Monthly Archives: March 2014

Making Flash Cards Work Harder for You

There are some legal concepts that law students just must memorize–there is no way around it! Once you have outlined a topic for a class, you will identify specific rules, tests, etc. that you want to know backwards and forwards. For example, think of how you would analyze a fact pattern for “adverse possession” on your property exam. Although your professor may have worded the elements slightly differently than I have here, you know that adverse possession requires that the person: (1) actually enter; (2) have exclusive possession; (3) have continuous possession; (4) have adverse or hostile possession (without the owner’s permission); and (5) possession must be for the period of time defined by the statute. During the exam you will be feeling a lot of stress because of the amount of information you have studied and the limited amount of time you have to complete the exam. If you do not have the elements memorized, you may forget one of them when you are writing your essay. The result: fewer points, a lower grade.

Many students use flash cards to memorize the elements of rules, key definitions that they want to know word for word, and other important legal information that they want to be able to recall with little effort. Of course you can always write out your flash cards on index cards, but there are also a number of programs and apps available on the internet for free or at a low cost, such as Flashcard Machine, available at www.flashcardmachine.com, and Quizlet, available at quizlet.com

You can make flash cards work even harder for you by using them as checklists for legal issues. A checklist flashcard has the legal issue listed on one side and a list of the possible related topics you might need to address if you identify facts related to that legal topic in an exam question. So, for example, if the legal topic was negligence, you might include on the flip side of the flash card the following related topics, among others: (1) comparative/contributory negligence; (2) vicarious liability; (3) joint and several liability; and (4) the types of damages available. This type of flashcard can remind you to look for related legal issues and maximize the number of points you get on your essay.

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Predicting the Future

Law students hear constant reminders about the need to outline their courses. Often students approach outlining as a chore that must be done, but they don’t understand why outlining is so valuable. As we’ve discussed previously, outlining helps law students to gain a deeper understanding of the law and synthesize various course materials. Today, I want to talk about how to use outlining to predict the future. Most law students don’t realize that they can use a well-developed outline to predict the types of legal issues that will appear on the exam.

So how can you do this? In “Perfecting the Law School Outline,” I stated that the first step to creating a strong outline is to organize it around legal issues rather than cases.  I also described the various categories of information that should be included in the outline. For purposes of prediction, some of the most important categories of information include: policy arguments; competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); legal issues where there are a range of cases and hypotheticals illustrating complexity in how courts apply the law; and observations about how one legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).

Professors like to test the nuances in the law—areas where there are competing approaches, shifting outcomes based upon facts or policy approaches, and fact patterns that require students to recognize how a series of related legal issues must be addressed in the essay. If, when you create your outline, you look for those nuances for each legal issue and include relevant, focused information about those categories of information, you will be able to identify possible exam topics. Questions will be less surprising to you, and you will have already thought about that legal issue in a context that will be more applicable to the exam. Specifically, you will have organized the law in a way that allows you to more easily access it for exam purposes (in other words, anticipating part of the IRAC/CREAC/TREAC format for legal analysis). The result of outlining in this way is less time thinking and organizing once you are in the exam, giving you more time to demonstrate your understanding and ability to apply legal concepts.

In the end, a good outline is a way of taking more control over your learning process. Doing the hard work during the outlining process translates into less stress and better outcomes.

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Outlines, Study Tips

Perfecting the Law School Outline

It may sound crazy to talk about how to outline when we are already three quarters of the way through the school year, but outlining is a skill that you can constantly improve—whether you are a 1L, 2L, or 3L. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss “best practices” for outlining. Maybe after reading this post, you will discover something that strengthens your outlining skills and make your outline do more work for you.

Of course, we use the word “outline,” but a law school outline can be so much more than a document organized by Roman numerals. While it is certainly possible to organize information from course materials using the traditional Roman numeral format, outlines can utilize many forms. Some students use bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information, while others use the tables function in Microsoft Word to create organized sections. Still others find Mind Mapping a useful technique. Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. You also may discover that what works for one class may not work as well for another. Outlines are personal and should support your unique learning style.

One reason why the outline is so important is that it really is the place where you learn the law. By synthesizing various course materials (case briefs, class notes, other assigned reading, etc.), you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and see connections among legal concepts. You also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

So what should your outline contain? Regardless of format, all strong outlines contain the same basic types of information. The first step is to make sure that your outline is organized around legal issues rather than cases. For each section, start with the legal issue that you are going to focus on. Make sure each section has the following parts, as applicable: (1) history/development of the legal issue over time (For example, when you studied personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law); (2) any rules/tests/factors relevant to the legal issue, along with any definitions of key legal terms; (3) policy arguments relevant to how courts decide this legal issue; (4) competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); (5) cases and hypotheticals illustrating components of the outline described above (in very brief form, focusing on facts relevant to understanding the legal issue that is the focus of this part of the outline); and (6) any observations about how this legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).

If your outline contains this information, it will be the only thing that you need to study for purposes of the final exam.  And, most importantly, you will gain a deeper understanding of legal concepts that will stay with you–not only for the final exam but for the bar exam and the practice of law.

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The End of the World

About this time in the semester, law students get back a legal writing assignment, seminar paper draft, or other assignment from a professor. Sometimes, you may get a lower grade than you expected or hoped for, and it may be covered in red ink or its equivalent. At this point, you may be asking yourself if the decision to go to law school was really a good idea after all. There’s a temptation to start beating yourself up, to view this one grade as the summation of your current and future abilities as a law student, and to feel defeatist about how you will end up doing in the class at issue. Although it may feel like the end of the world at the time, a graded assignment–even if the grade is not what you hoped for–is actually an opportunity. I’m not saying that you are not entitled to feel disappointed or frustrated when you get it back, but don’t let those feelings prevent you from gaining the benefit of feedback.

Here’s how to get the most out of a graded assignment:

  1.  Carefully read over the assignment, focusing specifically on any feedback provided by the Professor. Go carefully through: (a) any notes and editing suggestions written in the assignment’s margins or text; (b) any additional comments/suggestions written at the end of the assignment; (c) any grading rubrics or grading-related handouts provided by the professor; and (d) any notes that you took when the professor discussed the assignment in class.
  2. Go back through the assignment a second time. This time, take notes about the feedback. Divide the notes into different categories, such as: (a) criticisms related to legal argument; (b) criticisms related to organization; (c) criticisms related to formatting; (d) criticisms related to grammar and punctuation; (e) criticisms related to strength of research; and (f) criticisms related to citations and Bluebooking. Make a list of questions that you have about the feedback.
  3. Make an appointment to see the professor about the assignment. Don’t argue about your grade. Instead, focus the appointment on understanding what you need to do better in the future. Come to the meeting with specific questions for the professor about things that you don’t understand or need further clarification about. If you are prepared for the appointment, you will get more out of it.
  4. You may also want to set up an appointment with the academic success office at your law school to work further on developing specific skills.
  5. Finally, create an action list from what you’ve learned from this entire process. When you do the next assignment, use that action list as a guide for writing and editing your work. Focus on not making the same mistakes twice.

Just remember: a graded assignment is an opportunity to learn important information and make progress towards your future academic and professional goals. If you approach it with that mindset, even when the grade is not what you hoped for, you will seize the opportunity for further growth!

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Filed under General, Grades, Law School Exams

The Spring Break Balance

For many law students, classes have dragged the last few weeks. You may find it more difficult to come up with inspiration to tackle casebooks, outlines, and writing assignments. Spring Break shines like a beacon of hope in the distance.

Students often ask what they should do during Spring Break. Should you stay home and get your outlines in order so that the rest of the semester goes smoothly? Should you vacation with your family in Florida? Should you travel with friends on that sweet all-inclusive trip to Mexico? For each student, the decision is personal. You must make the right decision for you. Regardless of that decision, the key to having Spring Break contribute to your academic success is balance.

So, what do I mean by balance? Let’s look at the student who focuses on outlines and reading during Spring Break. One approach is to continue your regular study schedule throughout Spring Break, showing up each morning to the law school library and working 8 or more hours each day. By the end of the week, you’ve accomplished a lot. Your outlines for Torts, Civil Procedure, and Contracts are up-to-date, and you’ve completed most of your reading for next week’s classes. This is a great accomplishment–don’t get me wrong. But having spent your entire Spring Break in the library, you may be tired when classes start back the following week. There are still seven weeks before finals, and it’s difficult to keep up the pace until May without a break. An alternative approach is to split your Spring Break between your studies and giving yourself a mental break. Work all day long for only part of the break, or work only half days.  In the remaining time, do something FUN! Go hiking in a state park, visit the zoo, go bowling.  Connect with friends and family, see a movie, take your dog for long walks, read a novel.  Give yourself permission to take time off as well as work during the break.  Having recharged your mental batteries, you’ll come back to your studies refreshed and inspired.

If you travel during Spring Break, balance is also key. You’ve probably heard people say that they needed another vacation to recover from their vacation. You don’t want that experience. Rather than recharging batteries, a Spring Break trip may zap your mental energy and make the second half of the semester even tougher. Consider traveling for a shorter time period (4 or 5 days) or return home at least a couple of days before classes resume. You can then rest up before school starts back, get household chores (like laundry) done, and read for those first few classes–avoid starting out behind the week after Spring Break.

If you decide to study during your travels, be realistic about what you can accomplish and don’t drag along every casebook. Instead, set one or two goals for yourself and schedule time each day to work on that goal. For example, concentrate on getting your Contracts outline in good order, and only pack materials that relate to that goal. Once you figure out that you have a couple of hours free each morning, set that time aside to work on your outline.  You’re more likely to accomplish something during Spring Break if you set realistic goals for yourself and create a plan for how to accomplish those goals.  The key is balance!

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Making it work

I have to confess that I’m a fan of Project Runway–or more accurately, I’m a fan of Tim Gunn’s approach to mentoring the fashion designers on the show. He walks around the workroom as the show’s contestants are in the midst of various design crises, providing insightful guidance and instructing them to “make it work.” That advice is just as applicable to law students, but how to “make it work” is not always clear.

The demands of law school can feel overwhelming at times, as students struggle to juggle many competing priorities. At this point in the semester, 1Ls have deadlines approaching for major assignments in legal writing, but at the same time they must keep up with the reading for their other classes.  Depending on the law school, there may be midterms looming, and outlining for torts or contracts or civil procedure or any other subject (or all of the above) may be falling further and further behind. What seems like the last straw may be that email from Career Services reminding you that applications for externships are due before spring break, or the realization that Summer is only two months away and you still don’t have any plan for what you are going to do.

It’s not like things are easier for 2Ls. Everyone assumes that you have everything figured out, but there is always that class (or sometimes more than one) that is more of a struggle. You may be juggling the demands of your classes with a part-time job or externship. The winter seems to be dragging on forever, and you also have the sudden realization that summer is not far away. If you haven’t sorted out your summer plans at this point, you may be feeling a sense of panic.

And let’s not forget the 3Ls. You are approaching the end of your law school experience, but that doesn’t mean that the challenges are over. Fine-tuning your approach to law school, even at this late date, could improve your chances of success on the bar exam.

This blog is for you–law students at every stage of the law school experience. The goal is to explore how to “make it work” for you–in other words, how to improve your level of academic success in law school.

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