What can I expect in law school?

What is a law degree?

A Juris Doctor (J.D.) is the degree awarded to law school graduates. Most J.D. programs are three-year programs, though some are four-year part-time programs, and a few two-year accelerated programs are available. Graduates can practice any area of law after passing a state bar exam with the exception of patent law, which requires a technical undergraduate major (or substantial coursework in science courses) and a passing score on the patent bar exam. For more information on patent law requirements, go to the United State Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

A J.D. can also lead to a range of law-related careers in government, politics, business, higher education, alternative dispute resolution, consulting, public interest advocacy, and numerous other fields. If you are interested in earning a J.D. for any career other than the practice of law, make sure to investigate alternative pathways to that career, including other graduate degrees and work experience, to be sure law school is the most efficient path. 

Don’t confuse the J.D. with the LL.M., a masters of laws degree for students who have already earned their J.D. or for international students with a legal background who want to learn U.S. law.

How is law school different than college?

Case Method:

Law school is an academic challenge; most students agree the first year (“1L” year) is the most difficult. In part, this is because law school is taught using methods entirely different than the lecture method used in most college classrooms. Law school is taught using the Case Method in combination with the Socratic Method. The Case Method involves significant reading and preparation for class. Expect to spend several hours each evening reading cases (appellate-level judicial opinions). Here is an example of a case usually covered in a first-year contracts course:

Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., 190 F.Supp. 116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960).

The textbooks for first-year law classes usually include cases and excerpts of cases from across the country. You will not find explanations of the cases, summaries of the cases, or outlines of the pertinent information to understand in teh textbook.  It is up to you to “brief” each case. A case brief is a summary of the case, broken down into relevant parts. You must analyze each case in preparation for class.

Case Brief for Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., 190 F.Supp. 116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960).

Socratic Method:

There is no way to hide in a law school classroom.  Law professors usually don’t lecture; instead, they ask questions to help students learn how to analyze case law. Students often have assigned seats and the professors have a seating chart with pictures and names of students pasted to it. This makes it easier for them to call on students and ask questions about the assigned cases. For a particular case, the professor may ask questions designed to explore the facts of the case, to determine the legal principles, and to analyze the reasoning used. The professor may then use hypothetical scenarios to test a student’s understanding of the material.


Most law schools have a highly-structured first year (referred to as “1L”) curriculum.

“As a first-year law student, you will follow a designated course of study that may cover many of the following subjects:

  • Civil procedure—the process of adjudication in the United States, i.e., jurisdiction and standing to sue, motions and pleadings, pretrial procedure, the structure of a lawsuit, and appellate review of trial results.
  • Constitutional law—the legislative powers of the federal and state governments, and questions of civil liberties and constitutional history, including detailed study of the Bill of Rights and constitutional freedoms.
  • Contracts—the nature of enforceable promises and rules for determining appropriate remedies in case of nonperformance.
  • Criminal law and criminal procedure—bases of criminal responsibility, the rules and policies for enforcing sanctions against individuals accused of committing offenses against the public order and well-being, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with criminal violations.
  • Legal method—students' introduction to the organization of the American legal system and its processes.
  • Legal writing—research and writing component of most first-year programs; requires students to research and write memoranda dealing with various legal problems.
  • Property law—concepts, uses, and historical developments in the treatment of land, buildings, natural resources, and personal objects.
  • Torts—private wrongs, such as acts of negligence, assault, and defamation, that violate obligations of the law.”

From LSAC, “What You Can Expect from Your Law School Experience”.

Exams and Grading:

After class, students create outlines of the course material from their classroom notes and case briefs. Study groups are encouraged to help students understand complicated concepts and case distinctions. Many students work on their course outlines in these study groups. Outlines are important because they can often be used on final exams. Most first-year law courses have only one exam at the end of the semester that determines 100 percent of a student’s final grade. A minority of schools have courses with mid-terms or assignments throughout the semester. These exams are often based on hypothetical fact patterns that touch on all of the concepts in the course and require the student to analyze and apply the law, rather than memorize it. Sample exams can be found online at various law schools. Many students find it difficult to assess how well they are mastering the material in the first semester as they assimilate to law school.


In the first-year of law school, many students find the Case Method foreign, the Socratic Method unnerving, and the lack of information about their academic progress troubling. This creates a stimulating, stressful, and competitive first-year experience that many students report is the greatest academic challenge of their lives. Some students thrive in this setting while others stumble.  It is critical for you to learn as much as possible about law school before you get there to determine if this environment is a match for your skills and goals.

How can I learn more about law school?

The activities and resources below can help you explore your interest in law school.

  • Subscribe to the Pre-law Listserv to learn about upcoming events, scholarship opportunities, and important updates. Click here to register.
  • Sit in on a real law school course.  There is no better way to learn about what law school is really like than to attend.  Many schools will allow you to sit in on a class during a scheduled visit to the school.  Consider sitting in on a class at one of Penn State’s law schools: Penn State Law at University Park or Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle.
  • Meet admissions officers from law schools at Law School Day during Graduate & Professional School Week held in the HUB each October.
  • Attend a free LSAC Law School Recruitment Forum held in major cities around the country.
  • Examine law school case books and other readings in the Penn State University Bookstore.
  • Join a student organization to learn more about law school.  There are several student organizations that host events for students to learn more about the law school experience.  Find out more about these organizations.
  • Consider a summer exploratory program at a law school.  Many schools offer 1-3 week programs designed to introduce students to law school and help them decide if it is the right fit for their interests and goals.