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Advice for 1Ls: What If You Don't Know the Answer?: Many first-year law students worry about being called on in class. What might happen if the professor asks a question that the student just can't answer? Here are a few thoughts on what to do, depending on the nature of the question.

  1) Reciting the case. Sometimes a professor asks a question about the facts or the analysis in the case. They're trying to get students to identify and wrestle with the key parts of the opinion, and they're asking the student to remember what the opinion said. As a student, sometimes you just can't answer: You read the case earlier on, but you don't remember the part your professor has in mind.

  What to do? If you really don't know the answer, I think you should just say so. You might say, "I don't recall that from the opinion" or just "I don't remember that." The alternative is to pretend that you know the answer. You could just guess, or you could start scanning the opinion in the unlikely chance you'll see the point in a second or two. But these alternatives usually don't work. If you guess incorrectly you'll probably look a bit silly, and everyone can tell when a student is staring at the page for a long time. Just be straightfoward and acknowledge politely that you don't know the answer.

  2) Applying the rule. Sometimes a professor will ask students how a legal rule would apply to a hypothetical case. You know the rule and you understand the facts, but you're just not sure how the facts would apply.

  What to do? I think you should explain your uncertainty. To the extent you can, articulate why you're unsure. You might say, "I'm not exactly sure how the rule would apply. On one hand, it seems that the rule would apply like this [fill in details]. But on the other hand, there's a detail that seems to point the other way because [fill in details]." Articulating why a hypothetical is hard is a really essential skill: It's the same skill you'll need to show on an exam to get a high grade.

  3) Normative questions. Sometimes a professor will ask a student to take a position about what is the best rule. As a student, you might be unsure of what is the best rule. You'll have instincts about which rule you like, but you're just not confident that your instincts are sound.

  What to do? Different people will have different advice here, but I think the best approach is to just pick a position and run with it. When a professor asks a normative question, the goal is to engage in a discussion of the pros and cons of different legal rules. The questioning should bring out those pros and cons, and a student needs to take a position for the process to begin. Sure, it may happen that the questioning reveals a problem with the initial choice: Upon seeing the drawbacks to your position more clearly, you may want to change your mind. But that's a good thing, not a bad one. It means that you're learning how to think through the consequences of different rules. Further, no one should be embarrassed by changing their mind after expressing a normative view. While a student may feel embarrassed to not know the facts, as it suggests lack of proper preparation, there is no shame in learning.

  Anyway, those are my two cents. I trust readers will chime in if they disagree.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Advice for Entering Law Students:
  2. Advice for 1Ls: What If You Don't Know the Answer?:
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Advice for Entering Law Students:

Master Conspirator Eugene Volokh has suggested that we might do some posts giving advice to entering law students. I don't have much to add to what I said in this 2006 post on the subject.

However, I will give one new piece of advice: don't automatically believe everything you hear about the "right" study methods for learning the law. From the first day of law school, many people will tell you that studying law is radically different from studying anything else and that you need to use all sorts of time-consuming new methods just to keep up. For example, some will tell you need that you need to outline every case you read in great detail or that you have to buy lots of commercially produced study guides.

It may be that some or all of these things really will help you get through law school. But you may want to consider the possibility that you can study law more or less the same way you studied other liberal arts and social science subjects as an undergrad or graduate student. With relatively minor modifications, I got through law school using the same study skills as I had used before. Lots of others have done the same thing. Many people achieve excellent records in law school without tedious new study methods, and without ever so much as glancing in a study guide other than the assigned readings. It can work, and if it does, it'll be a lot less aggravating than the alternatives.

Different people learn in different ways. My approach to studying may not work for you. So I'm not saying that you should necessarily do what I did or that you should reject study guides, detailed outlines, and the rest out of hand. Just approach the task with an open mind, and don't assume that the only way to survive law school is to adopt the time-consuming study methods many people will try to foist on you during your first year.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Advice for Entering Law Students:
  2. Advice for 1Ls: What If You Don't Know the Answer?:
47 Comments