While each law school is different, some aspects of a legal education are common to all schools.
The first year curriculum is similar in most law schools: everyone takes torts, criminal law, contracts, civil procedure, property, constitutional law, and legal research and writing. And nearly everyone has a similar reaction: it is a lot of difficult work. The format of classroom instruction almost typically follows the Socratic model, with students responding to the professor's questions about the assigned judicial decisions and other legal materials. First year law students are expected to be prepared to discuss and analyze these readings in class. This may require study-habit changes, especially for those students who regularly only lightly read reading assignments and then crammed for the midterm or final exam. While most law students will study intensely for final exams, it is in addition to, and never in place of, daily preparation.
Final exams take on an exceptional importance in most law schools classes: they are the sole basis for course grades and class standing. For the student who became accustomed to making good grades with relative ease throughout the educational process, the first year of law school often brings about some major changes. First, the cases the student is required to read, comprehend, brief, and explain, tend to be very complex, sometimes internally contradictory and frequently difficult to understand. A single reading often will not suffice; it’s common to read key cases several times and to utilize intense concentration while doing so. In addition, law students commonly find that they are no longer guaranteed a position toward the top of the class merely by putting forth a reasonable effort. Furthermore, mandatory grading curves limit the number of high grades professors can give, particularly in first year and bar courses. Most law students were skimmed from the top of the class at their undergraduate institutions, and most work hard at being well prepared for daily class participation as well as final exams. Competition often is exceptionally intense. First-year students often question whether they even belong in law school.
The second and third years of law school differ from the first mainly with regard to the courses taken, with the student having a much wider choice of subject matter. Competition remains keen, and, at least from the professor’s point of view, there is no let-up in preparation requirements. The overall atmosphere, however, tends to be more relaxed, as students have successfully survived the dreaded first year and have adapted to the demands of the discipline.
Many law schools offer clinical experience during the second and third years, wherein the students work with actual clients. The goal of this legal clinic work is to acquire lawyering skills that will later be used. Many students choose to spend summers working in law offices, but tough economic times have made many firms cut back on hiring summer law clerks.
The common thread that exists throughout all three years of law school is that the student is being taught to think, to analyze, to write like a lawyer. The student's thought processes are channeled into the development of problem solutions that depend on the orderly juxtaposition of facts, law, and precedent leading to logical and conceptually defensible conclusions.