LSAT. However, the great thing about the games section is that you can LEARN how to do it. Again, it just takes practice. But, it can most easily and dramatically improve your score.
8. Be happy
Don't forget about you. It can be really easy to let school, work, and the world consume you.
While I can't promise you that I will get back to you, if you have any intelligent questions or pressing problems, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if this is years in the distant future, and I don't go to Stanford anymore, barring a zombie apocalypse (if which, I have no idea why you would want to be a lawyer when there are zombies to kill), just find me on the internet, it's not that hard unfortunately.
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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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Gabriel Smith (SMU Class of 2007, SMU Law)
(posted 25 June 2014)
I graduated from SMU in 2004 with at Bachelors in Political Science, then walked across the quad to the law school and stayed there until May 2007. Below is a summary of my recommendations and advice regarding law school.
My advice to law students is . . . don't go to law school unless you have done, and/or prepared for all of the following. These are not scare tactics, this is the truth about the legal market and acquisition of a law degree based on my experiences, reading and research.
1. Be prepared to pay a sum equivalent to a mortgage note for your legal education. I received a very generous scholarship for law school, so I exited law school owing less than $50,000 in educational debt. My debt load is definitely not the norm. Most people that I know exit law school with $100,000 or more in student loan debt, which could buy a house somewhere. It might not be a neighborhood where you want to live, but it is enough for a mortgage. And this is just law school debt. I am not factoring in any undergraduate debt. So if you have undergraduate educational debt as well, the figures will be even higher.
2. Acquire significant, full time, work experience (possibly as a legal assistant or paralegal) other than summers. I went straight through law school from undergraduate studies. In the middle of my second semester of law school, I realized I was burned out on school. I think, as a result, I didn't do as well as I would have liked. Since I had a full tuition and fees scholarship and I was already in a place many would envy, I pulled myself together and finished, doing the best that I could. My grades did improve, but my GPA did not recover from that first year. Its not like undergrad or even high school, where you have four years of grades to average together--you only have 3. This is one reason why first year performance is so critical. I think if I had taken that time off, I may have performed better in law school, which may or may not have opened some different doors for me. On the other hand, I probably would be in a lot more debt, so who knows? Hindsight is always 20/20.
3. You really may not be in the top 25 percent of your class. Its a statistical fact. You have a higher chance of not being at the top of your class than being at the top of your class. The legal job market is fierce. What does this mean? Most people will not have a job lined up when they graduate, and others may end up taking a nonlegal job (which was my experience) in order to pay bills. Do all that you can to make yourself competitive. Take as many practical courses, such as clinics, as possible while in school. This will give you a competitive edge. I would recommend taking a criminal clinic course if your school offers one. Criminal law is an area where there seems to always be a need. Also, it gives you direct courtroom experience in most schools, which is also useful in a competitive job market. District attorneys offices are always hiring persons with criminal law experience. Especially if you are young and single with nothing tying you to a particular area, this could be a good choice. If criminal law does not interest you, I recommend going into law school with the expectation that you may have to hang your own shingle when you graduate and pass the bar. With that in mind, family law and criminal will still, more than likely, pay the bills, especially if you lack litigation experience in any other substantive area. Take those courses and clinics if offered at your law school.
4. See a good career counselor or adviser to assess your interests. I recommend this to ensure that law school is really a good fit for your strengths. Don't throw away six figures on a degree without doing everything you can to ensure it is the best fit for your with all available information. If nothing else, work through the book What Color is Your Parachute by Richard N. Bolles, and take it seriously. I did this just recently and I wish someone told me to do it before going to law school.
5. Network, network, network. I have a very narrow view of networking, though. Sure you can go to events all the time and pass out your card. Everyone does this, with mixed results. But the networking contacts that really pay off are the ones where you form a relationship with a person and they get to know your work product in some way, while you do something that benefits them. These are the networking relationships that really help you get great advice, jobs and job leads when you need them. Help an older lawyer learn how to use the internet, and he may give you some invaluable advice about the profession. Go into networking letting others know what you have to offer them, rather than asking for favors immediately.
6. Ignore your non-lawyer family and friends. They will give you all kinds of advice about law school and legal practice, and most of it is terrible. Find (and help, see point number 5) some lawyers in order to get some really good advice. Family members will give you the following incorrect advice: A law degree is a ticket to wealth. It is good training for any job you want. And my personal favorite: You can do anything with a law degree. And when you get to law school, these same people will tell you that you are studying too much. Lol. All of this is false. A law degree is a very narrowly focused degree that will make you popular at cocktail parties and give you awesome critical thinking skills. That is about all that it offers in terms of security.
7. Expose yourself to as many writing, leadership, public speaking, and critical thinking opportunities as possible. None of it will be exactly like what you encounter in law school, but these are the most common skills that employers look for when seeking job candidates. With that in mind, it is critical to start building these skills as early as possible. Since employers want you to write well, so make sure you are taking English courses and other courses where you have to write papers and essays. Professor Kobylka's courses are good because they require critical thinking skills as well as writing.
8. Learn a foreign language. I am often asked what major is best preparation for law school. No major really does this. If such a major existed, I think then going to law school would be optional to becoming a lawyer. Skills that you should work on before law school are listed above, in point 7. There are many majors where you could start building those skills. I think a better question is what major is more likely to help you get a job after law school. My answer to that is: Spanish. Lol. No. I am serious. My colleagues who speak a foreign language, even if they did not perform that well in law school, always manage to find jobs. I have missed out on job offers because I don't speak Spanish-literally, this fact was written in my rejection letter. Even if the job description says Spanish speaker preferred, if one person who speaks Spanish applies for the job who is even marginally qualified, your application has probably just gone into the reject pile. In Texas, since we are so close to a Spanish speaking country, I really would recommend majoring in Spanish if possible, even if that means a double major.
9. Go to law school for the right reasons, and understand the impact that may have on your future. I went to law school because I wanted to do public interest work. I genuinely wanted to help people who could not afford to pay a lawyer to solve their legal problems. Despite my rough 1L year, I have held my "dream legal job." I would love to resume public interest work, but it doesn't pay a whole lot, even with experience. If pay is a serious issue for you, public interest is probably not the way to go. As an example, a well known local nonprofit does not pay attorneys $50,000 until they have served 5 years with the organization. This is definitely better than minimum wage, but nowhere near the salaries that many law school hopefuls dream about. You may not be able to drive a BMW or Mercedes (unless it is very used). You may not be able to live in a condo in Uptown (without having a couple of roommates). But if this work speaks to your soul, you can figure out how to live your life while doing it. You should go to law school, not for tangible reasons, such as prestige, or money. You should go to law school because even after reading and seriously considering all of these points, and after talking to several lawyers active in the profession spanning across all age groups, legal practice speaks to something in your soul. If it does, you will enjoy law school (no matter what your grades are), you will be able to find work (eventually) and legal education will, overall, be a benefit to your life.
Best wishes in making your decision.
Kathleen Tarbox (SMU Class of 2006, University of Virginia School of Law)
(posted 28 September 2013)
What I Wish I Had Known:
My background: I graduated from SMU in 2006 with a double major in Political Science and Economics, went to UVA straight from undergrad, and now am a nearly 5th year associate doing commercial real estate work. Like a couple of others in this list, this will be a little bit of the long view on what I wish I had known since I've been practicing for a while. One caveat - the advice below is generally geared towards people who want a “big firm job” after law school. If you have other plans, I would be happy to direct your inquiries to friends who took more non-traditional paths after law school or ended up at places other than biglaw. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have any questions.
· Undergrad Classes: If you’re reading this, you are probably in one of Professor Kobylka’s classes. Good job. Take them all, but at a minimum take con law with Professor Kobylka. For probably the first month of my constitutional law class in law school, I was significantly ahead of my classmates and looked really insightful to my professor. Additionally, every law school will teach you how to brief cases. If you’re taking Professor Kobylka’s class, you already know. One less thing to learn - and you will be better at it from the beginning. As others have said, take any other class that makes you think and write, but also take classes that require class participation and FORCE yourself to do it. Raising my hand in class was among my least favorite things to do in life, but in law school, you don’t get the choice to hang out silently in the back row. The better you can get at speaking in front of your peers early on, the more successful you will be. Just remember that in law school (as in undergrad) if you get cold called, everyone is just grateful it wasn’t them. No one is judging you on your response and there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Finally, you will never again be at a place like SMU (unless you are one of those people who is just going to be a perpetual student and I hate you). You are at a university where there is a world of knowledge is at your fingertips. Take random electives, take a fine art or pottery class, take a super specific history class that you will never use just because you think it's cool. Don’t just worry about making sure you don’t have Friday classes. I did, and I regret it 100% now that I have a little more perspective.
· Choosing A School: General advice used to be to go to the highest ranking school that you get into, because it will pay off in making it easier to get a job (see getting a job below to see why that is not 100% true). I would say - so long as there is not a huge difference in rankings - take a good look at the highest ranking private school you get into and the highest ranking public school you get into/private school that gives you very significant scholarship money and then think really really hard about what you want your career to look like. Golden handcuffs is a term for a reason. If you go to a private school, you will likely have six figures worth of debt when you graduate. Even if you live like a monk, it will take you years to pay off. If you suddenly decide that your dream is to use your law degree to start your own business, you may find that your dream has to be deferred longer than you would like because of your loans. If you are at all risk-averse, going to a slightly lower ranked public school or a private school that is paying for the vast majority of your education will give you a little bit more of an opportunity to take control of your career, whether in law or otherwise, without worrying as much about your debt . Not that you shouldn't go to a higher ranked private school if you get in, but don't get too starry-eyed over rankings if you are not sure you want to work at a big law firm for the first 5 or so years of your career.
· Law School Grades/Classes/Extracurriculars: As has been stated, your 1L year matters more than anything. Make it count. Not that you should slack off afterwards, as I recently heard about a law firm that is requiring law school transcripts for people interested in lateralling over as a 6th-7th year associate. But generally, if your 1L grades are really good (and you didn’t get solid Cs in your later years, whether a gentleman’s or not), you will have it so much easier down the road. If you are interested in transactional work, very little of what you learn in law school will be helpful in your legal career. Law firms know this and expect it. However, I believe more law schools are starting to offer more clinics and classes in transactional matters, and it will assist you greatly as a young associate if you at least have a basic knowledge of key corporate law/real estate concepts. You do not have to be on a journal. It is not the end of the world if you are not on a journal. However, do something. Volunteer with legal aid, get heavily involved in a clinic, do moot court. Just do something so that it doesn’t look like you are coasting by (even if you are actually studying during every second of your spare time). Law firms want to know that you are willing to put in the effort and that you can handle a demanding schedule.
· Getting a 1L Summer Job: Your 1L summer, think outside the box for opportunities. Not many 1Ls get firm jobs. I worked for the Dept. of Justice, and got much more real work than being at a firm. I believe that it helped me stand out because I had such a different experience than most interviewees. Don’t just settle on working for a professor that summer (not that there is anything wrong with that) because it is convenient.
· Getting a 2L Summer Job: Once a the firm has agreed to interview you, you already make the cut for grades. So even though you may have a 3.8 and your classmate has a 3.6, it is pretty much an even playing field. At that point, you have to make yourself stand out to the interviewers. A good way to do that is to go to the receptions most law firms throw and strike up a normal, engaging conversation with the attorneys. Don’t be too overbearing, aggressive, or pushy (but don’t be a wallflower). Anecdotally, I went to the reception for my firm the night before interviews and had a wonderful conversation with one of the associates about similarities between our hometowns. That next morning, because of a mistake by UVA’s scheduling system, I missed my interview. They called me later that day and said they were so surprised I hadn’t shown because everyone had enjoyed getting to meet me at the reception. I was able to figure out what happened, and they asked me to come in that afternoon after all of their other interviews were complete. Had I not made a positive impression at the reception, there is no way they would have followed up with me to see why. Additionally, do not be afraid to use your connections. Do not feel like you have to prove you can get a job on your own. That is silly. In the real world, it is all about who you know. And if you have terrible grades but are family friends with a managing partner, it is very unlikely that that connection will get you a job. Instead, it may get your foot in the door for an interview or could be a mark in your favor if it is between you and another student of equal capabilities. So don’t feel like it is cheating to reach out to people (but don’t harass people either).
· Getting a Law Firm Job: For context, I was a summer clerk in 2008, which means that right as the economy went upside down, my classmates and I were supposed to be getting job offers. It was a (relatively) scary time to be a law student, and a number of my classmates with good grades had their offers rescinded/delayed. While things are definitely better now, I do think that there is a pre-2008 and post-2008 perspective on getting a law firm job. Summer clerkship sizes are smaller, there is more work/less throwing down a credit card at a bar, and, even coming from great schools, no offer is guaranteed (but again, things are better, and I think law firms are better at gauging need). That being said, your summer clerkship will be fun. You will have lots of events. You will do work, but it will not be anything like what it is like to be an associate. There is just no way given the schedule. Please keep in mind that the attorneys who are mentoring you, going to events, etc., are doing it on top of their workload. Please be appreciate and respectful of their time.
· Mentors: Your relationships with undergrad and law school professors, mentors, etc. will be invaluable, for a number of reasons. Obviously, recommendations are important, but additionally, having someone outside of your family and friends that you can go to for unbiased advice is invaluable. During law school, getting the opportunity to work with a professor on research projects (not just during a 1L summer) can give you a significant edge in interviews because you will be more able to discuss the topic in depth and show your reasoning abilities better than someone who just took on summer projects in a law firm (in addition to having that great connection with the professor). Furthermore, as I will reiterate below, law school, but especially being a lawyer, is hard. Having someone (outside of family) tell you that they believe you can succeed can mean the world when you feel like you are struggling.
· What it is like being a big firm lawyer/things to know: You work a lot. Generally, you get paid well to do it so it is tough to complain (except to other lawyers- then go for it). Just like law school makes undergrad look easy, being a lawyer makes law school seem like it wasn't that bad. Your first couple of years are especially difficult, but it gets better. Once you have shown the partners that you can be trusted and you will do good work, you have much better control over your schedule/life. Being a lawyer is mentally stimulating, or it should be, if you’re doing it right. The best lawyers I work with are the ones who are exceptionally creative. If you’re doing the same thing day-in and day-out, and it is not challenging you, it will be tough to show your firm that you add value as an associate. Don't be afraid to ask questions from people, but show that you have thought about it beforehand rather than just saying "I dont know how to do this". Think very early on about networking and building relationships that could blossom into client relationships (or other job opportunities if you do not want to stay at a law firm). It is hard when you are busy, but it will be so important once you get to be a midlevel associate and you feel like you have to scramble to start developing those relationships. It doesn’t have to be going to networking events and glad-handing with everyone there (that makes me want to hide in a corner just thinking about it). At a minimum, keep in touch with people. One of my SMU friends is now a client because he started his own business after college. You never know where people will end up.
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*The former students whose thoughts are above gave me permission to post their missives.