Although law school, like college, can lead to a variety of occupations, and one student’s experiences can be quite different from another's, virtually all accredited law schools share the common and specialized objective of training people to become lawyers (not investment bankers, not motion picture executives, etc.).
This professional orientation is reflected in the similarity of curricula as well as in a common attitude among students, all of whom, at least during the first year, are taking the same courses. Each is anxious to master the fundamental skills and labors hard to achieve that end.
While law school is not necessarily more difficult intellectually than college, the workload is substantially greater and the level of competency demanded by professors is uniformly higher. Since everyone is studying the same material, each with a desire to master skills certain to be required in a legal career, students in law school usually are faced with a heightened sense of competition.
The first year is devoted to a process of reeducation since law schools see themselves as teaching people to “think like lawyers.” Students are forced to think critically and precisely and to articulate their ideas with clarity and conviction.
Although its dominance has declined in recent years, the Socratic method remains the principal tool in this educational process. The Socratic method entails rapidly paced questions and answers — a give-and-take session in the classroom setting — which are designed to teach students how to analyze and synthesize into a coherent framework the raw materials of the common law.
A law professor will rarely explain precisely what the rule of law is in a particular case or area, often because it is impossible to do so. Instead, the students are expected to develop and organize their own understanding of the shape and trend in precedent as they digest hundreds of appellate cases. Daily classes, as well as examinations (which are in essay form and usually offered once in each course at the end of a semester), require extensive reading and preparation. Accomplishment, however, depends far more upon skill at rapid analysis and articulation than upon memory and regurgitation.
In addition to the traditional “casebook” courses that typify legal education, most first-year students participate in legal writing or “lawyering” courses which may include “moot court” programs. These provide an introduction to the essential skills of research, preparation of memoranda, briefs, and other legal documents, as well as negotiation, conflict resolution, and oral advocacy.
In the second and third years, students select from a variety of traditional casebook courses that further enhance basic skills while providing substantive familiarity with more specialized areas of law (e.g., taxation, evidence, corporations, family law, environmental law, and labor law). Most schools also offer seminars in a variety of disciplines such as legal philosophy, as well as clinical programs that enable students to pursue specialized interests and perform legal tasks under clinical professors’ supervision. Indeed, clinical and “cooperative” programs have become increasingly important tools in legal education, and many students choose a law school based upon the variety and reputation of an institution's clinical offerings.
Experience outside the classroom is as vital to legal education — especially to second and third year students — as formal coursework. Law students learn as much from their peers (usually in close-knit study groups) as they do from their professors, and many extracurricular activities in law school revolve around student-run projects in legal education and advocacy.
On the academic side, most law schools have advanced programs in moot court; of even greater import are student publications, such as the law review, that offer legal scholarship in periodical form. On a more practical level, many students participate in organizations which provide legal assistance or research to the elderly, prison inmates, and other groups at the center of social and political controversy.
One hurdle remains after graduation from law school before most students are qualified lawyers: passing the bar examination. Bar exams are administered by individual states to license those who wish to practice in their jurisdiction. Most law students now go directly from law school to a six or eight-week “bar review” course given in the state in which they intend to practice.