My initiation into law came early and fast. We were required to "brief" two law cases for orientation. "Briefing"
is essentially summarizing, or restating the cases in our own words,
highlighting the essential points for discussion. We were given introductions on how to write effective briefs, and set on our paths to 'self-destruction'.
I have never written "briefs", so I was not sure if I was doing them correctly. But as it turned out there was no right way to do the briefs, except what works for the individual. Briefs
serve as highlights of cases, so that one can pick out the essence of
the law embedded in the cases without having to read the entire
proceedings of the cases. Most of the cases for our
studies are deciding opinions written by judges on specific cases, and
contained the judges' interpretations of the law. Some judges write extremely well, very easy to read. Others write not so well, flooding the pages with words like a jagged river with sharp turns and unpredictable currents. Thus the point of the briefs is to derive the essence for oneself, so one can remember it.
Sometimes briefs written by other law students and even professors are available, especially on the internet. But reading other people's briefs doesn't help a law student much. The big part of writing briefs is learning to read the opinions and paraphrasing the opinions in one's own words. Doing so repeatedly over time enables one to get used to researching legal opinions en masse. In
the real world, a lawyer must go through hundreds if not thousands of
potential case opinions to prepare for one case, depending on the
situation. Most of the case opinions are not briefed, and even if they are, they may be far too abbreviated to be useful.
How did I do on my two briefs? Average. I
didn't miss any important points in the cases, and I was not completely
lost during the discussions of the cases, so I surmised that I still
had a decent chance of succeeding. We shall see.
August 12th, Friday, end of orientation. More food and drinks on the lawn. Is this all there is for law school? Going from law cases to parties? But what else could there be?
I acquainted myself with several evening program students, three of us
decided to form our own study group, so that we can discuss our briefs
before the class, and perhaps share notes. We planned to meeting on Sunday night to discuss our tort and contract law cases.
I spent all Saturday and Sunday preparing for the cases of these two classes. Eight briefs in all, along with some additional reading. I
timed myself, and gauged the difficulties of doing the reading and the
briefing, since I would be doing this more and more over the next four
years, and I will have to set aside a certain amount of time. Surprisingly, I did not feel extremely stressed by the amount of work. So far, so good, but I'm sure this will change with time. (The professors promised us in orientation that the workload will increase).
Then a curious thing happened. My two study group partners were not ready on Sunday night. One looked as if he was still hung over from a drinking binge, and the other had a part-time job. In
my mind, I compared my situation with theirs, and I could not figure
out why they didn't have enough time to finish the briefs. They were both younger and unmarried. How is it that they had less time than I had?
note relevant to this question came to me from a professor, who noted
that organization skills can make a difference in law school. Careful planning, scheduling, and organizing of studies, can help, especially in the aspect of time. Though (or because) I had a full-time job, and I was married, I was careful in planning my studies along with my work. I made a schedule, and I will stick to it. Eureka! I experienced my first enlightenment in law school, minor as it may be.
I began to suspect that one of my study buddies was alcoholic, because he wanted to go drinking after every study session. Later I found an organization that helps lawyers with alcohol and drug abuse problems. Is it perhaps the stress of the profession that causes alcohol abuse in some lawyers and law students? Or perhaps it is a mere coincidence that some law students seem to enjoy drinking so much? Though I reminded myself, this is like a graduate school, and most of the students are just out of college. Perhaps comparing to the standards of an average American college campus, this amount of drinking is almost nothing.
First week of classes went by without many surprises. Several people heard about our little study group, and wanted to join in. Slowly but surely, we let people in.
By the third week, our study group expanded to five people. We
would find or reserve a special sound proof room in the law library and
proceed to have loud exchanges of legal opinions on cases, which we
called discussions. My rather alcoholic young friend and I had several heated debates which came to no conclusions. In
hindsight, I believe I got more from the discussion than he did,
because my experiences told me that there is not necessarily one right
answer in law, only how one presents the arguments, whereas he would
continue to believe that he is correct, but eventually run out of valid
My contract law professor said to us that it is more about how we play with the facts and the concepts to support our opinions. My tort professor said being able to argue both sides of the cases is also very important.
the fundamental difference exists between knowing the right position,
versus being able to argue well for the right position. And that is the reason for the profession of law. Any fool can think that he knows the right position, but that won't help him in a court. In
a court, to see the right position triumph, one needs a good lawyer,
who by training, must argue well for the right position, or any
position, even the bad positions.
Some of my engineer colleagues disdain the legal profession for this particular reason. Many of them think that legality should be obvious by "common sense". The
extremely analytical minds of engineers and scientists are very used to
the idea of showing "1+1=2", and not have a huge debate about it. For the average engineers, proof of truth is a very logical and self-evident process, with little room for interpretations. But the terrain of laws is filled with words and actions, each with unique sets of ambiguities and grey zones. To
believe that laws are always clear and common sense, is to believe that
two good persons cannot possibly get into legal disputes, but that is
often not the case. Good people get into legal disputes, often because good people do not truly understand the boundaries of law.
One of the law professors noted that the engineers and scientists will have a tough time in law school. Did he mean people like me? Am I one of the engineers who will have a tough time? I
was certain that he didn't mean all engineers, and that I was
significantly different from your average run of the mill engineer. He attributed the engineers' tough time in law school to the lack of artistic tendencies in our profession. Law, he said, is a very creative profession. Naturally I understood that. The
study of law requires that the lawyers look at legal issues with many
different points of view, sometimes brand new points of view. However, I disagreed with his conclusion that the analytical scientific minds do not do this. I
would agree that many engineers and scientists are not very creative,
but many great engineers and scientists are extremely creative. So, I find irony in that a law professor can also have some generalized stereotypes about a profession other than his own.
Summarising my first four weeks in law school, these are my personal observations. In general, I find the study of law challenging but agreeable to my particular personality. I tell my wife that I have work and school, and each is a diversion from the other. Law school is like a break from my engineering work, and my engineering work is like a break from law school. So far, the two have not clashed, and I have enough time left for my home still. It is hard work, but I enjoy the feeling of learning something, and challenging my mind to new things. The professors and the students in law school are friendly, and I get no dreadful sense of conflict in the classroom. Perhaps
I am more tolerant in my older age, since I do hear a few complaints
from the students about the professors being too serious or too tough. Or perhaps I'm merely used to the demanding nature of serious businesses from my company life. If they think the professors are tough, they have never met the managers during performance review time. That too makes me think that I am advantaged in law school.
I have no doubt that I will do reasonably well in law school. I'm hoping to make it to the school's bar review, a student ran magazine that comments on legal issues. Bar review memberships are given to only the best students, in terms of writing and legal knowledge. Its membership almost guarantees employment in the legal profession. Only about ten from a school of over a thousand or so people are given bar review membership each year. Still, I will try.
in four years, I will be done with law school, and out practising in
the real world, with some of my decency and ethics intact. Cheers!