Law School v. Grad School

So I promised I’d write on this blog frequently. I told you a terrible lie.

Boulder is fantastic. I live close enough to campus that I can walk to school. There are bike lanes everywhere and trails that go from the edge of town right into the Flatirons. I felt pretty good about my level of physical fitness before moving here. Now, like Ray Velcoro from True Detective, I support feminism mostly by having body image issues.

I’ve completed/survived two weeks of law school. In so many ways it’s different from my history MA/PhD classes, but some of it is the same. I started this blog to help people who were considering making the switch from a PhD to a JD. So, without further adieu, I give you my top five observations on the differences and similarities between law school and grad school.

  1. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold Call: My smallest law school class is around 40 people. My largest grad school class was maybe 20. The discrepancy in numbers makes for distinctive environments. When I was grad student, I never had class every day of the week. I had 3-4 classes and they only met once a week for about three hours. Every day when I sat down, I knew I would have to say something. Professors expected it because it showed a student had done the reading and could engage with the material. Moreover, a big part of the grade was based on participation in class. There were many days when I sat down having only skimmed the book or articles I was supposed to read. It was hard to suppress the dread: “Ok Alex. You can do this. Just bide your time and wait until someone talks about chapter 2. Then you can jump in and say that you found the author’s application of actor-network theory to be both provocative and effective.” In law school there are just too many people for everyone to participate daily. The class schedule and material also discourage seminar-style classes, at least in the first year. Every day we are covering a lot of content through a lecture, as well as skills in the form of cases and other problems. This was different from grad school, where the focus was more on the craft than the content. So law professors don’t really want you to talk, as much as they want you to chime in when they are trying to make a point. And to ensure you’ve done the reading, they will call on someone at random. It was interesting to hear more advanced students talk about the horrors of cold calling. When I was listening to them, I couldn’t help but think: “Wait a second. So you’re telling me I don’t have to talk every day? I can show up to class and not say a word and not have my grade impacted? I love law school already.” To be fair, I haven’t been cold called yet, but it’s hard to kill the grad student part of me that’s accustomed to daily participation. I try to volunteer some information every day, but I’m trying to get better at not asking so many questions. Having been a student for practically all of my 29 years makes it hard though.
  2. Get a Job, You Insolvent Bastard: I haven’t been in class for even three weeks and already I’m being told I need to start thinking about my career. (My response to that is I’d like to learn the definition of promissory estoppel first, but that’s just me.) There are constantly networking events, coffee hours with practicing attorneys, and an entire office dedicating to making sure I can crawl out from under Uncle Sam’s MPN someday. All the job talk makes this old academic’s head spin. I never really thought about getting a job when I was in grad school, at least not my first year. In fact, I don’t remember even thinking about getting a job until my second or third year. Maybe it was that the job market was so bad we all believed it would get better if we just didn’t dwell on it. Now it’s nice to think that I’m actually a professional that someone might want to hire. I’m going to try to not waste the occasion.
  3. Cases (Primary Sources, but for Lawyers): My favorite part of law school so far is reading the cases. Since the good ol’ USA took its legal tradition from England, much of our laws are made through judicial decisions. This means that future lawyers have to spend hours in the library reading cases from as far back as the 19th It’s so much fun! It reminds me of the best part of being a historian, which was reading primary sources that were directly related to what I was researching. But in law school, they give you the primary sources, saving the 1L from the burden of having to sift through dusty boxes in a courthouse somewhere. All joking aside, learning to read primary sources has helped me so much with reading cases: I look over the introductory and concluding statements, the main arguments, and then place the case within the context of what I’m learning. Hopefully it will pay off come exam time.
  4. Elegant Variation: The humanities will always be part art and part science. Academic writing needed to be precise, but the elegance of the prose mattered too. I’ll never forget when a professor, who shall remain nameless, marked all the times I used the word “argued” and wrote “You need a synonym.” Ever since I’ve always been cautious about the frequency with which I used any given word. That is, until I got to law school. If the statute says “spouse,” then that’s what you write again and again and again. A part of my soul still wants to scream, “Never! I learned all those damn synonyms for a reason!” but I guess I’ll get over it.
  5. There’s a Club for That: There are a lot of clubs and student groups in law school. If you’re interested in a specific area of law or public service, odds there it’s got a student group or club. As a first year, I’m being encouraged to explore as many clubs as possible. It’s all very exciting and it could help me get a job someday (that’s the word anyway). While we certainly had student groups and other activities in grad school, I don’t think participation was stressed very much. Your work was going to get you a job, not your participation in clubs. After all those years I’m still skeptical about spending study time in clubs, but it’s hard to deny the opportunity that they present. I’ll find out more as the semester marches on.

Enjoy your day off everyone. Thanks for spending a small part of it reading along with me.

“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” – Lenin


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