A Common Pitfall by Foreign Law Students: Over-Confidence

By Johana in Advice for foreign lawyers coming to the U.S. to get graduate degrees (both LL.M & JD) on Jan 28 2011

 

(As a foreword, wow, it has been a long time since I last published something here. I am very happy to be back!)

Now, on to the blog.

 

Recently, looking to further inform my thinking on what might help foreign law students do well during their programs, I've been spending a lot of time reading blogs, articles and books advising American JDs on what to expect. 

Although these books are not targeted to foreign students, I figured some of the same advice should apply. After all, a law student is a law student. Right?

Wrong, as it turns out.

Something that strikes me as interesting is that these resources tend to focus (rather copiously, I might add) on how to alleviate incoming student's anxiety about the experience that awaits them.

What is interesting to me is not that incoming American JD students are stressed out about starting law school (that seems completely logical to me), but the fact that foreign law students tend to come into the experience entirely at ease.

As I recall from observing incoming LL.Ms during my law school days at Northwestern (and as confirmed by many of the alumni I have interviewed over the years), incoming LL.M students(1) tend to feel confident (or let me rephrase, overly confident) about how well they'll do during their programs. After all, they've already gone to law school, right?

So, they come into the first day of class (generally after either skipping orientation, or spacing out during the sessions) feeling self-assured and stress-free.

For the first few weeks, you can see them chatting amicably with their classmates over lunch and strolling leisurely through the campus grounds. What a contrast from their JD counterparts! (And from how they themselves look only a few weeks later, unfortunately).

Don't get me wrong; there is nothing bad about feeling confident about yourself and your abilities. Hey, I am a firm believer in cultivating one's self-esteem.

But time and time again, LL.M alumni mention that, in retrospect, they came in thinking the program was going to be a breeze, or that based on their previous success at home (both academically and professionally) they weren't going to struggle --and time and time again, they are proven wrong.

Many recall that at the outset their thinking went along the lines of "Worry? About what? Leave that to the inexperienced JDs. I'm already a lawyer (a successful lawyer, in fact) elsewhere. I have been through law school before. How different can it be?"

Well, particularly if you are a Civil Lawyer, how about very different.

In fact, LL.M alumni from Civil Law traditions tend to report that they felt as though they were learning the law for the first time, due to the striking differences in approach and analysis of legal issues.

It's not that students don't ultimately get it. They do, and in fact, some end up getting high marks. (A brief aside: one of the rarely mentioned benefits of having a single, end-of-term examination that accounts for 100% of your grade is that you have a little wiggle room to figure things out before you are actually graded).

It's the confusion (and eventually, apprehension) students must endure until they finally get it.

But what exactly is there to get?

The first thing to know is that coming to the experience a little more humbly and a lot more open to actually discovering something new about the law is an essential part of the learning process. 

Also, it helps to know that (at first) you'll probably have to set aside much of your previous training and knowledge to make room for those new learnings to set in. Letting go of what you know and actually being open to learning from scratch helps understand case law and common law reasoning much more effectively. (Of course, once you have gone through the LL.M, you'll be able to integrate all you know into a comprehensive landscape that incorporates what you brought to the table prior to the program).

So, if you are a Civil Lawyer who's about to embark on an LL.M program this year, here's a word of advice from countless others who have gone before you: Sure, you are a successful lawyer at home; yes, you know your stuff (heck, you may even be a Law professor at home) but don't be taken aback if the course work is a bit more challenging (and the approach to issues very different) from what you are expecting it to be.

I'm not advocating fear or anxiety, by any means; that would be silly.

What I do encourage is an openness to be surprised by an entirely different approach to the law, which may turn out to be as counter-intuitive as it is interesting.

In other words, approach the experience of getting your LL.M as an actual opportunity to learn and a unique chance to view the law from a different perspective, instead of merely seeing it as a vehicle to boost your credentials.

If you do, you'll walk away with way more than a degree. You'll walk away a changed lawyer.

 

(1) A note: The above is more applicable to LL.M students than it is to foreign JD students. Foreign students pursuing a US JD tend to approach the experience much more like their American classmates. 

 

*Johana M. Gomez has a JD from Northwestern University & an LL.B from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. She shares her thoughts and experience through LL.M Studio, a resource for foreign lawyers thinking about pursuing graduate legal studies in the U.S. For more info, please see Johana's LL.M Guide profile (http://www.llm-guide.com/about/Johana) or her lawyrs.net profile (http://www.lawyrs.net/profile/johana-m-gomez).

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