What Law School Didn’t Teach You: Litigation Deadlines and Other Technical Rules of Practice

Jordan Rothman
Law school does not teach you how to be an attorney; it hones the skills that are useful for practicing law.

Law school does not teach you how to be an attorney; it hones the skills that are useful for practicing law.

Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision via GettyImages

Law school does not teach you how to be an attorney; it hones the skills that are useful for practicing law. In my first few weeks of school, I remember asking my civil procedure professor about deadlines for filing papers. He told me that technical rules were not important to understand in law school, and I would learn these points in my first job as an attorney. Why was I paying so much in tuition when I would still have so much to learn after graduation? Many bar exams don’t test for deadlines and technical rules, which is another important reason law schools should teach these principles.

For example, I took a bar exam that tested statutes of limitations and other practical rules of procedure. Early in my legal career, I had a case involving battery, which was odd because most of the insurance defense matters I handled at the time involved negligence. All of our codefendants simply answered the complaint without trying to file a motion to dismiss—the other attorneys did not think there was a defense that could be raised in such a motion.

However, I noticed that the complaint was filed more than a year after the incident. Because I learned important statute of limitations for the bar exam, I knew that there was a one-year statute of limitations for intentional torts like battery. I moved for the dismissal of the case at an early stage of the litigation, and I saved my client a lot of misery. This case showed me that understanding the intricacies of battery (including the intentionality analysis I learned at length in law school) was far less important than learning the technical rules related to this cause of action.

Any litigator (I mostly handle litigation, but I am sure transactional attorneys would agree) will tell you that the nuts-and-bolts deadlines and technical rules are far more important than anything we learn in law school. For example, in the states where I practice, we must respond to notices to admit within a certain time. Summary judgment motions also must be filed by a set deadline, or parties may face serious consequences. Furthermore, in one of the states where I practice, affidavits of merit in malpractice cases must be served within a set time or litigants risk having their lawsuits dismissed. (Everyone knows that the motion, opposition papers, and reply papers each must be filed within a certain time.)

While it is difficult to teach technical rules in law school because they vary from state to state, the federal system is relatively uniform (although practitioners still need to consult local rules and individual practices to follow procedures correctly). If a majority of law students practice law in a given state after graduation, the school could teach the practical rules of that state.

Although it is impossible to learn all of the important rules without substantial experience practicing law, I wish law schools focused more on teaching the essential technical rules and deadlines. I strongly suggest that you sit down with an experienced practitioner and ask about the hard deadlines. This important information will be invaluable at the start of your career.

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Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. Jordan is also a weekly columnist and the Morning Docket writer for Above the Law