Monthly Archives: July 2014

Leveraging Your Preferred Learning Style in Law School

Although there is some debate on this subject, many people believe that understanding your preferred learning style can help you to make better use of your time—your studying will be more effective, which will also make it more efficient. Not everyone agrees that there is a direct link between maximizing your learning style and achieving academic success, but thinking about your preferred learning style—as well as other learning styles—may introduce you to different study techniques that you might not have otherwise thought about.

It is also important to understand that, regardless of your learning preferences, you will encounter circumstances during class and while you study when the information is not presented in the way that you prefer. In those circumstances, you will have to find the way past your own learning preferences to learn the material anyhow, and your understanding of various learning techniques may help you to do that.

One of the most popular learning preference assessments, the Vark assessment, identifies five key types of learning preferences: (1) visual; (2) aural; (3) reading and writing; (4) kinesthetic; and (5) multimodal.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Visual learners prefer to learn by seeing. They may prefer professors to use powerpoint slides in class, and they like to read books with diagrams, pictures, flow charts, and graphs. A visual learner may use different colored ink or type to label particular parts of their notes or case briefs, or may use highlighter markers when they read. They may also convert their notes into flow charts or mind maps to visualize how various concepts that they’ve studied relate to each other.

Image courtesy of Chaiwat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Chaiwat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Aural learners prefer to learn by hearing information. They remember more by listening to lectures, and may find it helpful to make audio recordings of information that they want to study. Some aural learners use text to audio software to convert reading assignments into aural information that they can listen to as they read. Because aural learners are focused on listening in class, their notes from class may not be as helpful, and it may require more work to expand their notes after class by incorporating other materials from readings. Aural learners may also find it helpful to talk through legal concepts aloud, either by themselves or in a study group.

Image courtesy of Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Reading and writing learners prefer to learn through text. They may prefer reading information for themselves, whether through reading assignments or class powerpoints and handouts. This type of learner also tends to take extensive notes. They may study by reading and writing information from their notes over and over again, and they like to turn flow charts, diagrams, and charts into words instead of visual images.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Kinesthetic learners, sometimes referred to as tactile learners, learn best by touching and doing things. They may prefer role-play exercises or situations that allow them to act things out. They also like to practice doing things in order to learn them.

Finally, there are multimodal learners. Most learners are actually multimodal learners, and their learning preferences depend on the situation. As a result, multimodal learners may use any of the strategies that I’ve described.

If you would like more information about your preferred learning styles, take the Vark assessment today (the basic assessment is free, although the website offers more extensive analysis for a fee). There is also this Index of Learning Styles, which is categorized a little differently from what I’ve described here. Regardless of what year you are in law school, thinking about how you learn and exploring other study techniques can contribute to your academic success.

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Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

What is a First-Day Assignment?

For new law students, the next several weeks will introduce new ways of thinking and learning, new friends and colleagues, and new mentors and teachers. We’ve already explored some of these new things, like the Socratic Method and law school grading systems, and we will continue to explore many others in the coming weeks. Today I want to focus on one specific new requirement for law students: the first-day assignment.

Many of you may have already received a letter or email from your law school that includes a first-day assignment or directs you to a first-day assignment link on the law school website. On the surface, the first-day assignment seems pretty self-explanatory: it’s an assignment for the first day of class. In reality, there are some things you should know about first-day assignments that will set you up for success in your first week of class.

(1) You should read the first-day assignment before you go to class. In undergrad, the first day of class was often a really light day, with no real stress. Your professors probably went over the syllabus, their expectations, and what assignments and exams would be like, but often there is no substantive material covered on the first day. In law school, you will hit the ground running on the first day of class. You professors expect that you have done the reading before coming to class, and what happens in class builds upon that reading. If you don’t do the reading before class, you will be unprepared if the professor calls on you, and you will not have a foundation for anything that is covered during that class. Don’t fall behind in the very first week—come prepared!

(2) Make sure that you allow enough time to read each assignment. As I’ve mentioned before, law school reading assignments take much longer to read than most undergraduate assignments. You might have budgeted half an hour to an hour to read one assignment in undergrad, but that same number of pages could take your three hours (or even more) in law school. Don’t wait until the Sunday afternoon before your first day of classes to get started on your reading. If you wait until the last minute, you’ll run out of time before you’re finished.

(3) “Read” means something different in law school than it means in most undergraduate classes. Don’t just skim your assignments. Read them closely. Look up words and phrases that you don’t understand. For most assignments, you will need to read the assignment a second time, and even a third time. If it’s a really difficult case, you may read it over even more. Especially during your first semester of law school, you will have to read your assignments multiple times to understand everything you need to know before going into class.

(4) Brief the case—don’t just read, but take notes of important information from the case. We will spend more time talking about how to brief cases in the next couple of weeks, but one of the key aspects of being prepared for class is knowing how to take the right notes from what you read. Your case briefs will be an essential foundation to your classroom learning and later synthesis of course materials (commonly known as outlining).

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Planning for Worst-Case Scenarios in the Bar Exam

I remember some of the nightmares that I had in the weeks leading up to the bar exam. Like many of you, I worried about all of the things that could go wrong before or during the exam. What if I forgot my pencils on the day of the MBE? What if my computer crashed on the first essay question? (I had heard a rumor that someone had failed the prior bar exam after freaking out when his computer crashed—the story was that, by the time he got himself back together, he didn’t have enough time to finish several of the essays.) What if my car broke down on the way to the exam, and they didn’t let me take it because I arrived after it started? What if I looked at the first essay question and realized that I hadn’t studied that law? What if . . . ? What if . . . ? What if . . . ? You get the point.

Some of the things that I worried about were a little silly, and other things, while highly unlikely, could have affected my performance on the bar exam if they had actually happened. My focus on these worries, regardless of their validity, increased my stress in the days leading up to the exam and absorbed energy and focus that could have been better spent on other things. The key to reducing your stress so that you can stay focused on what’s important, especially in the final days leading up to the bar exam, is planning. Many of the things we worry about can be avoided by planning in advance, and other problems can be mitigated by having an action plan in place before anything even happens. So how can you do this?

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Advanced Planning for Exam Rules: First, review all communications (letters, emails, etc.) that you have received from the bar examiners. Make sure that you are familiar with the rules going into the exam, and create any necessary plans so that you won’t be in violation of those rules at the last minute. (Those rules are often available on the bar examiners’ website as well.) Review what you are allowed to bring into the exam with you, and get things ready in advance so that you are not scrambling at the last minute. For example, Georgia only allows you to bring black ink pens in for the essay day, and pencils for the MBE day. Many states will not allow you to use mechanical pencils (although some states do). There often will not be a pencil sharpener on site, so you will need to make sure your pencils are sharpened in advance. Some states require you to put personal items in a clear plastic ziplock bag. Look for dress codes as well—some states may not allow hooded sweatshirts (concerns about hiding things in the hood), while others may ban flip-flops (because of the noise they make when you walk). Each state has a detailed list of what is allowed and what is prohibited, and you don’t want to be surprised by any of these requirements on the day of the exam.

Advanced Planning for Getting to the Exam: Second, create a plan for how you will get to the exam each morning, making sure to allow a significant time buffer. If you have not previously been to the bar exam location, do a test run in the days before the exam. If possible, do it during the same time of day that you will be traveling on the morning of the exam so that you have a good idea of how long the trip will normally take. If you are driving, scope out your parking options—and don’t forget that, on exam days, you and every other bar examinee will be arriving and parking at about the same time.

Advanced Planning for Taking the Exam: Finally, identify your worst case scenarios for what might happen during the exam and create an action plan for what you will do if any of those scenarios happens. For example, if your fear is that your computer will crash during the exam, then decide right now what you will do if it happens. Decide that you are prepared to hand write if necessary (actually, that is what most bar examiners will actually tell you to do anyhow). Think about how you will approach the exam at that point. Creating an action plan in advance allows you to let go of that worry—you know what you will do if it happens, so why worry more about it now. Moreover, if the worst-case scenario actually does happen, you won’t waste any time figuring out what to do at that point. Instead, you will just start acting on the plan and continue focusing on what you need to be successful on the exam.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You can take a similar approach to another worst-case scenario that many bar examinees fear: getting an essay question that you don’t know what to do with. Once again, a plan of attack can help you get through this situation without panic. For example, you could create a multi-step plan for attacking the question: (1) identify the area(s) of law tested by the question (i.e., property, torts, professional responsibility, etc.); (2) identify the issues and sub-issues that the question asks you to address (usually set out specifically in most questions); (3) create a quick chart with a row for each issue and space to list relevant facts for that issue; and (4) start pulling out and organizing those relevant facts. As you go through this process, it will help you to focus on what you do know rather than what you don’t know, allowing you to avoid panicking.

Take control of your bar exam fears by planning for your worst-case scenarios in advance. That way, when the exam begins, you can just focus on doing your best.

Good luck to all of you taking the bar exam next week!

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Maximizing Academic Benefits from Legal Work Experience

Recently, my posts have focused mostly on topics of interest to incoming law students or law school graduates preparing to take the bar exam. Today, I want speak to those law students who will be returning to school after spending the summer gaining some type of professional legal experience, whether working for pay in some capacity, completing an unpaid internship, or earning law school credit as an extern. This post may also be helpful to students considering an externship, clinic experience, or other practical legal experience during the upcoming school year.

So what are some of the academic benefits of legal work experience? Practical legal work experience, whether during the summer or school year, can contribute to a law student’s academic success in multiple ways:

  • Inspiration: Let’s face it—not everything about law school is exciting or glamorous. Sometimes it’s just about getting through it, whether you are mired in some complicated federal tax law or attempting to untangle the legal rules that apply to secured transactions. When you’re slogging through a class assignment that makes you feel like you will never understand the law or is just not fun to study, you can use your legal work experiences to inspire and motivate you. There is nothing like experience with the law in practice to remind you why you are putting yourself through the hard work and stress of law school. It’s worth it!
  • Context: Legal work experience can also provide helpful context for legal concepts that you are learning about in your law school classes. Classes like Civil Procedure and Evidence are especially difficult to learn if you don’t have a context for all of the rules you are studying. It’s amazing how much more sense the Erie Doctrine or the rules regarding hearsay evidence make when you are applying them in a real-world context. Legal work experience not only gives you a context for subjects you have studied in the past but can also provide a context for future classes you may take.
  • Guidance: Legal work experience can also give you guidance about what elective classes you take in law school. Maybe you had no interest in bankruptcy law until your supervisor at the law firm this summer assigned you a research project involving bankruptcy issues. You might have previously ignored the fact that Bankruptcy Law was going to be offered next Spring, but now you decide you should take the class to explore further whether it is a possible practice area for you. Maybe you always thought you wanted to be a litigator, but an experience in drafting a contract in your internship in a corporate legal department encourages you to take a Legal Drafting course. Or you may have even received guidance from a supervisor who told you that, if you are interested in going into a particular legal field once you graduate, there are specific courses that will be helpful in that endeavor.
  • Development: Finally, your legal work experience can have direct application to the academic skills that will make you a better law student. Specifically, you often become a more efficient and effective researcher, analyst, and writer as you gain more and more experience in practice. Just as the skills that you learn in law school will contribute to your success as an attorney, further development and practice of those skills will also contribute to your academic access.

Although students often view their legal work experiences as unrelated to their academic endeavors, further success in law school can be fueled, at least in part, by those work experiences. Looking for ways to connect your work to your legal education will enhance your law school experience!

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments

Taking Charge of Your Own Learning in Law School

Image courtesy of lamnee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of lamnee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve mentioned before that one of the most empowering aspects of law school—as well as one of the scariest—is that you are in control of your own learning. So what does that mean? What can you do to take charge of your own learning in law school?

Law school puts you in the driver’s seat.

For example, you will have reading assignments for each class meeting—often those assignments take several hours to complete. 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. You make the choice—you stay on top of your assignments each and every day, or you don’t do the reading and do something else instead, such as go to the movies or watch that TV show that you love. Doing the reading is the first step on the path to understanding the law. In contrast, skipping even one day’s reading makes it even harder to understand what is going on in class, and getting multiple days behind decreases your ability to be successful on later assignments and exams. You often won’t feel the consequences of your decisions immediately, but your choices will affect your long-term chances of academic success.

As the semester goes on, you will have additional choices to make about your studies. Will you devote the time to synthesizing course materials to further develop your understanding of the law and its applications, creating outlines, mind maps, flow charts, and flashcards? Or will you attempt to take a shortcut through that process, relying on a past student’s outline or a commercial outlines instead of creating your own study aids? Once again, your choices will have long-term consequences for your understanding of the law you are studying, your grades, and your ability to recall what you have learned after the course has ended (an important consideration, since many of the subjects you will study will reappear on the bar exam in a few years!).

Successful students make conscious, positive choices about their own learning.

Understanding that their choices affect their academic success and long-term goals of being an attorney, successive students are not passive in their approach to legal education. Instead, successful students take positive actions to improve their educational opportunities—establishing regular study schedules, avoiding procrastination, taking advantage of opportunities to improve their academic and legal skills, and keeping their academic, professional, and personal priorities in focus. They avoid taking shortcuts that make things easy in the short term but don’t improve their understanding of the law. They develop their own methods of holding themselves accountable for what they learn. Successful students aren’t perfect, but they learn from their mistakes and don’t repeat them. In short, successful students don’t just focus on learning the law—through their efforts they learn to be better learners as well. These traits help them to become better students . . . and also better future attorneys.

Stay tuned for related posts about how successful law students approach these topics—I will be blogging more about things that you can do to take control over your learning in law school over the next few months.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law, Study Tips

Using Bar Exam Subject Outlines to Evaluate Study Priorities

Image courtesy of iospherre/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iospherre/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As the date for the July bar exam approaches, prioritization becomes more and more important. It can be hard to decide what subject areas to focus on when there are so many to study and so little time. Most bar prep programs have completed their presentations of bar topics at this point, and the main focus is on reviewing your bar prep materials and taking practice exams. For many bar takers, it may be time to evaluate your study priorities. Here is one way that you can evaluate your current study status and prioritize your studies over the coming days:

Each year, the National Conference of Bar Examiners publishes an MBE (Multistate Bar Examination) Information Booklet, which can be accessed here. What many bar takers do not realize is that this booklet contains a subject matter outline for each MBE subject. These subject matter outlines make great evaluation tools. For example, one way to use the outlines is to go through each outline, assigning a rating between 1 and 5 based on your level of confidence in your knowledge of each subtopic (with 1 being the least confident and 5 being the most confident). Based upon that rating, you can then spend more time reviewing topics that you rated lower, rather than expending the same amount of time on all topics.

Another way to use one of these subject matter outlines to evaluate your study priorities starts with completing a series of practice MBE questions on a subject. For example, let’s say you take a 50-question set of practice MBE questions on Torts. You can then pull out the Torts subject matter outline from the MBE Information Booklet, and mark next to each topic every time you miss a question on that topic. Based on which topics end up with the most marks, you will then know how to prioritize your Tort studies.

There is also another way that the MBE Information Booklet can help you prioritize your studies. The Booklet provides additional insight into the emphasis that certain topics receive in the MBE. For example, at the beginning of the Constitutional Law outline, the Booklet states that approximately half of the Constitutional Law MBE questions will come from section IV of the outline, while the remaining half of the questions will come from the other three sections. This information may also be helpful as you decide to prioritize your study time during the last days leading up to the bar exam.

You can take a similar approach to prioritizing your studies by utilizing the basic subject matter outlines provided with most commercial bar prep programs. By taking an active approach to prioritizing your bar exam studies, you can make conscious choices about how to best utilize your remaining time before the bar.

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Filed under Bar Exam, General, Study Tips

Transferable Skills: Leveraging Your Undergraduate Education for Success in Law School (Guest Post)

One of the interesting things about law school is that anyone with a four-year degree can attend. There’s no specialized undergraduate training required for admission, and law schools end up with an eclectic grouping of all sorts of majors: English, History, Political Science, Engineering, Math, Business—the list could go on and on. Keep in mind, though, once you cross the threshold into law school you are expected to be responsible for your own education. In other words, don’t expect to receive explicit instructions on how to transfer your individual background in the context of your nascent legal education because that’s part of what you are supposed to figure out. In the midst of so much new stuff, it’s normal to end up feeling like you are lost at sea and disconnected from everything you thought you knew. But connections between your earlier education experiences and your new legal studies do exist, and you can use the knowledge and skills you already possess to achieve success in law school.

It might seem that some undergraduate disciplines offer significant advantages over others, at least as they relate to law school. I’ve often heard complaints that the political science majors have an edge because they understand the federal and state governmental systems really well. Or perhaps English majors have it made because they are used to reading and writing. The reality, though, is that each discipline has strengths, and each has weaknesses. I once taught an engineer who was worried about his writing course because he had not been required to write papers in undergrad. He ended up being one of the top students in the class, though, because his analytical mind knew just how to distill a complicated legal theory down to its essential core.

As a law student, you can ease your transition into legal studies by building on the inherent strengths of your undergraduate education and improving upon the intrinsic weaknesses. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of some undergraduate majors commonly found amongst law students:

Business Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience with some legal concepts like contracts; knowledge of business practices; creation of practical solutions.
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for clear answers

Engineering Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience in problem-solving; linear/methodological thinking; logical/systematic thought processes
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for clear answers

English Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience with varied writing assignments; research experience; knowledge of citation systems.
  • Weaknesses: Tendency toward wordiness; tendency to overinclude information

History Majors:

  • Strengths: Knowledge of ancient legal systems; understanding of cultures and societies; research and writing experience
  • Weaknesses: Little experience in analytical problem-solving; tendency to memorize facts and regurgitate information

Math Majors:

  • Strengths: Experience in problem-solving; linear/methodological thinking; logical/systematic thought processes
  • Weaknesses: Less experience with expository writing; preference for measurable outcomes

Political Science Majors:

  • Strengths: Knowledge of the court system; familiarity with foundational documents (like the Constitution); experience with long reading and writing assignments
  • Weaknesses: Little experience in analytical problem-solving; tendency to memorize facts and regurgitate information

Because our brains process and comprehend new and abstract information by relating it to existing knowledge and life experiences, finding connections between undergraduate and law school experiences is essential for success, especially in the first year. The above descriptions represent just the tip of the iceberg with regard to potential connections between law school and your past educational experiences. For more on this topic, check out Teri McMurtry-Chubb’s book, Legal Writing in the Disciplines. This book is especially helpful to students enrolled in legal writing, but its concepts easily relate to all law classes, making it an easy-to-follow guide for students who are interested in pushing their legal education to the next level.

*This guest blog post was authored by Elizabeth Megale, Associate Professor and Director of the Legal Skills & Professionalism Program, Savannah Law School.

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Pre-Law

An Introduction to Law School Grades for New Law Students

In a previous post, I mentioned that the law school grading system is very different from the one that students experienced in undergrad. In reality, one of the least understood and most feared aspects of the law school experience is the grading system. Misunderstandings and fear primarily occur for 3 reasons: (1) law school grades are calculated much differently than your grades were in undergrad; (2) students expect that the same amount of work that it took to get an “A” in undergrad will work to get an “A” in law school; and (3) many law students believe that the only acceptable grade in any course is an “A.”

The Grading System: Let’s start with a discussion of how the grading system works at many law schools. Although not all law schools follow this approach to grades, the majority take an approach similar to what I will describe. Many law schools have a policy for how grades are distributed in each course—in other words, how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs that a professor should assign, and what the median grade should be for each course. For example, the grading policy at Law School X might direct the professor to assign approximately 15-20% As, 35-40% Bs, 30-35% Cs, and 5-10% Ds and Fs. Not all law schools have the same grade distribution, and the policy may be different for 1L classes than it is for upper-level classes. Regardless, the end result is that not everyone will get an “A”—or even a “B”—in each law school class.

Student Expectations: New law students’ expectations about grades are generally based upon their experiences in undergrad. If you’ve been successful in the past and earned high grades, you generally expect that you will earn similar grades in law school. Some law students view the grade system I’ve just described as unfair because they believe that they’re being penalized by the limits on how many high grades can be earned in a particular class. In reality, the requirements for earning an “A” are much greater in law school, and the same amount of work—or quality of work—that you did in undergrad to get an “A” does not get you as far in law school. It is much more difficult to perform at an “A” level in law school classes, and the grade distribution is usually a pretty fair estimate of how students actually perform. The end result: you will have to recalibrate your expectations about what is required of you for “A” work as a law student.

Although High Grades Have Value, They Should Not Be Your Most Important Goal in Law School: Don’t get me wrong. Grades are important. There are certain types of jobs that require high grades, like judicial clerkships and associate attorney positions at BigLaw firms. But even the people who ultimately obtain those positions have generally not made straight As, and the vast majority of legal jobs do not require that you graduate in the top 10 percent of your class. Instead of obsessing over grades, you will be better served by focusing your attention on learning the law to become the best lawyer you can be. (In fact, there are studies that show that people who have these kinds of internal motivations tend to be more successful than those who are motivated by external goals such as grades, money, and fame.)

Finally, You’re Not Defined by the First Grades You Earn in Law School: Sometimes, students believe that if they earn a “C” in a law school class their first semester, they’re just not cut out to be a lawyer and should quit law school. Although a “C” may indicate that you don’t understand the material as well as you should or don’t yet have exam skills required for long-term success, a “C” grade does not usually signal that you can’t be successful in law school and the practice of law. As I’ve discussed before here and here, grades provide helpful information that you can use to improve your performance in law school in the future. Even if you don’t earn the grades you hope to receive in your first semester, you can improve your performance in subsequent semesters, especially if you work with the academic support professionals at your law school. Sometimes it just takes students longer to perfect their personal approach to learning in law school—if you’re disciplined in your approach to your studies in the long-term and strive to constantly improve, you have the ability to reach your full potential as a law student and future lawyer.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

Studying for the Bar Exam Using MPT Practice Exams

In just over two weeks, law graduates from all over the United States will be taking the bar exam for the first time. Approximately 80% of states include at least one Multistate Performance Test, or MPT, on their bar exam. Some states, including those who utilize the Uniform Bar Examination, include two MPTS on each exam. Each state values the MPT differently in calculating the total bar exam score, and it is important to check your state bar examiners’ website for more information about scoring.

For current law students who are just beginning to think about the bar exam and don’t know what an MPT is, here is a brief description. Unlike other parts of the bar examination, the MPT focuses on fundamental lawyering skills, not the bar taker’s knowledge of the applicable state’s law. As a result, the MPT is a closed universe exam—you are given a File, which includes any documents that provide facts for the “case,” and a Library, which includes statutes, regulations, and case law. The bar taker completes an assignment from a hypothetical supervising attorney or judge, based upon the materials found in the File and Library. Bar takers have 90 minutes to complete each MPT. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ (NCBE) website, the MPT specifically requires exam takers to:

(1) sort detailed factual materials and separate relevant from irrelevant facts; (2) analyze statutory, case, and administrative materials for applicable principles of law; (3) apply the relevant law to the relevant facts in a manner likely to resolve a client’s problem; (4) identify and resolve ethical dilemmas, when present; (5) communicate effectively in writing; and (6) complete a lawyering task within time constraints.

When law graduates are studying for the bar exam, the amount of material that must be studied, memorized, and absorbed can feel overwhelming. Because the MPT is a closed universe task, it is not possible to “study” for it in the traditional way. There is no bar outline for the MPT, and flashcards aren’t helpful either. Because of these limitations, bar takers are tempted to skip over their preparation for the MPT and instead focus on studying the subjects they will need to be successful on the essays and Multistate Bar Examination questions (multiple choice). Because the MPT can be a significant portion of your total bar exam score, it can be a real mistake to not spend some time preparing for it.

So what is the best way to prepare for the MPT? Make yourself familiar with the format of the MPT and the range of possible tasks involved. The NCBE has released a number of past MPTS, as well as the point sheets that it provided into state bar examiners for those MPTS. Some states, like Georgia, have also released past MPTs—some states even provide sample answers that demonstrate what a high-scoring MPT looks like. Go over a number of these past MPTs just to get an understanding of how they are organized, what types of materials are included in the File and Library, and how you might need to organize your time to accomplish the assigned task in 90 minutes.

Most importantly, set aside time in your studies to take a practice MPT on a regular basis. The only way to really be prepared for the MPT is to have completed several MPTs prior to the bar exam. You need to figure out the proper strategy for reading and digesting the materials provided in the File and Library, organizing what you need from that material so that you can write effectively and efficiently, and completing the assigned task in the time allotted. Time can really be the bar taker’s enemy on the MPT, and it is important to understand what you need to accomplish and have a strategy for accomplishing it when you go into the bar exam. This is definitely one of those situations where practice is a key to success!

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Filed under Bar Exam, General, Study Tips

Introduction to Socratic Method for New Law Students

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week we explored some ways that law school is different than undergrad. In that post, I explained that what happens in the law school classroom can be different than a new student’s previous learning experiences. Today, I want to talk more about Socratic Method, one of the most common (and most feared!) approaches to teaching in law school.

So what is so different about Socratic Method? In most undergraduate classes, here’s what happens: The professor stands in front of the class and lectures. He may use powerpoint slides to keep the lecture focused and provide important information for students, or maybe he writes ideas on a blackboard or whiteboard. Most students sit in their seats and take notes, either by hand or on a computer. A few students may be texting, talking to a classmate, or reading the school newspaper. If a student has a question, she may raise her hand to get the professor’s attention. In most classes, students don’t face much pressure to absorb assigned readings before coming to class; the classroom is not a stressful environment until it’s time to take an exam.

This type of description does not apply to most law school classes. Instead of lecturing, the law professor often will use Socratic Method. Students complete assigned readings before coming to each class. Once class begins, the law professor asks students questions about the law, and the students answer. Often, the professor asks students to apply what they have learned from one case to a new hypothetical situation. This question and answer process creates a dialogue about the law at issue in that particular class. So why is this approach so scary and stressful for law students?

First, many professors who use Socratic Method “cold call” on students. A cold call is where the student does not know in advance that she will be on the hot seat. The professor calls on students in a random order, and you must be prepared to answer any question if your name is called. This can be stressful for students who are shy and do not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. If you didn’t understand that day’s reading assignment, you may particularly dread being called on by the professor. On the flip side, being called on can build your confidence as you learn to articulate your understanding of the law, and it can help you to develop strategies to manage your fear of public speaking. It also makes students feel more accountable for the reading, as you never know when you may be called on and need to come to class prepared.

Second, Socratic Method does not necessarily create bright-line answers to legal questions. A professor who uses Socratic Method may not resolve legal issues or tell students what the “right answer” is at the end of class. In fact, sometimes students feel more confused by the class dialogue than they did going into class that day. Although students may find this approach frustrating, it helps them to understand that the answers to legal questions often depend on specific factual circumstances. As you continue to process the course materials and think about what was discussed during class, you will begin to synthesize that information and create your own understanding of the law.

Third, some students feel humiliated if they don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. There is nothing worse than that feeling of dread and humiliation when you are called upon and don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. You may be accused of not doing the reading, or the professor may be able to talk you in circles because you don’t have confidence in your answers. Every law student has had those days when, even if she has read the assigned reading three or four times, she just doesn’t quite understand the material yet. Having the professor call on you can be stressful in those circumstances.

Fourth, students often don’t know how to take good notes in classes that use Socratic Method. How do you keep from creating a transcript of what happens in class and instead focus on distilling the important information out of a class discussion? This is something that is difficult to do at first, and the uncertainty can leave students either writing way too much down or missing important information from class.

Law students can find classes taught by Socratic Method stressful, but there are things that you can do to reduce the stress and get the most out of this type of learning experience. Stay tuned over the next several weeks as I talk more about this topic and other topics for new and returning law students!

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