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I'm starting law school in the fall, what should I read before I start?

Published on by Barry Friedman and John Goldberg

At about this time each year, future 1Ls might ask a friend, relatives or lawyer they happen to know:, “What should I read to prepare for law school.” We have three answers: one that may surprise you, one that will amuse you, and one that is … well … a bit self-serving. (Yes, we’ve written a book to prep students for law school, discussed below.)

Part of the reason the 1L year is so meaningful is its 'jumping into the deep end of the pool' aspect.

The surprise. You don’t need to read anything to prepare yourself for law school, and in fact we think there are some things you should avoid. Although students often complain about how difficult the first year of law school is, they also tend to remember it fondly after they graduate. That was definitely our experience: we remember the trepidation, the hard work, and the confusion, and we remember it fondly! 

Part of the reason the 1L year is so meaningful is its ‘jumping into the deep end of the pool’ aspect. You should savor the immersion and the novelty of it. Trying to learn substantive law before you start is not likely to help, and might even dull the experience. As we explain in Open Book: The Inside Track to Law School, each professor will have her own ‘take’ on the first-year courses. If you cram your head full of material, you may find you will need to ‘unlearn’ what you have taught yourself. Don’t go to law school before you go to law school!

Now the amusement.  We’ve suggested not trying to learn law before law school, but that doesn’t mean you should not read anything about law before law school.  What you should read (and watch) are things that get you excited about law and legal institutions; that might give you some background in an entertaining way.  Years ago one of us collected a list of favorite movies about the law for entering 1Ls. We can’t find it, but feel free to write us at openbooklaw@gmail.com and tell us your favorites. Two classics are My Cousin Vinny and Legally Blonde. They are pretty goofy, but that’s the point; getting ready for law school should be fun.

If it is books you want, we have a slew to recommend. Some of these, alas, are less light-hearted but important and interesting. For example, you could take at a look at The Buffalo Creek Mining Disaster or A Civil Action.  Both are about litigation efforts to right wrongs; one is inspirational and the other is downright depressing.  You can also read biographies about leading figures in the law. You’ll learn a lot about the origins of our legal system if you read Ron Chernow’s now-famous biography of Alexander Hamilton.  (And, you’ll then be in a position to appreciate the show no one can afford to see!)

Finally, the self-serving part. You should read Open Book: The Inside Track to Law School. Several years ago, in response to a student suggestion, we wrote the first edition of this book (under a slightly different title).  It was designed at the time primarily as a resource to help law students understand how to succeed on law school exams.  We wrote it for students to read during the middle of the 1L first semester.

But students told us we needed to rewrite our book so that it would be useful earlier.  They said that as much as they loved it, they were too busy to get through the whole book once classes were fully underway. They pointed out that much of the advice in the book is advice that they wanted to know earlier, before they started.

Guided by this student feedback, we rewrote the book.  In particular, this edition has a new first part that discusses in a low-key, approachable way how law works, how legal institutions operate, and other basics that will help you hit the ground running in the first weeks of class.  The book still explains how to succeed on law school exams, including many instructions for outlining and exam preparation.

In fact, there is something utterly novel about our book.  It comes with a host of online resources, including something you will not find anywhere else: actual practice exams written and annotated by professors all over the country.  Students have always complained to us that they did not get enough exam feedback, so we asked some of our friends to provide us with an exam, a model answer, and three real student answers, all annotated with tips. These come free to anyone who buys Open Book.

As we said at the outset, you don’t need to read a thing. But we worked pretty hard on Open Book to make it useful to incoming 1Ls and we’d love you to take a look.

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