Perspectives on the First Year of Law School

Adjusting the Easy Way To the 'Law School System'

Some people say the first year of law school is the most difficult. While it is typically not the most academically demanding year, the first year challenges students to adjust to the "law school system," a system that differs from undergraduate education in a number of ways.

Classes

All law students take the following classes during their first year: civil procedure, criminal law, contracts, property, and torts. First-year students at Harvard also take an elective in the spring. Most classes last one semester, but some professors prefer to stretch their classes out over the entire year.

Most, if not all, professors teach according to the case method. Students learn an area of law by reading hundreds of court decisions describing specific disputes. Each case adds a layer to the evolution of the doctrinal framework.

Professors highlight important aspects of the cases in class either through the Socratic Method or through the panel system. Under the Socratic Method, a professor calls on a student to state the background facts of the dispute and expound upon the legal reasoning and significance of the case. (Professors can be harsh and unyielding when utilizing the Socratic Method--see The Paper Chase--but most current Harvard Law professors are more easy-going and sympathetic.)

Other professors, typically those that teach second- and third-year courses, use the panel system, in which each student is put on notice that they will be called on during a particular class to discuss the assigned cases.

Sections

The registrar divides the approximately 550-student first-year class into four sections of about 140 students each. First-year students take all of their required first-year classes with the students in their section. As a result, students come to know the people in their section better than the other first-year students and friendships often form along these lines.

Exams

First-year law school exams usually include one or two fact-patterns, scenarios from which students are expected to extract and discuss relevant legal issues, and a policy question. Of course, exams differ by professor, so the best way for students to prepare themselves is to study that professor's prior exams.

Most students prepare for exams by making outlines of the material covered in their classes. To make these outlines, students rely upon study aids, like commercial outlines (Gilbert's, Emmanuells, etc.), as well as their reading and class notes.

Legal Research and Writing

All first-year students take a class titled, "Legal Reasoning and Analysis," in which they learn how to perform legal research, write legal documents, and present oral arguments. The class has two components. The first component is a lecture series presented by guest speakers among the faculty. The second component is a 12-student workshop taught by a member of the Board of Student Advisers who is a second- or third-year law student.

Summer Jobs

First-year students begin looking for summer jobs, either at law firms, public interest organizations, or the government, on Nov. 1. Students typically do a mass mailing to about 100 places of employment, interview with a handful, and accept a summer job.

If students find the mass mailing unsuccessful, they may take advantage of opportunities to interview with employers who come to the campus in the spring to interview first-year students. The Office of Career Services and Office of Public Interest Advising support students in their job search by making available numerous resources and critiquing students' resumes.

--Jennifer Blum is a 2L at HLS and the president of the Board of Student Advisers, a student-run group that advises first-year students and assists in administering the first year research and writing programs.