Every attorney and JD has a moment when they think, “If only I’d known before I went to law school what I know now!” If there was a way to give their younger selves a few tricks for surviving law school and the first years of practice, they would tell themselves all the things that would have gotten them through the rough spots.
Whether you are a lawyer who knows an aspiring student or a 1-, 2-, or 3L student thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” there is a trove of books available that can help you get through law school and enter the big new world of legal practice.
Surviving and Thriving in Law School
For first-year students drowning in torts and contracts, there is 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School by Andrew McClurg. Although this weighty tome is almost as big as any of your legal casebooks (at 420 pages), it is chock-full of helpful advice from actual 1Ls.
McClurg includes hints on things students need to know during their first year, including:
- How to interact with professors
- What the "Socratic method" is and how to do it
- What a case brief looks like
- Successful class participation methods
- Technology tips and tricks
- Essay and test prep
The book includes extensive interviews and anecdotes from students as they progress through law school and reveals how their perspectives changed as they traveled through their classes. 1L of a Ride is available on Amazon.
Unfortunately, Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Law School Experience: By Students, for Students by Robert H. Miller is not as salacious as the title sounds, but it’s still a great book. It was written by recent graduates for current law students, and explains everything from how to study for exams, to how to work the Law Review, to how to apply for a judicial clerkship.
Mr. Miller wanted his book to describe the law school experience in detail and succeeded admirably. It goes over whether you should attend law school in the first place and discusses law school in practical terms. This book is a must-read for both students still mulling over their decision to attend law school and those already huddled over their casebooks.
Despite the grim title, How to Be Sort of Happy in Law School by Kathryne M. Young is an amusingly written book that tackles a serious question: Why are so many law students plagued with depression and anxiety during their tenure in law school? A JD herself, Young set out to examine why she and many of her fellow students were so stressed while in law school and what could be done to fix the problem.
Drawing on extensive interviews with hundreds of current and former law students, Young discusses the unrealistic expectations many people have in law school, the financial realities, the importance of life-school-work balance, and how to manage relationships while taking legal courses. The book is highly recommended for anyone in law school, going to law school, or who left law school and is having second thoughts.
Understanding the Law
One of the first things a student learns in law school is that "The Law" is not what you’ve seen on TV and in the movies. Professors have to teach you a new way of looking and thinking about laws and legal facts that is completely at odds with what is portrayed in television dramas.
The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking about the Law by Ward Farnsworth helps the new law student identify legal facts and separate them from the old TV tropes and memes we’ve been given throughout our lives. The book presents legal theories as individual chapters with examples and explanations.
Occasionally dry but well-written and richly detailed, The Legal Analyst is helpful for new and old students who have difficulty understanding why legal decisions are sometimes unfair or harsh. Law-as-economy may not have been the typical law student’s first impression of law school, but it is a reality The Legal Analyst helps explain.
When Professor Nicholas McBride’s daughter was curious about entering law as a career, she sent him some emails asking him what he thought. The result was Letters to a Law Student, although the finished product reads more like a law journal than notes to a child. Professor McBride writes extensively and entertainingly about how to handle the pressures of law school, how best to study for classes and exams, and the types of careers available after graduation.
Professor McBride was writing for a daughter heading to Cambridge rather than an American law school, so some details (such as solicitor vs. barrister) may not be relevant for U.S. students. However, most of the book has to do with practical matters of course preparation, class time, and what to do when you’ve graduated. This book is also available on Amazon. There are several editions, so earlier editions are available used.
Nothing is more frustrating than leaving college, where everything has only one right answer, and entering law school, where all the answers are both right and wrong. In Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, Richard M. Fischl and Jeremy Paul commiserate with law students everywhere and explain how legal analysis works to arrive at an answer that is both wrong and right on an exam.
Practicing legal theory can be as tedious as learning to knit, and Fischl and Paul do their best to bring a dry theory to life for students who need more time to read additional texts on top of their casebooks. Getting to Maybe is an excellent book for helping 1Ls realize they are no longer in a world where there is only one right answer and showing them how to find the one less-wrong response on a page full of almost-right responses.
Legal Writing After Law School
After the law student has spent three long years learning to write essays and bar exam answers, they’ll have to spend another year or two learning to write briefs, memoranda, and motions. These books help students get a jump-start on their legal careers.
The Little Book on Legal Writing by Alan L. Dworsky is exactly that: a concise handbook on what to put in a legal document and what to leave out. Moreover, the Little Book is better organized than the legal style guides, like the Blue Book and ALWD, and speaks in clear English instead of coded citations.
Two beneficial sections, “Spelling” and “Usage,” review common legal terms and phrases and point out what words you meant to use and how you spell them. For instance, “assure,” “ensure,” and “insure” are not interchangeable, no matter how much they sound alike.
In the litigious profession’s quest to eschew jargonized obfuscation, Legal Writing in Plain English teaches students to say what they mean and no more. Bryan A. Garner presents four principles for clear and concise writing based on writing for all audiences without depending on excessive legal jargon.
Garner’s number one principle for all legal writing would make the authors of Elements of Style rejoice. Garner breaks it into three simple steps:
- Frame your thoughts, including ordering your material in a logical sequence;
- Phrase your sentences, use active sentences, and omit needless words;
- Choose your words carefully, detest jargon, and simplify wordy phrases.
Both novice and experienced legal writers need Legal Writing in Plain English to improve their writing skills.
Whether or not Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates will help you write like the best attorneys in the country, it will show you how the attorneys in some seminal Supreme Court cases successfully framed their arguments and the industry secrets they used to win points with the top justices in the country.
Author Ross Guberman takes the novel approach of outlining his handbook like a scriptwriting manual. He describes legal argument in screenwriting terms: Theme, tale, meat, leads, zingers, closing. This unique approach underlines a fact of legal arguments: They’re more like acting than attorneys would like to admit.
Nothing inspires up-and-coming lawyers like reading about seminal cases. Good books about great cases are an excellent way to unwind after a hard day at the casebooks without losing focus on your studies.
Landmark Supreme Court Cases: The Most Influential Decisions Of The Supreme Court Of The United Statesby Cindy L. Tate, Roy M. Mersky, and Gary R. Hartman is almost self-explanatory. Three massive volumes of the “most” influential cases, this is a must-read for any budding law student. The book is regularly released with new volumes, and students who want to purchase it should check to ensure they’re getting the newest edition.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein will unwrite everything you ever thought you knew about segregation in America. A detailed and shocking legal history of the U.S. government’s role in “redlining” and intentional racial zoning that took place well into the 1970s and 1980s, The Color of Law needs to be read by any law student planning on a career in civil rights, discrimination law, or public policy.
When you’ve had enough casebooks and texts for one day, make a cup of tea and curl up with a nice legal thriller or mystery. It seems attorneys cannot stop writing, and some of the best legal novels today were written by attorneys or JDs who were tired of seeing themselves portrayed as shysters on TV.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Connelly is better known for the Harry Bosch books (now an Amazon series), but law fans also know the Mickey Haller books. Haller is a down-and-out ambulance chaser, ferried around in the back of his titular Lincoln, thanks to too many DUIs. When he’s retained to defend a man accused of rape, Haller finds himself sucked into a web of lies and deceit by a scheming psychopath. The Lincoln Lawyer is the first in a series of Mickey Haller books.
Clean Hands by Patrick Hoffman is a cutting-edge thriller with a modern twist: stolen classified documents on a lost cell phone. Corporate lawyer Elizabeth Carlyle is defending a bank when one of her associates calls in a panic–she’s lost her cell phone with some secret documents. Elizabeth contacts Valencia Walker, a former CIA agent turned corporate fixer, who discovers the documents are already in circulation. This modern take on a classic espionage thriller is a great read.
Innocent by Scott Turow is the follow-up to his acclaimed best-seller Presumed Innocent. Judge Rusty Sabich finds himself accused of murder once again, this time of his wife. And, in a replay of the murder case 20 years ago, he is again facing D.A. Tommy Molto. Innocent ends with an explosive trial that is pure Turow and one of the profession’s best.
Law & Order. Without this venerable legal TV drama, no “best of” list would be complete. With its famous two-beat musical drop and Sam Waterston’s famous eyebrows, Law & Order is probably the second-most famous legal show after Perry Mason. Law students should be able to spot the procedural rights and wrongs in each episode and identify the famous cases the stories are based on. Law & Order may be the show that started more legal careers than any other.
Law school is equal parts grinding boredom and paralyzing terror, with long periods of wondering what on earth you’ve gotten yourself into in between. Students should take time to review what others have said about their own experience and put their advice about school-life balance into practice.Take time for yourself and step away from your casebooks every once in a while. Even if you read a legal thriller or watch a legal TV show, you’ll be able to get back to work refreshed and amused with a new eye on things.