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The First Year of Law School

Posted by attorney Vijay Sharma

The first year of law school can be the most stressful level of education you’ve ever had. I started in January of 2002, a day after I graduated college.

I remember I would ask a couple people what law school is like and the most common answer was “hard." The reality is that it’s not just hard, it can be horrible. There is no single skill set you need to get through it.

As a history major in college, I was already used to a lot of reading and a little public speaking. In law school, only the reading came in handy. Homework consisted of reading cases and writing case briefs. A case brief is typically a one page summary of a case. I will get into case briefs in my next entry.

You bring your case briefs to class, where you can be called on randomly to explain a small part of a brief. If you’ve ever heard of the Socratic Method, which is used in law school but it is used less and less. The Socratic Method is terrifying, but effective. It means that a professor will call on one student to explain a whole concept or case without anyone else being able to answer. You are typically called on at random and the questioning may take two minutes to twenty or thirty. But again, this method was only used by about 2 or 3 professors in law school.

The first semester curriculum is set in stone for the most part. I had Torts, Contracts, Criminal Law, Property Law, and Legal Writing. After the first year, you can start picking your own classes. There were bar classes and others that were pure electives. Bar classes were classes recommended because they were going to be on the bar exam, but I’ll get into that in another entry.

Torts are harder to define, but it is an injury that is suffered by a person. Tort cases may comprise such topics as personal injury, auto accidents, false imprisonment, slander and libel, product liability (such as defectively designed consumer products), and environmental pollution (toxic torts). Some of this can be covered by criminal law, but criminal law is about injury to the state while a tort is a civil action by a single or group of people.

Contract law is about the basic formation of a contract and the contractual duties of the parties.

Criminal Law is the basics behind criminal law (obvious, right). This can cover types of crimes, mental states required to commit them, and the actual criminal action required to accomplish a crime.

Property law is the basic understanding on how property is classified, any restrictions that can be placed on land and how it can be passed. This is not about closings on a house.

Finally, legal writing is learning how to write memo’s and case briefs effectively.

Case briefs are the bane of a 1L’s existence.

Imagine if you had to explain a movie to a friend. Explaining something like Inception or Pulp Fiction is harder to explain than The Transformers or Kick-Ass. When you explain a movie, you are going to try to pull out the most relevant details and leave behind the rest. You may mention the actors and what they’ve done, you may mention the context of the movie or certain important dialogue. A case brief is similar to that.

Basically, a case gets tried at the trial level, and then it can be appealed to an Appellate or Supreme Court. Those courts write an opinion about the case. An opinion is another word for the court’s judgment. You have to pull out the relevant facts of the case, the issue the court is deciding, the rule of the case, the holding, the reasoning, and the procedural posture.

This can be broken down in the following way. The facts are the important facts of the case. It is what led up to litigation. This can mean a description of the crime committed or a contract entered into and what went wrong. Something has to go wrong, otherwise there’s no reason for an appeal.

As an example, I’ll use Miranda v Arizona, the relevant facts are that Ernesto Miranda was arrested, but police officers questioning him did not inform him of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, or of his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of an attorney. He confessed to the crime after questioning.

The issue pertains to the relevant legal question the court is trying to decide. In Miranda, the issue was whether police need to inform an individual of his 5th and 6th amendment rights before questioning. The Court cannot simply answer questions, there has to be a real case in front of them to decide.

The rule is a one line decision that the court came to. It is a one line answer to the question posed by the issue, “[T]he prosecution may not use statements stemming from interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards to secure the privilege against self-incrimination."

The holding is typically a short answer to whether the decision of a lower court was affirmed or reversed.

The reasoning is an explanation as to how the court came to its decision. The court may go over the state of the law and why the law needs to stay the same or be changed in some way.

The procedural posture is explaining the appellate road the case has taken. It is stating where this case came from.

The first time I wrote a case brief, it took me about two hours, you eventually get good enough where you don’t have to brief anymore. You can highlight and write in the margins. You do enough and you get used to them. The next entry will discuss exams.

Exams. Law school exams stink.

There were typically one or two exams that were presented as elaborate fact patterns where you have to identify the relevant facts and issues and discuss them before deciding who can have what.

To prepare for an exam you had to consolidate your notes into an outline. This meant that you take these copious notes throughout the semester and then you have to cut them down to the most essential elements of the class. I remember my evidence notes were about 128 pages in MS Word. My outline was about 60 pages long. This was still too long. A better outline would be about 30 pages. But everyone has their own way and I needed a longer outline.

You typically had a week or two where classes ended and you had to study for exams. Many people would break into secretive study groups, we would study on our own for a couple of hours or days, then we would get together to discuss everything and go over hypothetical questions. We typically went to lunch and dinner together, which meant a quick run to Subway or Jimmy Johns and then vice versa. If someone couldn’t pull their own weight, then they may be banished from the group. This practice stayed up until my third year for almost every class I ever took. I remember being thrown out of the library around 10 on a Friday or Saturday night and being angry at everyone else on the train that was drunk or partying while I was carrying a heavy book bag.

You then take the final; we had about three hours to do it. You have a random exam number assigned to you and you put that on the exam instead of your name.

After the exam you typically need to go to a bar and discuss the exam with your classmates. This is rarely a good idea because someone is going to mention something that you should have put in the exam but didn’t. So avoid the exam post-mortem, though you can’t, and just have a good night.

The first year of law school is a building block to the rest of the career. It’s confusing and hard, but there is a payoff. All I knew in my first year was that I wanted to be in a courtroom. After criminal law, I knew that I wanted to go into that field and it shaped my remaining two years at school.

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