Advice, For Law Students Too

This Sunday, The New York Times offered superb advice for undergraduates from a wonderful array of scholars, including my favorite (and for so many others) Martha Nussbaum.  Law students can learn1206351_romans from some of their insights as well.  Here are the highlights (with a few comments):

1. Reading great newspapers will help your writing. Most articles are models of clarity and substance–they banish jargon (and latin phrases) and so should you.  Follow their lead; you can’t go wrong.  (Linda Greenhouse, Dahlia Lithwick, David Margolick’s At the Bar columns from the past, and many more come to mind).

2.  Get lost in great books.  Don’t forget to read for you, not just for class.  It will help your writing and thinking.  (This summer, I re-read Anthony Lewis’s Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, Rod Smolla’s Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder By the Book, Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, and Dan Solove’s Understanding Privacy for just that reason).

3.  Take classes that stretch your mind, that interest you, rather than just focusing on classes that prepare you for the job.

4.  Seek out wonderful professors–what is lasting is how they’ve made you think, not the specifics of any given course.

5.  Write as much and as often as you can, and think about classes that ensure you do that.

6.  Don’t alienate your professor (and your colleagues–for better or for worse, you are part of a legal community now).

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9 Responses

  1. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Concur! Great post Danielle (as usual).

    I’d emphasize that this wisdom goes for 1Ls too:

    read the Times/Journal;

    read great books (even Gilmore’s The Death of Contract or Fried’s Contract as Promise, to pick two in my 1L teaching field);

    though required, 1L courses are designed to stretch the mind and be of interest, and schools tend to put 1L prawfs in that rotation for good pedagogical reason; and

    though many 1L classes do not formally require writing, write analytical accounts of the doctrines you are studying anyway, in addition to the common practice of outlining the materials.

  2. Wonderful advice, Larry. (I almost wrote “So true,” but that risked cutting against your wise input to Dave!)

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I think these recommendations go wrong on two points: First, newspaper journalism is often a model of superficiality. Those stories that focus on facts rather than opinion often strip out analysis. To learn style and how to present one’s reasoning, it’s better to read great essayists, and others who are able to treat their subjects with some sustained reflection. While some of those authors may currently write columns for newspapers, I don’t think “most articles” meet that standard.

    Second, both of you recommended only books (and columnists, too) about law. That’s way too narrowing. It’s better for one’s reading to be more interdisciplinary, and to include a healthy does of literature — but most of all, for it to include subjects that you find to be fun and interesting. That’s what keeps you human. It can also be a source of out-of-the-box ideas. My policy since graduating has been not to read anything about law past 8:00 PM unless I’m billing the hours. Not only has that helped me not to get burnt out on being a lawyer even after 25+ years, but it’s often paid substantial and unexpected dividends for my practice.

    BTW, reading “great legal books” can lead you astray. As a young associate, I was very influenced by Edward H. Levi’s “Introduction to Legal Reasoning,” a much-respected book back then, and perhaps still today. I was especially taken with how he used simple Roman numerals, rather than descriptive chapter headings, to articulate the sections of his argument; that forced the reader to engage with his argument to discover what was different from one section to the next. After much careful outlining, I tried this technique in a memo to a partner. He very politely avoided using a 4-letter word to describe it, but made it clear that one (or, more exactly, a piece of one) was intended. No question, he was right.

    A few years later, I went in-house. Both the president of the company and the GC tore off everything after page 1 of memos and emails (which they printed out for that purpose). The CTO asked me to draw flow-charts of agreements I was drafting. I’d been reading the NY Times and WSJ for years by then. But that job was truly Year One for my legal writing style. If you anticipate having clients who may make similar demands, you’ll be way ahead of where I was for almost the first half of my career.

  4. I hear you, A.J.: not all columnists write like Greenhouse and Lithwick, but reading those journalists and Margolick, well, feeds the writer in me. Yes indeed add enriching literature and history to the mix. The Ambrose Nixon volumes come to mind as do the Caro books. My passions led me to re-read those brilliant writers (Lewis, Smolla, Nussbaum, Solove), not work in any drudgery sense of it. Everyone has their favorite re-reads, I shared mine. And I suppose that my writing life is rich not only because I read the Lithwicks, Soloves, Nussbaums, and the Greenhouses, but because I have long read, wrote, edited and, most significantly, been edited by the best. It is always great to hear from you so please keep those comments coming!

  5. AYY says:

    I’d recommend that they learn something about statistics. You have to have some knowledge of what the numbers really mean, not just what someone spins them to mean.

  6. Relatively Recent Grad says:

    Some of these suggestions are good. Others are actually bad, for example:

    “Take classes that stretch your mind, that interest you, rather than just focusing on classes that prepare you for the job.” Naive, I say. I’ve seen many high ranking litigators (the Order of the Coif types) who took all those law and bananas courses in law school and don’t know anything about what they are actually billing their clients for. As a former law clerk I’ve seen many of these litigators failing to understand simple concepts like disregarding the corporate form (aka piercing the corporate veil)…

    If I didn’t know better, I would guess that the advice was posted by a law professor or someone in academia.

  7. Relatively Recent Grad, You are definitely correct–I should have said “Don’t take classes just for the Bar.” Why? So many students don’t take Administrative Law or Federal Courts on the grounds that they need Commercial Paper for the Bar. I always urge my students to take what is good for them, their brains and their ability to practice well.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    It’s hard to anticipate what will prepare you for the job best. I took Comparative Law as a “fun” course; definitely my favorite during law school. Then I found it had immdiate application during my first year of practice — all the more so, since I was the only one on my team who had a comparative perspective. (A senior partner had asked me to draft some “board resolutions” for a written consent of directors of a Netherlands Antilles BV. He had no idea that directors’ powers were very different in that form of entity from in an American corporation.) It’s been useful many times since, too.

  9. Tim Zinnecker says:

    What? Folks are taking Commercial Paper (n/k/a Payment Systems) JUST for the bar? I’m shocked! SO SHOCKED!!!

    And Sadistic Transactions, too? Tell me no!

    You do not like the UCC?
    I do not like it, no sirree!