One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in my first semester of law school was trying to find “the answer”.
In class when we went over cases or problems, I would always think “okay, what’s the answer?”. On assignments and exams, I kept trying to write “the perfect answer”.
It wasn’t until this semester that it really clicked for me: there usually is no answer. Or, more accurately, there are 1) many answers, and/or 2) it depends.
In pre-law school academic life, (at least for me) there was always an answer somewhere that was right, and other answers that were perhaps less so. But in any case, there was “an answer” somewhere. In a law school where we learn primarily through the case method, it seems to me that the cases we are given are not “answers” but tools. You can use the ratio of each case to build your own argument to a particular fact pattern.
Does this revelation make writing a great exam answer any easier? Not really, but at least I can stop my fruitless quest for “the” answer to a law school exam. One of my professors drove the point home last week when he told our class “even if I completely disagreed with your answer, if you used the case law correctly and built a persuasive argument I would award you points”. This felt wildly different than my undergraduate degree.
I suppose that’s what people mean when they say that law school changes the way you think. The ratio of a case is not just a simple answer to a question: it’s one piece of information you have to lead you to a certain conclusion. Not only that, but what it doesn’t mean can have implications for your fact pattern (ie exceptions to the rule, or how far the rule can take you). One can also use policy arguments to fill in the gaps between ratios.
Now that I understand this, the law seems so much more exciting and creative than it did before. Looking for “the answer” all the time was like having blinders on, it’s too narrow. This great blog post explains the difference between bad and good confusion in law school- bad confusion is when you’re simply lost. Good confusion means you don’t know the answer but you can elucidate what particular cases would lead you to conclude.
If I could go back to first semester, I would try to see the forest for the trees, take a step back, and think harder about the implications of a case, rather than agonize over the details.