As you get started in a U.S. law school, here’s an LL.M. guide and classroom tips
Attending law school in the United States is a big step. Congratulations! Immersing yourself in a different culture and legal system can be exciting, intellectually stimulating as well as challenging.
In U.S. law school, you’ll quickly encounter terms like casebooks, hornbooks, outlines, canned briefs, the Socratic Method and more. Here are some tips and tricks for LL.M. students to help ease you into the U.S. law school experience.
Give yourself enough time to prep for U.S. law school classes
Most of your U.S. law school readings will come from a casebook, which is a compilation of past legal cases and opinions. When you read your assignments before class, you will brief cases.
Case briefing is a process that requires both time and practice. It is simply a set of notes comprised of important points on each assigned case that you’ll use for class discussions. The case brief is the end result of reading a case, re-reading it, taking it apart and putting it back together again. In addition to being a useful tool for self-instruction and referencing, the case brief also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for class participation.
Plan at least two hours preparing for each hour of class. At least at the beginning of your studies, you may find this to be a conservative estimate, especially if English is not your native language. As with most things, practice makes briefing cases easier.
In U.S. law school classes, embrace conflict and argument
In U.S. law school classes, there is often little “recitation” and relatively little lecturing by the professor. Instead, the professor usually directs a group discussion of the assigned cases. This is especially true if you are in “mixed classes” with J.D. students.
Group discussions are generally done by a combination of questioning, cajoling, encouraging, baiting, (sometimes) embarrassing and reasoning with one or more members of the class. A favorite of many law professors is the Socratic Method. In this teaching method, a student is asked a series of questions which ultimately forces him or her to adopt some totally indefensible position or argument that may be criticized by the professor or other students.
What’s the purpose of such a game? To stretch your analytic muscles and (once again) teach you how to think like a lawyer. The give and take between you and the professor forces you to think on your feet by reasoning and analogy. It also gives you a taste of the adversarial process at work!
Suggestions for handling law school classroom discussions
Focus on the reasoning of the assigned cases
If called upon, be prepared to briefly state the essential facts of the case, the precise issue or issues decided in the trial court and raised on appeal and, most importantly, the reasoning by which the appellate court reached its conclusion. The court’s reasoning is usually as important as the “rule” or holding of the case.
Reach your own judgments of the case
The assigned cases should not be taken as “gospel”. Some cases express views that have been discredited and are included in the casebook for purposes of comparison and criticism. Keep an open mind on the merits of each case, and especially on the validity of the reasoning expressed by the court. Analyze the decision with healthy skepticism. Don’t be awed by the fact that a respected appellate court decided the case in a particular manner. Consider the issues involved as if they had never been decided before, and weigh the arguments raised by each of the litigants. Then make your own evaluation of the result reached and the reasoning expressed in the decision.
Make practical, fair arguments
Don’t make the mistake of challenging a decision with generalities. It never suffices to disagree with a case “as a matter of principle”, or because the decision “doesn’t make any sense”. Your professor will promptly ask you questions probing your “principles” or “sense”. Be sure that your criticism of a decision is based on specific reasons, that these reasons are founded in logic, and that they will lead to a just result.
The law is inherently practical. Therefore, always test your position by whether the result reached is a practical one. For example, wherever possible, try to argue for positions that will avoid or shorten the litigation or prevent further lawsuits. Furthermore, you should generally avoid positions based on pure technicalities that would impose an unconscionable hardship on a party or lead to obviously unfair results.
Don’t jump to conclusions
The professor’s questions may shift from the assigned case to hypothetical fact situations, which may or may not resemble the facts of the assigned cases. You are supposed to decide whether the rule or holding in the assigned case should apply here, as well. The purpose of this exercise is to test just how far the rules in the assigned cases can be extended. You’re expected to determine whether the various facts in the hypotheticals posed by the professor are sufficiently similar to the facts in the assigned case so that the same result should occur.
Be cautious in answering these class “hypos” — don’t jump to conclusions. Before you decide that the rule in the assigned case applies to the hypo, always ask yourself whether the reasoning expressed in the assigned case justifies that application of the rule. You’ll soon discover “pitfall” cases — mental traps — where it would actually be inconsistent with the court’s reasoning to apply the rule. You’ll garner lots of points with your professor by being able to spot such cases.
Join in the discussion, even if you are not confident
It is a mistake to assume that “someone else can say it better” or that you will gain as much from listening and taking notes as from engaging in the discussion. Therefore, even if you were not a “hand raiser” during your undergraduate (or graduate) years, force yourself to take an active part in law school classroom dialogues. You will find the long-term benefits well worth the initial discomfort.
Don’t procrastinate after class
The work you do immediately following class is as important as your advanced preparation. It is essential to review your case briefs and class notes as soon as possible, preferably on the same day. There are probably corrections or additions to make in your case briefs, possible gaps in your class notes, or maybe you have some lingering doubt concerning a hypo or question raised in class.
Right after class is the time to fill in those gaps and resolve those questions. Your notes will be fresh, and your mind will still be attuned to the problems involved. Get to the library, do additional reading or research, and summarize your notes and briefs for that part of the course. Otherwise, your notes will be unmanageable by the time you begin to study for your final exams. Systematic summarizing of these materials — the outlining process — will vastly enhance their value to you.
Download the BARBRI LL.M. Guide
The above information as well as techniques for briefing cases, steps for developing a law school outline and studying for U.S. law school final exams are all compiled into the BARBRI LL.M. Guide.