Success in law school is a daunting task. Unlike exams in most other post-graduate specialties, a law school final may account for almost 100% of your grade in many classes. So: how do you navigate the trials ahead and manage to excel in law school?
1. Consider law school a full-time job
Act as you would at your place of employment. Do not forego class because you want to sleep in or because you are terrified of being called on. Keep to a specific schedule. Develop strong habits early on; set a clear plan for your day and follow it. Keep a calendar. Consider classes “meetings” and be productive in-between each period. Use the down time to work on your reading or other projects. Depending on the amount of class hours you have per day, keeping a nine-to-five schedule is not impossible, especially when supplemented with weekend review.
2. Locate outdated class outlines
Find an old class outline early on, preferably as the semester starts. It is likely that the syllabus has changed somewhat from the year before. However, the value of locating an old outline is that it will aid in understanding the trajectory of the class. It can be difficult to understand the overall scope when each week of reading is confusing enough on its own. Law school professors also like to be elusive. Peruse the outline to determine what is ahead. Use that to re-frame professors’ questions. It is likely they are asking each question to drive you in the direction laid out in the next several classes. Usually, a decent outline will have notes from each class session, providing you with an idea of where you are and where you will be going. Do not rely too heavily on this tool, however.
3. Create your own notes and outline as the class progresses
Although old outlines are useful for a broad overview, you should type up your own class and reading notes and organize them into an outline of your own each week. Do not wait until Thanksgiving (or later!) to create an outline for each class. Train yourself to build it as you go. That way, you will have plenty of time to edit it down as finals approach. Do not worry about the format – do what works for you. You will have ample time to test your outline as you complete practice exams near the end of the term. Here are 3 note-taking formats every student should try.
4. Determine what your professor is interested in
Read his or her resume. Investigate any law review articles or other research/opinion pieces they have written. Look for their most recent publications. Chances are, if your professor just spent a year of his or her life writing an in-depth analysis of a nuance in the law, that nuance will be on his or her mind and on your final. Try to identify what your professor is thinking so you have a better idea how to answer his or her questions on the exam.
5. Complete past exams
Often, law schools will provide old exams to students. Ask your professor or TA if any past tests are available. Once you are nearing the conclusion of the class, begin to sit down and take the exams with your almost-completed outline. Observe the time limits and other restrictions the professor notes on the past exams. Then, compare each response to the model answer, or better yet, re-write them after carefully poring through your textbook and other resources (including your professor’s articles). It is an excellent study tool and takes some of the law school exam jitters away. Here is a test taking tip on how to review an exam before you take it.
6. Recognize when to stop
Understand the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, the marginal return on an extra minute of studying is just not going to be worth it. Tired minds are not efficient tools. Know when to stop and sleep. If you have budgeted your time well, you will be able to pick up the slack the next day. Do not study all night, no matter how much you think it will help you excel. Force yourself to proceed at a manageable, constant rate, rather than blocking out eight hours of study time for one subject after you finish class that day. Here are some great test taking tips on the best study habits that you may find useful.
The best advice to succeeding in law school is to remember that you are not alone. Do not be afraid to pose questions to fellow students, faculty, and support staff. If you are unsure how to read a case, ask a friend, go to the professor’s office hours, or work with a tutor. If you have a TA, ask them. Use the resources around you in order to excel!