Note to incoming first-year law students: The law itself is not terribly difficult.
We lecture to schoolkids from time to time, and they seem to get the concept pretty easily when we explain that the law is nothing more than the rulebook for how to play the game of real life. It’s not much different from the rules of Monopoly or Sorry or Candyland — there’s just more of them. Rules can sometimes be stupid or unfair, but they’re still there, and you still have to play the right way. To learn the law adequately, all one needs to do is learn the rules for a given subset of human behavior, and that’s pretty much it. If you want to learn the law really well, you also learn the policies behind the rules, so you can better understand what a given rule is trying to do, and better predict how the rules might change. The role of a good law professor is not only to teach you what the law is right now, but why it is that way, and what policy seems to explain all those seemingly varying cases out there.
And though the law can be an ass, for the most part it’s straightforward common sense. Don’t hurt someone else for no good reason. If you want to drive a car, you have to have some basic abilities before you’re allowed on the public roads. If you want an enforceable security interest, you need to do the civilized thing and file your lien so the rest of us know about it. It really is basic.
And most of the time, the policies behind the law are the same ones we learned from our parents. Take self defense — our folks taught us the same lesson that generations of parents have taught their kids about what to do if a big kid’s trying to hurt you: First, tell the kid to knock it off. If that doesn’t work, leave. If that doesn’t work, get a grownup. If nothing works, however, hit the kid back… and don’t stop hitting till he can’t hit you any more. None of our forebears had any legal training, but that’s pretty much what the law says too. It’s just common sense. Don’t make a bad situation worse if you can avoid the situation in the first place, but you’re allowed to protect yourself and eliminate the threat if it can’t be avoided.
So the law isn’t very difficult. It can be complex, and it can be voluminous, but that only makes learning it time-consuming. Time-consuming is not the same as hard.
We noticed this in law school. The students who did best were not necessarily the brightest, but were instead the ones who put in the time. The ones who plugged away every day, from the beginning of the semester, making sense of the materials in whatever way worked best, routinely outperformed those who may have been quicker on the uptake but put in less productive time getting ready. The trick is not figuring out something that’s hard, but getting on top of something that’s simply massive.
We routinely scored at or near the top of our classes at Georgetown, doing better than lots of way more intelligent classmates. We did this while holding down demanding full-time jobs, editing our law review, and thus with minimal free time. The secret was simply to put in the time. Before each semester began, we’d get the textbooks as soon as possible, and the canned outlines that went with them. We’d go through each book, read the main cases, and figure out what was being said there. We’d check our thoughts against the canned outlines, and write a very short summary of the case and a summary of the rule right in the textbook on the first page of the case. Then, when classes began, we’d take copious notes — not just of the professor’s lecturing, but also of the questions and comments of classmates. That same night, we’d type up our notes on our laptop — in prose at first, but then in long outline form as we got more proficient — with additional annotations of ideas from other sources and our own personal thoughts. Each weekend, we’d take the laptop to the library and condense the week’s notes into a more workable outline for each class, referring back and forth to related earlier points as needed. About halfway through the semester, we’d take a look at one of the professor’s previous exams, just to make sure we’re on the same page as to where it’s all leading up to. A few weeks before exams, we’d start taking these old exams, starting from the oldest and working our way up to the newest. We’d start without any time limits, fully open book and everything. Then we’d work up to timed testing without references. By the time the exam rolled around, we knew the material as well as possible. We’d worked on it, played with it, thought about it and processed it every which way, and we had plenty of experience taking pretty much the exam in front of us. All from what was nothing more than a simple routine that made the best use of what little time we had. It’s a simple formula for success, and it worked.
Note that none of this took any particular brainpower. All it took was time. The subject matter was never hard to understand. It’s just the law. And the law itself is not terribly difficult.