Resources for a future lawyer
December 23, 2018 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend books, articles, websites, and apps for DIY pre-law studies.

After a dozen years of teaching public school, I'm ready for a change and a challenge. I have always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, and believe I have the intelligence, diligence, and resources to make it happen eventually. As a lifelong activist, I am excited to help people in this new way; however, I am also aware of how expensive law school is and how difficult the job market can be, to say the least.

As I've written here before, I plan to live abroad for a few years. Upon returning to the US, I would first become a paralegal to gain experience and determine if this is truly my desired career path. For now, I'd like to start reading various resources, both general and specific, as a head start.

Please note: I am not looking for reasons to NOT study law or become a lawyer, and I've read this thread already. I am open to hearing your LSAT study guide suggestions.

Thank you!
posted by smorgasbord to Law & Government (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I liked The Majesty of the Law by Sandra Day O’Connor, it’s a good primer on the American legal system and an explanation of some of the theoretical underpinnings of how litigation works. It’s a bit dry, but more precise and comprehensive than most legal books aimed at lay people.

For the LSAT, The LSAT Trainer is a good one, though it seems like most of the really good prep is now available free on YouTube, which is nice. My own personal opinion is that people should spend 300-400 hours on LSAT prep, or until they consistently score in the 170s, whichever comes first. I think the test is too important to determining what options you will have for law school to do anything less. And where you go to law school will unfortunately have a huge impact on your post-grad debt, as well as what your options are for your first legal internships and post-grad legal jobs, so putting forth anything less than a huge life-swallowing effort just makes no sense. Think of it as a dry run for law school and your legal career, spending a huge amount of time and effort building your ability to focus with laserlike intensity on what will at least occasionally be boring and inscrutable material.
posted by skewed at 3:35 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


One-L was suggested by my law school, and the Paper Chase is based on the book - the Hawkins v. McGee scene is not too far off from my experience, but YMMV. The Lowering the Bar blog also offers perspectives on law schools and the practice of law generally.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations and NALA are professional organizations that offer more information about paralegals. To get a sense of legal practices and organizations that might be interesting to work for, you can check out the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page.
posted by Little Dawn at 4:19 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


From Barbarism to Verdict by Justin Fleming about the development of common law (precedent, custom, equity etc).
This book tracks the unpredictable story of the law of "experience" - the law of common custom and principles, designed by people and events and "built" by a long line of judges. It is a story of people, power and tradition and their overthrow, the story of the subjection of the primitive and barbarous to scrutiny and civilized verdict.
A fun read introduced by John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame.
posted by Thella at 4:42 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


That sort of allegedly "Socratic" questioning has (rightly) fallen well out of favor, though I suppose there may still be individual assholes who will practice it. You will still be called on and asked questions, but it is no longer some kind of bizarre high-stakes humiliation ritual, and, unless something really weird happens, no one will remember the next day that it was you who got called on.

I would suggest some reading about what practicing, and especially practicing in a public-service or activist context, means: Gideon's Trumpet, Simple Justice, A Civil Action, Courtroom 302. These books are all a bit older and somewhat outdated, but many of the issues that appear have survived, just mutating with the times. A (much more) modern work is The Chickenshit Club.
posted by praemunire at 4:46 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


I thought The Lost Children of Wilder, about a legal challenge to NYC’s foster care system, was interesting and might be something you’d like. There is an law review article called Why the Haves Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits is Legal Change. It’s academic and not practical, but is interesting.
posted by kerf at 5:41 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Individuals who practice socratic dialogue may include judges who expect a certain style of interaction and preparedness:
A teaching strategy that includes calling on students without giving them prior notice is the best way I have found to foster critical thinking for all members of such a group. No student is certain before class whether she will be called on to discuss difficult issues or to respond to answers provided by one of her colleagues. She must therefore pay close attention to my discussions with other students so she will be ready to play a meaningful role. Furthermore, the Socratic Method places some responsibility on students to think about the questions silently and participate actively on their own; the element of surprise provides a powerful incentive for them to meet that responsibility. It also encourages students to prepare for class, which will enable them to learn more from the Socratic dialogue that takes place. The objective is to inculcate in students the habit of rigorous and critical analysis of the arguments that they hear, as well as the practice of assessing and revising their own ideas and approaches in light of new information or different reasoning.
[...]
Speaking in public, whether in the courtroom, before a group of clients or opposing counsel, or in a meeting of lawmakers working to draft a statute, is part of every lawyer's job, so developing the ability to present ideas forcefully and effectively in such contexts is integral to becoming a lawyer.
posted by Little Dawn at 5:54 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Individuals who practice socratic dialogue may include judges who expect a certain style of interaction and preparedness:

No. A judge who carried out Paper Chase-style "Socratic" dialogue would be behaving quite inappropriately. I have never seen one do it, though, of course, as they are largely autonomous, there is always the possibility of inappropriate behavior.

In graduate school seminars, when they engage in frankly far more complex debate, this "style" is essentially unknown. It is, or was (note that from the very same page: "The day of the relentless Socratic professor who ended every sentence with a question mark is over. University of Chicago professors who rely on the Socratic Method today use participatory learning and discussions with a few students on whom they call (in some classrooms, randomly) to explore very difficult legal concepts and principles. The effort is a cooperative one in which the teacher and students work to understand an issue more completely."), bullshit hazing trying to cover up for the fact that it is impossible to have serious discussions engaging and educating all the students in a lecture hall with a hundred or more students per class. This is now widely recognized, though I'm not surprised to see some UChicago jerks fighting a rearguard action.

(I keep saying "Socratic" because it is very, very remote from actual Socrates's pedagogical method.)
posted by praemunire at 7:20 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


At my first contested hearing, I remember being thankful that my contracts and civil procedure professors had been so terrifying, because it seemed helpful when I started to call my first witness and the judge interrupted me with Counsel, what are you doing, and then lectured me about how it was their courtroom and they would decide the order of the witnesses.

Based on my experience, I think trial practice requires paying active attention to the judge, the opposing counsel/party, the client, the files, and being as prepared as possible in advance of going to court. I like the quote about socratic dialogue from the University of Chicago because I think it speaks to how law school can prepare lawyers for high-stakes situations, like a contested hearing. My trial practice classes focused on the mechanics, but the substantive law classes felt more like training for the less predictable aspects - when the questioning is random, students have to be actively engaged in the class to always be ready to participate, similar to how it works in the courtroom.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:39 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Probably your best head start is practicing for the LSAT and becoming fluent in one or more non-English languages. Fluency, or close to it, especially in Spanish, is extremely helpful for public service legal hiring. Prepping for law school curriculum/content is mostly wasted time, and may even work against you, so I wouldn't attempt any kind of pre-law study. The LSAT + improved language skill is the way to go.

If you're going to work as a paralegal, only do it for a year, and even then, I would caution against doing it because you want to learn about a legal career. The biggest issue is that ageism is a real thing in the legal field and you're pushing it, age-wise (I say that as a fellow non-trad student. I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I am not going to lie to you about it---it's a thing).

Furthermore, legal practice varies widely based on what you do, who your clients are, and where you're located. If you have a really solid idea of what type of law you want to practice (and it sounds like you have some idea,) then working as a paralegal in that field would probably be overkill compared to just doing informational interviews, volunteering to help with filing, etc.

The best time to be a paralegal pre-law-school is if you otherwise would be waiting tables or something. At your age, you're not looking to kill time and make 40k while you practice for the LSAT / apply, rather the opposite. You're in a bit of a hurry. Making 40k and not building your legal career is sort of a waste of time. Given that, since you already have a solid, decent-paying career set up, you should stick to that and get information about working as a lawyer in other ways. You should also get a move on when it comes to applying. One year to prep for the LSAT, then applying next year would be an ideal timetable. Remember, too, that once you're set up to apply to law school, you can always delay and go a year later. I did this multiple times and it was fine. I never regretting being prepared to apply and I never regretted saying no and waiting a year.

I'd also suggest reframing your understanding of what it means to become a lawyer. You definitely have "intelligence, diligence, and resources" to become a lawyer. Sometimes people become wrapped up in the idea of being a lawyer as an achievement. It's really not the best way to look at it, and it leads to people making bad decisions because they have a sort of rebellious, "you can't tell me that I'm not good enough" attitude towards it. They get their ego wrapped up in their ability to be a lawyer, and quitting feels like a personal failure. That is a really bad mindset to get into. Instead, you should look at it is as an investment, like buying a house. It is sometimes a good idea to buy a house, sometimes a bad idea. There are houses that are good to buy, and houses that are bad to buy. Sometimes you luck out and get a good option, sometimes you don't and you have to pass on buying. Law school is the same way. You might have to pass for your own financial future and well-being. That doesn't mean you're not good enough, that means you're making a smart decision about what to invest in.

Finally, it's almost as important (maybe even more important) to understand that working as a lawyer often means investing heavily in one particular location. Legal practice can be particularly local. It often takes a lot of time, energy, money, and effort to move from one state to another, much of which has to be expended before you actually get a job in that second state. Additionally, law schools often have vastly different outcomes for people looking for jobs in different states. If, for example, you are from Delaware and you go to Del for law school, you're going to have a decent shot at jobs in Delaware, even though it's a low-ranked school. If you went to South Texas U and you're looking for jobs in Delaware, you're gonna have a hard time. Sometimes local schools even have a leg up over "elite" law schools that usually have no trouble getting jobs for graduates, depending on the market. Finally, some kinds of law are just not available in some places, because there isn't demand or because an accident of fate led to those practices being centrally located elsewhere. That means that you should know in advance if you can practice the type of law you're interested in in the location you're interested in.

Given the localism (parochialism?) of the legal market and legal practice, then, if you have a connection to a particular place (an SO, family, desire to settle down there, etc.) that should factor into your decisions from day one. It should affect where you apply and where you end up going to school, as well as what kind of law you want to practice. This is something that almost everyone who isn't a lawyer finds really surprising. Doing research on this kind of thing --- and on the legal market more generally for the fields you're interested in --- is the kind of pre-law prep that really pays off.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:38 AM on December 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


One-L was suggested by my law school, and the Paper Chase yt is based on the book - the Hawkins v. McGee scene is not too far off from my experience, but YMMV.

I suggest these not necessarily because of the socratic method (which, while alive and well, and particularly valuable for attorneys-in-training), but because they give you a good idea of the more challenging personalities that you will encounter in law school and when practicing as a lawyer. Like it or not, law school attracts a certain kind of person who really enjoys feeling smarter than other people by beating them in pointless arguments. If you are prepared, you will know to ignore these people!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:52 AM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you have time, you might consider spending some time sitting and watching court proceedings. Not just the exciting jury trials, but also the mundane court calendars, the day-in, day-out types of work that various courts handle. I would suggest visiting different levels of courts, too (city, county, federal, etc.).

While perhaps not that many lawyers spend a significant proportion of their time in court, watching court proceedings can give you a really good sense of the types of activities (and subjects) you might be using your intelligence, diligence, and resources toward in your career. It also can help you ground your expectations in reality far more than any book, in my opinion.
posted by pril at 10:51 AM on December 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


Reading materials: Most of the "classic" media on law school itself, like One-L and The Paper Chase, is very out of date. And in the end law school is just three years--better to spend time seeking information about what it's like to be a lawyer.

For inspiration of a sort, I liked Linda Greenhouse's Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey.

Check out Jotwell for summaries of legal scholarship. Along the right as you scroll down are links to the sub-Jotwells, so you can explore a topic you think you'd be interested in.

And, I know that you didn't ask, but I can't help it. If you want to become a lawyer in order to be an activist, it's better to get involved in a cause you believe in, and work at it until you realize that you need a law degree to continue advancing in your career or to continue advancing your cause. Even legally-oriented organizations have jobs for non-lawyers (e.g., the Innocence Project). Of my law school classmates who entered wanting to go into "public interest" jobs (as they are known in law school parlance), only a very small percentage entered or are still in those jobs 7 years later--and they are all people who had a very specific plan or even a particular organization to return to. The rest went to law firms or law schools or stopped being lawyers.
posted by CiaoMela at 11:36 AM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Thank you to everyone for your detailed and helpful responses! I learned something from each and every one, and will put your expert advice to good use.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:28 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


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