What to Read the Summer Before Law School

When I meet people who are about to enter law school, they often ask me if there are things they could read to help them be better prepared for law school. I think there are. In the summer before entering law school, I would recommend that you primarily focus on relaxing and on mentally adjusting yourself to the fact that you are about to enter upon a course of hard work. But in addition to relaxation and mental preparation, there are some types of reading that you can do to orient yourself to the world of the law and the world of law school.

I’d recommend that you consider doing some reading in each of three categories (focusing on the areas in which you feel least prepared):

1)      Readings to ensure that you have a good background understanding of United States history and the basic structure of U.S. government and the legal system;

2)      Readings that will help prepare you for the law school experience itself, and will help you begin to build your identity as an attorney;

3)      Readings that will help you prepare for your legal writing and research class, the class that (unsurprisingly) I consider your most important course in law school.

Readings for Category 1:

*You will spend much of your first year learning about U.S. law by reading individual cases decided by U.S. courts. This incremental building block approach is quite different from the overview lectures that may have made up much of your undergraduate education. To understand what you are reading in the individual cases you read (and how the cases relate to each other), you need a solid understanding of the U.S. system of government, particularly how the three branches of government make law and how they interact with each other. To understand this, in turn, you need a good basic understanding of U.S. history.  You should have gained this knowledge in high school and college.  But….. if you did not…. the summer before law school is a good time to remedy this gap in your education. A few good, relatively concise sources on U.S. history are:

  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
  • Paul Johnson, A History of the American People
  • The Federalist Papers
  • O’Connor, Sabato, and Yanus, American Government: Roots and Reform (11th ed. 2011) or a similar U.S. government textbook.

A few good sources for understanding the structure of the U.S. legal system include:

  • Toni M. Fine, American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide. This book will give you an overview of American legal institutions and sources of law, and presents a guide to the interrelationships between and among those institutions and legal authorities. It’s very short and concisely written in an outline format that makes it helpful as a quick reference guide.
  • Brian L. Porto, May it Please the Court: Judicial Processes and Politics in America (2d ed.). In this book I recommend reading Chapter 2, “American Courts – Structures and Procedures.”
  • Steven J. Burton, Introduction to Law and Legal Reasoning.This book will introduce you to the reasoning processes by which legal actors (such as attorneys and judges) create the law and apply it to real-world problems.

Readings for Category 2:

Law school is an experience different from any other experience you’ve had. It’s exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also highly challenging, arduous, and at times, stressful. Your 1L year, in particular, is like intellectual boot camp, designed to transition you into a member of the community of lawyers. Learning the law is also like learning a foreign language. The 1L year is all about teaching you to “think like a lawyer,” so you will probably find it helpful to read a book or two that will introduce you to how lawyers think and the process by which law school will teach you to think that way.

  • Scott Turow, 1L – though written several decades ago, this is still the best account by a law students of what it’s like to go through (and survive) the first year of law school.
  • Karl N. Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush. This book is a thoughtful examination of the common law legal reasoning process – the main skill that every U.S. lawyer must build over time. It also gives law students valuable advice about how to read cases and prepare for class.
  • Ruth Ann McKinney, Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert. This book will introduce you to the arduous process of reading individual court cases in the depth that lawyers need to read cases.
  • There are also a number of books about how to succeed as a law student. One good example is Herbert N. Ramy, Succeeding in Law School. Lots of similar books are listed on Amazon.com. They all give good basic advice about study habits, time management, and dealing with stress.

Readings for Category 3:

*As I said, I consider legal writing the most important course you will take in law school. This course is crucial for preparing you to practice law, because it teaches you how to apply the law you are learning in your subject-matter classes to a client’s real-world legal problem. Excellent analytic legal writing is indispensable to advising clients and persuading judges, and written legal analysis is different from other types of writing you have done in the past. One important difference is that it is crucial to understand the needs of your legal audience and how they differ from the needs of other types of readers. The following articles will help you begin to understand your legal audience.

  • Anne Enquist, Talking to Students About the Differences Between Undergraduate Writing and Legal Writing, 13 Perspectives 104 (Winter 2005), available at http://store.westlaw.com/pdf/perspec/Winter%202005/Wint058.pdf. This short article will introduce you to the important realization that legal writing differs significantly from the type of writing you likely did as an undergraduate.

 

  • Michael Higdon, The Legal Reader: An Expose, University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 183 (March 9, 2012), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2019728. This article will help you start developing the crucial lawyering skill of identifying the particular audience for whom you are writing your particular legal document, and writing to meet the specific needs of that audience.
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