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Summer syllabus: Books to read before starting law school

Summer Reading

Soon-to-be law students, this is your summer reading list.

Okay, you don’t need to read all these books—with 30+ books, they’re probably too many for one summer anyway! But they are helpful, inspiring, and empowering picks all law students might consider.

These books cover everything from acclimating to your first year of law school to essential productivity hacks to universal life advice that anyone (everyone?) would benefit from reading. Most of them are specifically about the law school/lawyer experience, but not all. This list also includes some special recommendations from the law school faculty at New England Law | Boston. (*—Official New England Law | Boston summer reading suggestion for admitted students)

Pick your favorites, grab a bookmark, and start reading—so you have the best law school experience possible.

About law school/preparing for 1L year

Your first year of law school will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Reading just one of these books can make you feel much more empowered and prepared for what that brave new world entails.

1L of a Ride: A Well-traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School, Andrew McClurg*: “A candid, comprehensive roadmap to both academic and emotional success in law school’s crucial first year…topics in the revised and updated third edition include pre-planning, top student fears, first-year curriculum, the Socratic and case methods of teaching, effective class participation, top habits of successful students, essential study techniques, legal research and writing, exam strategies, maintaining well-being, and much more.” (Amazon)

Finding Your Voice in Law School: Mastering Classroom Cold Calls, Job Interviews, and Other Verbal Challenges, Molly Bishop Shadel: “A step-by-step guide to the most difficult tests you will confront as a law student, from making a speech in front of a room full of lawyers to arguing before a judge and jury.” (Amazon)

Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Law School Experience: By Students, for Students, Robert H. Miller: “Strategies for thriving and surviving in law school, from navigating the admissions process and securing financial aid, choosing classes, studying and exam strategies, and securing a seat on the law review to getting a judicial clerkship and a job, passing the bar exam, and much, much more.” (Amazon)

The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking About the Law, Ward Farnsworth: “Farnsworth brings together in one place all of the most powerful of those tools for thinking about law, from classic ideas in game theory such as the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ and the ‘Stag Hunt’ to psychological principles such as hindsight bias and framing effects.” (University of Chicago Press)

One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, Scott Turow: “Everyone who has decided to attend law school should read this book before and after their first year to see whether it really spoke to their law school experience. These days, hopefully, it does not! I believe the first year of law school has changed more since the publication of Turow’s book in 1997 than in the previous eighty years. The experience is now decidedly more humane. Still, an important part of it is unchanged—the teaching of legal principles and their application in a handful of doctrinal areas through a question-and-answer methodology. When it works well, it pushes students to think about the logical connections between what courts have decided before and what that experience tells us about how they would resolve related issues today. It’s a skill that distinguishes lawyers from everyone else. It remains at the core of the first-year experience.” (Professor Lawrence Friedman)

Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks, Grover E. Cleveland: “This book contains hundreds of tips from attorneys throughout the country with the critical advice new lawyers need to ensure their success. The book is current and comprehensive, providing useful, practical advice that law schools don’t teach.” (Amazon)

The Student Loan Handbook for Law Students and Attorneys, Adam S. Minsky: “[Author Adam S. Minsky] explores profession-specific repayment strategies unique to the legal field, and provides readers with the information they need to keep their loans in good standing, avoid negative consequences, and achieve debt freedom.” (Google Books)

Thinking Like a Lawyer: A New Introduction to Legal Reasoning, Frederick Schauer: “This primer on legal reasoning is aimed at law students and upper-level undergraduates…. It covers such topics as rules, precedent, authority, analogical reasoning, the common law, statutory interpretation, legal realism, judicial opinions, legal facts, and burden of proof.” (Harvard University Press)

Related: What I Wish I Knew Before Law School

About academics (studying, reading, writing)

Want to write better, read better, even learn better? Start with these books.

The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr., E. B. White: “This style manual offers practical advice on improving writing skills. Throughout, the emphasis is on promoting a plain English style. This little book can help you communicate more effectively by showing you how to enliven your sentences.” (Goodreads)

Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, Richard Michael Fischl, Jeremy Paul: “The book contains hints on studying and preparation that go well beyond conventional advice. The authors also illustrate how to argue both sides of a legal issue without appearing wishy-washy or indecisive. Above all, the book explains why exam questions may generate feelings of uncertainty or doubt about correct legal outcomes and how the student can turn these feelings to his or her advantage.” (Amazon)

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel: “Drawing on cognitive psychology and other fields, Make It Stick offers techniques for becoming more productive learners, and cautions against study habits and practice routines that turn out to be counterproductive.” (Google Books)

Open Book: Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School, Barry Friedman*: “An insider’s view of what professors look for in exam answers and how exam-taking connects to good lawyering.” (Amazon)

Reading Like a Lawyer: Time Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert, Ruth Ann McKinney*: “The ability to read law well is a critical, indispensable skill that can make or break the academic career of any aspiring lawyer…. Using seven specific reading strategies, reinforced with hands-on exercises at the end of each chapter, this book shows students how they can read law efficiently, effectively, powerfully, and confidently.” (Goodreads)

Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling, Matthew Dicks: “Straightforward and engaging tips and techniques for constructing, telling, and polishing stories that will hold the attention of your audience, no matter how big or small.” (Amazon)

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Undergrad vs. Law School: All the Differences You Need to Know

About productivity and life skills

From productivity hacks to ways of cultivating more gratitude, peace, and joy in yourself, these books offer great advice on what it takes to live the life you’ve always imagined, in law school and out. 

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear: “Learn how to make time for new habits (even when life gets crazy), overcome a lack of motivation and willpower, design your environment to make success easier, get back on track when you fall off course, and much more.” (Amazon)

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip Heath, Dan Heath: “Specific, practical tools that can help us to think more clearly about our options, and get out of our heads, to improve our decision making, at work and at home.” (Goodreads)

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport: “In almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. [The author] presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four ‘rules,’ for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.” (Amazon)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen: “From core principles to proven tricks, Getting Things Done can transform the way you work, showing you how to pick up the pace without wearing yourself down.” (Amazon)

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine: “Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.” (Amazon)

Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, Chris Bailey: “Our brain has two powerful modes that can be unlocked when we use our attention well: a focused mode (hyperfocus), which is the foundation for being highly productive, and a creative mode (scatterfocus), which enables us to connect ideas in novel ways. Hyperfocus helps readers unlock both, so they can concentrate more deeply, think more clearly, and work and live more deliberately.” (Goodreads)

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie: “A timeless bestseller, packed with rock-solid advice that has carried thousands of now famous people up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives.” (Goodreads)

Man’s Search for Meaning3, Viktor E. Frankl: “Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival.… [he] argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.” (Amazon)

About being a lawyer and legal careers

These books will help you explore legal career paths, hone your understanding of what the law really is, and even preview the life of a lawyer (through nonfictional and fictional lenses!).

24 Hours with 24 Lawyers: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers, Jasper Kim: “From the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to bed, each professional illustrates what their position entails on a day-to-day basis.” (Amazon)

The Art of Cross-Examination, Francis Lewis Wellman: “A classic text for trial attorneys and law students on how to cross-examine witnesses.” (Wikipedia)

A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr*: “This is a personal favorite. I was a practicing environmental lawyer in Boston at the time the book came out, so I knew a lot about the events and even some of the characters. Fortunately, none of my friends were major players in the case—the lawyers do not come off in a very positive light!” (Professor Peter M. Manus)

Called by Stories: Biblical Sagas and Their Challenge for Law, Milner Ball: “Ball explores the ways in which biblical stories (primarily the stories of Moses and Rachel and the Gospel of John) intersect with law, conceptions of justice, and the practice of law. He ties insights from these stories to contemporary issues like Native Hawaiian sovereignty in a thought-provoking and moving way.” (Professor Allison M. Dussias)

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, Mark Herrmann: “Find out what drives law partners crazy, what will impress them, and the 10 mistakes you should avoid.” (American Bar Association)

Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Daniel Richter: “This is a great read if you want to understand the development of the law in its historical context. Richter shifts the focus from a fixation on the westward extension of white settlement to the experiences and understanding of tribal members looking eastward from Indian country. It fosters a much broader understanding of the development of American Indian law and policy.” (Professor Allison M. Dussias)

Full Disclosure: The New Lawyer’s Must-Read Career Guide, Christen Civiletto Carey: “A mentoring guide for new lawyers at the beginning stages of their careers. It embodies a collective wisdom about the things lawyers wished they knew at the beginning of their careers rather than at the end. Subjects covered include traditional and creative job hunting, writing résumés and cover letters, first and second interviews, and developing relationships with firms as a summer associate.” (Amazon)

Gideon’s Trumpet How One Man, a Poor Prisoner, Took His Case to the Supreme Court—and Changed the Law of the United States, Anthony Lewis*: “A history of the landmark case of Clarence Earl Gideon’s fight for the right to legal counsel….The classic backlist bestseller.” (Amazon)

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson: “An unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.” (Penguin Random House)

Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About the American Legal System, Jay Feinman: “An exceptionally clear introduction to law, covering the main subjects found in the first year of law school, giving us a basic understanding of how it all works.” (Goodreads)

The Official Guide to Legal Specialties, Lisa L. Abrams: “An inside look at what it’s like to practice law in thirty major specialty areas, including appellate practice, entertainment, immigration, international, tax, and telecommunications. This book gives you the insights and expertise of top practitioners-the issues they tackle every day, the people and clients they work with, what they find rewarding about their work, and what classes or work experience you need to follow in their footsteps.” (Amazon)

The Sweet Hereafter: A Novel, Russell Banks:* “A small-town morality play that addresses one of life’s most agonizing questions: when the worst thing happens, who do you blame?” (Amazon)

Bonus! Movies to watch before law school

You won’t find these on any 1L syllabus…

The Maltese Falcon: “Convoluted plots, nail-biting suspense, and a world that’s morally adrift—what’s not to love in the old noir mysteries? The Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle, Double Indemnity, and The Big Sleep are favorites on film and in print. Noir presents the justice system as just one element of society, as prone to corruption as any other. It’s an escapist genre, but it’s built on the grittiest elements of reality.” (Professor Peter M. Manus)

Michael Clayton: “This thriller happens to concern the work of lawyers, and the filmmakers did their research. A small army of associates works late into the night to close a deal, and their looks of concentration, distraction, and abject disinterest are just right. Better still is George Clooney’s title character as he slowly pieces together the central puzzle of the plot and the ethical dilemma at its heart. SPOILER ALERT: With his decision at the film’s end, he finds his moral compass—the one that is available to all lawyers in similar circumstances—leading to a sense of justice.” (Professor Lawrence Friedman)

Miracle on 34th Street: “The original 1947 version, with Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and Edmund Gwenn, has lots of lawyerly action, including that famous scene near the film’s end in which Payne, as lawyer Fred Gailey, demonstrates that Gwenn’s Kris Kringle really is Santa Claus. But the most interesting bit is earlier when Gene Lockhart’s Judge Harper declines to summarily conclude that Kringle is insane because he is advised that such an unpopular determination could cost him re-election to his judicial post. Right there, in a single marvelous scene, is the entire debate over whether judges should be democratically elected or appointed by the chief executive. And the arguments begin anew over what we should expect from our judges whenever the President has the opportunity to nominate someone to the United States Supreme Court.” (Professor Lawrence Friedman)

Pro tip: if you have someone in your life preparing for law school, these books also make great gifts for law students!

Happy reading this summer, (future) law students!