SHARK IN LAW SCHOOL by Seth Doe

On behalf of the academic committee of the University of Ghana School of Law (UGSOL), I welcome you all to the UGSOL. “Wow, you are in law school… shark.” When a stranger or a friend says this after just enquiring about the course you do, your head swells with ego… you feel good, like a conqueror. That’s nice, really nice. During the reporting week, an innocent level hundred law student took a magnificent picture in front of a stand that bore a welcome message for all new students. She looked so happy, proud of her achievement and was beaming with smiles. Another captioned a picture of the law faculty; “Here I come.” Her optimism was very heartwarming. It genuinely re-kindled a passionate flame for law studies within me.

With renewed fervor, I eagerly returned to the library to continue my assigned reading; the ninth edition of Lloyd’s “Introduction to Jurisprudence.” That book is 2814 pages long, and I was on page 80. I struggled to reach the ninetieth page three hours later (the book just didn’t make sense on the first reading yet it is supposed to). In conclusion, a mighty gust of ten pages of jurisprudence extinguished my enthusiasm, and I returned to my hall in despair. That’s when I got the idea to write this piece.

What is my aim for this piece? Well, I sincerely want to help by giving a few tips from my three years of experience here. Law school is the best thing that has ever happened to me so far and might be same for you. I just hope you enjoy it whilst it lasts.

The worst thing you can do in the law faculty is to underestimate the law course. You made the cut-off point probably because you are a brilliant student with excellent grades. But it ends there. You’re a ‘shark’, yes, but a tiny baby shark in a 7-by-7 foot aquarium surrounded by expert shooters with heavy assault rifles ready to tear you with bullets and mess you up if your ego gets bigger than the enclosed space you’re spoon-fed in.

The law course is relatively more challenging with a heavier workload. You will be bombarded with lectures you can’t miss, tutorials to prepare for, assignments to complete under tight deadlines, statutes to understand, articles and books to read, cases to brief, personal notes to make and exams to prepare for, all within the space of three to four months per semester.

That’s the truth, but it doesn’t mean it is hard or stressful or impossible as some rumours put it. In my second year, a level hundred asked me whether the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) is harder than the law semester exams. I replied maybe, but for a good measure, she can post her level 100 grades on the notice board if it is half as good as her WASSCE grades. I haven’t seen any grades on the notice board, so I guess that answers her question.

Being a ‘know-it-all’ is great, but being a ‘know-it-all’ amongst ‘know-it-alls’ won’t be of much help. Learn to ask questions during lectures and tutorials if you don’t understand anything and learn to seek help. The law school is running an effective mentorship program this academic year. Mentors are of great help to your academics. Take their advice seriously. Participate in study group discussions. Discuss cases and reading materials after you’ve read them. Try out all assignments on your own first before seeking help. Make notes and revise them. Be organised, diligent and productive. Spend your time wisely. These are just the same basic rules that apply everywhere.

Glanville Williams in his book; ‘Learning the Law’ stated that a good lawyer knows where to find the law. That’s accurate until people began to widen the scope of his statement; “A good law student knows where to find the law.” That is seriously wrong, and I learned that the hard way. In my second year, I did an elective course titled ‘Alternative Dispute Arbitration (ADR)’. Our lecturer, the infamous KKK Ampofo, provided us with the Arbitration Act of Ghana, 2010 (Act 798) when we were writing the ADR end of semester exam. The law was provided on our desks yet many students, including me, performed abysmally. Why? We knew where to find the law, but lacked the know-how to apply the law to each particular problem question or novel situation.

Same with the Law of Contract which is essentially based on clear cut principles with well-defined exceptions extracted from precedent. Students memorize the cases and their principles in a vacuum only to be wrecked by a problem question that encompasses many principles across the many areas of the Law of Contract, and the student is compelled to intricately examine these principles and apply them to reach a sound conclusion. That’s why there is a level hundred course titled ‘Logic for Law Students (FLAW 109)’ a University of Ghana Required Course (UGRC) for law students to improve their critical reasoning.

My point is, a good student must know the law, where to find it and how to apply it. That’s why we answer problem questions during tutorials and exams. It is not about knowing the principle or the rule of law that applies, it’s about applying it reasonably to reach a logical conclusion. So if you end up just extracting principles from the cases without a core understanding of the reasoning behind them, well, you might have a problem at the end of the day. I won’t even touch on constitutional law.

Here is one of my favourite part; case briefing. Case briefing is when a student essentially summarizes a case. Simple, isn’t it? Well, that’s what I thought until I got 5% on my first case briefing assignment. Here are some few tips;

a) A reported judgment means the case was published in a report series. An example is the case of Tuffour v Attorney-General (1980) GLR 637. The GLR means the case was reported in the Ghana Law Reports. Another example is J.H. Mensah v Attorney-General [1996-97] SCGLR. SCGLR means the Supreme Court of Ghana Law Reports. Examples of common law reports are All England Reports (AER), Queen’s Bench (QB), Appeal Cases (A.C.).

b) The title of the case names the parties involved in the case and is followed by the citation. The citation tells what court heard the case, when the court decided the case, and where you can find the case reported. Examples are Tuffour v Attorney-General (1980) GLR 637 and J.H. Mensah v Attorney-General [1996-97] SCGLR. The year of the citation within a square bracket is the year the case was published in the report series. Reported cases with a round bracket mean that the year within is the year in which the decision was made.

c) In civil cases, the parties are the plaintiff against the defendant or applicant against the respondent. In criminal cases, it’s often the state or republic against the accused. The ‘v’ in the citation, located between the parties can be read as ‘against’ or ‘and’ in civil cases, and never as ‘versus’.

d) In level 100, I thought ‘Anor’ was the name of a vexatious litigant because I saw it in most of the assigned cases. ‘Anor’ is not the name of a party to the case, but rather an abbreviation of ‘another’ which means there are other interested party or parties.

e) The most important elements of a case brief are the citation, facts, procedure, issues, holding, the rationale (reasons for the holding) and your opinion at the end. However, case briefs can also include dicta (comments of the judges), dissents, party’s arguments and your commentary.

f) Another important element of the case brief is the content. The content refers to the important information you place under each element of the brief. The content is whatever information in the case which is relevant for your understanding of it. The reason you brief is not to educate the entire world about the case, but rather to serve as an aid in refreshing your memory concerning the most important parts of the case.

g) Therefore, there is a need to distinguish between ratio decidendi and the obiter dictum. The ratio decidendi is the reasoning behind the holding of each issue. Under the rule of precedent, the ratio of an earlier case is what is binding to subsequent cases which have the same issues. The obiter dictum is an expression of a judge’s opinion in a judgment and is not necessarily binding but may help in novel situations.

h) The case brief is essentially what it is, brief. The facts must be very brief and relevant. Long and cumbersome briefs won’t help you during tutorials, assignments and exams. Same goes with briefs which are too short because they might not contain all the relevant facts and dicta you need to remind yourself.

i) After your first case brief, most lecturers will espouse the value of briefing, but will hardly ever ask to see that you have indeed briefed the case, the judges won’t read your case briefs and your clients won’t know what to make of it. The case briefs are truly yours and it most importantly serves you. Therefore, you don’t have to strictly go according to any format applied. It is just summarizing the relevant parts of the case to aid you to remember in the future.

j) Finally, the best way to learn is to practice. Avoid relying on another person’s case brief, if you haven’t tried reading the case before or have a gist of its principle and reasoning. You are a law student, not a proofreader. In my opinion, constitutional law cases are the most challenging, but rewarding to brief and so I entreat you all to practice reading and briefing these cases personally.

Library and legal research are basic elements of law school. The question is; Are law students required to spend countless hours in the law library to get good grades? The answer is a resounding no. I have met some great law students who hardly spend time at the library. The truth is, most of the reading and research can be done on your laptop or phone in the comfort of your room or the study room at the hall. Besides, the library might be a bit far and inconvenient for some students, which is why the academic committee of the law faculty tasks itself with making the reading materials and cases on the course outlines accessible to all students.

Also, if sitting for hours up straight to read isn’t your style and you’re more comfortable on your bed, there is no serious need to adapt your learning style just because the law faculty has a library. In case you can’t find a case or reading material, feel free to ask your course rep, your mentor or a member of the academic committee. However, I will still stress the importance of the law library because the law faculty prides itself in its up-to-date reading materials, cases and other facilities essential for research. Again, being a great law student and lawyer means you have to do a lot of research and reading. During my internships, I realised that every established law firm had a respectable library, and lawyers were required to read in their law chambers during work hours. Therefore, I stress the need to get comfortable with the library, maybe spend an hour there during your lecture days or when a lecture or tutorial has been cancelled. It is worth it.

 

Law school and social life

The UGSOL has a vibrant and interactive social environment and network. The UGSOL President in giving the state of the union address stated that the social mix (a sort of law party held at the faculty) was going to come off, adding, with humour, that law students had “the right to grind”. The stigmatization of law students as nerds and social misfits has reduced over time. Law students are generally recognised on campus for their youthful exuberance. We learn hard and play hard. We can boast of swim coaches from our faculty, sportsmen, debaters, organizers and leaders in many social groups. The faculty itself recognises the need for students to relax and handle stress well and organizes many social programs for that purpose. There is the renowned law week, law social mix, moot courts, projects and events to improve social networking and personal branding. We aren’t social outcasts; we just chill with style.

Be wary when dishing free legal advice. Regardless of which level in law school you are in, people assume you have the entire law in your bosom and seek to persuade you to entertain their consultations for free legal advice. Even with a license to practice law, giving legal advice irresponsibly can lead to undesirable repercussions. So when compelled to answer a particularly vague question about a crime your roommate might have committed in your absence, just add a disclaimer.

The law school and legal career are low key very stressful and you might find yourself stressed or depressed at certain points in time. That is perfectly normal. Alcohol is a pricey depressant; try sleep, hydration, meditation and healthy eating. I enjoy swimming once in a while to release stress. Try watching YouTube videos, movies, blogging, going to the cinema, participate in activities at the law school or on campus, or just engage in anything safe to release stress.

Finally, about the misconception of the profession; my mother regarded lawyers as greedy and self-obnoxious liars, but was overjoyed when I made it to law school. The bad reputation of lawyers out there doesn’t matter as long as you act with integrity.

Well, in conclusion, I hope this piece was helpful, and I hope you smile when reading MABURY V. MADISON.