Beginning law school can be somewhat daunting and advice seems to be all around. In this section you will find some basic suggestions in regards to making the most of your first year of law school. From reading some books prior to orientation, to practicing time management skills and making changes during your second semester, Academic Advising has some recommendations for you.
Often, incoming first year students have general questions regarding the upcoming year. Here are a few frequently asked questions and answers.
What do we call the faculty?
Unlike most undergraduate schools, which tend to favor 'Doctor,' the faculty is generally called 'Professor.' An exception applies to all who hold the position of dean - they are referred to as 'Dean.' All other members of the faculty, from adjunct to full professors, should be referred to as 'Professor.' Thus, as a member of the faculty, you would call me 'Professor Herleth.'
More importantly, you are encouraged to contact the faculty and get to know them. The faculty serves not only in a teaching capacity, but also in researching and other outside legal interests. You have a great opportunity to learn about larger legal issues by talking to the faculty.
Why does Law School have a reputation for being so difficult?
Law school is difficult because legal analysis is so different from your tried and true methods of learning in undergraduate classes. Simply stated, law school is about legal problem solving. It is not just memorizing facts. You are expected not only to have an answer, but also to explain how you came to that conclusion. Moreover, legal problems are not generally easily resolved - there is rarely a simple, right answer. Legal rules have exceptions; sometimes more than one theory applies, and factual differences can often change the result of any legal application. Policy may also need to be considered before a legal answer can be considered 'complete.'
Moreover, the Socratic method, which is used at the Law School, can be very confusing (see, Class Preparation on my website). Unlike the traditional lecture methods of undergraduate class, the Socratic method relies upon questions and answers - with the professor asking the questions, and you providing the answers. At its best, this method encourages students to analyze problems and explain how they reached their conclusions. Initially, however, you might feel lost. Hang in there - you will hopefully find the major issues and methods of analysis as you move through the semester.
I was able to skip an occasional class during undergraduate days. Can I continue with this practice, as long as I go to most of my classes?
While most professors have strict rules regarding attendance (and the American Bar Association has attendance requirements for all accredited law schools), the real reason to attend all classes is linked to the Socratic method and the complexity of the substantive material. A substantive legal topic often has many interrelated issues. While you may learn a general rule over a series of two classes, the professor may not discuss some exceptions, or policy considerations until the following week. The professor may also not ask relevant hypotheticals which can stretch your understanding of the application of a legal rule until several weeks later, when you are discussion a parallel issue. Law is not neat - you need to constantly be asking yourself how the new information relates to the old. If you aren't there - you won't be able to pick up all the distinctions that the professor expects you to know for her examination.
Moreover, on a practical note, how can you be certain that the notes you have borrowed are any good? After all, none of you have taken an exam yet!
Where do I go for information regarding credits to graduate, probation, courses to take, as well as other types of information?
The Student Handbook is your best starting point. (Go to the SLU Law website) Our handbook is the most current source of general information regarding law school policies and procedures. I would suggest you look at the handbook to review some important information that hopefully you will never use. Note in Chapter X that students who have completed a minimum of 12 hours and have a cumulative grade point average below a 1.60 will be dismissed. In addition those students who have completed between 11 and 15 hours their first semester, and have a grade point average between 1.6 and 2.1 will be on academic probation and required to register and attend a Legal Methods course in the second semester instead of Constitutional Law I. The Legal Methods course is a three-hour course graded on a pass/fail basis. The course explicitly examines the analytical process needed to solve legal problems. Students in Legal Methods will be generally taking Constitutional Law during the following fall semester.
Although the above is fairly clear, the upshot is that a law student cannot afford a disastrous first semester (make that two for the part-time students). So make sure you keep up and not wait until the last minute to get ready for exams.
Another source of information is SLU LawNews which comes out weekly during the school year on-line and by email. This newsletter is a good source for all academic and career services information and deadlines. In addition, LawNews also contains information about all other upcoming events, including social events and other law school workshops, meetings, and presentations. Make sure you consistently check this source. Similar to the law, ignorance of the deadlines is no excuse!
Another place you can get information is the student services complex that is located near the Lindell Boulevard entrance of the law school. The Registrar, Assistant Dean of Students, Assistant Dean of Student Activities and Leadership, Academic Advising, Writing Support Services and a number of other student-oriented services are located there. Moreover, Career Services are located down the hall, near the Atrium. If you need to speak to someone - start in one of those places.
Finally, computer sites can be helpful - especially our law school homepage. You can find most information on our homepage. In addition, professors often use WebCT, TWEN, Google Apps, or other computer sites to contact their classes. Likewise, the administration and faculty use emails to contact students about particular matters. This suggests that you should check your SLU emails on a regular basis - minimally twice each week, more if you know that this is the standard method of communication from your professors.
Finally, look around. Notices for meetings, workshops, class changes, etc. are often put on bulletin boards near your mailboxes, the elevators, plasma screen, and near the Atrium. But the bottom line is you need to PAY ATTENTION to your surroundings.
What do I do if I cannot figure out an issue or area of law in one of my classes?
Try these steps:
- Review your case briefs and notes to see if you have misses something important. It is a good idea to compare your briefs to the class discussion. Make sure that you have not missed any key areas of analysis.
- Go over the syllabus/table of contents to provide some context - look at a treatise if necessary. Having a general idea of where this part of the law fits within an entire section of the course can often help in understanding the readings.
- Talk to your study group/fellow students. Try to work through a hypothetical that incorporates the issue that you find confusing. Often the professor will provide these hypotheticals.
- Focus on how you get the answer - look for connection between the source of your confusion and other areas the professor has already covered
- Ask the professor during office hours - after you took the above steps. The professor will appreciate the effort you made to resolve the problem and will be more willing to guide you in finding the answer. Remember, the professor's goal is to teach legal analysis as well as the substantive content. Help yourself by attempting it before you look for outside help.
Notice that one of the steps involved group discussions. Cooperative learning - that is, in a group setting - is vital in law. While you might consider only one aspect of an issue, another students (or two or three) may be able to see other aspects. Moreover, you might be a 'big picture' person; others may help fill in the details. So consider group discussions as a way to learn the law.
Aren't commercial courses and outlines an easy way to learn the law?
Commercial and other students' outlines can be helpful in preparing for class, particularly is you are unclear about a particular case or area. These outlines can give you some context, so that you can then decide on the pertinent information. They can also be helpful to 'get you started' on creating your own outlines. Just don't depend on them to do your thinking. Use sparingly unless you are having difficulties with a section or group of cases.
On the other hand, you should not rely on study aids in lieu of creating your own outlines. Remember, you not only learn the various elements of the law, but also are learning how to create a strategy for the exam. Using commercial outlines for more than a general guide or to fill in specific gaps is generally fine - but remember that you need to practice organizing and using that information. Moreover you will miss the professor's slant on the subject matter, hypotheticals, and advice regarding an approach to the legal issues. (See, Outlining on my website).
It sounds like I won't be sleeping much from Thanksgiving through the end of exams - is that true?
Whether you choose a rather questionable practice of cramming is up to you. However, lack of sleep has been shown to affect your memory - so it certainly appears counterproductive to expect to remember great amounts of organized information while suffering from lack of sleep. While undoubtedly there are those who can boast great success with the regiment of coffee-candy-little sleep and lots of cramming, most find that a more reasonable approach meets with greater success.
The key then is to be prepared before mid-November. Be efficient and effect in your outlining, case briefing, study groups etc. Then you won't have an overriding need to cram, and therefore sleep and healthy food can be managed. Don't forget to exercise or continue whatever normal program you typically follow.
Finally - stay calm! Panicking helps no one and while a little adrenaline may be good - panic will only block your cognitive processes. You want to go into the exams with minimal stress. And remember if you feel you need outside help, our Student Health provides great services. We also are lucky to have a wonderful part-time chaplain, who is located near Admissions, who will also help you during difficult times.
Law school is a great opportunity to discover your career, to make new friends, to enjoy an academic regiment that can stimulate you, and to learn more about your abilities. Don't forget, however, that the faculty and staff at Saint Louis University School of Law are here to help you acclimate and thrive. Get to know us; use our services.
Reviewing Exams and Other Hints for Success
Ever wonder why some students just seem to naturally "get it?" They understand entailed fees as if they were born to the noble manor. They understand the process of rule explanation in Legal Research and Writing, and can put together a civil procedure outline from scratch. More importantly, they seem to be able to read and understand class briefs and can take notes in class that establish the proper analysis in the topic being discussed. Who are these people? Well, they may have an innate ability to do legal analysis and problem solving that not everyone else shares. Or maybe they are so organized and study so efficiently that the hard work of law school bears extraordinarily productive results. Thus, their law school experience may not be as stressful or overwhelming. For that reason, however, their advice regarding the ways to study effectively may not be as helpful to the rest of the class who struggle to understand what the professor is talking about - or where the topic is heading.
So what should you do to avoid needing to turn it around? Perhaps this advice might help:
Vent. See Academic Advising, a close friend, a study buddy or even your mom and tell them about your stress over law school. Sometimes a stiff upper lip isn't going to help the situation; in fact, it may only increase the pressure you already feel. If you are concerned about grades, midterms, outlines, etc., try to talk it out. You are then better able to face the reality of the situation.
But you must face the reality of the situation because you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. So ask yourself if you have to read the cases three times just to figure out what the issue is. Do you have to take verbatim notes - and then spend an hour a night reviewing in order to figure out what the professor is talking about? Do you find yourself wasting too much time between classes? You need to know how you study and when you study best.
Moreover, not facing that reality can cause you to rely upon unworkable solutions for your situation. Students who do not succeed often have plans - it's just that those plans aren't solving their problems in answering law exams. One preliminary thing you might want to consider is to take the Meyer-Briggs test in Career Services. The test will help you identify your learning style - a first step in learning how to make necessary changes.
But you will also need to review those semester exams - especially the bad ones. Figure out what you did wrong - and what you did right. Talk to the professor - get his or her input. This is especially true if you are in a two-semester course - you do not want to repeat the same mistakes. Use the handout at the end of this article to spark the discussion and pinpoint where you went wrong. Remember, you can't fix it unless you know what you did incorrectly.
Then, get back to basics. Remember that law school is a continuum;
- first you brief properly
- then you take good notes
- then you review and synthesize every day/week
- moreover, you start learning the chunks of information that the professor has completed and
- outline to create a whole, while you
- learn the relationships and parts
- which will help you develop a checklist and strategy for answering factual issues which you can use
- to practice and further learn
- so that you will do well on the exam
So first keep up with your reading. Brief - do all the stuff that you are supposed to do. Not every student is given the same ability to read complicated material and properly analyze it, so you must do what is necessary. Getting behind will never help. Start with your four hours course, followed by the alternatively spaced classes. Stop by Academic Advising for handouts and advice regarding changing your briefing technique to make it more efficient and focused. But try to refrain from minimal book-briefing which will not give you the necessary analytic preparation for class.
What else? Use tutors and/or study groups whenever you find that you are lost regarding an issue. Sometimes the "light" isn't going to go on without help. Look around and try to find a fellow student who seems to follow the class. Don't be afraid to ask him/her to meet with you on a regular basis. Surprisingly, many will say "yes" - after all, it is also a way for them to review and test their knowledge. However, always be ready to offer pay - although generally none is accepted. As an alternative, ask your professor if he/she knows any second year students who were particularly successful in that class. However, as a word of caution, don't use people who think exactly like you. If you are a detail person, look for someone who can see the big picture (and vice versa). Try to utilize your skills while getting something from the group. More importantly, make the study group time count - this is not a gossip session.
In addition, be ready to rely on other sources to get the idea of what you are talking about. Think about understanding the general stuff - what does Marbury mean despite many readings? If you get the general ideas explained to you, you can then begin to start developing your analysis from there. However, this does not mean that you can rely on some secondary study aid as the key to everything. You need to participate in the process, or you will simply be memorizing without context or understanding. So the moral is - use study aids for the general understanding; never rely upon these books as the source of all wisdom.
More importantly, get away from the "one size fits all" notion. All professors view things differently. They are not going to all teach the course identically, nor are they equally interested in policy or a breakdown of the different judges' philosophies. So don't make the mistake of thinking that mastering one professor in one class means that you have mastered the rest.
You also need to use your time well. Use weekends to your advantage. Read ahead over weekends if possible. You will find that if the daily pressure of reading for the next day's assignment is somewhat diminished, your lessened stress level will allow for more concentrated learning. Use the time between classes for the final read of the next class assignment - not the first read! This will help you focus on what the professor will be talking about in class.
You need to be prepared for class because you should participate. You also become directly involved in the thinking process when you contribute in class. Most professors will agree that beyond learning the substantive law, the Socratic method also requires that you learn to do legal analysis - which requires both inductive thinking (gleaning the rule from a number of cases) and deductive thinking (applying that rule to a new set of facts). By participating in class, you will gain experience in "thinking like a lawyer." After all, you don't want your first experience of analytical thinking to be during your examinations.
Never miss class - obvious but true. Skipping classes that you don't follow will never help you see the light. If you do miss class, make sure you get good notes from a fellow classmate. If possible, ask someone who tends to take verbatim notes. Then you will have a better sense of what was going on during that class.
Work with teachers. Ask questions if you need help. Try to use teachers as your second source after discussing trouble areas with your fellow students. Professors have office hours - use them.
As you start to outline, come up with strategies on how to approach problems involving those rules. A former medical person, now law student, noted that in medicine one starts by elimination - "it's not that or that." Here, you want to begin by what it is - but what it is must be in order. Think of finding the rules as listing the ingredients and following a recipe: you need to start with step one; do this stuff first, then add that, and then finally bring it all together. When you outline, don't just list the rules of law; try to come up with a way you would analyze a problem. Ask yourself what facts play into the general principles because rules only apply under certain circumstances. Think of personal jurisdiction or a motion to dismiss - stating a rule is not enough. You need to know when it's applicable - under what set of facts. So figure that out in your outline. Visualize concepts that are not clear to you. Not everyone can "see" the law from an outline. If you don't understand what makes minimum contacts in a civil procedure long-arm statute, diagram or draw the elements. Make a chart listing the different points. Use what you can do help yourself "think" the law.
Eat well/exercise/sleep enough. Stress intensifies if your basic needs are not met. If you are having problems, see someone. SLU has health services that include psychological testing.
Finally, practice, practice and practice. Ask yourself hypotheticals when you have a few spare minutes. Review the rules as you drive to school. Practice taking old examinations after your outline is finished. The more you utilize analytic skills and memorize the laws and rules to be applied, the more adept you will be during the actual examinations.
Again, don't be discouraged if your grades are not up to your expectations. Be willing to work consistently, be willing to change and you can have a much more satisfying second semester.
The majority of law students do use study aids at one point or another during their first year of law school. Study aids can be very helpful to you if you use them appropriately. Moreover, there are ways to misuse study aids to your detriment. Study aids should never be a replacement for doing your own work during law school.
Study aids are materials other than your casebook that help explain the law. Most professors' take is to read the casebook, brief the cases, attend class (listen, take notes, answer and ask questions), and consult with your professors when you need further clarification. If you've done all that and still do not understand the material, you may decide to turn to a study aid. Study aids are not a substitute for doing the hard work yourself because working with the material, even when it is difficult, is essential to understanding. Moreover, students often mistakenly believe that a generic brief, outline, or analysis reflects their professor's prospective of the law. Keep in mind that different professors look at different aspects of a subject - even their choice of language can be different from the commercial aids.
On the other hand, reading a study aid may be all that's needed to pull together all of the work you've done. It can be like the proverbial light bulb going on in your head after you've read someone else's explanation of the material. Study aids can be especially useful to double-check your understanding of the material as you prepare your course outlines. The types of books that you can buy run from stripped down flowcharts and outlines to huge treatises. Between hornbooks and commercial outlines, there is another category of study aids that offer explanations of the law, but in less detail than a hornbook. Overall, these aids cover every traditional first year course and many upper level courses as well. Today, I want to cover the most common.
Hornbooks are the top of most professors' acceptable list. The good news is that they can provide you with useful background for your reading assignments for class. You will then have a context for your reading, so you can see how the case you are reading fits into the big picture. Specifically, hornbooks are treatises in a particular area of law. Prosser and Keeton, and also Dobbs on Tort; Calamari and Perillo on Contracts; Stoebuck/Whitman and Hovenkamp, and Kurtz on Property are all examples of hornbooks. These books explain the legal concepts and black letter law in the way a non-fiction book or textbook would. Hornbooks are more like your undergraduate books, except more scholarly and detailed. While commercial outlines cover many of the same concepts, they don't cover them in great detail. A hornbook can go into depth by explaining the reasoning behind a series of cases. They can also take you through the legal synthesis process to explain how a group of cases may fit together. Do remember, however, that the hornbook author tells you what the law is, unlike the perfect classroom discussion. It does not the Socratic method.
Hornbooks can also help when you create course outlines. When you're outlining, if you don't understand the concepts from the casebook and class notes, read the appropriate section in the hornbook, and see if you then understand enough to outline. The hornbooks discuss cases, so you probably will see an explanation of many of the cases in your casebook. The hornbook might just discuss the cases in a way that you understand.
Downside: they are big and long and expensive. Don't automatically purchase hornbooks, because the cost can be prohibitive. Use the library's copies for specific problem areas or to give you some assistance with your outlining. But this is a source - do not think you are going to read an entire hornbook. A more affordable paperback version is the Understanding series, published by Lexis Publishing is a good alternative if you find yourself utilizing this type of study aid. As with the treatises (although more limited) this series explains the law of a subject area in a narrative format.
A mini version of these, some say, is the Nutshell series (West Publishing Company), little books that explain the law in a condensed format. Their size--5" x 7"--may make them seem more palatable and less intimidating. Many of them give you just enough law so that you have a clear understanding of course rules, concepts and policy. The bad side of Nutshells is that this series is generally not favored by professors, has few topic headings, and sacrifices a lot of significant detail to fit in the small size. Therefore, "because" and "how," keys to exam writing, may not be extensively discussed in this series. But if you just need the basic stuff - look there. These books are also good to read if you haven't taken a specific bar course and want to review the general law before you begin taking a bar review course.
Narrative study guides
Similar books (although not in size) come under such series titles as Examples and Explanations (Aspen Law & Business), the Inside series (Wolter Kluwer/Aspen), the Mastering series (Carolina Academic Press), and Concepts and Insights (Foundation Press). These series use primarily narrative explanations of various areas of the law. The Inside and Mastering series is new, and therefore not as popular as the Examples and Explanation series. The Inside series contains a narrative explanation as well as some strategies on how to answer questions in a particular area. It also has some good notation regarding the connection of each topic to the entire area of law. The Mastering series is great for visual learners, because it also has charts to demonstrate some of the material. The Examples and Explanations series also contains fact pattern examples of different areas of the law, questions about those facts, and detailed explanations as answers to the questions. This series is rated high with professors and students. In fact some of your professors may have suggested you use them as "suggested" text.
All of these books are more thorough that the standard outline type of book. With respect to Examples and Explanations, the series provides detailed analysis more comprehensive than outlines - and because it isn't as dense as hornbooks - they are easier to follow. But, the big plus of Examples and Explanations is that they give questions - and then explain the answers. You can use this book as a good source of hypos b/f your exam - or as a source for a discussion group with fellow classmates. Because most essay exams ask questions based on facts, these books can help you determine if you know rules and can apply the rules to this new information in a meaningful way.
A significant down side is that these explanations and examples may not reflect your professor's take. Likewise, your professor may use different language when referring to the legal concepts: it would be unimpressive that you refer to a key topic with lingo your professor doesn't use. Moreover, don't ever think that you will do great solely based on how you do in Examples and Explanations or the Inside series.
Almost every student uses a commercial outline at one time. Commercial outlines can be very helpful in laying out the black-letter law and giving you rules to memorize, if that is what you are looking for. Some outlines are geared towards certain casebooks, so some students find those particularly helpful. The problem with commercial outlines is that some students use them in place of reading and working with the material on their own. These outlines are intended to supplement your work, not replace it.
What kinds are there? Well, the two that are best known are Gilberts and Emanuel on about every subject imaginable. From an article I read regarding study aids, it appeared that Emanuel was considered a better source - probably because it has more than simply the black letter law. In fact, in response to these "examples" books, it appears that many of the outline study aids have added study tips, exam hints, and some questions. Other outline book include Crunchtime (Emanuel), which has capsule summaries, flowcharts, exam tips and sample questions, Black Letter (Thomson/West), which includes some examples and analysis, and Law Outlines (Casenotes), which contains capsule and complete outlines and limited exam questions.
Overall, commercial outlines can help you get the big picture if you are lost in details. Some students just need a boost and this can give it to you. While a good syllabus and table of contents of the book may be valuable, these outlines can help you separate the details from the main ideas and concepts. These outlines are also good to make sure that you did not miss anything big, assuming that the professor covers it. Rather than spinning your wheels or not having any sense of outlining - check one out. Remember, however, even if you know the black letter law from a commercial outline, you still need to take the next step and learn how and when to apply it to new factual situations. That's how you really learn legal analysis.
CALI is short for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. These are interactive computer exercises and questions that test your knowledge of the material and help improve your test-taking skills. The CALI lessons provide interactive exercises in which you enter responses to questions based on fact patterns and receive an instantaneous evaluation of your answer and prompts to guide you to the "right" answer. You learn the law and how to apply the law to a body of facts--the key to doing well on exams. Some of the CALIs are mini-tutorials on a particular subject. Most CALIs tell you how long it should take to complete the exercises, and they range anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour. You should have received one when you started law school. If not, check with the library. So, if you have difficulty understanding a section of the course, CALI can help walk you through the basic law.
Now we get to the Cliff's Notes of law school casebooks: the canned briefs. The two big ones are Legalines and Casenotes: Legal Briefs. Of all the comments I received from the professors - there was a universal opinion regarding canned briefs. It was: DON'T USE THEM!!!
Seriously, you need to read the assigned cases. Canned briefs can't be used as a substitute for reading the cases in preparation for class. Note only is this book the kind of study aid frowned on by faculty, there are essential truths that you need to recognize: they aren't very good and critical case reading is an essential legal skill. You won't have canned briefs in practice (or LRW) so you need to learn the process.
Regarding their use, common wisdom says that you can get the first one or two questions answered from the professor - but any subsequent hypo or in-depth question won't work when the "analysis" consists of two sentences.
Miscellaneous (Flashcards. Tapes. etc.)
Flashcards are sometimes helpful for students. While it might be better to create your own, some sections of the law tend to lend themselves as flashcards. Flashcards are also useful if you need to learn a lot of information and need to review for details. Students can also practice short hypotheticals to test their knowledge and to get acquainted with the kinds of facts that will raise a particular issue. If you like this sort of first step before hitting the longer essay questions, do yourself a favor and write out the answers - don't just talk them out. Remember it is in the explanation of why you decided as you did that you can get lots of points. Look to use flashcards when there is certain language or facts which trigger a legal theory; this is when flashcards are helpful to chunk all that material together.
Tapes are great for the oral learner - particularly if you drive solo a long way. However, if you either 1) start and stop the tape at random points (again, you need to cover a section to make sense) or 2) you don't learn well with just the spoken tapes will not prove very valuable. A better choice might be a discussion group where a group of students get together to "talk it out." Again, depends on the students.
Exam Prep Books
Students who do well in law school general practice sample questions prior to their exams. In this category, there are four different series which present various questions and answers in particular courses. They are the Exam Pro series, Siegel's, Q & As, and Finals. Some of them announce the issue and thus are more helpful in understanding the area you are currently studying. Others are multi-issued questions, so issue -spotting is part of the process. Some are essay questions; others have multiple choice questions. And while the best way to practice is to use your own professor's exams with model or sample answers, students do not always have that advantage. No matter what, students should practice both during the semester and in preparation for the exams.
Too many study aids can be overwhelming. If you try to use too many, you will be adding to your workload, with little likelihood of getting much additional useful information. You will also be spending too much money, because study aids can be expensive. So pick only when you need it, and choose wisely.
Another point to remember is that outlines and such can help with learning black letter law - but you also need to learn recognize issues and to apply these rules. During exams many questions do not have directives identifying the issues to be discussed. So get your outline in reasonable order sufficiently early in the semester so that you can practice answering hypothetical questions, preferable the professor's old exams. Don't forget to write out the analysis because it is a great way to learn the fundamentals of the law, as well as how to properly analyze and apply those rules of law.
All of these steps are parts of learning to become a lawyer. So, read cases, synthesize, outline, study, and practice: but make sure you do it in a timely fashion and don't rely on a last-minute "magic" book. And to paraphrase one professor - sometimes the best study aid is junk food and candy bars! So use what works - just remember that there is no substitution for using legal analysis to process the cases and class discussion into legal rules, outlines and an exam strategy.
Sometimes admitted students are interested in preparing themselves prior to law school. Here is a list of some of the books that are available. While not exhaustive, it at least gives you an idea of what sorts of books can give you information about the process of law school studying.
- Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School: Strategies for Success by Ruta K. Stropus, Charlotte D. Taylor ISBN 089089-945 -2 Carolina Academic Press 2001. [this is probably my first choice - the book methodically explains the process so that you know what to expect in law school]
- Law 101, 2d edition by Jay M. Feinman ISBN 0-19-517957-9 Oxford University Press 2006
- Law, Law Study, and the Lawyer's Role by James Moliterno and Fredric Lederer ISBN 0-89089-453-3 Carolina Academic Press 1991
- Law in a Nutshell: Law School Success, 2d edition by Ann M Burkhart and Robert A Stein ISBN 9780314167798 West Publishing Company 2008
- Law School without Fear: Strategies for Success, 2d edition by Helene S. Shapo and Marshall Shapo, ISBN 1-58778-187-5 Foundation Press 2002
- Legal Analysis: The Fundamental Skill, 2d edition by David Romantz and Kathleen Elliott Vinson ISBN 978-1-59480-279 -5 Carolina Academic Press 2009
- Reading Like a Lawyer by Ruth Ann McKinney ISBN 1-59460-03205 Carolina Academic Press 2005
- Starting Off Right in Law School by Carolyn J. Nygren ISBN 0-89089-877-4 Carolina Academic Press 1997 $14.00
- Strategies and Tactics for the First Year Law Student by Kimm Alayne Walton and Lazar Emanuel ISBN 9780735539983 Emanual/Aspen Publishing Companies 2004
- Understanding Law School by Various Authors ISBN 0-8205-6193-2 Mathew Bender 2004
- What Every Law Student Really Needs to Know by Tracey E. George and Suzanna Sherry ISBN 13-978-0-7355-8236-1 Aspen Publishers 2009
- Whose Monet? An Introduction to the American Legal System by John Humbach ISBN 0-7355-6557-0 Aspen Publishers 2007
- 1L of a Ride by Andrew J. McClurg ISBN 978-0-19483-1 Thomson West 2009
- 1000 Days to the Bar--But the Practice of Law Begins Now by Dennis J. Tonsing. ISBN 0-8377-3726-5 William S. Hein & Co., Inc. 2003
Finally, I would suggest you pick up Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul to help you while you are in your first semester. Once you begin law school, you will find that this book demonstrates the process of legal analysis in a clear way.
When you think about law school, you should be thinking about problem-solving and learning the legal analytic way to solve those problems. However, one of the first problems you might face is having enough time to learn legal analysis, to complete your readings, to write your assignments.
So, wouldn't it be great if we had unlimited amounts of time?
General wisdom within the law school ranks states that there is a four to one ratio of study and preparation time for every hour in a classroom in law school. While an undergraduate, you probably spent two hours for every hour in class. Now it's different - law school study and preparation should add up to sixty hours a week to your already hectic life.
Do I mention this to make you work harder?
Well, while you will become more efficient as you continue through the year, you do need to be prepared to spend considerable amounts of time in order to succeed in school. However, my main purpose is to encourage you to think about time management - which after all really means "hands on control" - of your law school career.
So don't panic - even if you do spend 15 hours in class and 45 hours studying law - and even if you sleep 56 hours a week - you still have 52 hours a week for life! (which I might add is 30% more than the average work week). However, whether you do find sufficient time to do everything you need to do, is dependent on three things:
- Knowing when you work/study best
- Planning ahead
- Using your time well and committing to get the work finished
This means schedules.
In general, schedules provided you with the specific knowledge that you are either ahead of schedule and in great shape, or on schedule and in good shape, or behind schedule and in trouble! In much the same way as the person facing large credit card debts generally gets there by small purchases - a dollar here, twenty there, a person who finds himself behind in studying and preparation generally gets there by wasting ten minutes here, an hour there, and an afternoon there. The best way to avoid that pattern is to make a schedule. So note that most days you have at least an hour between classes - take a hard look at that time and ask yourself what you do with it. As a suggestion, most of your briefing/reading should be finished b/f school begins. So why not take the time after contracts to first go back over that class' notes and review/synthesize and/or go over the briefs for the next class. Doing either or both puts you ahead of the game: you will be able to either shorten the outlining/synthesizing into rule time, or you will feel like you know what you are talking about in your next class (and therefore take better notes, which leads you to better synthesizing, etc).
Do you do relatively easy review of briefs between classes, or initial prep for the next day, or do you really get down to hard thinking during these breaks?
It depends on your body clock. Ask yourself when you work the best. Decide what kind of person you are. Early person? Use those daytime hours to the full extent you can! On the other hand, if you can't study past 9 p.m. on most days, don't schedule yourself to 11 p.m. each night for "outlining and synthesizing" because it won't be worth it. Study time refers to productive preparation, reading and review - not simply staring at a book. So, for the early birds, maybe you want to get up early and study - and hit the gym later in the evening when your brain is tired.
The same applies for those who can barely make an 8:00 a.m. class - don't count on reading those cases in any meaningful way before that first class. You might like to get relatively simple tasks out of the way in the morning: do review, do preliminary LRW task, go to the gym, etc. This reflection on your body clock may require you to alter the above schedule to save your prime times for study. So you might be the person who really starts thinking well after dinner. Go with that time - but make sure you remember that you still have early classes.
Be leery of marathon study sessions.
You may think reading, reviewing and studying from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday is a great way to go, allowing you to make up for totally blowing off Friday. Wait! Think about it. If you are finished with classes by noon or 1 p.m. on Friday, you can still do initial reading and some early drafting for your legal research and writing (which requires a decent block of time) and still have time to go to dinner and a movie. Or, you can do the LRW, followed by reviewing your notes in Contracts and Property and still have time for the 8:00 p.m. show! And let's be realistic - depending on what you did the night before, you may not be prepared to study at 10 a.m. The upshot is that you need to study productively in reasonable blocks of time.
And that means you need to know how to say "no."
If someone wants to play 18 holes of golf and you aren't ready for that study group - say "no." If you eat lunch as a group - and others want to linger until the 3:00 p.m. class - and you need to review for class - say "no." Saying "no" is not always fun - but in order to minimize stress, you need to limit your activities during these critical first semesters.
Second, you need to plan ahead. Ideally, you should review the academic calendar and record all the usual holidays, school breaks, changes of class days, etc. Note when you may be traveling home or celebrating a family birthday. Be realistic - you won't study for eight hours on your birthday if traditionally your friends or family take you out to dinner.
Then take out your exam schedule and mark all the exam dates.
Likewise look at your syllabi for all classes and check when legal writing papers are due (including drafts). Working from those dates, determine a schedule for writing the first, second, third draft, as well as factoring in meetings with teaching assistants and your professors. Realistically on weeks when you have research or writing assignments due, you will need to study and otherwise prepare for your courses differently. So get ahead during the weeks you do not have significant writing responsibilities. Likewise, note when midterms or practice exams (if any) are scheduled. You will need to make sure those course outlines are sufficiently prepared to use in your studying. Therefore you will need to perhaps start those outlines sooner - or at least work harder on them in the weeks prior to the midterm/practice exam.
This semester schedule is not filled with minutia.
Rather it is only your reference for completing a weekly schedule. The semester schedule will simply allow you to see the big picture and make sure you start projects at a reasonable point. Again the goal is to provide balance so that you recognize that one week will be considered a heavy "legal writing" week, while another may be the week to concentrate on contracts or torts. Overall, however, you will cover all courses.
Now turn you attention to this upcoming week.
Block out your classes, set appointments, meals, sleep, etc., so that you can clearly see the remaining free time. The weekly schedule is the best method for flagging important upcoming events (draft due on Friday at noon; study group discussion on adverse possession on Wednesday at 4 p.m.). Try to keep some flexibility for unexpected events - yet structured sufficiently so that you get your studying finished.
Before you go to sleep each night, ask yourself the two or three things you must accomplish the next day.
Write them down in order of importance, followed by a few more things you need to do that day. Look at your calendar, note when you can accomplish the most important tasks (and be liberal in estimating the time). Only after the critical tasks are completed should you find time for the less important tasks. Try to use your most productive times for the tasks that need the most concentration. The next day, do them as stated, completing them before moving to the less critical items. Be realistic: if you must buy a birthday present for your /spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend- do it (quickly) during the time you are least productive. Thinking you need to do something, but refusing to find time for it is a sure trip to stress, and an impediment to studying and preparing for class. Likewise block sufficient time so that you can complete the essentials - if that writing draft is due the next day, give yourself the time to do one last, concentrated edit (for we all know that you never wait until the last day to write a paper!). You may also need sufficient time to outline the section on subject matter jurisdiction - so don't try to accomplish that between contracts and property. Use short periods of time for reviewing your class notes or case briefs, setting up appointments with the professors or TA's, or otherwise dealing with specific legal questions.
Finally, time management means that your study time is actually productive. So have a goal when you study. Don't tell yourself that you are "going to study contracts for the next two hours." If you stare at that page for two hours, you can tell yourself that you accomplished your goal. Instead, try deciding what you are going to accomplish specifically and in concrete terms during that period of time. Rather than the ambiguous "study for two hours" try, "In the next two hours, I will review my notes until I can define mensrea and how certain factors effect the concept of that term." Even if you aren't finished in two hours - you will know what you know - and what you don't. And unfortunately, for some students, they don't even know what they don't know - because they never were specific about their study habits.
Ultimately, time management relies on discipline.
But discipline also requires that you allow yourself rewards. One students who sticks to a schedule to get her work done made two very good suggestions that I would like to pass on:
- Multitask when you can: If you decide to reward yourself with some television - organize your notes, copy some information that doesn't require your full attention, organize your address book, iron your clothes - but do a few things at a time.
- Reward yourself each day for getting through the tough stuff: Take a break to read the comics - or call your best friend - or have someone give you a massage. During that reward time - just enjoy.
Finally, a few of my suggestions:
- Routine is important - but don't be surprised if you don't always succeed: While you need to stick to schedules, and weekly and daily to-do lists, things happen. So if you fail during one day, simply start again. Remember, trying to cram all the information during the last few weeks is stressful, unhealthy, and almost always a strategic mistake. Gradual review and learning is more effective and allows you an opportunity to reflect upon what you are learning.
- However, to maximize your chances of success, think about engaging in weekly monitoring of your goals: Are you being efficient? What modifications do you need to make?
- Likewise, build in breaks - don't make your schedule so crammed that burn-out is inevitable: This is a marathon, not a sprint. So make those breaks, meaningful, energizing (the gym!) and realistic. Try to make the longer breaks coincide with your body's down time.
- Have focused goals so that you know where you are in understanding the law of a particular class.
- Remember the old adage: plan your work and work your plan! If you follow a schedule, critical thinking will then occur - and you have found the time to do it.
In an informal poll over various years, I asked some of the more successful first year law students about their study habits. I defined this group as those in the top 15%, following their first semester exams. Here are some of their hints:
Understand the difference between law and undergraduate exams.
A top student noted the difference: undergraduate exams assume 100% - until the professor deducts points when something is wrong or of no value, while professors in law school exams only give points when there is some value in the answer.
This is a huge distinction. The top law students explain their analysis because better analysis means more points. Similarly, this group of students focus more on the "why" and "because" and less on the bottom line - because those portions of exam writing equal more points.
Prepare your cases for the next class!
While a simple majority continued to brief cases using the technique taught during orientation (facts, issue/rule, reasoning), every student made sure he/she understood the pertinent rules, facts, and reasons of the court. Some used alternative methods, but all students were faithful about preparing for the next class assignment.
Besides briefing, I would also suggest you take just a few minutes to review the previous lesson. Initially, during the first month or so, you might want to see if your brief included the same points as covered by the professor. This can be your daily check to improve the quality of your briefing, so that you will become more efficient as you go along.
In addition, start reviewing the substance of the class. Note the relationship between that and prior classes, highlight the professor's hypotheticals, and note your questions. Significantly, studies have shown that information reviewed and learned immediately after class is retained longer and with greater effect. So take at least a portion of the hour you have between classes to synthesize and learn the rules from the day's class. Ask the professor any follow-up questions that you did not have time to ask during class. Discuss answers to the day's hypotheticals with your classmates. All of this will make outlining and exam preparation go much smoother.
Discussion groups have a valuable place in preparing for exams.
While slightly more than half the students used study groups, it's clear that study groups alone are no guarantees of good grades. So meeting together to review legal rules is not an essential component of doing well in law school. If you always study alone - and feel like groups break your concentration - that's fine. Equally valid are groups where together you clarify the legal rules and exceptions. Preparation within that group is the key to a successful study group. A number of students indicated that study groups (or a "study buddy") were valuable tools because the members were always prepared.
However, no matter how you study the basic components of the law, discussion groups can be invaluable to students. A discussion groups focuses on problems from hypotheticals, secondary sources or fellow students. One person is designated the writer for the group and a leader keeps the group on track. The goal is to decide how the question is answered, with specific legal analysis. All members need to participate - adding their "take" on the analysis, as well as any differing opinions. The idea is to facilitate a strategy of how to answer legal problems. After all, exam-taking in law school is problem solving. These discussion groups can review various issues throughout the semester and assist the group members in deciding how best to approach different legal problems. Your group can then supplement their respective outlines (or create one together), as well as decide appropriate approaches to the various issues in a course. Why not practice what you want to write regarding that area of law before the exam?
Therefore, think about meeting on a regular basis for a definite period of time, with a specified topic. Probably you should have discussed all subjects within a two-week cycle. Moreover, make sure fellow members are serious about discussing the law. Select them by observing how prepared they are in class - or encourage your friends to be ready for the group. Don't be afraid to enforce a rule that the members must be prepared.
If you don't want to discuss with a group, remember to study with a purpose. During a typical study session, don't just look at your outline/notes. Know what your specific goal will be during that period of time. Good students are effective students and understand that the purpose of studying is to understand what the law is, what it means, and how to use it.
Outline your courses in a timely fashion: it's the organization, not the length that is important.
While preparing their outlines, these students utilized a number of strategies. Some began outlining after the professor finished a topic. This is one good method, once you are comfortable with the area of law. Until you know what the professor is talking about - and how the particular topic fits in the overall scheme of the course - it's better to wait. You can't outline what you don't understand. Once these students started outlining, they added to each section as another area of law was completed.
On the other hand, very few waited to do their outlines over Thanksgiving - and all regretted waiting too long to begin. Trying to do most of the outlining, as well as learning the material from late November until the end of classes makes for a nerve-racking experience. You want to go into exams feeling prepared, not harassed and anxious.
More importantly, try to end up with a very short "checklist" or exam strategy of all the essential points that you have covered in the course. This "big picture" outline should trigger all the details necessary for a good analysis.
Commercial outlines and outlines prepared by other students can serve a purpose - just remember not to rely too heavily on them.
While outlining, most students were not averse to using commercial outlines and/or outlines prepared by past students. However, most of these high-ranking students did not primarily rely on those outlines. Instead, they tended to use those prepared outlines to help organize the necessary headings and sections and/or to fill in gaps where their notes proved to be sketchy.
Outlining is a waste of time, however, if you merely copy your notes in a more organized fashion. (see, The Outlining Process). A good outline incorporates the rules, the explanation and policy for the rules, the elements and exceptions, as well as noting case examples. Outlines also demonstrate the relationships between the topics, noting the effect of one rule upon the application of another. A very good outline provides the exam strategy for a student. How the exam question should be answer is vital to a good testing experience.
Finally, nearly all the students made sure they incorporated their professor's hypotheticals into the outlines. These hypos can be very valuable because they might indicate how a professor views the ruling in a case. You also might discover how far the rule and reasoning can be extended. Or you may get an idea of how the professor structures his/her questions. In any instance, these students felt that their inclusion was helpful to exam preparation.
Practicing on past exams can be the most helpful tool you use to prepare for exams.
Interestingly, all the top students. who I have talked to about their preparations, looked at all available past Saint Louis University School of Law examinations in their courses. While some only spotted issues and outlined their answers (or discussed the answers with fellow students), some took them under examination conditions. This latter group timed their answers and wrote out a complete discussion. All the students found that practice exams were a valuable experience. They got good experience answering the type of questions their professor asked, and structuring their answer in a timely manner. Some even commented that they learned to write/type faster - a very useful skill during an essay examination!
You cannot wait until the reading days to learn the law and prepare for exams.
Unlike the horror stories that are told about examination preparation - cramming, staying up all night, living on caffeine - the best preparation is to "overly prepare" gradually. While some students could not articulate an exam-taking strategy, some gave very cogent advice. One rule of thumb is to prepare so that you are confident and relaxed during the exam. Get enough sleep; eat healthy. Make sure your preparation is focused and detailed.
Once at the test, watch the time. Bring a watch and stick to the given time allotments. Think about answering the question as a legal memorandum. Identify the issue; state the rule of law (and explain what this means); apply to the case (and explain why); note any problems and conclude. In addition, don't be afraid to use some of the time to think. Re-read the facts, organize some type of outline, noting priority of issues and the time allotment. Remember that you may need to state the obvious rules at times: don't assume too much. Go through the facts and ask yourself how you would legally handle them and how it affects the solution to the problem. If you need to make certain assumptions, state them. If you need to decide which of two rules apply, tell the professor why you chose one over the other. Adjust your technique to the specific professor's preferences (and you will know this because you practiced on old exams and asked questions during the review sessions).
So what should you do?
- Brief your cases before class.
- Review after class, or at least once a week - note questions - think through the analysis.
- Outline after you feel comfortable with the course, and after the professor has finished with a topic.
- Use commercial or other student-generated outlines only as a tool to organize or fill gaps: don't rely too heavily on them.
- Consistently prepare - consistently review.
- Memorize the rules of law - that's the minimum.
- Understand the rules and reasons - don't just memorize.
- Discuss hypotheticals or other legal issues with fellow students to insure better legal analysis skills.
- Use past examinations to help you prepare - try to take them under examination conditions.
- Get enough sleep and eat healthy during examinations: you won't do better if you are sleep-deprived.
- Remember, the professor wants to see your work: make sure you explain why you came to the conclusions you did, and state your assumptions.
- Think of the examination as a test of your ability to do legal analysis - not to give the "right answer."
- Go in confident - after all, someone has to be in the top 15%!
©2009 Joyce Savio Herleth