What is Law School Like?

Published October 2006, last updated June 2010

Some Important Facts About the Law School Experience
Most law schools require three years of full-time attendance. Some law schools offer part-time night programs that can be completed in four years.
First-year curricula usually include courses in civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and criminal procedure, legal research and writing, property law, and torts.
First-year students often question whether they even belong in law school.
The second and third years of law school differ from the first year mainly regarding the courses offered, with the student enjoying a much wider choice of subject matter.
The common thread that runs throughout all three years of law school is that the student is being taught to think like a lawyer.
The format of classroom instruction often follows the Socratic Method, with students responding to the instructor's questions about assigned judicial decisions.
Most law schools rely on the ''case method'' approach to teaching; this method involves the detailed examination of a number of related judicial opinions that describe an area of the law.
Final exams take on an exceptional importance in most law schools, frequently being the only basis for course grades and class standing.
A legal education is designed to develop analytical, synthesizing, creative, and logical thinking.
Going to law school will strengthen reading and debating skills.
Competition in law school is keen; many law schools rank their students and top law firms tend to see students from the top percentiles of their class.
The law school student will find that he or she is no longer guaranteed a position in the top of their class merely by putting forth a reasonable effort.

Comments About the Law School Experience
The Director of Career Services at The University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law tells us to ''Understand that law school doesn't teach you to be a lawyer, it teaches you how to think like a lawyer.''
New York University's PreLaw Handbook notes that, "While law school is not necessarily more difficult intellectually than college, the workload is substantially greater and the level of competency demanded by professors is uniformly higher. Since everyone [during the first year] is studying the same materials, each with a desire to master skills certain to be required in a legal career, students in law school usually are faced with a heightened sense of competition."

The University of California at Berkeley Law Career Center responds to the question How is law school different from undergraduate education? by stating that ''Law school is not merely an extension of a letters and sciences undergraduate degree program. Here are a few ways that law school differs from undergraduate education:
  Focus: While you will learn to 'think like a lawyer' rather than to memorize specific laws, your studies will be more focused than they were as an undergraduate. At most law schools, your first year of classes will be composed of required courses and most of the electives available in the second and third year will also be law related. Teaching method: During first year classes and sometimes beyond, you will probably encounter the case method of teaching, also known as the Socratic Method. You will be a
  ssigned to read voluminous amounts of judicial opinions and to write summaries of them called briefs. Then, you may be called upon in class to answer a series of questions about the opinions, including the facts presented in them as well as the legal principles and reasoning used to formulate them. The case method tests your ability to synthesize information and to apply knowledge to new situations.
  Evaluation: One of the hardest things for many new law school students to adapt to is the fact that they may not see any form of evaluation or grade until the end of the semester. Some law schools only distribute grades once a year." Johns Hopkins University states that, "Law school is not a place to specialize in the same way that you choose a major. However, many students develop areas of specialization by taking a preponderance of courses in one field, such as International Law or Environmental Law. For the most part, law schools prepare you to think like a lawyer and leave the preparation for the practice of law to on-the-job experience. Because law schools have come under attack for being ''too academic,'' many have started clinical programs designed to give students 'hands on' experience. You will want to investigate the clinical possibilities at the law schools that interest you."

The College of Charleston Pre-Law Advice gives a harsh view of what it is like being in law school: "To be realistic, however, you must know that the study of law requires sacrifices of time, effort, and money; the study of law also requires hard work. Examine any first year law school catalog you will find that you will be taking five or six required courses--no electives. Each course will use a law casebook approximately 1500 pages in length. There are no quizzes; there are seldom any term papers; attendance is required. There may or may not be a mid-term exam. Your course grade is determined by your final exam, which is graded anonymously (you are likely to be assigned a student number--your only identity on written work in law school). The sacrifice you must make to do well in law school is to avoid all other commitments and concentrate solely on your courses. You will find that all your time is spent working to achieve passing grades in a highly competitive environment. Your commitment to sacrifice will include sacrificing all but a minimum standard of living while in law school, else you live like a pauper after you complete the law degree."

Just about all readings about the law school experience indicate that the three-year law school experience borders on cruel and unusual punishment (see above). The law school experience may be like this for the high achievers (probably not much about this topic is written by the low achievers). But how difficult can the law school experience be for the low achievers when one sees the figure provided by the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools? For most law schools, for every hundred who enter the law school, over ninety earn the J.D. degree three years later.

One final quote from the aforementioned readings may prove useful in helping you decide whether law school is for you: the "ultimate responsibility for your graduate school planning rests with you. The Prelaw Advisors can explain what a law school education is about, suggest related readings, and provide statistical data and information (at the beginning of your senior year) about the probability of your admission to selected schools, but ... [the prelaw advisors] cannot tell you whether you will enjoy the law, or whether you will be a good lawyer, or whether you will find a job that fulfills your increased expectations upon law school graduation. The answers to these questions depend on you."