If you’re feeling anxious about attending law school, perhaps because you’ve seen Hollywood movies that have made J.D. programs seem terrifying, you are not alone. Many practicing lawyers say they felt intimidated as first-year law students.
Being surrounded by smart, ambitious people can make even talented students question their competence, says Glenn Kurtzrock, a criminal defense attorney based in Long Island, New York, who earned his J.D. degree from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. “Law school is very different from college in some important ways,” Kurtzrock wrote in an email. “Many students who go to law school are among the brightest in their class. Most will soon realize once they start law school classes that the classrooms are made up of students just like them, and many of the smartest students in college will realize they are average students in law school.”
A traditional, full-time J.D. program lasts three years, though accelerated programs can be completed in only two years and part-time J.D. programs typically take at least four years to finish. Experts say that a three-year law program is both academically demanding and emotionally intense, especially during the first year.
“Most first-year law school professors exclusively use casebooks to teach their classes,” Kurtzrock wrote. “A casebook is anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 pages, and it contains mostly case law … For those who haven’t read a judicial decision before, it can be confusing and arcane. The language is not something most incoming law students will be familiar with, and the way decisions are written are very different from anything else a student may have read before.”
Another challenging aspect of law school is the style of teaching, according to Bailey Strohmeyer, who received her J.D. from the Texas-based Baylor Law School in 2018.
“Law school professors use the Socratic method, which means that at any minute in class, any student can be called on and asked to stand up and have a discussion with the professor about the reading for the day,” Strohmeyer wrote in an email. “You are expected to be able to have an intelligent, poised (discussion) in front of your class.”
Nevertheless, experts say that while law school is difficult, it teaches valuable lessons.
“You’re being taught a different way of thinking and analyzing complex problems,” Salvador Melendez, a current law student at the University of La Verne’s College of Law in California and a city council member in Montebello, California, wrote in an email. “Your legal mind is developing and you begin to think like a lawyer.”
Strohmeyer notes that law school can be a demanding ordeal. “Law school is a grind,” she wrote. “It requires that you read, comprehend, and apply different logical processes and analyses more quickly than you have before. You have to approach it knowing (1) you will have to learn how to learn the law; (2) then you have to learn the law; and (3) both of those things take time and are hard work.”
Law school courses don’t emphasize black-and-white legal questions where the correct legal answer is obvious, says Ben Levi, an alumnus of Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. Instead of discussing clear-cut legal disputes, where it is easy to see how the judge may rule, most discussions focus on gray areas of the law and complicated cases, where there are compelling arguments on both sides of an issue, Levi says.
Levi says the social component of law school and the networking opportunities at the school are crucial.
“Looking back, I don’t remember every class I took, but man, I remember those friends really well, and those friends are the most personally and professionally rewarding thing I got out of law school,” he says. “If you are not able to make time for that, if you’re spending all your time … trying to do well in a class and not in doing well with the people that are there and taking advantage of how cool and how smart and how curious they are, you’re missing out on a huge part of the opportunity.”
Philip Kabler, a partner with the Bogin, Munns & Munns law firm in Central Florida who also teaches law school courses as an adjunct professor, says today, law schools allow for more work-life balance than they did when he was a law student in the 1980s. “Law schools are much more attuned to quality of life now,” Kabler says.
Another significant change, according to Kabler, is that there is less cutthroat competition between law students than there used to be. “The law schools are encouraging students to be more collegial and cooperative,” he says.
Kabler adds that law schools are increasingly likely to offer experiential learning opportunities, such as clinics, internships and externships, where students can work on legal projects under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
Levi says students should take advantage of the variety of extracurricular activities available during law school. “The extracurricular activities are outstanding,” he says. “Generally speaking, you can get involved in the community, you can get involved in human rights stuff, you can get involved in various causes.”
“Be prepared to take advantage of that and make time for that, because those experiences are actually often more valuable frankly or more personally rewarding than the classes themselves,” he says.
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