So, what is law school like?
If you’re thinking of practicing law, you’ll need to earn your Juris Doctor (J.D.), the degree awarded to law school graduates.
Law school typically takes three years to complete. Some accelerated programs can be completed in two years, and part-time programs take at least four years.
You’re probably wondering what to expect from law school.
- If your image of law school is based on movies and TV shows, you probably view it as an intimidating and stressful experience.
Law school can be a competitive and intense environment, but it’s also engaging and rewarding. Let’s learn more about what law school is really like.
First Year of Law School
Your second and third year of law school (2L and 3L) will vary depending on where you go to school, but your first year (1L) will be essentially the same anywhere.
First year courses are foundational law courses that you’ll need no matter what type of law you practice in the future. Most law school students consider the first year the most difficult.
The first year follows a designated course of study covering topics like:
- Constitutional law – You’ll learn about government structure, individual rights, and constitutional history. This will include a detailed study of the Bill of Rights and the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
- Contracts – Contract laws are complicated, and you’ll study this topic for two semesters. You’ll examine past court cases to learn about the conditions and obligations represented by contracts, as well as the rules and legal proceedings when contracts are breached.
- Torts – Torts is a fun word for a serious topic. It refers to private wrongs for which someone might be held responsible under civil law. You’ll learn about the rationale behind rulings in civil cases. Torts include trespass, emotional distress, and false imprisonment.
- Civil procedure – You’ll also learn exactly how civil proceedings are carried out, including who can sue and when and how they can initiate legal proceedings. Discovery, pleading, pretrial motions, and the courtroom trial are all covered.
- Criminal law – Criminal law courses explore the rules and policies for enforcing criminal law and the rights guaranteed to those who are charged with criminal violations. You will often discuss unique and complex crime scenarios using the Socratic method (more on that in a bit).
- Property – Develop an understanding of the laws governing the purchase, possession, and sale of property including land, buildings, resources, and personal objects. Many of these laws date back to English common law. You’ll also study historical developments over time and economic analysis of policy law.
- Legal methods – Your legal methods course helps you develop essential skills like legal research, analysis, and writing. You will also receive an introduction to American legal processes and the organization of the legal system.
During your first year of law school, you should also expect to participate in moot court exercises.
This may be an individual, partner, or small group exercise. You’ll research a case, then prepare a brief and oral arguments for a mock trial.
Assignments in Law School
In law school, most of your assignments will consist of reading court cases.
These are opinions written by judges that explain why a lawsuit should have one outcome or another. Expect to spend several hours a day reading cases.
For most students, learning to read and comprehend judicial decisions takes time.
- There’s a lot of legal jargon that new law school students are unfamiliar with, and the language is often outdated and archaic. In addition, decisions are written in a style that’s probably unlike anything you’ve read before.
Other law school assignments may include research, legal writing, and preparation for exercises like moot court.
Tests in Law School
For the most part, your grade in each 1L course will be based on how well you perform on the final exam at the end of the semester.
Often, the semester exam accounts for 100 percent of the student’s grade.
- In some courses, grades also include mid-terms and assignments. Students receive little feedback throughout the course, which can be stressful.
- It’s difficult to assess how well you’re grasping the material throughout the year.
Many law students say that first-semester exams are the most intimidating portion of law school.
You will be expected to answer hypothetical questions that touch on all the concepts covered in the course.
- Rather than simply memorizing the law, you’ll have to apply it.
- Exams are typically graded on a curve, creating a competitive learning environment.
To prepare, students create outlines of their case briefs and classroom notes after each class.
These outlines can sometimes be used on final exams.
Some students participate in study groups to create these outlines, review course material, and understand complicated concepts.
Teaching Style in Law School
It also takes time to adjust to the teaching style you’ll experience in law school.
Traditionally, first-year law classes are taught using the Socratic method.
Instead of merely lecturing, professors call on students to discuss assigned reading and court cases.
- Some professors inform students when they will be on-call, while others call on students at random.
- You will be expected to stand and have an intelligent discussion in front of your class.
Preparation is key—skip your assigned reading, and you risk being called on in class and having nothing to say.
- Professors expect you to arrive at every class thoroughly prepared.
- Harvard law school students even tell stories of being verbally quizzed on the content of footnotes in their assigned court cases.
You may be asked questions designed to examine the facts presented, determine the legal principles applied in reaching a decision, and analyze or evaluate the reasoning used.
Often, the questions asked in class focus on gray areas where there are compelling arguments on both sides of an issue, rather than black-and-white answers.
You’re developing the mind of a lawyer, which requires you to think and analyze complex problems differently. You’re also practicing the ability to clearly and convincingly argue your point in front of an audience.
Second and Third Year of Law School
After completing your first year, you’ll likely have the opportunity to choose from a variety of courses.
- There are some foundational courses that most students will take before graduating, such as courses in family law, taxation, administrative law, evidence, corporations, and wills and trusts.
However, every law school supplements the basic curriculum with a wide range of choices.
- The courses you take will depend on what specialty you’d like to pursue in the future.
Options may include environmental law, labor law, bankruptcy law, entertainment law, civil rights law, immigration law, intellectual property law, international law, and more.
Some schools specialize or are particularly strong in certain types of law. You don’t have to know what kind of law you’d like to practice yet, but having a general idea can be helpful as you apply to law schools.
Most law schools include experiential learning activities as well.
These include clinics, externships, and internships where you’ll work on legal projects under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Some of these opportunities are highly competitive.
You can also join student organizations for female students, Hispanic students, black students, LGBTQ students, or other groups.
Some student organizations are devoted to specific fields like civil rights law, international law, entertainment law, or environmental law.
- Others facilitate involvement in sports activities or professional and social gatherings.
Many students get involved in the community, in human rights issues, or in various causes during their time in law school.
Another potential activity for law school students is managing and editing scholarly journals.
- Being selected to the editorial staff of a scholarly journal is a prestigious distinction. Selection is typically based on academic performance and writing/editing ability.
These meaningful experiences are extremely valuable in shaping your understanding and practice of law.
It may feel like your time is limited, but it’s important to take advantage of these opportunities.
Next Steps (After Law School!)
Once you earn your J.D., a few more steps stand between you and your career in law.
- First, you’ll need to pass an ethics exam known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE).
- Passing this two-hour, sixty-question multiple choice test qualifies you to take the bar exam.
The bar exam varies by state. In general, it consists of multiple choice and essay questions evaluating your knowledge of state law and your ability to apply it to various scenarios.
- The bar exam is extremely challenging. In some states, passing rates are as low as 40 percent.
However, many resources are available to help aspiring lawyers prepare.
And in most jurisdictions, there’s no limit to the number of times you can take the bar exam.
After you pass the bar exam, you’re qualified to begin your law career!
A Lawyer’s Perspective
It’s a great idea to get a fresh perspective of someone who went through law school.
So, we did just that for you! We asked a successful lawyer about her law school experience.
Victoria Gentry, Sweet Briar alumna and managing attorney at The Immigration Group in Nashville, Tennessee had this to say about what law school is like:
Law school is focused on preparing students to be professionals in the legal field. Unlike undergrad, the emphasis is not on socializing, creating a community of friends, or even committing to explore a particular area of study.
In law school, professors call students “Ms.” or “Mr.” and students are expected to behave professionally as if their classmates are their co-counsel (attorneys in their firm) or opposing counsel (attorneys on the opposite side of a case). Some professors require students to stand when they are called to answer questions in class. Both of these practices prepare students for interacting respectfully in front of a judge or in a boardroom.
Final Thoughts: What Is Law School Like?
The first year of law school consists of required foundational courses, and it’s usually the most difficult. Some law school graduates say that you must “learn how to learn the law” before you can truly learn the law.
You’ll have to adjust to reading court cases—a lot of court cases—and managing the Socratic method.
- In addition, some students find the lack of information about their academic progress stressful.
- Your grades will largely depend on semester exams and end-of-year exams.
It’s helpful to create thorough outlines, participate in study groups, and complete all your assigned reading. Organization, dedication, and reigning in procrastination and poor study habits will also be key.
After 1L, you’ll get to explore various fields of law and complete valuable field experiences.
- You can also participate in a variety of student organizations and extracurricular opportunities.
Law school is likely to be the greatest academic challenge of your life, but it’s certainly rewarding in the end. You’ll learn how to stay cool under pressure, articulate your points clearly, and think critically and analytically like never before.
Once you’ve earned your J.D., you’ll have to pass two exams (the MPRE and the bar). Then, it’s time to begin your illustrious law career.