Sunday, September 17, 2006

Figuring Out Your Law Professor

At our school, we are starting week 4 of law school. New students are figuring out what direction their classes may be going in, how to brief cases, and what their professors are like in class. Or maybe not. Sometimes law school is a like a semester-long cruise into the great unknown, with a final exam worth 100% of your grade waiting at the end of it all.

So what to do? I've already posted some suggestions previously (here, here, here, and here), but my focus today is slightly different. Based on my own experience as a student and as a professor, there is one thing I think law students sometimes overlook or underemphasize in preparing for class and for exams. Namely, students should always bear in mind that they are taking both a specific subject and a specific professor.

Different people are teaching each of your classes. They have different beliefs and views about the law, different teaching styles and philosophies, different rules about their classes. Some (or maybe perhaps all) have unwritten or unspoken rules about their classes or exams, whether they think they do or not. Maybe even I do, although I try not to. So to really succeed in law school, you need to figure out what each professor wants from you in terms of class performance, and then give it to them. This will certainly include a demonstration of your substantive knowledge of the subject at hand, but it includes more, too.

To be sure, my observation applies to any course of study, but I think it is particularly relevant to law school. For one thing, the grade in many law school classes is based on a final exam. No midterms. You have one shot to get it right, so figure out what the professor wants. But more importantly, as lawyers-in-training you are entering a service profession in which your success--and hence your livelihood--will be based in part on your ability to figure out what your clients and supervising attorneys want. And while some of those people will be really easy or pleasant to work for, many others will be confusing, or difficult, or challenging in some way. But you still have to work for them, don't you? You have to get them to think your work product is valuable, so that they keep you around. So figuring out your professors and adapting to their approaches is in itself a critically important skill to learn.

Now for the caveats.

First, I am not suggesting that those who make better grades are inherently better lawyers. Rather, I am saying that if people thought about the system this way, they might end up improving their grades and honing a useful skill.

Second, I am most certainly not suggesting that professors are looking for "right" or "wrong" answers on the final exam--or that in practice, you are supposed to tell people only what they want to hear. Substantive work product matters in law school and in law practice. Rather, I am suggesting that you listen very carefully for hints (or express statements) regarding how the professor wants exam questions answered, whether class participation can affect your grade, whether volunteering in class matters, whether certain cases are poor precedent, and so on. You'd give your clients or supervising partner a memo in the format they expect, wouldn't you? Do the same in your law school exams and research papers.

Third, I realize this post carries something of a "duh" factor. That is, am I playing "master of the obvious" in devoting an entire post to this subject? Perhaps. Yet I whenever I grade exams I wonder how obvious the advice really is. And even importantly, some of the best advice I have ever received has made me figuratively smack my forehead and wonder why I didn't think of something so obvious myself. So, if this post crystallizes your thinking about class and exam preparation, then good. And if it doesn't, well, hopefully I have caused you no harm.


shell said...

Well the advice is fairly obvious, it's difficult for some students (such as myself) to capture these unspoken "hints" and "clues" of what a professor wants from just listening to lectures.

I find it much more helpful to look through old exams and read sample answers to figure out a professor's preference or interacting with a professor in person (during office hour) to get a better sense of how he or she explains a case. Sometimes all it takes is asking the professor directly (outside the classroom setting) what he or she would consider as a good way to answer a question, and vice versa.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Shell, that is an excellent point about reading through exams and interacting with professors outside class. Everyone should try and do that. It's a good way to get a sense of your prof's inclinations and testing preferences. So thanks for mentioning it.

Of course, in talking to your prof outside class, you might only find out that s/he is a bit of an unhelpful jerk. But even then, you are no worse off than before, and you can go back to class and look for hints and clues with the rest of your classmates.

Anonymous said...

In regard to your references made about the book "Fast Food Nation" - I found something that might be of interest - from, you could say, an alternative point of view. It's entitled "Cows With Guns":

(Note: It's accompanied by sound, so make sure your speakers aren't turned up too loudly)