Home > 1L > learning to think like a lawyer: am I there yet? is it supposed to hurt this much?

learning to think like a lawyer: am I there yet? is it supposed to hurt this much?

October 17, 2005

I get frustrated when I read cases and don’t understand them. I growl at the casebook and sigh heavily and I want to get up and walk away from it all.

It’s not that the language is dense and incomprehensible (though it is) and it’s not that the judges use one word when they should have used another (though they do). That stuff almost doesn’t bother me anymore. I get the facts of the cases. I even usually get the issue and holding. What I often don’t get–and this is what scares me–is the underlying legal principle.

I can grasp that the cases I’m reading are all about, say, consideration. And I can see how consideration plays into each individual case. But I have a hard time extrapolating a legal theory of consideration from a group of cases until I go to class and the professor explains it all.

This scares me. I’m halfway through my first semester, I have three midterms this week, my outlining is ramping up nicely, but I still feel like I haven’t learned anything on my own. Everything crammed into my brain right now is crammed in there because the professor told me about it.

Or that’s how it feels. There are days when I go into class confident that I got the reading, when I feel like I don’t even need to take notes because my case briefs will be enough. And the professor opens his mouth and I realize how narrow my understanding is.

It’s not every class, it’s not every day. And sometimes I really do get it. But those days seem fewer and farther between. Is this “learning to think like a lawyer”? Not only is the way I learn being reshaped, but what knowledge I have is also being torn up and put back together. And I’m starting, frankly, to get dizzy.

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Categories: 1L
  1. TP
    October 17, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    Keep the faith. I found things clicked for me big picture at the end of the semester.

  2. October 17, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Hey, don’t worry. What you’re looking for isn’t there, so don’t be concerned that you can’t seem to find it. What I mean is that you can’t figure out the underlying legal principle for many cases b/c many cases aren’t based on any real underlying principles. Many cases are decided as a means to whatever end the judge thinks is correct, and later academics come along and try to harmonize the case with others and extract some underlying “principle” that seems to explain them all.

    That’s the cynical reading, but in many cases it’s true. A less cynical and also true reading is this: Even when a case is decided on an underlying principle, few single cases will give you the full legal principle within that single case. That’s because the principle developed over time in a sort of process of accretion as one decision built on another and another until finally, one day, a judge said, “Hey, looking at all these previous cases, it looks like this is the rule. So here’s the rule!” And bang, there’s your underlying legal principle. Your professor has read that case that’s last in the line, so he/she knows the rule. You might even read that case next week and by then the rule will seem very clear to you. Or, maybe you’ll never read it and you’ll always wonder where the rule came from. Or maybe the rule has never been written into a case and is just out there in a bunch of academic theory, in which case you might be trapped in the cynical reading of things, as described above.

    All of which is to say the law is just a bunch of stuff people have made up. There’s no there there, so don’t worry about finding it. Listen to the prof when he/she announces the rule, write it down, remember it, try to figure out a way to make it make sense for you, regurgitate it on an exam, and move on.

    Then when you’re in practice you can start making up the rules based on your own reading of the cases and see if you can persuade anyone to see things you’re way. If you do, eventually some professor will be teaching your reading of things and future law students will be thinking you smoked way too much crack.

  3. October 17, 2005 at 8:10 pm

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m in the same boat. Whee, law school.

  4. October 17, 2005 at 9:33 pm

    I’m a 3L and have been doing this for 2 1/2 years now and I feel that way all the time. I think it’s just part of the process…or something. I hope eventually we all feel more confident, but right now I’m still muddling along.

  5. October 17, 2005 at 10:01 pm

    Don’t sweat it… it took me a semester to really get the hang of it. Part of it is what Ambimb mentioned… just because the casebook author thought that a case would be good to illustrate a legal theory doesn’t mean the judge did. And sometimes the cases are just poorly written. Being a good writer is not a requirement for being a judge.

  6. October 18, 2005 at 8:56 am

    Don’t worry. You are getting it more than you know. Profs, especially in the first year, usually are trying to get everyone to think about policy when they go off on their tangents. And they like to screw with the facts to see if you understand why the court went a certain direction.

    1L year is mind-boggling. You never feel like you get it. But it all pretty much comes down to the rule and the policy.

    It sounds like you are ahead of the game. You’re briefing at a point when most people have abandoned the process and you are keeping up your outlines. Hell, you’re doing better than I was in October last year!

  7. October 18, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    I found that a good Jurisprudence class helps with the big picture. Ambib is correct in stating that often judges don’t come at a case with a philosophical point of view, as much as a perceived “correct” end determination. I think they often backward engineer their decisions from there.

    You’ll get the hang of it once you start understanding bigger themes, such as duties, breaches, and injuries. The key is to think not just about what is happening by why things are happening (rules of construction and interpretation, constitutional implications, equity, etc.).

  1. October 17, 2005 at 8:04 pm
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