I was invited to address a group of about 60 incoming first year students this evening as part of our summer Welcome Night program. I thought others might appreciate these remarks, and so I have reproduced them below. I hope you enjoy them.
Thank you, Dean Hayes, for the opportunity to address our impressive incoming class. I was provided a list of questions to help guide the talk, which I’ll comment on momentarily. I thought I’d first reflect on my own experience, sitting as an entering 1L in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1984. Professor John Jeffries addressed my entering class. While I don’t recall all, or even most, of what he said, one comment still stands out. Mr. Jeffries, as we came to call him, told us that once we become lawyers, we will never be able to understand what it had been like not to think like one. At the time, this seemed a peculiar way to introduce us to studying law, but with the benefit of hindsight, it makes perfect sense.
Studies show that intensive training rewires our brains. Preparing for the LSAT affects structural connectivity. Professional training into adulthood affects brain wiring, meaning neuroplasticity continues well past what you might think are our formative years. Law school is no different.
Although he didn’t mention the developing neuroscience, Mr. Jeffries discussed an important implication of his insight. He observed that law professors cannot fully understand what it is like for law students to sit in class trying to assimilate what they are teaching. The faculty are affected by years, often decades, of professional training and experience. Although that might seem disheartening, please don’t think of it that way. The insight does lead to important advice, and if you take nothing else from these remarks, I hope you’ll take this: You are each other’s best teachers. Yes, you need to do the reading, and yes, you must attend, and actively engage in, your classes. But even the best lawyers don’t cross the finish line alone. You will gain far more if you join a study group. As you each absorb different aspects of what you are learning, and bring to bear different ideas and perspectives, you will help teach yourselves, and each other, throughout the first important year.
There are different approaches, and none is right or wrong. It is perfectly fine to make adjustments along the way. I’d suggest forming a group with about 5 students and having one or two members produce a handful of questions from specific classes to discuss each week, perhaps over Sunday morning bagels or Thursday night beers. You might consider having each student prepare a preliminary outline in one class, although not at the cost of ultimately completing your own. The specific structure is less important than is starting early and sticking with it. Be proactive; take the lead. In Constitutional Law II—Individual Rights, a second-year class that I teach, you’ll study a famous 2003 affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger. In it, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor discusses student diversity and the concept of “critical mass”; exposing yourselves to classmates with different backgrounds and varying ideas improves understanding and, ultimately, lawyering skills. I’ve observed this myself over decades of teaching, and I’d recommend taking it to heart when forming your study groups. A collection of like-minded friends might give you comfort, but it also might serve you less well than a group of classmates offering different backgrounds and perspectives. Excellent lawyers work collaboratively, perhaps especially with those who start with differing viewpoints and premises.
In the 1993 movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington, a trial lawyer, asks his client to explain his problem like he would to a six-year old. Lawyers are teachers. To really understand, you need to be able to teach, and to teach, you need the capacity to carefully analyze and explain, not always as if to a six-year old, but sometimes. A truly great lawyer has the capacity to focus in and then pan out, explaining broadly or in necessary depth, but without ever losing sight of ultimate goal. Lawyers do not take arguments at face value; they rely upon critical reasoning to assess which arguments have integrity and hold up to scrutiny, and which do not. This is essential to developing the capacity to predict which of several competing approaches to a case, or to a deal, is most likely to succeed. The only way to acquire this skill is to observe, imitate, critique, refine, and repeat, over and over again. Study groups are the best place to begin that process, and along the way, to form lasting professional friendships.
Now for those questions:
1. What should incoming students be doing (if anything) during the summer to prepare for law school?
This is a bit like asking what an expectant parent or couple should do before the baby arrives. I generally advise seeing lots of movies, exercising, going to non-child-friendly restaurants, and, of course, enjoying time with friends and family. I’m always amused when young professionals talk about ambitious plans while taking care of a newborn. No one ever says that when expecting a second or third child. It’s a clear indication of never having spent much time with a baby.
The first year of law school is about to be your baby. Love it, nourish it, learn from it, be kind to it, but, as with an actual baby, don’t expect her to be quite as kind and understanding of your needs as you are of hers. The first year of law school is truly demanding, at times overwhelming, but done properly, it also can and should be engaging and fun. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And by the way, whatever your exercise routine happens to be, keep it up in law school. If you don’t have one, that’s a good thing to work on over the next month. I’ve never met a law student who has regretted exercising.
Now for some more specific advice. If you know little or nothing about US history, government, economics, logical reasoning, literature, or sociology, there’s not a lot you can do in one month. But it never hurts to read leading newspapers, as opposed to whatever happens to land in your Facebook feeds, along with some journals that center on topics outside your comfort zone. And please read thoughtful commentary by those who you think you might disagree with. Think of your mind as a muscle. Doing some warm-ups is always helpful before the actual workout begins.
2. What strengths/attributes do you believe lead to a successful performance in law school?
This one’s easy: engaged curiosity. By that I mean a commitment to reading the assignments, to listening closely in class, and, always, to thinking critically. What I’m about to say might sound strange, but it’s important: allow yourselves the luxury to be confused. Genuine learning comes from working through confusion, not from being spoon fed. Don’t read cases as you might a novel, unless that is, you are a serious student of literature. Always ask why. Everything you will read was written for a reason. Step one is the “what” or “which” questions: What’s the issue? What’s the holding? Which facts are material? The more interesting questions come at step two: “why” and “how.” Why did the editors select this case? Why did the professor spend so much time on this passage? How does this case or discussion relate to the others I’ve read or observed? Coming out of class uncertain, even confused, should not be distressing; it is a critical first step in the process of serious learning.
Learning the law requires honed skills in critical reading and analysis. The real world of law bears virtually no resemblance to the entertaining TV show Suits. The legal profession requires dedicated study and constant learning. It is not a never-ending—or ending only when Megan Markle marries Prince Harry—series of clever strategies and counter strategies. And no, whether it’s Suits or Good Will Hunting, polymathic geniuses are not, for that reason alone, ready to do the work of properly trained and licensed professionals.
Professionally published outlines, hornbooks, and nutshells might teach you some blackletter rules. But those aren’t the essence of learning the law. These tools can’t teach you to think like a lawyer. Curious engagement, especially in the first year of law school, is vital to developing those skills. Don’t let these crutches, or even those outlines prepared by classmates, or by past students in your classes, undermine that goal. The most important point about outlining is that the goal isn’t the final product; it is the process of creating it on your own. Relying on those of others is like hoping for a workout by watching others exercise in the gym. The law is not a spectator sport, and, to be honest, other than during final exams, it’s generally best played as a team sport.
Strive to find your inner nerd. Although there are certainly exceptions, by now you’ve probably noticed that nerds very often run the world. Gain a nerd-like curiosity about how the pieces fit together. You’ll start with small pieces, specific cases in tort, contract, property, specific rules of civil procedure or of the model penal code. Then, as you gain some mastery, you’ll begin fitting doctrines together, and later on, whole courses or subject areas. It is a long process, and along the way, you will tackle blackletter doctrines, jurisprudential methodologies, and the role of such related disciplines as history, economics, sociology, and more. As you acquire new skills at each step, you will also become better at zooming in, panning out, and learning to teach, as if to a six-year old.
3. Are there common mistakes that students who don’t perform well make?
It’s really a bit early to start thinking about exams. But, of course, students are always concerned about this early on. Perhaps the biggest mistake students who perform poorly tend to make is not actually giving themselves time to “hear” the exam question. They read the question, they rush to answer, but—and this relates to what I said before—they don’t stop to consider why it is being asked. Students who do particularly well on law school finals understand not only what is being asked, but also why. Those students go deeper, beyond the mechanical aspects of applying blackletter rules to the facts, all of which is important; they also pick up on the why and how questions. Why is the ambiguity in this area so important? How would a court likely reconcile relevant precedents in tension? How does the doctrine relate to underlying policy considerations? Not every exam question invites such opportunities, but the best students distinguish themselves by taking questions that do to the next level.
I also advise doing something you might have been advised against until now: write in the book! You’ll soon learn to write case notes: facts, issue, holding, rationale. Do that until you internalize it, but then stop, or at least stop doing it separately from writing in the margins of the book itself. Otherwise the exercise disserves you by conveying the misimpression that what appears on your page, or on your screen, is an independently meaningful piece of work product. Instead, it is simply the first step in an ongoing process of learning. Comparing what you first thought interesting in a case with what you focused on in class is what really matters, and yes, even if this initially generates some confusion. When it’s all there on the page of the textbook, it’s easier to draw the comparisons and to undertake a more meaningful learning process.
The goal is to understand not just what an opinion says, but its texture, meaning why it was written as it was written. Yes, you need the holdings, and, yes, you need to understand the material facts, but you also need to understand the logic and reasoning of the opinions and how multiple opinions fit together. Part of teaching is telling stories, stories that explain how the parts form a whole. I’ve mentioned these terms, so please allow me to define them: Material facts are those facts that if changed would change the outcome. An issue is a question the answer to which resolves the immediate case or a critical step in the disposition of the case. Material facts and issues are flipsides of a coin; once you have these, you are halfway to grasping the case.
By writing in the book, you can preliminarily identify these features, and then, during or after class, or in your study groups, you can compare what you learned there with what you initially gleaned from the opinion. The process of recognizing those divergences and working toward closing that gap is the key to a great deal of your first-year law school education.
When I was a 1L, we didn’t have personal computers, and certainly not laptops. So, I carried this very thick book, Black’s Law Dictionary, everywhere. I looked up every word I didn’t know. There were a lot of them, and this went on for quite a while. I kept that up until I could read the cases without it. Today, you can look up words on your laptops with just a few keystrokes. There’s no excuse not to. Part of the learning process, especially in the first year, is mastering the vocabulary of the law. That’s an essential step in the larger process of assimilating yourself to the culture of law. There’s no shortcut. You cannot accomplish this without looking up and learning the vocabulary. This will slow you down, sometimes to a snail’s pace, but it is essential, and with technology, it is easier than ever.
4. Discuss the mentoring relationship between faculty and students at Maryland and how students can build those relationships.
Get to know your faculty. Attend office hours. In general, it’s best to come with specific questions, but it’s also great just to introduce yourselves. This matters in all sorts of ways: recommendations, opportunities to be research assistants, and simply to learn. Go alone or with your study groups. Maryland Carey Law has a remarkable and engaged faculty. I’m honored to be part of it. Take advantage. Same with the impressive students who surround you. These are your future professional colleagues. Please turn to your left and turn to your right. If you haven’t yet met, please take a moment to introduce yourselves. Shake hands. As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, this could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
5. How important is it to get involved in extracurricular activities? What is the value of participating in co-curricular activities like journals, moot court, and trial team?
These are important ways to distinguish yourselves beyond your transcript or work experience. Some of you will do so as excellent writers on a journal, through oral advocacy on moot court, as a member of one of our trial advocacy teams, or by working in one of our many outstanding clinics. These activities allow you to showcase your strengths. Give yourself some time to identify what those are and which platform will best serve you.
6. Provide advice on exploring practice area interests and on identifying the right path for their careers.
For most of you, this is also early. Some of you have come to law school anticipating a special career pathway. This is often true, for example, for those with technical backgrounds hoping for careers in Intellectual Property, and for those with business degrees or professional experience anticipating careers in Corporate or Tax Law. It is also true for those with a passion for particular type of public interest work. Even if that’s you, I would caution that it is wise to keep an open mind and to allow for the possibility that something unexpected might capture your interest more than the field you anticipated.
I entered law school thinking I would do something with bioethics. It’s a fascinating field, but it’s not mine. As I mentioned, one of my fields is Constitutional Law; the other is Law and Economics. My best advice is to treat the first year of law school as an immersion course. If your initial fascination continues to call out to you, you will find your way there. The law is endlessly fascinating, and there are many ways to have exciting and fulfilling careers. And I truly mean this: No matter which field you pursue, if you keep your eyes open, you will find wonderful opportunities to help those most in need. Give yourselves the time to explore.
Before I close, let me also briefly mention writing. Effective writing is perhaps the single most important lawyering skill. Writing skills are highly individualized, and more than anything, it is critical to be self-aware. If you believe you need work in that area, that’s fine. We have a great writing center. Take advantage of it. If you know someone who can read and criticize your writing, take advantage of that, but, and this is critically important, do so only within the bounds of the honor code. You will separately hear about plagiarism. Pay special attention; that’s especially critical to avoid.
Finally, I also recommend this: learn to write early and to edit often. The best lawyers are able to write clearly under pressure. This is not an innate talent; it is trained. The better you become at getting your ideas on the page, and combing through with careful editing, over and over, the better your initial prose will be. It’s a feedback loop. It is also important to master the basic rules of legal citation. The Bluebook can be daunting, but there’s a lot of great stuff right on inside cover. Across just those two pages are a handful of conventions that work about 75-80% of the time. Master those early on; the rest will come. This is another area in which being a nerd pays off. Law firms and judges have one thing in common: They love Bluebook nerds.
Thank you. I would be happy to take some questions.
[Author's note: Special thanks to Professor Bob Condlin and to David Shea for comments on an earlier draft.]
To my readers: As always, comments are most welcome.