The Importance of the First Year of Law School

Blog author WMU-Cooley Distinguished Professor Emeritus Otto Stockmeyer devoted 35 years to teaching first-year law courses. In an update of a 2017 blog post he offers his thoughts on the important role of the first year in training successful lawyers.

Forty-some years ago the Dean of Harvard Law School told first-year law student Scott Turow, author of the book One L, “Almost all attorneys regard the first year of law school as the most challenging year of their legal lives.” It remains so today.

One reason the first year is such a challenge is that, in addition to imparting legal doctrine and lawyering skills, it introduces students to two foundational concepts: the common law and legal reasoning.

What is meant by “common law?” The common law, which we inherited from England, is simply the accumulation of judicial precedent based on the inherent power of the courts to declare law where no statute or constitutional provision controls.

The common law of a jurisdiction develops on a case-by-case basis, with legal issues decided as particular legal problems arise. The addition of the doctrine of stare decisis provides some predictability to the common law, although as Roscoe Pound famously wrote: “The law must be stable, but it cannot stand still.”

U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn was right in saying, at a lecture at the University of Michigan law school, “the vast majority of the law that governs us is the common law, judge-made law.”

Regardless of the debate over whether we have a “living” Constitution, the common law remains alive and evolutionary. Rule-of-law candidates for appellate judgeships who maintain that the judicial branch “should interpret the law and not make the law” have lost sight of our common-law heritage.

What is “legal reasoning?” As beginning law students soon learn, what we call legal reasoning can be expressed in a formula known as IRAC. The law’s version of the deductive syllogism, it stands for Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. First, identify the issue (“Is Socrates mortal?”). Then state the applicable rule (“All men are mortal”). Then apply the rule to the relevant facts (“Socrates is a man”). Which leads inexorably to the conclusion (“Therefore Socrates is mortal”).

Some law students have the idea that IRAC is just a law school exam-writing format. The reality is much different. IRAC is what “thinking like a lawyer” is all about. It is the template used by lawyers in preparing legal memoranda, and the structure that most judges use in drafting judicial opinions. It’s also the type of analysis that bar examiners are looking for.

IRAC is as central to legal analysis as the formula E=mc2 is to physics. The article The Importance of IRAC and Legal Writing rightly concludes: “IRAC is the key to success on law school exams, the bar exam, and a successful career in litigation.”

Key to mastering common-law synthesis and legal reasoning is the Socratic method of teaching. Supplanted by more experiential teaching in the second and third years, the Socratic method is still a mainstay of first-year courses. Some beginning students dread the Socratic method due to a fear of standing to recite in a room full of strangers. Instead they should embrace the experience.

Conclusion. In the movie version of The Paper Chase, Professor Kingsfield analogizes first-year law teaching to doing brain surgery: “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your mind. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

With access to a law library, any reasonably intelligent college grad can learn basic legal rules and procedures. But it takes immersion in the first year of law school to develop the legal mindset necessary to successfully practice law.

For more of his views on this topic, see Professor Stockmeyer's article “Reflections on Teaching the First Day of Contracts,” available through the Social Science Research Network.

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