How to Prepare for Law School During Your Undergrad
Throughout my first year of law school, I noticed how different it was from my undergrad in the arts and realized that I would have benefited from earlier preparation in a few key areas. If you are interested in attending law school, you can prepare by working on certain skills in your undergrad. While some undergraduate students will be familiar with these concepts, the methods used by law students in their research, writing, and note-taking could support your own academic success whether in high school or university.
Preparing for Legal Research
If you have written an academic research paper during your undergrad, then legal research will seem familiar. Legal research attempts to answer a legal question. This may refer to finding a precedent in the law, analyzing similar jurisdictions, or any other means of retrieving information to support your work.
An important process when undertaking legal research is writing down your steps into a progress memo. This memo can help you review your own research methods and could be a valuable tool when doing legal and academic writing. Generally, you take note of what you entered into search engines, when you did so, and what you found. When you find a valuable source online or at the library, you can follow up by creating a brief summary of the relevant information and pinpoint the location of where you found it. A progress memo could help you put your first words down on a paper or remind you which sources supported your thesis.
First year legal research classes will also introduce you to the search engines used in law firms. There are a few different legal databases such as Quicklaw and Westlaw, which are both commonly used to find relevant case law or academic commentary. Case law refers to the published legal decisions of courts that inform current rules of law outside of legislation. You can become familiar with case law by exploring CanLII, a free online legal database, and by reading recent Supreme Court of Canada judgements. You could also get an idea for what legal drafting looks like by browsing the Criminal Code or other statutes found on the Federal Government’s Justice Laws website. Both high school and undergraduate students can take advantage of the many legal resources available online.
One benefit of legal research across Canadian institutions is that we use a uniform citation method called The Canadian Guide to Legal Citation, also known as the McGill Guide. This eliminates the concern that your professor will not accept APA, MLA, or Chicago style citations. Obviously, the best policy in any class is to ask the professor how they want citations, but most law professors accept the McGill Guide for everything from case law to scholarly articles.
Preparing for Legal Writing
One of the most surprising discoveries in my first year was that being a lawyer involves a lot of writing. During my orientation, a professor claimed that most judges will write more pages than a novelist in their career. After reading a few lengthy judgements, it’s easy to see how.
Legal writing can refer to any writing that expresses legal analysis or advocacy. It is used by lawyers in everything from client communications to court documents.
Legal writing often attempts to demonstrate why a precedent should be followed or why a different interpretation is justified given the circumstances. A carefully constructed legal analysis will draw upon a number of sources including legislation, case law, and policy discussions.
But, even if you look online and read a judgment, you might still ask (as I did) what legal writing is and how it differs from academic writing. One of the fundamental differences is that legal writing is succinct. It should clearly state its arguments without the use of unnecessary words. Despite the cultural perception that lawyers use “legalese” to protect their profession, legal writing gets straight to the point and conveys meaning with the fewest words possible.
Undergraduate students can prepare for legal writing by drawing on both primary and secondary sources in their papers, and by considering multiple perspectives to create a compelling argument. Practicing this critical thinking and honing your writing skills throughout university will pay off in both your personal and professional life. A well-written email or cover letter may land you that first interview.
Honing Note-taking & Exam-writing Skills
Your undergraduate classes are naturally a great place to learn and improve note-taking skills. Unfortunately I used to take my notes in paragraph form and often verbatim to the professor’s lecture. This made it an arduous task to review my notes in preparation for an exam.
I have since learned that law school notes should be short, which is often best done in point form. You can capture the most important details by using sub-bullets, bolding, and highlighting. I also recommend adding dates and headings to your notes to better track the progression of your course. This addition will make it easier to replace a missed lecture.
Many students have heard about the Socratic method employed in law classes. You might have a mental image of terrified students being called out to answer a question about an obscure rule of law or a detailed fact from a case. While some professors do use the Socratic approach, it is more likely that you will be asked about assigned readings rather than outside material.
A great routine to develop in your undergrad is to re-read and edit your notes at least once a week after both reading the assigned materials and attending lectures. This routine will both reinforce your understanding of the material and save time on studying for exams.
Exams in law school are not that different from exams in your undergrad. There are often sections that can include multiple choice, short answer, and policy analysis. However, the use of a summary in your exams is unique to law school.
Your summary is the culmination of all of your notes with a table of contents that you can bring into the exam. While this might sound helpful, it can just as easily become a burden if you spend too much time scouring for the right case to support your argument. Thus, mastering time management in undergraduate exams will help you succeed on your exams in law school.
If you take time to develop these skills in your undergrad, they will serve you well in both in law school and in your professional life. Your research and writing skills could be the difference between you and another student at a law firm, earning you an offer to return the following year. Your note-taking skills will be tested should you ever interview a client with a complicated story and an unclear legal issue.
If you have any questions about how to improve your research, writing, or note taking skills, or simply have a question about law school, then please feel free to connect with me through the National Young Leader mentorship program!
Photo Credit: Douglas Sprott