As Ben Stone, one of my favorite TV lawyers, once said, “All clichés are true.” One is particularly true in law school — don’t miss the forest for the trees. Our classes and the studying that accompanies them are certainly the most important thing we have going. This is a school, and we are here to learn to be lawyers. However, classes are not the only way we learn that. If you let your classes become your trees, you will miss the forest that is Marquette Law School, which, if you let it (and you should), will teach you more than just the law. I was prepared to torture the law-school-as-forest comparison into a severely strained metaphor involving trees, plants, trails, streams, and woodland animals, but I’ll spare you. Instead, I’d like to offer some advice on making the most of your law school experience.
Get wired in. If you have a smartphone, put your MU email on it. If not, get in the habit of checking it regularly. Law school is like a job, and you don’t want to miss a memo from the boss. I can’t count how many times I answered, “Where did you hear that?” with, “It was in our email.” Don’t find out your class was cancelled by being one of three people sitting alone in the classroom for fifteen minutes. Don’t find out about free food by watching the last of it parade by in the hands of your email-checking classmates. Definitely don’t find out the parking garage is closed for the day by rolling up to the FULL sign, fifteen minutes before class starts. That last one really hurts.
Try to keep up. Of course you need to keep up with your schoolwork, but I was referring to the outside world — in particular the legal part of it that we all hope to join after graduation. Sign up for the American and Wisconsin Bar Associations — one is cheap, and the other is free (while we are students). Join sections that interest you. Take a few minutes to read their update e-mails. Both still send out paper magazines. Take time to read those, too. We need to begin to understand what’s shaking in the world we are about to enter. Keeping up with the non-legal world is a good idea, too. Fortunately, the law school provides some daily newspapers on the second floor, and the televisions in the forum usually show cable news.
Broaden your horizons. In another effort to help us, and the community at large, keep up, our law school is home to numerous lectures, seminars, speeches, forums, colloquia, and the like. Mike Gousha’s On the Issues brings newsmakers into the law school, and the various lecture series bring in prominent legal scholars. Many of our student organizations regularly bring in guest speakers as well. There is no shortage of interesting people and topics, and there is no excuse for not attending at least some of the events. Many of them take no more than an hour, and some provide free food. Beyond that, it can help you with your coursework. For example, this year’s Hallows Lecture helped me see some of the big picture of constitutional law. The big picture perspective can be hard to grasp when you are caught in the “trees” of your casebooks. The lectures, seminars, etc., are an excellent way to bridge that gap.
Don’t believe the hype. There is no shortage of advice in a law school. This can be good and bad. Keep an open mind, or dubious online professor ratings and dire warnings from helpful 2 & 3Ls can become self-fulfilling prophecies. As a wise nun once told me, “consider the source.” One person’s “boring” professor may have just the teaching style you need. Another person’s worst subject may be your best. If we expect to be bored, or expect a hard time, that may be just what we get. Don’t let someone else define your law school experience. We bring enough of our own baggage with us into law school; there is no need to tote anyone else’s.
Read more than your casebooks. I’m not talking about the infamous law school supplements. Those are for the trees. My book selections help with the forest.
Law 101, by Jay M. Feinman. This book is a fascinating and entertaining overview of the law. It covers torts, contracts, criminal law, property, constitutional law, and civil procedure. Sound familiar? I thought so. No, you cannot read this book and skip your 1L year. What you can do, however, is get an excellent plain-English introduction to the areas of law you will be studying that year. I read this book before I started school, and it really helped. When we were deep into the trees of contracts law, I at least had some grasp of where we were in the forest.
Scorpions, by Noah Feldman. This book focuses on the FDR appointees to the Supreme Court, and takes you from the 1937 court-packing attempt all the way to Brown v. Board of Education. I read this book, at the suggestion of Professor Oldfather, to prepare for constitutional law. Understanding the court, and especially the justices who comprised it, really helped me understand the doctrines we learned in con law.
The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese, by Adam Freedman. In law school, you’ll be learning a lot of new words, and many old words will take on new meaning. This book is a fun look at how those words and meanings developed over time. In the process, it covers the history of our legal system, as well as explaining some basic and not-so-basic legal concepts. The book is not lengthy, and is fraught with humor. You can finish it in an afternoon. Please do — it’s time well spent.
MULS Faculty Blog. I saved the best for last. Reading the faculty blog is a great way to find out about current legal issues, and get some insights on your professors. It’s not all serious, though. Sometimes you get to read about celebrity divorces, Danish pastries, video games, and other entertaining subjects. Best of all, they allow student guest bloggers. What’s not to like?
Volunteer at the MVLC. The Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic is a great way to get away from the trees for a bit. It keeps you grounded, lets you work with practicing attorneys, and, above all, is the right thing to do. It is also a great opportunity to learn practical legal skills. Just the other day, for example, I drafted a lawsuit. Okay, I helped a client fill out some small claims forms while an actual lawyer watched my every move. It may not be a big deal to some, but it was a very big deal to the client. If you want to keep an eye on the forest, it is absolutely essential that you take time to help people navigate the legal system. After all, that is the whole reason we are here.
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