Top Students' Study Tips

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 Savo Herleth