Monday, August 20, 2012

Ph.D. to J.D. - A Top 10 List

There is a little bit of a “fish out of water” experience awaiting Ph.D.’s or A.B.D.’s who attend law school. A couple of weeks of "cold-calling" in class quickly turned me into a law student.  Here’s a “Top 10” list of tips and observations for students entering law school after a stint in graduate school based on my experience as a 1L.

     Every sentence should be 25 words or less. This was by far the best suggestion I received from the legal writing instructor at the law school. Academics, for better or worse, tend to write longer, more complicated sentences. Lawyers and most law professors, on the other hand, prefer clarity over complexity. I’ve come to appreciate and adopt this advice. 
     Outline everything. Taking notes on a daily basis is a great way to keep up with assignments. It also prepares you for exams, which dominate law school. Ideas were way more important in my history coursework than in "Black Letter" classes. Rules matter more now. Taking extremely careful notes ensures you don't just know them but know how to apply them properly.
     Seek out professors who share your interests. There will be faculty members that find your work interesting. Make you sure you connect with them early on in law school. It is important for jobs, clerkships and the like to find faculty members who will go to bat for you.
     Try writing something out of your “wheelhouse.” Sure, specialization is the norm in academia, but in law school, at least while you are a student, it is crucial to learn a little bit of everything. This is especially true if you plan on passing the bar exam someday. If you want to teach a "Black Letter" class, think about which one that might be. Start working on a paper or article in that field (maybe after your 1L year when you are just trying to keep your head above water).
     Try a clinic or a summer internship. Practical experience completely changes the way law school looks for you. Suddenly, cases become more than just words on a page and you start thinking about clients and consequences. This makes law school easier and more enjoyable. And when you pursue your career as a lawyer or law professor, you'll be glad you had this real word experience.
     Keep a separate file to save cases or ideas relevant to your area of research. Every now and again a case will come up in Contracts or Torts, e.g., that will relate on a direct or analogous level to your research interests. Keep a running document of case names and class notes that might help you with your own writing.
     Take WestLaw or Lexis for a spin on your own topics. The research tools that these companies give to law students for free are amazing. You may never have the same opportunity to research on them freely again. Start running keywords and case searches through them. WestLaw NEXT, for instance, lets you store what you find in neatly organized folders. 
     Introduce yourself to the law librarian. Law librarians are amazing people. They know their way around legal databases and the book stacks, of course. But they also often have their own research interests and will happily share war stories about finding a difficult, but necessary document for their work. Someday, you'll be in a bind. The best law librarians will take a lot of pride in helping you. Some of them might even let you pet their dog for stress-reduction.
     Start familiarizing yourself with canonical works in the study of the law. Whether it's Calabresi and Melamed's "Cathedral" article or the Coase Theorem, you should seek out the most-cited works and writers in legal scholarship. You'll learn quickly that the kinds of questions that lawyers and legal scholars ask are often quite different from what historians try to answer in their work.
     Read and learn the bluebook. Learning a new style of citation, after you've spent most of your academic life with Chicago or MLA styles, is not easy. Unlearning something that has become habitual is harder, I believe, than adopting bluebook rules with a blank slate. Take the bluebook to the beach the summer before law school and get an early start. OK, that might be overkill. But you get the idea.