New law students often raise their hands in class to share their personal opinions about cases. I’ve heard professors respond ruthlessly, “I don’t care what you think.” I will sometimes explain, “What matters, for class discussion and exams, is what the court decided and why, and not what your personal views are.” (I frequently tell my law students that I don’t want see anything written in the first person –not on law school exams and not on bar exams.)
So how to stay engaged when your opinion doesn’t matter?
- Your opinion does matter, just not for class or exams. My classmates and I argued outside of class for hours every day, about what we thought about cases, about how we might have decided them if we’d been the judges –you name it. So, talk with classmates –before and/or after class!
- Go to office hours. Ask your professor his or her opinion of the court’s decision in a particular case, and discuss yours.
- Teach what you are learning to a friend or family member who is not in law school and share your feelings about what you are learning.
- Write in the margins of your casebook what you think of a case. Don’t just “book brief” in the margins. Add your reactions, in your own words. (Read a fabulous case tonight with students about the foreseeability of a particular injury. One of the court’s splendid lines reasoned that simply because an injury had not previously resulted from the particular action in question did not mean the injury was not foreseeable. I told the students that I wrote in my margins something like, “Yup. Makes sense to me. Just like when we tell kids not to play with matches. They may not have gotten hurt before, but it’s totally foreseeable that they’ll get burned one of these days.” My students who were parents especially appreciated the editorial.
- Read newspaper and law review articles that critique the area you are studying. You will find this stretches your brain and helps you see even beyond the thoughts or reactions you had. You may find support for your own views. You may find arguments that oppose your opinions. You may find you see things in an entirely new light altogether. Whatever you discover content-wise, the process itself will help train your critical reading and analysis skills.
Bottom line, your opinions and your feelings may have no place on law exams, but they are vital to your humanity. Keep them alive. Just keep them in context!