What You Need to Know to Prepare for Law School


Buy a legal dictionary. Even if you are well-versed, some everyday words have a different legal meaning than their lay meaning. For example, the word “hold,” in lay terms, means “to have or keep in the hand; keep fast; grasp.” However, in the legal world, “hold” means what a court decides after considering a legal issue in a specific case.

Other examples are: find, agreement, offer, consideration, answer, complaint, appeal, argument, bench, bills, brief, simple, closing, standing, plain meaning, authority. Make sure you are able to discern the legal meanings of these words and phrases when they appear in your legal studies. It is always a good idea to look up legal terms in a legal dictionary to double-check the legal meaning.

There are also Latin terms that are becoming obsolete in judicial writing. However, as you will be reading cases from the past, you should know what these phrases mean. Know the meanings of: ad hoc, ex parte, certiorari, inter alia, res ipsa loquitur, habeas corpus, res judicata, prima facie, stare decisis, nolo contendere, ex mero motu, sua sponte, and others.

Additionally, there are terms that only have meaning in a legal sense. You will probably not use these terms outside of a legal context, such as: rule of perpetuities, question presented, testator, designee, tortfeasor, synthesis, pinpoint citation, petitioner, respondent, plaintiff, defendant, and legalese. A legal dictionary (as well as your casebook or textbook) will define these terms clearly so that you are able to use them correctly.


There are an infinitesimal number of grammar rules that cannot be explained in this document. However, you should know that grammar is extremely important in law school. Most of your classes will have you writing a short answer, essay or paper for your final grade. The presentation of the material is just as important as its content. Grammar is about communication. In order for you to effectively communicate regarding a specific legal issue, you will need to use grammar rules.

Pay special attention to:

  • Punctuation, including commas, questions marks, semi-colons, quotation marks and apostrophes.
  • Parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, modifiers, subjects and dependent and independent clauses as well as prepositional phrases.
  • Possessive nouns versus possessive pronouns. For example, is it “the Davises’ car” or “the Davis’s car?”
  • Confusables, such as affect and effect, whose and who’s, it’s and its, lay and lie, sit and set, who and whom, and good and well.
  • Parallel Sentence Structure. Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) and the correlative conjunctions (either . . . or, neither . . . nor, both . . . and, not only . . . but also) signal the need for parallel structure. The words, phrases, or clauses connected by those conjunctions should have the same logical and grammatical structure.
    • For example, it would be incorrect to state: “When he saw the results of her work, he asked to see *what cases she had read* and *her sources*.”
    • A better sentence is “When he saw the results of her work, he asked to see *what cases she had read* and *what sources she had consulted*.”
    • The second sentence uses the conjunction to coordinate two thoughts. The two coordinated parts—“what cases she read” and “what sources she consulted”—are parallel. They are both noun clauses functioning as objects of the infinitive “to see.”
  • Transitions between sentences and paragraphs. Examples: again, and then, besides, equally important, finally, further, furthermore, nor, too, next, lastly, what’s more, moreover, in addition, whereas, but, yet, on the other hand, however, nevertheless, on the contrary, by comparison, where, compared to, up against, balanced against, vis a vis, but, although, conversely, meanwhile, after all, and in contrast.
  • Subject-verb Agreement. When the subject of a sentence is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by and, use a plural verb. Example: She and her friends are at the mall. When two or more singular nouns or pronouns are connected by or or nor, use a singular verb. Example: The popcorn or the soup is in the microwave. When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb. Examples: The lady or her friends play cards. Her friends or the lady plays cards.

NOTE: There is no specific course at the law school which focuses on grammar, although your first-year writing class will emphasize it. But that class mainly introduces you to the concept of legal writing through statutory interpretation and case law. It is your responsibility to learn what you do not know about grammar and/or refreshing your memory of the rules of grammar.

Sources of Law

Primary Sources

Primary sources of law come from statutes and case law. Statutes are legislative laws that the legislators codify in statute books. Case law is formed when an appellate court either interprets a statute to explain its meaning or applies a statute to a set of facts to come up with an opinion. Statutes do not only provide punishment for criminal offenses. Statutes can create public offices, remedies to actions and exceptions to a rule. Statutes can also be a response from the people about how an appellate court ruled in a certain case.

Here is a statute prohibiting and defining burglary:

There shall be two degrees in the crime of burglary as defined at the common law. If the crime be committed in a dwelling house, or in a room used as a sleeping apartment in any building, and any person is in the actual occupation of any part of said dwelling house or sleeping apartment at the time of the commission of such crime, it shall be burglary in the first degree. If such crime be committed in a dwelling house or sleeping apartment not actually occupied by anyone at the time of the commission of the crime, or if it be committed in any house within the curtilage of a dwelling house or in any building not a dwelling house, but in which is a room used as a sleeping apartment and not actually occupied as such at the time of the commission of the crime, it shall be burglary in the second degree. For the purposes of defining the crime of burglary, larceny shall be deemed a felony without regard to the value of the property in question.

Secondary Authority

Secondary sources of law come from other jurisdictions and handbooks. These should only be used in addition to primary sources unless you are discussing an issue of first impression. Sometimes, secondary sources can be used to bolster your argument and add a little more persuasive to an argument.

For example:

In North Carolina, damages for claims of alienation of affections and criminal conversation are limited to the present value in money of the support, consortium, and other legally protected marital interests lost due to a defendant’s actions. Hutelmyer v. Cox, 133 N.C. App. 364, 514 S.E.2d 554 (2000). South Dakota allows punitive damages. Veeder v. Kennedy, 589 N.W.2d 610 (S.D.,1999). In Veeder, the trial court allowed a $200,000 punitive damage award. However, some jurisdictions, such as New York, do not allow money as damages for alienation of affections. Marmelstein v. Kehillat New Hempstead, 45 A.D.3d 33, 841 N.Y.S.2d 493 (2007). Therefore, this Court should consider limiting damages to only money.

The secondary sources here are used as persuasive authority, not direct authority.

Legal Writing

Legal writing is the foundation of our profession, which rests on statutory and case law. Many students make the mistake of treating their first-year writing as a simple course, not worthy of the attention they give to doctrinal courses. Some hope that legal writing will be their “easy class.” There are no easy classes in law school. Likewise, there are no unnecessary classes in law school. Every class is required or offered for a reason. There is a purpose for legal writing to be a two-semester course. You cannot fully understand law unless you can explain it. You learn to explain it in writing. If you have poor writing skills, you will have poor grades in every class that requires an essay exam or a term paper. Poor writing skills will preclude you from good grades, unique jobs and opportunities.

Exam Essays

Law school essay examinations can be frustrating and overwhelming. A technique known as IRAC (issue, rule, application and conclusion) is useful for writing the standard law school essay. Make sure to carefully read through the question several times. Pay close attention to the question asked. Spot the issues relevant to the question and organize them into a logical order on scrap paper. Describe the most important issue in detail as the first sentence of your essay. Explain the legal rule that applies to this issue, giving a clear and concise description of the law. Apply the rule of law to the particular facts presented in the essay question. Explain your thought process and demonstrate to the professor that you understand how the rule is used in this context. Sometimes it is necessary to show why a rule does not apply. Conclude the essay with a short statement that summarizes your position and answers the question. Budget your time carefully. Often the biggest obstacle in taking a law-school essay exam is the clock.