Law School Undercover: A Veteran Law Professor Tells the Truth about Admissions, Classes, Cases, Exams, Law Review, and More (Paperback)
A Veteran Law Professor Tells the Truth about Admissions, Classes, Cases, Exams, Law Review, and More
Fine Print Press, 9781888960150, 158pp.
Publication Date: May 1, 2011
Law School Undercover, by "Professor X," is by far the most unique law school guide I have ever encountered. In a good way. Simply browsing the catalog of available law school guides reveals countless volumes written primarily by fairly-recent law school graduates. Most of those books are average at best - a fact to which I can attest from having read the vast majority. Some are bad, and a handful stand out as being superior; I have happily reviewed the better ones on Amazon.com to explain exactly why they are worth buying. But few truly step outside the boundaries of what a law school guide can be. One notable exception, or rather, three notable exceptions, are the "Jagged Rocks" guides written by Morten Lund, which, by virtue of his original approach to the genre, are wonderful books. And now, with the publication of Law School Undercover, we have another highly original law school guide that deserves attention.
I find it hard to write a review these days without referring to Lund's work, as you've no doubt already discovered in the preceding paragraph. But the things that make Lund's work good are apparent in Law School Undercover: an expert author explaining to, rather than just telling, law students and new lawyers how to navigate through the system. Professor X has much in common with Lund, in that to be perfectly blunt, they both "matter" as authors. Without sounding insulting, most law school guide authors don't actually matter. They're "just" law grads, products of the system, explaining what worked and what didn't work while they were going through the system. My own book, "Later in Life Lawyers," suffers from the same inescapable fault in that I was "just" a law grad at the time of writing. This isn't to say that the books written by "just" law grads are irrelevant or unhelpful, but they do tend to come from the same standpoint of trying to make sense of what happens in law school for those who have yet to experience it.
But Professor X, along with Lund, are the system, not just products of it. They aren't "just" law grads, and their advice isn't coming from a law graduate's perspective. They're beyond that level in their careers and their writing. Lund's work is important as it's written from the perspective of a hiring partner at a decent law firm, and to get him and other hiring partners to pay attention to you in a sea of almost-identical law grads, it's worth listening to what he has to say. Lund, in other words, has extraordinary power over your future success or failure as a lawyer. And the same goes for Professor X, who is writing from the perspective of a law professor, and who has insight into the inner workings of the legal education system that prospective law students would be foolish to ignore. Professor X too has extraordinary power over your future success or failure, and to ignore the advice from the very person who will be grading your exams is insane.
But on to the book itself. Law School Undercover is a book that is concise and readable, two qualities of writing that law professors typically ignore - anyone who has worked on Law Review knows what I'm talking about. The book is divided into three main sections, focusing on "before law school" (getting in), "making the grade" (succeeding in class and exams), and "career moves" (self explanatory). Professor X knows why people will pick this book up - i.e. because he's a law professor - and he sticks to what the reader wants, which is specific insider information from a law professor, not merely generic, watery advice. Like almost all of the law school guides published by The Fine Print Press, this isn't intended to be yet another milquetoast encyclopedia of everything to do with law school. It's a guide with a point, a guide written to fill a gap in the knowledge base, rather than simply a guide that covers what has already been covered. And to be honest, the gap left in the knowledge base by the absence, until now, of a solid book written by a law professor was huge. It's only after reading Law School Undercover do you realize how much you didn't know. But please don't think that this means Law School Undercover is so narrow that it can't be a valuable guide to law school as a stand-alone book; it can. Perhaps as proof, it even has a brief section about romance in law school, the hallmark of a law school guide that has it all. (I'm guilty of this as an author, too, as are many others.)
Interesting to note was Professor X's awareness of the challenging job market faced by many law grads. (This in itself is important, as it demonstrates that law professors, contrary to many critics out there in cyberspace, aren't inhabiting an ivory tower; while the study of law can seem far removed from the practice of law, this doesn't necessarily mean that the realities of the practice of law don't affect the study of law and those who teach.) His advice is general in nature concerning this point, but extremely useful. Rather than engaging in a detailed financial analysis of the costs of a law degree, along with detailed (and speculative) economic predictions, Professor X encourages law applicants to look at the larger picture and think further out into the future than they may have done so before. "As I write, much of the American economy is in shambles, and right along with the economy goes the legal profession," writes Professor X. "It does not appear to be a good time to invest in a law degree. I have heard much the same thing said about nearly every other occupation. Yet surely do nothing' cannot be the correct response." So many law applicants exhibit tunnel vision and see the negative in their own chosen field of study, yet fail to see the broader picture: everyone is having a rough time right now, and a law perhaps isn't a much riskier proposition than any other career or degree in the long term.
Law School Undercover attempts to instill in the reader the importance of personal satisfaction and enjoyment in their future life as a practicing lawyer, a sense that a legal career is not a sprint to that Biglaw job right after passing the bar exam, and that a career in law is a journey that will - if undertaken thoughtfully - last for many decades. While no guide book can change the economy and suddenly produce enough jobs for law graduates, Law School Undercover is the only guide book that tries hard to make the reader understand that they must take ownership of their own career, and that careful choices (and some counterintuitive choices) before, during and after law school will be more likely to produce a stable, satisfying legal career than mindlessly believing that the huge salary in a large law firm is the gold standard of success (which has been the downfall of many a recent law graduate).
In fact, much of the advice in the book is what I would call counterintuitive. Or, perhaps more accurately, counter to commonly-accepted law school advice. For example, the entire section on "getting in" reveals that your GPA is far more than a mere number (as claimed by just about every other law school guide), and that admissions officers can, and do, regularly look behind a GPA to find out more about the applicant. The same goes for employment prior to law school, or experiences during college; law-related jobs and activities aren't particularly impressive to admissions officers, who would much rather see non-law (i.e. interesting and diverse) employment and activities. Think that year of working as a paralegal in a large firm will demonstrate your commitment to a legal career that will impress the admissions officers? Think again. And considering the background of the author, who has two decades of experience as a professor in a number of law schools and clearly possesses first-hand experience working on admissions committees, who are you inclined to believe? The guide book written by the law grad with no such experience, or the guide book written by the author with twenty years of insider knowledge?
That's not to say that I agree with every piece of advice in this particular book. Some of the advice, as with any guide book, is the educated opinion of the author, but most is undisputable fact. Reasonable authors can differ on their approach to certain aspects of legal education. I, for example, tend towards the opinion that one attends law school to get a job as a lawyer, whereas Professor X tends towards the opinion that one attends law school to get a law degree; a subtle difference, but one that colors our respective advice. Professor X, however, makes a very convincing case for putting less emphasis on the "how will this help me get a job right out of law school" aspects of a legal education, and more on the "how will this help me enjoy a legal career for the remainder of my life" aspects of a legal education. And to be honest, Professor X is right. Education isn't simply about getting a job before graduation. Nobody knows how the economic downturn will resolve, and taking the advice given in Law School Undercover will undoubtedly make the reader a happier, more stable lawyer in the long run.
Law School Undercover is no advocate of short cuts, and hands out few tips on how to avoid hard work. The book explains that although law school is an academic challenge that can be navigated by most admitted students, it is by no means an easy challenge. Cases should be read, classes should be attended, the job of the professor is to make you work and think outside your comfort zone, and your life should revolve around law school for those three years of study. And in giving this advice, Professor X demonstrates exactly what law school should be: preparation for the hard work involved in a legal career following graduation. Law school is not about getting a high GPA through cheap tricks, and it's not about padding a resume with award.