What Is Law School Like?

Classes, case briefs, cold-calling, and more

Law School Quadrangle, University of Michigan
Law School Quadrangle, University of Michigan.

jweise / Getty Images

Law school is intense and competitive. The rigorous curriculum moves quickly, and you'll be expected to read at least 50-75 pages of dense case law every day in order to keep up. In class, professors employ the Socratic method, cold-calling on students and asking them to apply legal principles to hypothetical (and sometimes outlandish) sets of facts. Unlike most undergraduate classes, grades for law school classes are usually determined by a single exam taken at the end of the semester.

Law school can be intimidating, but knowledge is power. Understanding the basics of the law school experience will set you up for success in your first year and beyond.

The Curriculum

The law school curriculum is administered over a period of 3 years. All law schools offer the same courses during the first year (called 1L). The 1L courses are: 

  1. Civil Procedure. Civil Procedure is the study of complex rules that govern the mechanics of court proceedings. These rules often determine the who, when, where, and how of a lawsuit. Civil Procedure also dictates the rules preceding, during, and after a trial.
  2. Contracts. This two-semester-long course focuses on parties who enter into an agreement and what happens when a breach occurs. 
  3. Criminal Law. This course covers criminal offenses, including what makes something a criminal offense and how crimes are punished. 
  4. Property Law. In Property Law, you’ll study the acquisition, possession, and disposition of property. Expect to study dense case law outlining the nuances of property ownership. 
  5. Torts. Torts is the study of harmful acts that are punishable under civil law. You will learn about the repercussions of trespassing, false imprisonment, assault/battery, and more. 
  6. Constitutional Law. In Constitutional Law, you will learn about the structure of the United States government and individual rights. 
  1. Legal Research/Writing. This course teaches students the fundamentals of legal writing and how to write a legal memo. 

In the second and third years, students can select classes based on their interests. Courses will vary depending on the law school, but typical options include real estate, tax, intellectual property, evidence, trial advocacy, mergers and acquisitions, wills and estates, bankruptcy, and securities law. It is a good idea to take a variety of classes in order to decide which practice area to pursue after law school. 

If possible, try sitting in on a course before applying to law school. This experience is helpful because you can learn how law school classes are conducted without having any pressure to perform.

The Case Method

In law school, many of your reading assignments will come from casebooks. Casebooks compile court opinions, called “cases,” related to a specific area of law. You will be expected to read cases, then extrapolate broader legal concepts and principles based on how the case was decided. In class, professors will ask you to take the principles you extrapolated from the case and apply them to a different set of facts (called a “fact pattern”). 

In the case method, reading assignments don’t tell you everything you need to know. You will be expected to apply critical thinking skills to everything you read in order to draw correct conclusions. This step-by-step primer explains the process: 

During the first reading of the case, identify the facts, the parties of the case, and what the plaintiff or defendant is trying to accomplish; don’t worry about getting all the details. During the second read, identify the procedural history of the case and take note of the relevant facts. During the third read, hone in on relevant facts, focus on the judicial interpretation, and think about how the interpretation would change if another fact pattern was used. 

Reading a case several times is standard practice; with each reading, you will become better prepared to answer questions in class. Over time, the practice will become second nature, and you will be able to identify key pieces of information with more efficiency. 

The Socratic Method

In law school classes, students are expected to learn through the Socratic method—a system of intense questioning designed to lead students to particular insights. 

In a typical example of the Socratic method, the professor will pick a student at random (called "cold-calling"). The chosen student will be asked to summarize a case from an assigned reading and discuss relevant legal principles. Next, the professor will change the facts of the case, and the student will have to analyze how the previously-established legal principles apply to this new fact pattern. The expectation is that the student’s answers will lead to a solid conclusion. To succeed in a Socratic questioning session, students must come to class with a thorough understanding of the assigned cases and the legal principles presented within them. (To be even more prepared, some students try to predict what the professor will ask, then prepare responses.)

Exactly how long the “hot seat” lasts can vary; some professors call on many students per class period, while others grill a smaller number of students for a longer time. All students must pay attention to the dialogue, because there is always a chance that the professor could put someone else on the hot seat at the spur of the moment. Many students worry about potential embarrassment as a result of the Socratic method. Experiencing the Socratic method for the first time is inevitably stressful, but it is a rite of passage for first-year law students. Asking upperclassmen about individual professors’ questioning styles can help calm your nerves before your first class. 

One Exam Per Semester 

In most law school courses, your grade is determined by your score on a single exam, taken at the end of the semester. Exams cover all the information taught in the course and include multiple-choice, short answer, and essay sections. Naturally, there is a lot of pressure to perform on test day. 

The most effective way to study for exams is to start preparing early. Learn the material at a slow and steady pace, start creating a course outline as soon as possible, and meet regularly with a study group. If tests from previous years are available, make sure to review them. Since feedback is limited during the semester, it’s important to be proactive about asking questions. If you’re struggling with a certain concept or principle, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And remember, this high-stakes form of testing is good preparation for the bar exam. 

Extracurricular Activities

Law schools offer a large variety of professionally-focused extracurricular activities. Getting involved outside of class is a great way to network with peers, connect with alumni, and develop professional skills. Two of the most popular activities are law review and moot court. 

The law review is a student-run scholarly journal that publishes articles by law professors, judges, and other legal professionals. It is considered the most prestigious extracurricular at most law schools. Law students at the top of their class receive an invitation to join at the end of their first year. (At some schools, you can also gain a coveted slot via application.) As a member of the law review, you will hone your research and writing skills by participating in the journal’s publication process: fact-checking, reviewing footnoted case citations, and potentially writing short articles yourself. 

In moot court, law students learn about litigation and trial advocacy by participating in simulated trial proceedings. Moot court participants write legal motions, present oral arguments, speak to the jury, answer questions from the judge, and more. Joining moot court is a great way to strengthen your legal skills—particularly your ability to form and communicate legal arguments.