Category Archives: Unsolicited Advice

Summer Reading List for students interested in poverty law

A number of 1Ls have asked me for a summer reading list so I decided to put one on the blog. Feel free to add to the list in the comments. These are just the books I think would make for good summer reading. There are of course other good recent books, but they might be better for academics or academic study rather than summer reading (I am thinking of Karen Tani’s States of Dependency: Welfare, Rights, and American Governance, 1935-1972 (2016) and Anne Fleming’s City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance (2018), but maybe I am wrong, maybe those could be good for the 1L summer as well). My list, probably in order, is below:

  1. Jason DeParle, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (2005) [a great way for students to both learn about welfare reform and about the lives of the poor].
  2. Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaeffer, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016) [interesting in its own right, but included here because its overview chapter at the beginning of the book is one of the best overviews of the history of welfare programs out there].
  3. Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) [winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize, included third because it is likely assigned in many upper level poverty classes whereas the first two might not be assigned but are excellent]. My two reviews of this book are here: Yale Law Journal Forum & Fordham Urban Law Journal.
  4. James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017) [winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize].
  5. Katherine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers (2014) [frankly, this is a placeholder; I think students should read one book at least about international poverty for perspective and this a good book to go with, but there are others for different parts of the world].
  6. Peter Edelman, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America (2013) [a great march through all the ways the government fights against poverty and the history of that fight since President Johnson; a bit academic for summer reading but short enough to be accessible].

[Of course, if you want to break free from poverty books, I am a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera, John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River (for those who have already read Garp), and the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, starting with Gorky Park.]

Advice on Doing Well in Law School

Advice on doing well in law school:

I decided to write up my general advice on law school because putting such advice in written form will hopefully make it less likely that I will forget something when asked in person for such advice and because this format makes it easier to provide students with links to additional resources.  I also was motivated by the bad advice that I got as a progressive / self-righteous law student from other progressive / self-righteous law students.  I was told by other law students to avoid doing law review and to not clerk after law school; I regret that I followed that advice.  My advice here is more general and is largely focused on how students can do well in school and in class and the path they might take.

trailsClass Prep – I am convinced that law school rewards hard work.  Certainly my classes do.  Those who do well are the students who do all the reading on time, who brief their own cases, who do not rely on commercial supplements, and who work to improve their briefing as the semester goes on and they come to understand the expectations of their professor.  There is such a thing as too much preparation for class—once a student read three books on the rule against perpetuities even though I cautioned students about going too deeply into that hole—but most students need not be concerned about that.

Class Participation – I am also convinced that class participation is important and contributes to students’ success on their final exams.  Even though 1L Property is anonymously graded and I only find out how particular students did after I submit their final grades, most of the time my predictions—based only on classroom participation—about who will be at the top of the class and at the bottom of the class are accurate.  There are exceptions and it is a lot harder to make predictions close to the middle of the curve, but classroom participation is a good indicator that a student is soaring or crashing.  Classroom participation means many things but in the large classes it means acting as if you are always on call:  answering questions to yourself when the professor is calling on someone else; raising your hand to speak at least once per class; and eventually predicting in advance what questions the professor is going to ask.  Personally, I do not have a laptop ban—having defeated SimCity 2000 in the middle of my 8:00-10:00 am tax class and I know that I think better when I type—because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  But it is worth noting that most studies seem to indicate that students do better when they take notes by hand because they are less likely to become distracted by the marvels of the internet and take notes rather than transcriptions (for more on laptops in classrooms see here and here).  Finally, though final grades are very important, especially for 1Ls, another important “outcome” that students should strive for in their 1L year is to build at least a couple of positive relationships with professors for the purposes of mentoring and recommendation letter support.  Class participation (supplemented perhaps by office hours) is crucial to creating that relationship.  In large classes—my 1L Property class this Spring will have 100 students in the class and many years I have two sections of Property the same semester—it is hard for a professor to get to know the names of all students and almost impossible to write a strong recommendation letter for those who sit silently all semester long.  Class participation, even when the grade is largely determined by a take all final exam that is anonymously graded, matters.

Preparation for Final Exams – It would be nice to be able to say to students that if they work hard, the final will take care of itself.  And in many ways and for many students it does, but there is skill involved in taking a final exam as well.  The most obvious point is that hard work pays off here as well.  Students who do their own outlines, who do not rely upon commercial outlines or cut and paste from the outlines done by other students, tend to know the material better and are better able to demonstrate their knowledge on the final exam.  The process of making an outline forces you to keep only the most important rules or materials and it also can help you see the bigger picture of a subject that can get lost in the day-to-day work.  I also think there is value in creating a table-of-contents or a one page summary of the outline.  In some ways this whole prep seems silly, after all, if you briefed well, you already have the right answers in your notes.  But the process itself matters and it is through the process that the best students come to master the material.  There is also tremendous value in looking over and taking past exams that may be available in an exam-like way (with time limits and no distractions).  Finally, get a good night’s sleep throughout the exam period.

During and After Final Exams – Go in confident, even arrogant.  Regardless of their actual ability or knowledge of the course, confident students tend to do better on final exams just like they do on standardized tests.  Use the entire period and, at least for my exam, spend the entire period writing or working, not outlining a perfectly framed essay.  (And it is much better, for me and for my students at least, if students type their final exams instead of handwriting them.)  The professor can only grade you based on what is on the exam itself so it is best to get down as much as possible.  This is why I think it should not matter if it is a closed book or open book exam: in both cases, you should be writing, not looking at your outline.  After the exam, my recommendation is to forget about it as quickly as possible.  Worrying about it won’t do any good and comparing answers with your classmates is likewise not productive or emotionally healthy.

Extra-Curricular Activities – Every year that I see my former 1Ls moving through the halls as tired and worn out 2Ls & 3Ls, my first thought is that they are doing law school wrong.  Personally, I worked hard and did all the reading (and I do mean all the assigned reading), but I also spent a lot of time pursuing my wife.  Elvia was and is both awesome and significantly out of my league, so when we were dating, I spent a lot of time being her suitor.  And it was time well spent.  However, as I have written about elsewhere, I did not do journal, a decision I regret.  My main advice to students when it comes to extra-curricular activities is to focus on the more substantive activities and the activities that are valued by employers after graduation.  Law review is one such activity, but so is being the best volunteer that a legal aid organization has had in long time.  The mistake that I see students making is the same mistake that many professors (myself included) make: they do not know when to say “no” to an opportunity.  But saying “no” is important and will permit you to do a better job on the things that are important.  Students who want to do clinic, do law review, do moot court, and serve as a research assistant for a professor are asking themselves to be superhuman and their work in all these activities suffers.

2L & 3L Classes – This advice section is probably the most narrowly focused on students at my school, so readers at other schools might want to skip this part.  I think students should take many “core” classes and do a clinic, which might sound surprising coming from someone who teaches many “non-core” classes such as Indian Law, Poverty Law, Housing Law, and Land Use.  But I think Business Associations (or Corporations at other schools) is important regardless of the type of law you want to practice, and the same can be said of Personal Income Tax and Evidence.  Even Administrative Law arguably falls into this “core” category.  All are areas that lawyers are expected to be familiar with and that cover matters that are relevant whether you want to work in legal aid or at a big law firm.  A counter-pressure though is that I think students should have a mix of class types.  Too many large lecture classes in the same semester is a mistake, as is a schedule consisting solely of seminars.  I also think that actually “doing” law under the supervision of a professor is an invaluable experience which is why I think all students should take advantage of opportunities to do a clinic.  If you are in a city with lots of great lawyering opportunities available through internships, take advantage of them.  Finally, I think professor quality matters.  Some people are not great teachers even if they are brilliant scholars and some people just do not care enough about students.  So pay attention to student evaluation scores ( does not seem to get enough responses to be as accurate as most school hosted evaluation programs) and if a professor has a notably low score it is worth thinking twice about taking a class or a clinic with him or her.  [At my school, anything less than 3.0 overall on the 5.0 scale is cause for concern.]  As a student, I followed my favorite professors.  For example, I had three classes with Professor Roberto M. Unger, a class plus two independent studies with Professor Robert Williams, Jr., and clinic plus a class with Professor David Grossman.  Taking multiple classes with the same professor can leave you predicting what they are going to say and you can get tired of their jokes, but you are likely to build a close enough relationship with the professor that he or she is likely invested in your success and will try to help as much as possible.  This is not fail proof – Unger was always inspiring but not a long-term mentor while Duncan Kennedy became a fabulous mentor even though I only took one class with him – but, in general, I think it is good to have a few professors with whom you have multiple points of contact.  My mentors have been incredible and I think most professors try to pass their mentoring experiences on to their favorite students as well.

Research/3L papers – This is a minor point, but I think law students should take greater advantage of the opportunity to write while in law school.  At my school, students have to either write a comment for journal, if they are on journal, or satisfy the upper level writing requirement through other means.  But most treat the requirement as something to meet, not as an opportunity.  Journals do not publish that many student notes from their members, so most students go unpublished that way, and if the writing requirement is fairly short, student upper level papers are unlikely to actually get published.  My view is that law reviews have a preference for length: I have never had a student who wrote a paper approaching 25,000 words and 250 footnotes who failed to be published.  So my main advice when writing papers is to have two goals in mind.  First, students should do what is required to meet the expectations of the class or journal or professor grading the paper.  And, second, students should try to do far more than that, either for the draft that is graded or in subsequent semesters, in terms of length and depth so that they get published.  It seems like such a waste to go to such work to meet the requirement but not do the extra work needed to ensure that the paper gets published.  Finally, as a bit of practical advice, the Word template that Eugene Volokh created so that papers look like law review articles is very helpful.

Life – I am going to keep my advice here short because everyone struggles with their own unique set of challenges when it comes to law school.  But I do think 1L year is a particularly special year.  It is a rare moment in which being a nerd is not only expected but celebrated.  It is a year in which the level of conversation in class often reflects the fact that all students are deeply engaged and doing the work.  And for some students, it can be a year that serves as an incredibly fast economic mobility or opportunity elevator.  Personally, I was an incredible nerd my 1L year.  I was getting over my college girlfriend by throwing myself into my work and I had no heat in my apartment that December so I spent an amazing amount of time in the library.  Overall, I feel that while balance in life is important, being a bit imbalanced as far as work versus social life is probably for the best during the 1L year.  There will be plenty of time in your 2L and 3L years to apologize for being buried in books during your first year of law school.  And it is worth keeping in mind that even the hardest working law student has it good compared to those people doing a whole range of other jobs.  This is not to say that studying has to be a solo pursuit.  Study groups are great for both studying and socializing, so long as they remain study groups.  Ultimately, I think students who embrace law school, who find the joy in law school—in their classes, in their readings, and in their peers—not only do better but are better for it.

Reposting: “Should self-identified public interest law students do law review?”

NOTE: I originally wrote and posted this for the SALTlaw Blog, but because I recently wanted to direct students to it, I decided to repost this here.

Should self-identified “public interest” law students should do law review or, depending on the school and the nature of the program, moot court?  Months ago I promised I would work on a blog entry related to this question for the Equal Justice Works Blog, but I admit still being conflicted about the issue.  What follows are my thoughts, but they are subject to change and on this issue often do change.  As a law student, my first bonding with upper level, 2L & 3L, students happened at a NLG Disorientation retreat.  There I was told two memorable things: (1) your professors sold-out and though they sound progressive, they decided NOT to DO public interest work, and (2) you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t do law review.  Now, in my current position I am perhaps particularly nervous about and pained by (1) (something I have written about here), but (2) stuck with me while a student.

I easily convinced myself to extend my summer vacation a week rather than join my friends doing write-on.  (Fortunately Georgetown, where I went as a 1L, had write-on at the end of the summer, not in the middle of the 1L year like some schools I know, a practice that I think adds unnecessarily to the stresses of the 1L Spring semester.)  I did so because I accepted the advice that public interest students should focus on amassing public interest experiences such as internships and demonstrated volunteer work, instead of learning the finer points of the bluebook.  And to some degree of course I am happy with the direction this took me — it freed up time for me to do two things that were very important to me (doing extra research-based independent studies with a GREAT mentor of mine and most importantly spend time as a suitor to the person I eventually married).

But something is lost as well in not doing law review.  I have noticed that law review does tend to attract some (not all of course) of the best students; as a student, the people whose comments I thought were the best in class and who most impressed me all seemed to be on law review, “the” law review or a law review.  Even if you are just checking cites, being part of such a group seems to be a good thing and can help the careers of some public interest individuals.  Perhaps most importantly, because law review often requires students submit a note/comment and offers some students the chance to get published in this way, law review seems a good way to force/allow public interest students to work on their writing.  Law review writing is by no means the only form of advocacy writing students can engage in, but the chance offered by law review to get feedback on your writing should not be dismissed lightly.  Finally, there is the question — of great importance to public interest students and corporate law bound students alike — of how law review helps your career.  My own view is that law review is one of those signals (that I don’t have) used to say “this person is smart” or “this person did well in law school,” and while there are substitutes that work, the fact that CVs and bios of people continue to list law review well after graduation attests to the power of law review as such a marker.

I do not think law review is as important as say a great and intense clinic experience for public interest students, but that is only one person’s opinion.  I have struggled with whether I should recommend or not recommend public interest committed students participate in write-on activities, and if you have thoughts, please comment.  Cheers, Ezra

Thoughts on Transferring for Law Students

This blog post is aimed largely at law students, not at law professors.  But I have felt I should say something about the topic of law student transfers for some time, if for no other reason than so that I can point them somewhere.  My students almost inevitably discover I was a transfer student myself (Georgetown to Harvard) so I get inundated with emails that run something like this:

Student: “Can we meet sometime to talk about something not related to Property Law?”

Ezra: “Yes.”

Then they come to my office and immediately want to close the door to talk about a “sensitive topic.”  If this weren’t my first time, my nervousness would shoot way up, but having heard the spiel before, I know the next line is, “I’m thinking about transferring.”

Continue reading