How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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I guess I'd offer a seventh tip for law professors after reading this post: Not all students are the same. Or even close to the same. My experiance has led me to some different results. (1)I don't need my assignments a week in advance. If I have time to read ahead (which, between work, working out, going out and dating undergraduate chicks, is pretty rare) I'll look on the syllabus and read the next assignment. Are you really getting a week ahead on all of your readings for all of your classes? Do you do anything else? (2) Yeah, responding to email is definately a good thing. However, I'd be surprised to find a law prof who doesn't. If one exists, I highly doubt it is because he/she doesn't understand how it works. Email can be bad though if the prof thinks a student's question might be something everyone is wondering about and sends the answer to the entire class. Law students as a lot of dumb question that I don't need flooding my inbox. And those magic slates are more trouble in class than they are worth. (3) Review sessions are a total waste of time. The only good thing about them is that they waste a few hours of study time for the neurotic gunners that attend them. (4) Although I do like commercial outlines and study aids, despite most of my profs saying they are "no substitute..." and "will not help you..." I don't think there is any reason why a prof need to reccomend one to the class. You know which company is best for you and if you don't, ask the professor yourself or ask a 3L. I mostly agree with you about (5) and (6). Old exams are very helpful and difficult to get if your school doesn't have an exam bank or the professor doesn't provide them and an exam does need to be clear for it to be fair. I just did terrible on my evidence exam. It was a 4 hour, 200 question true/false test. My professor is a brilliant guy and a damn good attorney but the words "may or may not" should not appear in a true or false question and if they do, the answer, logically, has to be true. Or so I thought.



You raise some good points... just for the record: (1) I actually have had professors who don't give out a full syllabus(!) (2) I've had two professors who didn't respond to e-mail, one just plain *never* responded, even to procedural requests! Hard to believe, but they *are* out there. (3) Review sessions are mostly a waste of time because they are poorly run, usually by a TA, which is my point--they could be a valuable resource if they were done correctly. (4) Sure, Profs don't have to recommend an outline. But Prof. Childs was commenting that people did poorly on his exams because they relied on an outline vs. class. My response to that is two part: people use outlines because they aren't *getting* it in class, which is a failing of the teacher as much as the student; we all know these study aids exist and we all know students use them why *not* mention it? What harm does that do the professor? At least recommend a hornbook.

Bill Childs

It's a very interesting post, and I appreciate the response. I would challenge this assertion:

<< My response to that is two part: people use outlines because they aren't *getting* it in class, which is a failing of the teacher as much as the student; we all know these study aids exist and we all know students use them why *not* mention it? >>

I think the first part of this is largely inaccurate and significantly oversimplifies why students use commercial outlines.

My recollection from law school (which is not that out-of-date) is that students use outlines for one of three reasons. The first is the one you note, which is that they're not getting the material in class, which I agree may reflect poorly on the teaching. The second is that they are getting the information in class but use the outline to confirm their understanding. The third is that they don't much worry about getting the material in class and don't particularly try to do so. Taking them out of order:

- I have no objection to the second use so long as students understand that I get to trump commercial material and if they see a conflict they know how to reach me. (And, incidentally, I responded to every e-mail, usually within thirty minutes or so, had a review session [run by me -- no TAs here], and was in general nearly obsessively accessible.)

- As for the first use -- the one you mention -- it's a reasonable use if the material really isn't being presented clearly in class. I happen to believe (unsurprisingly) that at least that issue was in fact presented pretty well in class, and I think the number of exams that got it right provide some evidence of that. And in even the most incoherent class, *someone* probably can point out a disjunction between the commercial material and what the prof said -- and then you can ask the prof what his or her right answer is.

- And as for the last one, if a student is using a commercial outline to avoid dealing with class, I can live with the student doing poorly and feel little guilt for failing to point them to the best way to avoid paying attention.

I do recommend hornbooks in my upper level classes. At the start of Torts, I said essentially exactly what I said above: I know some people will use commercial outlines, and I think they can be useful as a check on what you're getting in class. I also said that if there's a conflict, they should assume that there's a Professor Supremacy Clause, which means I win.

In short, I think students using commercial materials for what I would consider good reasons have the resources to catch disjunctions. And I don't really think it's my role to endorse commercial outlines, any of which likely directly conflict with something I think about the subject. I don't have a problem with people who do such endorsements, but I think they would be likely to cause more confusion than they would avoid for me.


Prof. Childs-

Fair enough. I don't doubt that there are many students who do use commerical outlines as a means of avoiding actually paying attention in class and I agree you shouldn't have to endorse a commercial product, per se. That said, why not recommend hornbooks to your introductory classes as well? I've heard the excuse that we lowly 1Ls need to learn the case method and all that, but honestly, most of the casebooks I've used so far are pretty poorly edited and are *greatly* enhanced with the right hornbook.

And I also don't mean to defend people who couldn't understand why you would prefer "legal cause" to "proximate cause" just to point out that there are _good_ reasons for using commercial outlines, and many members of the faculty seem to ignore that fact. Additionally, I don't mean to imply you don't use e-mail or aren't available--just that it can be (and is) a problem among faculty.

Bill Childs

Also fair. I could and perhaps should recommend a hornbook. My only hesitation is that it can be relied upon too much to the exclusion of other preparation, but you're quite possibly right that it's going to happen anyway.

Incidentally, I certainly hope you're aiming for a job at Yahoo! so that there can be even more surplus exclamation points. Or perhaps you'll be a new drummer for the band !!!.


Actually, it started when I was younger... as a "David" I got tired of being asked, "Is it David or Dave?" No ambiguity with "Dave!" (No one calls me "Davey" but my grandmother... )

Recently, I thought I should change it to Dav! but I figured only regular Westlaw/Lexis users would get the joke...

david giacalone

Dave!, it seems to me that you're taking law school exams way too seriously and expecting a lot of spoon-feeding. Do the reading, attend class, ask questions while in class, review your notes and ask around about good commercial outlines, prepare for the exam with a little less worrying about psyching out the professor, and take the exam knowing that everyone is apprehensive, but you're well-prepared on the subject matter. Meanwhile, find classes to take that include papers as part or all of the grade.



I don't think I take them half as seriously as most people in my class. I do have the perspective of being out of college for 10 years and I know that grade matter, but they aren't the end-all-be-all. However, if professors can give advice on things law students can do to perform better on exams (and I think Prof. Childs' advice was excellent, btw) why can't *students* give advice to professors on how to teach better? I don't mean to be disrespectful--my professors are generally good teachers and obviously experts on the law. But none of them have much training in *education*. I'll save my rant on the state of higher education for later... watch for my article in the Chronicle. :)

However we *are* being evaluated on *one* exam. And as a 1L I can't choose classes that are more paper oriented--these are required courses at any school. I do the reading, I ask questions in class (as do my peers), etc.

The problem, as I see it, is that any way you slice it exam grades are *subjective*. That's okay by me, really, it is. But that's why you can't say, "know the material and you'll do okay." You _might_ do *okay* but with mandatory curves, the difference between "sub-par", "okay", and "well done" is often a few points--points that are as likely to come from writing your answer in the style the professor likes as they are anywhere else.

As I've said, no where in the real world is anything structured like this. In other academic pursuits, grades are based on either a combination of papers and exams or at least on a series of exams and quizzes. In the "real world" you might only have one annual performance review, but you still get a great deal of feedback along the way from your boss about your performance. In law school, you sit in isolation until the one 3-4 hour exam that determines your entire grade for the semester. You have to admit, that's a little backassward. It's like being on trial and never being able to present any evidence, file any motions, and having the verdict rendered on the strength of your closing argument. :)


I know I'm coming in on the tail end of this discussion, but I agree with Dave!. The lack of feedback during first semester really made law school seem out of whack with the rest of the world.

As for David's advice not to take law-school exams so seriously . . . speaking for myself, I gave up a great job in order to go to law school, and I had to agree to take on more debt, and as I saw it, I absolutely couldn't fail under any circumstances--so I wouldn't have paid any attention at all to someone who told me I was taking exams "way too seriously." In fact, that's the attitude I hoped my classmates would take, since they were my competition.

In the end, things were looking pretty good after first semester, and the fact that I did take exams seriously certainly didn't hurt.

Bill Childs

One (final?) comment:

It does not have to be the case that the final is the only idea you get of how you're doing. 15% (I think) of my Torts grade was based on four in-class quizzes. Multiple choice, yes, so you didn't get a sense of how I was likely to grade written work, but you did get a sense (an accurate one, I submit) of what sort of questions I like. (Most, if not all, of those quizzes are also up on my website.) In future years, I plan to expand -- though not dramatically -- the breadth of during-the-semester stuff. It is not at all uncommon among first-year profs at WNEC to have some portion of the grade come from non-exam work.

I also dispute the idea that -- even in those classes where there's nothing but the final -- you lack any chance to know how to do well. Professors like hearing the same sorts of arguments they like making; we're funny that way. I don't disagree with you that extra information about what we want to hear is a good idea, and (other than not having old exams to give [though I did distribute other profs' exams that I liked]), I try to do that. But it is not impossible, or even terribly difficult, in my view, to tell what a prof wants by listening to him/her in class.



I think the 15% quiz thing you did for your Torts class is excellent. But I would like to add at my school that's virtually unheard of...

On your second point, I think we all realize how much faculty like to hear themselves talk... :) But again, how easy it is to discern what a professor wants based on their performance in class varies wildly from professor to professor.

I do really appreciate you providing these comments though and your guest post. It's great to see faculty who are obviously interested in teaching and who do care about the student perspective.


Evan & David-

Evan actually brings up a very good point. I, too, am giving up a solidly acceptable career path because I'm more interested in the law. So I'm risking a lot more than your average straight-out-of-undergrad 1L. I'm making both career and family sacrifices most (certainly not all) 1Ls don't make.

I'm also in a part-time evening program, for which I don't expect any special treatment, other than taking one less course per semester. But it also means I feel I'm pretty grounded in reality and not simply caught up in the whirlwind "law school" experience. I deal with the "real world" every day and I hope that helps give me some perspective about what is and what isn't B.S. about the mythos of law school.

Either that I'm just too tired to think straight. :)


"In law school, you sit in isolation until the one 3-4 hour exam that determines your entire grade for the semester. You have to admit, that's a little backassward. It's like being on trial and never being able to present any evidence, file any motions, and having the verdict rendered on the strength of your closing argument. :)"

I think it would be much more unfair to grade anything that occurs early in the semester before you have a chance to put it all together. I think law tests are diffent from tests in other subjects because law is different than other subjects. It's all so interrelated. You can't adequately use what you learned in the first two weeks if you don't have a solid understanding of what you learned in the last two weeks. I think that the 1 test = 100% of your grade is the best possible way to grade a student's knowledge of the subject matter. (Note: unless it is a 4 hour true/false test)



Actually, that's a very good point... and a good arguement for no grades or pass fail your first year... :)


"a good arguement for no grades or pass fail your first year"

That's taking it way to far. There would be a great deal of practicle problems with having no grades.

david giacalone

Evan, please re-read my Comment, and I think you'll agree that I was not advocating a non-serious approach to exams -- instead, I was saying "study hard but don't get overwrought with anxiety and with psyching out your professor."

If I want someone to twist my words and meaning, I'll ask Aaron. [emoticon omitted to protect the guilty]


David: Yes, I see what you mean--you were saying not to take exams too seriously.


What would be the problem with not having grades first year? Or more specifically, making them pass/fail?


Hey Dave,

The biggest problem I would see with not having grades the first year is that for us full time students- how would employers evalute us? We interview for jobs for the 1L summer after the first semester, and for 2L jobs at the beginning of the second year. If there were no grades, or even if it were pass/fail, then there would be no way for employers to evaluate what we've done in law school. What seems weird to me is that we actually interview for essentially our post law school job when we're 1/3 of the way through law school, but I guess that's another issue...

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