Monthly Archives: June 2014

6 Ways that Law School is Different than Undergrad

Most students find the transition from undergraduate student to law student challenging because law school is unlike anything they have previously experienced. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways that law school is different than undergrad. In all, I’ve identified 6 major differences that specifically relate to your academic success as a law student.

1. Your law professor is not just going to stand up in front of the class and lecture while you take notes. Although a few law professors use a lecture format to teach their classes, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks the students questions about the law, and students answer. Many of the questions are in the form of hypotheticals that require you to think about what you have read and apply it to new fact patterns. Other professors may have students work on projects in groups or participate in role play exercises. The result: few classes will feel like the classes you took in undergrad.

2. Reading 30 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer! One reason for this difference is that the language of law is different from that of other disciplines, and it takes a while to learn it. You will have to look up a lot of words and phrases in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and many cases may take three (or even more) reads before you understand the important stuff. You generally cannot skim what you read in law school; instead, you must think about the meaning behind everything that you read to make sure that you understand enough to be able to answer those questions during class.

3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you may have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many final course grades in law school are based upon a single item—the final exam! That means that, especially as a first-year law student, you may have a difficult time assessing your understanding of course materials until it is too late to adjust your approach to your studies. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful, and you will have to learn new techniques to self-assess your understanding of each course.

4. In law school, you are in charge of your own learning. For the most part, if you are not called on during class, no one will know if you don’t do the reading on any given day. In most cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK. It is up to you to motivate yourself and remain disciplined in your approach to your studies and classes. If you don’t, you will find yourself in academic danger by the end of the course. If you slack off for a few weeks during the semester, you may never get caught back up again—and that is your responsibility, no one else’s.

5. In law school, professional expectations begin the first day of Orientation. These expectations actually contribute to your academic success, but they also contribute to your professional reputation as a future lawyer. What am I talking about here? As a law student, you are expected to be timely (both in terms of your presence and completion of assignments), prepared for class, willing to contribute to class discussions, and respectful (even when you disagree with someone else). In reality, these are not necessarily different expectations than existed in your undergraduate classes, but the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be much greater in law school.

6. Everyone is smart, and they are used to getting good grades. People who choose to go to law school have usually been pretty successful in undergrad. The result: law schools are filled with smart students who are accustomed to getting good grades. Many students find it hard to adjust to this difference, as they go from being praised by their undergraduate professors, earning the top grades, and generally being successful in everything they do, to being the “average” student in law school. Moreover, many law schools have mandatory grade distributions, which means that only a small percentage of each class will earn an A for the course.

Stay tuned for additional posts on these topics in the next several weeks, as I provide a more detailed introduction to what new students can expect in their first few weeks in law school. In the meantime, I invite respectful comments from current law students and lawyers about other things that they found different about the law school experience.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

5 Tips for Making the Most of MBE Practice Exams

One of the most dreaded parts of the bar exam is the Multistate Bar Exam, or MBE. Everyone who takes the bar exam takes the MBE on the Wednesday of their exam period, except bar takers in Puerto Rico and Louisiana. By this point in your bar exam preparations, you know that the MBE consists of 200 multiple choice questions, and 190 of those questions are actually scored.

Many law students and bar takers find multiple choice questions more intimidating than essay questions. Here are five suggestions for make the most out of your MBE studies:

First, it is impossible to do well on the MBE if you do not know the underlying law. Although it is important to practice taking MBE questions, if you do not know the law upon which the questions are based you will have limited success. You need to study your bar prep materials for each subject, review your outlines, and memorize the black letter law (maybe by creating flashcards, as I’ve discussed previously). Only after you feel like you have a good basic grasp of the material should you start doing practice MBE questions on that topic.

Second, you need to think about your approach to each question. MBE questions are like many of the multiple choice questions you were exposed to during law school. The questions instruct you to choose the best answer—which means that there technically might be more than one correct answer. As I’ve discussed before, there are specific techniques you can use to help you narrow down the best answer to multiple choice questions. Develop a strategy for how you will tackle the MBE.

Third, numbers matter—it is important to practice MBE questions over and over. The more questions you do over time, the more you will understand how the bar examiners have constructed the questions. You will become more proficient at reading questions because of that understanding. You also will be able to gauge your progress in your studies based upon your degree of success on each set of practice questions.

Fourth, it is important to simulate the actual conditions for the exam. You don’t have to do this every time you take practice questions, but it is a very different thing to take a 20-question practice exam versus spending an entire day taking 200 multiple choice questions. Part of what makes the bar exam challenging is the physical side of taking it—you will be sitting hunched at a table all day filling in bubble sheets with a pencil, and that can be physically taxing. You should also keep in mind the amount of time you will have per question. You will have about 1.8 minutes per multiple choice question on the bar exam—try to apply that standard to your practice questions so that you train yourself to manage your time on the MBE.

Finally, you need to remember that answering the practice MBE questions is only half of the process. To get the most out of your practice sessions, you should review carefully the answers and explanations that go along with those questions. I recommend allowing at least the same amount of time to review the answers and explanations as you devote to taking the practice exam in the first place. As you review your results, take note of why you missed each question. If it is a matter of not knowing the law well enough, then make studying that legal issue a priority in your studies. If you chose a correct answer but not the best answer, then determine what made the other answer better. If you missed key facts in the question, that may be a sign that you are reading the question too quickly and need to slow down. The key is to learn from wrong answers so that you do not make the same mistakes again in the future.

Ultimately, one of the keys to success on the MBE is practice, practice, practice. Set aside the time to do it right, and you will reap the results of your efforts.

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Learning the Language of Law: Tips for Incoming Law Students

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The first weeks of law school can feel a lot like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t know the language. As you read your course assignments, there will be many words you don’t understand. Additionally, much of the law that you will study has a context that you won’t have learned yet. Even the culture of law school is different from what you’ve experienced in the past—many courses taught by Socratic method, with the professor asking you questions rather than lecturing; new expectations for professional behavior; and class assignments that require much more time and effort than you likely have experience with.

Like learning a foreign language, learning the language of law will require significant time and effort during your years in law school. You will read cases multiple times, learning to “translate” each case into usable information for class and exam purposes. You will look up countless legal words and phrases in your law dictionary. You may create flashcards to help you memorize the key vocabulary and legal tests (the “grammar” of law), much as you approached taking Spanish, French, or Chinese in high school and college.

Although it really isn’t possible to learn most of the language of law until you are immersed in it during your 1L year, it is possible to develop some of the context for that language now, during the summer before you begin your life as a law student. As I’ve described previously, there are a number of books out there that provide good information about what to expect in law school, and many of those books provide some context for the legal language you will learn. There are also some great websites, such as the Federal Judicial Center’s “Inside the Federal Courts” website, created to educate federal court employees but useful for incoming law students as well. Often state and federal court websites provide helpful information as well. Sometimes your law school will provide specific suggestions of things you should read prior to your 1L year—check with your law school’s Admissions staff or Academic Support professionals for additional guidance.

So what types of information would be helpful to know before the first day of law school? Here’s a nonexclusive list of suggested topics to learn more about this summer:

(1) the differences between civil law and criminal law;

(2) the meaning of words and phrases such as “case law,” “common law,” and “statutory law”;

(3) the federal court system and federal appellate process;

(4) the state court system and state appellate process for the state in which your law school is located in;

(5) how the U.S. Supreme Court functions and who the current Supreme Court Justices are; and

(6) basic information about the types of law you will be studying during your first year of law school, which, depending on the law school, might include subjects such as Torts, Property Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law.

Remember, you don’t have to be a legal expert before you go to law school; you are just creating a context for what you will learn as a 1L. But a little research before the first day will make you feel less like an alien wandering in a foreign land.

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Motivation Techniques for Studying for the Bar Exam

Although the time that you spend studying for the bar exam is not that long when compared to many other things you have done as a law student, it is an intensive, stressful, and often monotonous process. In the first days and weeks of bar prep, it can be relatively easy to stay focused on what you need to accomplish, but, as time goes on, it may be harder and harder to motivate yourself to spend the amount of time studying that is really required for success on the bar exam. At this point in the summer, it may be time to add some motivational techniques to your study plan.

Reward System

One way to motivate yourself as you study is to create a reward system. For example, some law students have already developed a reward system that is easily adapted to studying for the bar. In this system, the student chooses some type of snack system—it could be M&Ms, gummy bears, pistachios, blueberries, or something else that is small and appealing to you. One item is placed next to each paragraph, page, section, etc. of the study materials, depending upon how often you want to reward yourself. As you finish that part of your reading, you then get to eat your snack reward.

Another way to approach the reward system is to think of something that you really enjoy doing. Some examples might include: going to a movie; playing a video game; getting a pedicure; or going to the zoo or a museum. Set a “price” for that experience, in the form of points. Then determine how many points you can earn for various study activities. Study away and start racking up the points! Once you have earned enough points, you can “cash” them in for a little study break.

Giving yourself something to look forward to, however small, can be a great way of infusing new purpose into your studies.

Improved Study Environment

Another way to motivate yourself is to figure out a way to improve your study environment. Once again, this is a technique that gives you something to look forward to as you study. Maybe you love coffee—you might get yourself a gourmet bean that you only allow yourself to brew when you are studying for the bar exam. If tea is your thing, you might splurge on a special loose leaf tea and even make the brewing process part of your de-stress routine. It might be a special snack, or a lunch item that you look forward to. Or maybe it is a particular pen that is more expensive, but the smooth flow of the ink, or maybe its color, satisfies something inside of you. (Some people adopt inexpensive fountain pens, for example.)

Whatever it is, knowing that you have something special that you like but only get when you are studying can provide additional motivation for bar studies.

Accountability System

Finally, as we’ve discussed previously, creating accountability can be a great way of motivating yourself as you study for the bar. Approach a friend who is also in the midst of bar prep, and create a system with that person so that you check in each day and see how things are going. It’s amazing how, when you set goals and articulate them to someone else, you are inspired to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.

Whatever approach you decide to take, focus on motivating yourself to work hard at your bar studies. I’ve never heard bar takers say that they regretted studying hard for the bar, but I have heard those who failed the bar exam say that they wished they’d pushed harder.

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Keeping Priorities in Focus When Starting Law School

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In only a couple more months, many of you will be heading off to law school for the first time. As we have discussed previously, your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience. When we are extremely busy, it can be easy to lose sight of the things that are our greatest priorities—especially if we have not made conscious decisions regarding what our priorities actually are. Regardless of your background and experiences, the summer before you start law school can be a great time to evaluate your priorities and make sure that they are front and foremost in your mind as law school begins.

So what do I mean when I talk about “priorities”? Priorities are the things that we value the most. They can include personal goals we have, such as financial goals, educational goals, or other things we want to achieve. They can include relationships—friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Priorities may include things like our physical and mental health, religious beliefs, or other tangible or intangible things that have value to us. Priorities are very personal—the things that are most important to you may not be the same for someone else.

While we may have a number of general priorities, usually there are four or five priorities that are most important to us. Moreover, sometimes priorities change over time, and it is a good idea to evaluate priorities periodically to make sure that they still reflect what is most important to you. This summer, take the time to decide what your highest priorities are.

Once you have made deliberate decisions about what your priorities are, keep them in mind as you start law school. When you are creating a schedule of what you want to accomplish, make sure that your highest priorities are not edged out by activities that don’t contribute to those priorities or are less important. When you are deciding whether you should commit to something else in your busy day, such as a club or other extracurricular activity, measure it against your priorities to see if it will support them. Make sure that one priority does not eclipse other things that are important in your life.

If you have consciously identified your most important priorities, you can use them as a compass to keep you on the right path when life gets busy. Keep your priorities in focus as you get ready for law school in the fall!

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On Academic Probation?: Advice for Struggling Law Students

Now that the school year is over, grades are trickling in from those 1L classes. Hopefully, your hard work this past year has paid off, and you have successfully completed all of your classes. Sometimes students aren’t happy with their grades though, and they may find themselves on academic probation, or at least in the lower portion of their class, at the end of that first year. If you find yourself in this position, where do you go from here? It’s important to take law school grades seriously because they can be an important indicator of future success on the bar exam.

Law students may receive low grades for a number of reasons, as explained below. Many of these reasons may not apply to you, but it is important to honestly evaluate yourself and decide what you need to do moving forward.

First, you need to make sure that law school is where you want to be. For some students, lower grades are a sign of lack of passion. Maybe they went to law school because that’s what everyone told them they should do, or maybe they just didn’t know what else to do after they graduated from college. Others thought they wanted to be a lawyer, but the reality of law school wasn’t what they expected or wanted. Take stock of your own personal goals, and make sure that law school is really where you want to be. If you have decided that it really isn’t for you, then you should devote your energies to something that you can get excited about doing instead. If law school is really where you want to be, then consider the advice below.

Second, you need to honestly evaluate your efforts during your 1L year. Sometimes, when students are honest with themselves, they really didn’t put in the time and effort required to be successful in law school. Maybe they had other things distracting them during their first year, or they thought that their approach to college would be enough to get them by in law school as well. If you decide that you really want to be in law school but you fall into this camp, you will need to commit yourself to working harder next year. You may want to talk to a dean, academic support professional, or professor about how to create a study plan for next year that will improve your discipline and lead to greater academic success.

Third, you should evaluate whether a learning disability or other physical or mental condition is interfering with your success on exams. Some students figure out during their first year of law school that they have an undiagnosed learning disability such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). If you are concerned that you have a disability that may be affecting your ability to perform well on exams, you should talk to the academic support professionals at your law school. They may recommend that you see a medical professional for testing and diagnosis. Sometimes students who have disabilities need accommodations on exams, such as additional time or a distraction-free environment, so that they can fully show their understanding of the legal principles and skills being tested.

Finally, you may just need to work with the academic support professionals at your law school to develop your academic skills a little further. For many students, the transition to law school is just not a smooth experience. Maybe you’ve come from a degree program that has emphasized other types of skills, and you just need to work on your analytical skills or writing skills more. Maybe you have been out of school for a number of years, and you just need some help developing the type of study skills that will put you on the right track to academic success. Or maybe you are just the type of person that taken a little longer to have things click for you. There are people at your law school who can be tremendous resources in your efforts to improve your academic performance in your second year of law school, and I urge you to take advantage of their willingness to work with you.

The key to your ultimate success is to take control of your academic performance–honestly assess your position and seek help when necessary.

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Diagramming the Bar Exam: Using Visual Prompts to Strengthen Memory

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Studying for the bar exam is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s important to not to take a passive approach to your studies. Although commercial bar prep materials are helpful when you are studying for the bar, you should go beyond the pre-packaged outlines and videos. Don’t forget what you have discovered about your learning preferences as a student in law school. Using different approaches to attack your study materials can have a significant effect on what you remember for the exam.

I have already discussed one way that you can change up your bar studies approach: flashcards. Today, I want to talk about another technique that can help you remember more of what you study: the creation of diagrams, flow charts, and other visual materials. If you are a visual learner, diagrams and flow charts can help you to remember the steps required for legal analysis of complex legal issues or how various sub-issues are related to each other. The process of creating the diagram or flow chart helps you to synthesize important legal principles, and, having studied the diagram or flow chart, you should be able to recall it more easily in the midst of the exam.

Here’s a simple example of how such a diagram or flow cart could be constructed. Let’s say you are reviewing Contracts, and you want to make sure that you remember the key steps for determining whether an enforceable contract has been created. Here’s what a simple version of that diagram might look like:contracts flow chart

Keep in mind, this would only be the starting point. As you continued to study, you might decide you want to incorporate more concepts into the flow chart, such as: (1) Mistake; (2) whether terms were definite; (3) whether promissory estoppel should apply; etc. You may make several versions of the flow chart before you have incorporated everything you want into it. The process of thinking through where all of the legal principles should fit will help you to remember them better, and in the end you will have a study aid that you can reference over the next several weeks as you study for the bar.

The key is to not get stuck studying your bar materials in a passive way—figure out a way to make it yours, and you will know it even better!

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Filed under Bar Exam, General, Study Tips

Flashcards and Bar Prep

By now, those of you who are studying for the July bar exam should be settling into a regular study routine. As you discovered during your time in law school, there are some legal concepts that you just have to memorize to be successful on an exam, whether it is the final exam in Torts or the bar exam. As a result, you may want to pull an old tool out of the study toolbox—flashcards. Flashcards can help you memorize important rules, tests, and definitions that you will need to recall during the bar exam. They can be especially helpful as you juggle learning and reviewing material from numerous bar subjects. Flashcards can also help you assess what you know versus what concepts you need to spend more time on, allowing you to make efficient use of limited time.

There are two possible approaches to flashcards: (1) the old school, index card type of flashcard that is either handwritten or typed (the “traditional” flashcard); or (2) digital flashcards that can be viewed on a computer, smartphone, iPad, or other digital reader. Each type has its benefits and drawbacks, as discussed below. You just have to decide which type will work best for you.

Traditional Flashcards:

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First, let’s talk about the traditional flashcard. For those of you who do not like to study from a digital screen or aren’t as comfortable using technology, the traditional flashcard may be your default approach. One of the benefits of the traditional flashcard is that many students find that the process of writing out each card actually helps them to remember concepts better, even before they actually start studying from the cards. For people who like a visual reference of what has been accomplished and what is left to learn, stacks of flashcards satisfy that need. It is possible to carry around a small number of traditional flashcards regardless of where you go, and you don’t have to worry about low batteries, loss of internet connectivity, etc.

On the flip side, making handwritten flashcards can be a tedious process, especially when you are creating them for every bar subject. They are easily lost or ruined (such as when your elbow catches that cup of coffee and knocks it over). And if you are one of those people who tries to reduce the entire BarBri outline to a comprehensive series of flashcards, you may take so much time on one subject that nothing else gets done before it’s time to take the bar.

Digital Flashcards:

So what about digital flashcards? Digital flashcards also have their benefits and drawbacks. One of the benefits of digital flashcards is their portability. If you have a smartphone with a flashcard app, you literally can carry your flashcards with you everywhere you go. As I’ve talked about before, there are any number of basic flashcard apps available on the internet for free or at a low cost, such as Flashcard Machine and Quizlet. You may have already discovered a program that works really well for you. Depending on the program, there may be limitations though. It may be difficult to separate out cards that you want to concentrate on for a single study session, or the ability to temporarily combine particular subjects together in a random way (how it will be on the MBE) may be limited. Not all apps work on all devices either. Some only work on Apple devices, while others work with android platforms. Very few seem to work with Blackberries, if you happen to have one of those.

Another benefit—and drawback—to many digital flashcard programs is that they allow you to share your flashcards with others. On the plus side, this means that you and two of your best friends could divide and conquer the flashcard creation process . . . if you trust those people’s judgment calls about what is flashcard-worthy. On the negative side, most people end up knowing best the cards that they created themselves.

A New Type of Digital Flashcard for Law Students and Bar Takers: SeRiouS:

There is also a new digital flashcard program specifically for law students and bar takers called SeRiouS.

Here’s a video explaining how SeRiouS works:

From my exploration of the SeRiouS platform, there are two different ways that you can use it. First, you can utilize flashcards, created by law professors, on a variety of bar subjects. As it stands right now, there are over 600 different flashcards on mostly MBE topics, but it appears that more will be added over time. Second, you and your friends can create your own cards as well. The benefit to SeRiouS is that it draws upon scientific research regarding memory. As you go through each flashcard, you rate how confident you felt about your answer. Based upon your level of confidence, SeRiouS applies an algorithm to determine how often you see that flashcard as you study—a process called spaced repetition. The principle is that, as you start studying a topic, you need to review it frequently in order for it to be stored in your memory. As you continue to review that same topic over time, however, you need to see it less and less often to maintain it in your long-term memory. (I’m not an expert on the subject, but this is how I understand it.) One of the drawbacks to this program is that the website is a little hard to navigate at first until you figure out where everything is located, but it shows a lot of promise. A plus is your ability to chart your mastery of the cards (it gives you an update about your status) as well as gentle reminder emails to get back to reviewing your flashcard deck. At this point, SeRiouS is in the beta stage and available without cost to law students and bar takers at least through the July bar exam period.

**This blog post is not an endorsement of any product mentioned herein; I am just providing some suggestions of resources that are available for you to explore.

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What Should You Do the Summer Before Starting Law School?

Congratulations on being admitted to law school! The next few years will be a time of challenges, opportunities, frustrations, and successes. Law school will be hard work, but, if you approach it the right way, it will also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. So, what should you do this summer before you enter law school? Here are a few suggestions:

Learn more about what to expect during your first year in law school. For many law students, the first semester of law school can be a real shock. Law school is like nothing you have ever experienced. Talk to current law students and lawyers about what to expect during the first week, month, and semester in law school. Ask them what they wished they had known as a new 1L. There are also a number of good books out there for new law students. These books can provide more information about what it is like to be a law student, what skills you need to develop (and even some suggestions about how to develop those skills), and what the language of law school means. You don’t need to read every book out there though—one or two is probably sufficient to get you started.

Some books that you may find helpful (in no particular order):

Starting Off Right in Law School (2nd ed.), by Carolyn J. Nygren. This book is an interesting read, as it uses a fictional case to introduce students to the vocabulary and skills of law school and legal practice.

Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul. This book discusses the differences between undergrad and law school approaches to studying, explains how legal reasoning works and how to apply legal reasoning to class and exam preparation. Much of the focus is on how to perform well on law school exams, and it may be most helpful to read once you are part way through your first semester.

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (3rd ed.), by Andrew J. McClurg. This book provides a straightforward explanation of what to expect during the first year of law school, including suggestions and comments from former law students.

Expert Learning for Law Students (2nd ed.), by Michael Hunter Schwartz. This book provides a lot of useful advice about how to tackle the various skills you need to develop and tasks that you must accomplish as a law student. It also helps you to understand more about how you learn, and how you can approach law school based upon your learning preferences.

Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert (2nd ed.), by Ruth Ann McKinney. This book focuses specifically on how you can develop the reading skills you need to effectively and efficiently read for law school.

Learning Outside the Box: A Handbook for Law Students Who Learn Differently, by Leah M. Christensen. This book is a great resource for students who learn differently from the average student, including those who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities that affect the way they learn.

This is not an exclusive list—there are certainly other books out there that may be helpful in introducing you to what to expect in your first year of law school. Ask law students you know about any books or other resources they have found particularly helpful.

Make your health a priority. There are a lot of studies out there that demonstrate links between taking good care of yourself—eating healthy foods, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep—and cognitive skills and stress management. Make lifestyle changes that improve your health even before law school begins, and continue those new habits into the school year. You will be better off for making your health a priority in the long run.

Finally, take some time to relax and recharge your batteries before law school begins this fall. Some people try to do too much during the summer before law school—reading every book about being a successful law student, trying to get a head start on first-year law school course materials, etc. Your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience, and it is important to go into it feeling rested and ready to tackle the challenge. Read for fun. Go on long walks. Spend time with friends and family. Do the things that make you happy and renew your spirit!

Stay tuned to this blog over the next couple of months–I will be adding additional posts on this topic!

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Pre-Law, Study Tips