A Survival Kit for American Law Schools


Getting admitted to law school is already a challenge, but what happens after that is another challenge in and of itself. Here’s a survival kit I’m sure you’ll enjoy from our very own Steffen Hadi.

American law schools are arguably among the best law schools in the world. To get admitted into one is indeed a proud and memorable achievement. But have you ever imagined how to academically survive in an American law school?

As August marks the start of the academic year for most American law schools, allow me to share some survival tips for surviving academically. Here, I use my experience in the University of Pennsylvania Law School as a reference as I believe the situation there can represent the overall situation in American law schools.

20% Class, 80% Independent Study

The Socratic method is used for almost all classes. It is a method where the professor will not teach you the subject already given in textbooks. Instead, the professor will challenge your understanding of a particular subject that you have prepared in advance.

Before class, the professor will usually distribute the reading material to be discussed in the upcoming class and which part of the textbook that you need to read. This time is known as independent study. You need to ensure that you have finished the reading assignment before the class.

When you sit in a class, it is assumed that you have read all the required materials for that session, hence no excuse for any unprepared responses to the questions asked. The professor will probably bring some questions to the class and expect meaningful interaction with the students. Some professors will ask pointed questions, some others will throw it to the audience. The rule of thumb is that your participation in class will also determine your grade.


Asking questions

As usual, asking questions will also count as participation in class. But you must take precautions in asking questions. Do not ask a question if the answer can be found in the textbook or reading materials. If you do, the professor will know that you have not read the reading materials and as a result, the professor will answer by asking you a question that actually leads to your answer. All to test your knowledge on the obvious matter.

How to stand out in class

In a fluid class, it is relatively easy to stand out, provided that you are well-prepared for the class. To stand out, it is not enough to just finish the reading materials; instead, you need to conduct additional research for the materials you have read. Research may include additional doctrines of law, dissenting opinions from another expert, and, the most noteworthy, court decisions. Because a significant portion of the US legal foundation lies on court decisions, it is really important to master landmark decisions related to the matters at hand. Thus, you would probably stand out if you can support your argument in class with some court decisions.

Tests are no longer about memorizing the book

Tests at American law schools can vary; it can be multiple choices, essays, or papers. Most tests will be given not to test your memory on a particular subject. Instead, it will test your understanding by giving you real cases. You need to solve or comment on the given cases by applying your understanding of the subject. Of course, in your answer, you need to support your argument either by doctrines or court decisions.

Some tests are open book, which means that memorizing the subject is no longer important. Moreover, some tests are even take-home tests where you will be given a certain period to submit your answers. You need to be careful with this kind of test. A take-home (or open book) test is often the most difficult because it requires in-depth understanding and research. In fact, one of the take-home tests that I had was a forty-five-page test, to which I gave a seventy-five-page answer sheet.

You can, actually, choose the test form based on your preference by choosing the professor. Before the beginning of the semester, you will be given chance to pick your classes and each class will be delivered by a different professor. Usually, you can find the type of the test given for such class in the class description.  

It is no longer about your final GPA

Note that the following only applies JD students. For most LLMs, the description below does not apply, unless the LLMs wish to work in the US.

It is true that your final GPA is no longer relevant in an American law school. Moreover, some Ivy League law schools have removed the GPA system. Generally, an average law school student will obtain at least a 3.5 GPA. This is a considerably low GPA actually, as students with distinction usually have 3.8ish GPA.

But as I said, the final GPA is not important. Most law students get a job after the first year at law school. The recruitment for law firms begins after the first year, when the law schools will host a recruitment batch for many American law firms. For each student, the law firms will review the score of each subject in the first semester (evidence, criminal law, civil procedure, torts, etc.) These are considered the most important subjects because they will be tested again for the bar exam. By reviewing the students’ scores for these subjects, the law firms can get a clear evaluation of the skills and ability of the relevant law student. If a student is hired, the student will have to do a summer internship at that law firm.

After that, the second and third years are not particularly important until the bar exam. The admission to the bar is important, if not a determining factor for you to be confirmed as an associate of a law firm. Thus, passing the bar has insurmountable importance for your career as a legal practitioner in the US.

Challenging, huh?

Photos by author.

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Steffen Hadi studied LL.M. in University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton Business and Law Certificate of the Wharton School at the same university. He was the Class President of Penn Law LL.M. Class 2016, Penn Law Students Representative in University of Pennsylvania’s council, and international associate editor in Penn Law Journal of International Law. Steffen also interned at a prominent international law firm in Philadelphia. Aside from LL.M. Steffen also holds a Sarjana Hukum (LL.B. equivalent) from Parahyangan Catholic University. Steffen has been practicing law as a corporate lawyer in Jakarta and Singapore. Presently, he is a senior associate in a prominent law firm in Indonesia and independently assisting few legal issues for start-ups. In his spare time, Steffen is a movie freak, loyal runner, and outdoor trekker.


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