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BY LISA FREUDENHEIM AND JESSICA TOMER
The Ultimate Guide to Undergrad vs. Law School: All the Differences You Need to Know

You might’ve already guessed that law school is different from undergrad…but how? And how should you prepare as a future law student?

Here’s a list of the differences you’ll typically find between undergraduate colleges and law schools. Get to know them, and you’ll be ready for whatever law school throws at you.

(Looking for tips on applying to law school? Make sure you read the advice here too.)

Academics

Reading and writing

  • In law school, you will be reading and writing a ton. How much exactly will depend on the class, of course, but 50–100 pages of reading a night is not uncommon. However, you will also take special legal writing and academic support classes early on that teach you how to read cases and analyze information quickly. So you can crush all the course work to come.
  • Rather than essays, you’ll be primarily writing case briefs/summaries, which break down and analyze a particular legal case. You’ll also learn how to identify legal issues, conduct legal research, apply the law as it currently stands, and frame your arguments. Speaking of which...
  • Law school written analysis hinges on a style known as IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion. You determine the issue at hand, apply the relevant rule/law, and analyze the situation to reach a conclusion. You’ll get used to thinking this way—aka thinking like a lawyer—over time.
  • Your writing will be more straightforward. Contracts and other legal documents are pretty dry, because they have to be. That being said, “legal writing” doesn’t necessarily mean “boring.” In fact, your ability to tell an interesting—and persuasive—story is critical in law school. So that writing elective you took in undergrad is more useful than you know.
  • You’ll be reading casebooks instead of traditional textbooks. They're collections of legal cases and decisions. You’ll probably be expected to read several cases in preparation for each class.
  • You can't skip the reading. One more time, for emphasis: You. Can't. Skip. The. Reading. In. Law. School. (Keep reading to learn why.)

Classes

  • You won’t be able to fly under the radar in class. Your professors will expect you to participate. Many teach using the Socratic Method, meaning they ask lots of questions and encourage class discussion. Some professors will assign you to a group and put you all “on call” to answer questions for a particular week. Others will conduct a class-wide discussion, where you’ll need to volunteer answers…or prepare to get randomly called on. It’s the perfect training for becoming lawyer, and it really helps you learn the material cold. Of course, it can also be a little intimidating. But if you do the reading and make an effort to understand it, you’ll be okay.
  • Your grades are often based primarily on the final exam. With the exception of legal research and writing courses, many law school classes don’t have graded homework, and they have few, if any, quizzes.
  • Don’t be alarmed if you can’t keep up the same fabulous GPA you had in undergrad. Law school is almost universally harder than college—but this is a good thing. It’s designed to prepare you for the rigors of your legal career. And remember, everyone is in the same boat.

Studying

  • Law school typically has a heftier work load than undergrad. You should treat it like a full-time job, dedicating at least 40 hours (or more) to reading and studying each week. And you should make sure your study and time management skills are up to snuff too.
  • You should take advantage of your law school’s academic support program, even if you don’t feel like you’re struggling. Law schools offer these services for a reason, and you can get invaluable study tips and second opinions. (For example, the Academic Excellence Program at New England Law helps students with their studying and test-taking skills, offers one-on-one academic advising, and starts students' bar exam prep early on.)
  • Law school is more about developing analytical skills than rote memorization. However, you will still need to learn lots of legal terms, particularly your first year. So don’t delete that flashcard app just yet.
  • Study groups can be a big part of your success strategy. Think about starting or joining one, particularly your first year of law school. You can get meaningful feedback about your work, talk through tough concepts, and get notes if you have to miss class. Also, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just nice to have a group to vent to.
  • You can’t cram in law school. Remember those all-nighters you pulled in undergrad, just you and some Red Bull against the world? That strategy won’t get you far in law school. You need to bring a semester’s worth of analytical skills and familiarity with the law and core concepts into those all-important final exams. The most successful law students create “outlines,” or organized summaries of the law, from the information presented in class. The ability to synthesize and organize this material into clear rules is critical to law school success.
  • But you can practice, practice, practice. How will you know when you have really learned the material and are ready for the exam? The key is to do as many practice essays and review as many multiple-choice questions as you reasonably can. We all tend to overestimate our understanding of new material, and the only way to know for sure that you’ve mastered what you’re learning in your law school classes is to test yourself and then self-assess honestly and thoroughly.

Work/hands-on experience

  • Law school is all about becoming a lawyer (we know: “duh”). But it’s a pretty stark contrast to undergrad, where your major rarely defines your post-college career path and you can test the waters of totally different academic subjects. In law school, you’ll be working toward a distinct professional goal every day.
  • You’ll start preparing for your future law career as early as your first semester. You’ll likely have required 1L workshops and seminars that will help you acclimate to law school and prepare you for the road ahead. This includes bar exam prep. Lots and lots of bar exam prep.
  • You’ll get tons of real-world experience: clinics, clerkships, internships, pro bono and other volunteer work, summer fellowships, moot court/mock trial, and more. Some of these experiences will be woven into your law school classes, and some you’ll need to pursue on your own. You could get hands-on legal experience as early as your first year of law school. Don’t worry: you’ll be under the supervision of a licensed attorney, of course!
  • There’s an expectation of maturity in law school from day one. You need to act professionally inside class and out. That means being on time for class and other appointments, following through on your commitments, and delivering your best work consistently. Your professors expect this of you, as will your peers. So will your clients...
  • There is more accountability too. You’ll be working on real-world cases in your law school clinics and internships—and they have real-world consequences. This is one of the most exciting parts of law school, and you’ll be expected to act like a real lawyer, whether you’re preparing research for a case or walking a client through paperwork.
  • You’re building your professional network. The classmates around you today will be your colleagues tomorrow. You will support each other, whether you’re looking for jobs or need some professional advice. Your professors are invaluable career resources too, from cluing you into possible jobs to having good old fashioned heart-to-heart talks with you about your career goals.

Student/social life

  • The student life vibe is much different. Most law students are commuters, not to mention a little more mature and more career-focused. So you’ll find a pretty different campus life than you had in undergrad. However, just because you won’t have RAs organizing game nights for your dorm doesn’t mean law school is all work and no play…
  • Yes, law schools have fun events and activities; they’re just more focused on the lawyering experience. Professional development, academic discussion, and networking will be top priorities. But law schools also host plenty of cultural celebrations, sports leagues and games, volunteer opportunities, holiday events, and more.
  • Student organizations and extracurriculars are more law-focused too. They might include groups like the American Constitution Society, Black Law Students Association, Criminal Law Society, Environmental Law Society, Phi Delta Phi International Legal Fraternity, and Women’s Law Caucus. Campus law reviews and other publications can be great introductions to legal research and publishing. And the Student Bar Association is typically a highly involved student group as well. (You’ll find more examples of law school student organizations here.)
  • Your stress levels will go up. Now, keep in mind that some stress is good. It can make you push yourself harder and grow in meaningful ways. But law school is challenging, and you’ll need to learn how to manage any added stress and practice self-care. Basic things like eating well, exercising, sleeping, and taking breaks when you need them can make a big difference in your overall mental health—not to mention your ability to do well in your classes. So focus on your needs and the healthy stress-management tactics that work best for you. That being said, you don’t need to go it alone. Your law school should have some sort of student services office (like this one), where you can discuss stress-management and mental health issues. You might find a student support group on campus or in your community too. For example, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts is such a resource for law students, as well as practicing lawyers and their families.

What stays the same?

Some things don’t change between undergrad and law school, namely:

  • You get out of it what you put in. So give law school your best effort, and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. (And you’re sure to find tons of valuable opportunities in law school.)
  • Time management and organizational skills are essential. Map out your time in advance, break projects down to manageable tasks, and set realistic goals. Be good to your planner, and it will be good to you.
  • You can specialize in law school. You won’t be choosing between 50+ majors like you did in undergrad, but you will get the opportunity to study specific law paths or specialties if you like, depending on your career interests and passions. For example, you might take up a concentration in immigration law, IP law, civil litigation, etc.
  • Your law school professors are an invaluable resource. They hold office hours (just like in undergrad) and can answer your questions in person or via email. They also can make outstanding mentors and career connections.
  • Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

So, why is law school different from college?

Now you know: law school is very different from undergrad. But it’s different in purposeful—and helpful—ways. Remember, you’re rewiring your brain to think like a lawyer and learning the skills you’ll need for a lifelong career. Someday soon, you’ll be out there helping people as only a lawyer can, from fighting for fair policies to understanding contracts to counseling tough cases and everything in between. Let that motivate you.

Finally, remember that you were accepted to law school because you have the skills, passion, and grit it takes to succeed in law school.

You can do this. We hope these tips help.

Want to get a sense of what law school is really like and how it differs from undergrad? Visit! Most law schools will give you the opportunity to sit in on a class too, so you can see these differences firsthand.

Lisa Freudenheim is the Director of the Academic Excellence Program and an Academic Excellence Professor at New England Law | Boston. Jessica Tomer is the school's Web Content Manager.