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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her BA from Columbia and her JD from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

Question: Have you heard of pre-1L boot camps? What do you think of them?

By the time you apply to law school, you have likely mastered how to "do" college. You've been doing it for a while, and you have the system down pat: how to take notes, how to read the class materials, how to discuss them in class, how to prepare for exams, how to write exams.

However, law school is a very different beast from college, and even from pre-law programs, which typically have little do to with the graduate law school experience. From my own law school days at the University of Chicago, I remember well how many people were caught off guard by their first set of grades, both the people who did very well, and the people who didn't. Being a superstar in college - and there are many such people in law school - seemed to correlate very little with success in law school. Having great LSAT scores didn't necessarily correlate either, not least because many law schools use a forced grading curve, and half the class by definition ends up in the bottom half.

The ones who did very well in law school figured out from day one that they had to retool their approach completely. Your first-year curriculum is designed to teach you how to "think like a lawyer" - it's a unique skill, one that you learn only in law school. It actually retrains your mind: how you think, how you approach a problem, how to process information quickly and in a specific way, how you arrive at and defend your answers. For most people, that retraining is humbling and uncomfortable, but the dividends are great.

What most people don't know before they start law school is that it is very front-heavy: your first-year (1L) grades shape your post-graduation options to a disproportionately large degree. Your 1L grades determine what kind of summer job you'll line up after your first year, a job that in turn typically leads to a permanent, post-graduation offer. It's great to have an offer in your pocket before you've even started your second year, but that also puts a lot of pressure on you to ace your first year, and it can feel as if you're still trying to find the bathroom when your first exams hit. Many firms use class rank cut-offs in their hiring decisions, and many law review journals fill at least some of their slots based on 1L grades. Your first-year grades also determine what kind of judicial clerkship you'll have after you graduate, because you'll be interviewing with judges as early as the fall of your second year. Your 2L and 3L grades matter too, of course, but they have far less impact compared to your 1L grades.

The other kicker? Most grades are based entirely on a final exam, if you're lucky also a mid-term. Unlike college, law school generally doesn't reward trying really hard, or talking a lot in class. It's also a surprise to many people that one doesn't have to write particularly well to excel on a law school exam, so don't think you'll have an edge on law school exams just because you're a gifted writer. It all comes down to whether you've mastered studying the law and taking law school exams. Most people figure out how to do that over the course of their law school studies, but doing so earlier rather than later offers substantial advantages.

Is there a way to get a jump-start on those skills if college doesn't teach them? Yes! There are some excellent pre-1L prep courses that make it much easier to hit the ground running. Most of them are classroom-based, last a week during the summer, and are available in large cities around the country. My favorite pre-1L prep course is offered by Law Masters Series. It is a week-long webinar, which means that you can watch it live from anywhere in the world and participate in interactive question-and-answer exchanges, or you can view the sessions afterwards at your own convenience and at your own pace. Each subject is taught by a well-known law school professor and will give you a real taste of law school before orientation even starts. It's money well spent.

Update: A clerkship recruiting embargo is in place to prohibit applications and interviewing for federal clerkships before the fall of 3L, so judges will be able to see a full two years' worth of grades rather than just one year's worth. Note, however, that some judges flout the recruiting embargo and interview prospective clerks as early as they want.

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