From John Cross, Professor of Law, University of Louisville School of Law
"When I teach a first-year course, I tell students that they will leave my class thinking that there is no law, only facts. Of course, that's not true. However, I stress the importance of facts to prove a point. Most students try to pull one or two 'black letter' rules out of a case without really considering why the court adopted or applied that rule in this particular case. But knowing what the rule says is only half the battle. No two cases are exactly the same, and where they differ is in the facts. Therefore, if you focus on the facts, you can determine when two cases are so different from each other that they should be governed by different legal rules. Basically, that's one of the most important skills you should be learning in law school."
"In addition, whenever you read a case, try to figure out why your authors chose to include it in the book. Most students assume that each case must add something, either a new legal rule or an exception. That's not always true. Sometimes, a case contradicts or rejects an earlier rule. In addition, some authors will sneak in a few cases that are simply dead wrong. Students shouldn't be afraid to say if they think a case is wrong, at least if they are willing to say why."
"Many first-year students think that they need to memorize everything. In reality, when it comes to test time, we are not going to ask what happened in case of 'blank versus blank' or even worse, what the citation of that case happens to be. In many courses, you will trace the evolution of an area of law. For example, in my Civil Procedure course, we set out the history of personal jurisdiction from the late 1800s to today. It is very unlikely that I would ask you on a test how the court in 1890 would decide a fact pattern. What I want to know is how a court would answer it today. We trace the history only to show how the thought processes evolved, which helps you to understand the current view."
"Another more philosophical piece of advice: Law school is not meant to be a game. Too often students assume that what a professor wants to hear is a 'magic' word or phrase hidden somewhere in the case. That's a misperception. We are more concerned with making sure that students really understand the course material. Sometimes, that means that we insist on precise answers. Although law school is not meant to be a game, it sure can seem like one, especially during your first year when the whole process can seem strange."
From Lisa Key, practicing attorney and former associate professor at University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Law
"It is imperative for most students to go to class every day and to take notes. The more times you hear something, the better retention you have. By reading, hearing and then writing something down, you get three forms of that information, which helps you retain it. Discussions with other students help a lot because you see where your weaknesses are."
"Students should write their own outlines, too. I think it's a mistake to divvy up an outline with others in a study group. You're doing yourself a disservice because you aren't forced to go through the logic that you have to go through in order to make your own outline. Also, you never know whether or not that other person really understood the material."
"The key thing is to get into the mind of the professor a little bit. Most cases aren't going to be as simple as they first appear. Think about what might make that decision questionable or what the logic was behind the decision. What were the judges considering when they reached that holding? Was their logic flawed in any way? Are there any public-policy reasons why they may have come to the decision?"
"Those are the types of things that law professors are going to be looking at, and those are the kinds of questions they are going to be asking in class. What were the unstated reasons for this decision, and do you agree? Does it make sense, is it good for society? Start thinking like a lawyer: Why and how could this be different from the last case?"
"A brand-new student is going to have a tough time doing this, and this is part of the learning process. Watch the professor, listen to what he is saying, the questions he is asking, how he responds to what other students say. You can usually tell whether or not he thinks somebody is on the money or if somebody is not quite getting it."