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Learn to Read, Write Like a Law Student Before Classes Start

First-year students must learn a new vocabulary to successfully complete assignments, experts say.

Speaking with a law school adviser over the summer can help incoming law students prepare for upcoming writing assignments.

Speaking with a law school adviser over the summer can help incoming law students prepare for upcoming writing assignments.

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Getting into law school is a battle for many students, but making it through the first year can be just as hard.

The reading assignments take hours to complete and are often unlike anything students experienced as undergrads. They are often asked to read about appellate court decisions, for example, which are usually filled with legal jargon.

"In some ways you're learning a new vocabulary," says Bernard Bell, a law professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey—Newark. "You're running back and forth to your law dictionary every few words."

Students are usually expected to spend two hours of preparation – perhaps reading and writing briefs – for every hour of class in a given subject, such as torts or constitutional law. If a first-year student, known as 1L, is taking 15 credits, "You're talking about 30 hours of preparation," Bell says.

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In addition to learning how to read differently, students are also expected to learn how to write differently. Most students are often required to take a legal research and writing class in their first year.

Learning how to read and write legal terminology go hand in hand, as both require students have a firm understanding of what it means to think like a lawyer, Bell says.

"If you're struggling with those concepts in your substantive classes almost invariably you're going to struggle with those same concepts when you then have to construct legal arguments," he says. "Part of the challenge for some students is that they're not being fully successful at learning legal argumentation."

Prospective law students and those entering their first year can use the summer to prepare for both of these challenges. Below law school professors and students offer advice.

Reading: For students who will receive their first assignment before school starts – a common practice at many schools – or who are curious about what their readings will be like, there are a few books that can help.

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Matthew Hall, the associate dean for academic affairs and a professor at the School of Law at the University of Mississippi, suggests students read "1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School," by Andrew McClurg, to get a better idea of what to expect during their first year.

Hall can relate to first-year students who struggle with reading assignments. In his first year as a law student at the University of Kentucky, it sometimes took him two hours to read a four-page case.

"It's like they're reading in a foreign language," he says.

Bell suggests rising 1Ls pick up "Thinking Like a Lawyer: A New Introduction to Legal Reasoning," by Frederick Schauer.

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That or a similar book is worthwhile, says Bell. "He actually talks about, in general, some of the cases most law students will see in their first year."

Writing: In a legal writing class, students may learn how to write a brief, memo and other legal documents.

The style of writing is likely very different from what they did in undergrad, says Michael Garza, a rising second-year law student at Fordham University.

"In like literary review courses or my English courses in the past, I know it's been about using an expansive vocabulary," says Garza, who started law school immediately after graduating from Rice University. "In legal writing, it's a lot about being concise and to the point."

New students can get an understanding of what this kind of writing entails by contacting their law school adviser or their legal writing teacher to get an example of good legal writing by a student before classes begin, Garza suggests.

"In some ways you can improve your writing just by doing more of it," says Bell. New students can prepare for legal writing classes by practicing expository writing in their free time, as well as reading anything, not just legal work, by a good writer, he says.

Adjusting to the reading and writing required in law school was an especially jarring experience for Adi Kanlic, who earned a bachelor's in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas—El Paso.