Before law school, I was addicted to watching movies and television shows based on the legal profession, like Legally Blonde, The Paper Chase, Boston Legal, and Law and Order (ok, I’m still addicted – it’s exciting when I understand the legal jargon). While entertaining, these shows and movies have helped Hollywood perpetuate several stereotypes of law school. Well into my law school years now, friends and family still regularly make comparisons between what I am going through and what Hollywood has shown them my life should be. I must gently remind them that law school is my reality and not a Hollywood production.
Not every misconception is tied to Hollywood but, whatever the source, I’m certain you’ll be asked about at least one of these if you go to law school too.
The Scary Professor
Have you ever watched the scene from The Paper Chase, the one from the first day of class? It’s intense. Or how about the scene from Legally Blonde, where Elle is kicked out of class? What these two scenes have in common is that they portray the professors as stern, rigid, and downright scary. These “professors” are not the kind of teachers whose office hours you’d want to attend. I’ve been asked at least once a semester since I started if I have that scary, mean professor.
When you first meet your professors, you might be intimated – they are brilliant and incredibly accomplished people – but it will not take you long to realize the days of the Paper Chase professor are long gone. My professors are tough, but fair. Their office doors are open, and they want you to come to office hours. They answer e-mails – sometimes at odd hours of the night – and are willing to work around your schedule to help you. The reality is, they want you to succeed. As long as you work hard, they will do their best to help you.
The Amazing Internship
By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the TV show How to Get Away with Murder. Those students, with that amazing internship during their first semester of law school? I still remember making Christmas cookies with a cousin when she asked me how much of that was like real law school. I almost choked on the cookie I was eating.
During your first year of law school, you will not have an internship. Nor, as you will find out, could you handle or want one. In real life, those kids would have epically failed their first semester of law school. The same goes for Legally Blonde. An internship of that magnitude is amazing and rare, and it does not happen during your first year. At that point in your legal career, you do not have the education to succeed.
Also, it would break so many rules. So many rules.
It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World
Hollywood has perfected this stereotype of law school with How to Get Away with Murder (set in Philly; can you blame me for watching?). Sex, lies, stealing, and murder – just to get outlines and book pages. These students were willing to take one another down to put themselves ahead.
“By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the TV show How to Get Away with Murder. I still remember making Christmas cookies with a cousin when she asked me how much of that was like real law school. I almost choked on the cookie I was eating.”
Law school is competitive. But in my experience, it’s not the rip pages out of the book, don’t share your notes, hide the outline world that it is rumored to be. There is a bit of healthy competition. You can sense who is “gunning” for the top of the class, for trial team, moot court, and for law review. But I have always shared my notes when asked, and no one has ever denied me theirs when I missed class. In fact, when I didn’t understand the material, there was always at least one classmate who was willing to talk through it with me and help me understand, and I would do the same for them. The competition of law school is not as vicious as Hollywood makes it seem, at least not at Temple.
How Are Your Classes Going – Do You Have An “A” Right Now?
This misconception is not perpetuated by Hollywood, but it’s a common misunderstanding just the same. In your academics before law school, final grades were a culmination of class participation, papers, mid-terms, and finals. You always had an idea of where you stood in class and what you needed to do to pass. Law school is different. There are no mid-terms or smaller assignments for grades. Class participation does not count. In fact, the only thing that counts is that one final, at the end of the semester on all the material you have discussed in class. Don’t fret about this; everyone is in the same boat and it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds.
Your friends and family will inevitably ask how school is going. They will want to know what kinds of grades you are getting – in October. You may have to patiently explain, several times, that law school is different. You get one grade, your final, and that is it.
The Bar – What Prep Course Are You Using?
Who says you’re taking the bar anyway? Wait, did I just say that? Yes, most people do not know that just because you went to law school does not mean you have to take the bar.
Let me clarify this. If you want to practice, and stand in front of a judge, and hold yourself out as an attorney, then yes, you need to take the bar. But maybe you’re a policy wonk. Maybe you’ve gone to law school because everyone who is doing what you want to do attended law school, but that career doesn’t require the actual ability to practice. If you fall into this latter category, like me, signing up for a bar prep course may not be the best use of your funds.
If you indeed wish to be a practicing attorney, I would still suggest waiting to sign up for a bar prep course. Try the various free materials each course offers to determine which one best suits your learning needs. If you’re going to spend the money on a course, and spend the money to take the bar, then it’s worth figuring out which course makes the most sense for you.
Law school is a lot of things. Let Hollywood inspire you. Let reality guide you. Ultimately, like the rest of life, it will be what you make of it.