Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thanksgiving Break and Law School

Image courtesy of watiporn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of watiporn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Thanksgiving holiday period is always an interesting time for law students. It’s so close to the end of the semester—some schools finish their regular class schedule right before Thanksgiving, while others will come back for another week of classes before final exams begin. If you are a 1L, you are getting ready for your first set of final exams as a law student, and many of your classes may depend on the final exam as the only grade for the course. But upper-level students are also feeling the pressure, especially if you have fallen behind on your outlining and other exam preparations. Some students choose not to travel to visit family to the holiday, concerned about potential distractions from studying, while others feel that a visit home is just what they need at this point in the semester.

Regardless of whether you are going to be with family or on your own for the Thanksgiving holidays, there are things that you can do to stay on track with your law school studies. Like so much about law school, the key to studying over Thanksgiving break (or any other holiday break, for that matter!) is balance.

Here are some tips to making this upcoming week a time for both recharging the batteries and getting ready for final exams:

1. Give yourself permission to take a break. Sometimes law students feel so guilty about taking time off that they don’t actually enjoy the holidays. But it’s important to take a break sometimes so that you can recharge your batteries, and your family and friends’ support may be just what you need after working so hard this semester. Whether you are going home to visit family or staying near school for the Thanksgiving break, give yourself some time off so that you come back to your studies refreshed and ready to tackle your finals. At the same time, law students are rarely in the position to take the entire Thanksgiving break off from their studies, so consider the additional suggestions below.

2. Create realistic goals for what you want to accomplish during the holiday period. Students often tell me that they packed every casebook, supplement, notebook, etc. when they traveled home for the holidays, and it isn’t necessarily realistic to think that you will have the time to work on every single class. When students set unrealistic goals for themselves, they are tempted to give up entirely once they realize that they do not have time to get everything done. If you set realistic goals, you are much more likely to accomplish what you set out to do. The result will be that you build momentum as you head into the final exam period.

3. Create a schedule, and stick to it. If you do go home for the holidays, create a realistic schedule for what you want to accomplish—and, most importantly, hold yourself to that schedule. Communicate with family and friends about what you need to accomplish, and find the time and the right distraction-free location to get your work done. Maybe you set aside several hours each morning to work on your outlines, and then visit with family and friends in the afternoons and evenings. Or maybe you commit to studying all day long on certain days so that you take other days off entirely. If you set aside time to study and stick to it, you will be able to enjoy your time off even more because you won’t feel like you have so much hanging over you. If you are not traveling for the holidays though, make sure that you take the same approach—create a study schedule for the break so that you accomplish your study goals. It’s much easier to make progress when you have a plan for what you want to accomplish.

4. Get some sleep. Make sure that you come back from the Thanksgiving break refreshed and ready to tackle the end of the semester. This is the perfect time to make sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting exercise so that your brain and your body are ready for those final exams.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Avoid “Brain Dumping” in Law School Exams

Law school essay exams are different from essay exams you may have taken before law school. They require more than just memorization—you have to analyze the facts presented in the questions and develop strong legal arguments. This means that you shouldn’t just “brain dump,” or write down everything you know—law school essays must remain focused on the question that is asked.

Sometimes students get so caught up in trying to explain the law that they lose sight of the question. Or they don’t see an issue that they were really prepared to discuss, and so they decide that they will write about that issue anyhow. You will not be rewarded for doing a “brain dump” in a law school essay. Your professor will not give you any points for writing about something that has not been tested; that is why everything you write should be linked specifically to the questions asked and the hypothetical facts.

There are other negative consequences to “brain dumping” on law school exams. There is a time crunch during a law school exam. Although this isn’t true of every law school essay question, many questions are designed so that it is impossible to answer all parts of the question in the time provided. The best answers analyze as many issues as possible in the time allotted, which is another reason why you don’t want to waste time on topics that haven’t been tested by the question. Furthermore, if you write about topics that are not being tested in the exam, you may be burying your more important analysis so that the professor will not even see it.

Stay focused on what your law school exams ask, and avoid the temptation to write about topics that are not being tested. This focus is one important tool for academic success in law school.

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Tuning Out the Noise

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At this point in the semester, I often have overwhelmed law students come to my office, worried or upset about the conversations they hear going on around them in the law school. Based on what they have heard other students say, these students are concerned that they:

  • aren’t studying hard enough,
  • are studying too hard,
  • are being too generous in sharing study materials with friends,
  • aren’t sharing enough,
  • should be participating in a study group,
  • shouldn’t be participating in a study group,
  • should have created a traditional outline instead of a mind map,
  • should have created flow charts instead of a traditional outline, or
  • have the wrong study strategy altogether.

You get the point—it’s easy to listen to what other students are talking about and let self-doubt creep in. You hear the person who sits next to you in Contracts or Evidence talking about how she hasn’t gone to bed until at least 2:00 am for the past two weeks because she wants to make sure her outline for the class is perfect. You begin to ask yourself if you are being irresponsible, throwing away your dreams of becoming a lawyer because you’ve been going to bed at 10:30 pm instead. Or maybe you have had another student warn you that law students should never study together because law school is competitive, and you might be giving that other person an advantage that will result in him receiving a higher grade than you. As final exams approach and you feel stressed about doing your best, you may be tempted to take what other students are staying much too seriously.

The problem with listening to what everyone else is saying around you is that a strategy for academic success in law school is not one-size-fits-all. Another student’s approach to his or her studies may not work as well for you, and comparisons between your approach and someone else’s is likely to be imperfect. The woman who stays up until 2:00 am studying may not get up in the morning until 9:00 or 10:00 am, just in time to make it to class. Maybe you get up early and do much of your studying in the morning, before class, while your brain is fresher. The fact that you go to bed 3 ½ hours before her then is irrelevant. Or maybe you are an auditory learner and remember information better if you talk through your study materials with a friend. The fact that you may be helping your friend do better on the exam becomes less of an issue because you’ve benefited from that process as well.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t periodically reevaluate your study strategies—all students should periodically assess their approach to their studies, trying new techniques and making sure that the time put in to their studies is used efficiently and effectively. In the process, you may realize that your study group is not really working for you any more, or you are spending too much time surfing the internet and not enough time outlining. You may decide you need to add flashcards to your study strategy, or that creating a flow chart for the Erie Doctrine will help you visualize how to address that legal issue on your Civil Procedure exam. Just make sure that the changes in your study strategy are based upon what you need to do to be successful on your exams, rather than just a reaction to what your fellow students are saying.

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4 Key Skills for Successful Law School Essay Exams

Today, I want to talk about 4 key skills that law students must have to be successful on law school essay exams: (1) attention to detail; (2) strong organization; (3) time management; and (4) clear and concise communication.

Attention to Detail: First, you must pay attention to detail. Initially, you should read the instructions carefully, and make sure that you follow those instructions. If there is a word count limit, note that from the beginning. If the instructions limit the areas of law that are being tested, don’t ignore those limitations. Don’t lose points because you didn’t pay attention to your professor’s instructions.

You must also pay close attention to the factual details in the essay question. Every fact in the hypothetical is there for a reason. Don’t miss legal issues because you’ve read the question too quickly and superficially. Moreover, make sure that you pay particular attention to the call of the question, which is usually the last two or three lines of the essay question. Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked.

Strong Organization: Second, it is important to organize your essay so that the essay makes sense and your professor can follow your analysis. A rambling essay will miss important points, and it may make it hard for your professor to follow your arguments. Once you have read the question, make sure that you take the time to outline or chart your answer before you start writing. An organized answer will score better than one that is disorganized.

Make sure that you apply the IRAC, CREAC, or TREAC structure for each legal issue that you’ve identified. For the most part, do not blend together your analysis of each legal issue—instead, keep each one separate to make sure that you get full credit for the parts of your analysis.

Time Management: Third, successful law students know how to manage their time on exams. Before you start writing, you should look over the entire exam. See how many questions are on the exam and what each question is worth. If the professor has suggested that you spend a specific amount of time on each question, make note of those suggestions. If not, you should allocate your time based on how much that part of the exam is worth. Write down the time that you should be ending each answer to keep yourself on track. With essay questions, it is recommended that you spend about one-fourth to one-third of the time reading the question and outlining or charting your answer, and the remainder of the time writing or typing your answer.

Clear and Concise Communication: Finally, be clear and concise in how you communicate your answer. Use terms of art where appropriate, but communicate points in a straightforward way. You need to communicate all parts of the required analysis, but don’t just ramble. If you are concise in your writing, you will have more time to develop other legal issues presented in the question.

You should be explicit about any assumptions you are making in your answer. If a there is a four-part test for a legal rule, but only one or two parts of that test are at issue in the question, state explicitly that the other parts do not appear to be at issue. Don’t assume that your professor will “read your mind.”

When combined with a good study strategy, these skills contribute to success on law school essay exams. Develop your strategies for taking essay exams prior to the final exam period, and you’re more likely to have good results.

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Law School Exams and the IRAC Method

There is a general method for developing strong arguments and analysis in law school, whether you are working on an assignment for your Legal Writing class or taking an essay exam. You’ve heard of this method before—it’s called IRAC, which refers to Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. There are numerous variations of the method, so your professors may also refer to it as CREAC (Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), TREAC (Thesis, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), or some similar title.

Regardless of what your professor calls this method, there are common things that you must do as part of it:

(1) identify each issue raised in the hypothetical fact pattern;

(2) decide which legal rule(s) are relevant for each issue and set forth a statement of the rule(s), with exceptions as applicable;

(3) explain how the rule(s) should be applied to the facts in the exam question; and

(4) conclude how the issue is likely to be resolved.

As part of this process, you must show the reasoning that you’ve relied upon in reaching the conclusion for each issue. Make sure that you address relevant counterarguments and policy arguments in your analysis. As you write, be careful not to be too conclusory—don’t jump too quickly from the issue to the conclusion. You have to “show your work” to get full credit for each issue in a law school essay.

Most professors give you credit for developing each part of the IRAC formula. Generally, fewer points are associated with your identification of the issue and your conclusion; more points are associated with your articulation of the rules that are relevant to the issue and how you apply those rules to the hypothetical facts.

The secret of doing well on law exams lies not only in what you know, but how you apply what you know. You get little credit for just stating a legal conclusion, even if you are correct. You must explain how the law is applied to the facts in the hypothetical, and how your conclusion results from that analysis.

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Why Your Professor is Your Best Resource for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This may seem like an obvious statement, but your professor is the most important source of information for what will be tested in law school essay exams and how your essays will be graded. As exams approach, you may be tempted to bury yourself in purchased products, including outlines, hornbooks, and other commercial study aids. Except in rare circumstances, those resources were not created by your professor, and they haven’t been tailored to your specific class. These types of resources should only be used as supplements, not your primary source of information—instead, keep your focus on assigned course readings and what your professor tells you.

Make sure that you listen closely to your professor—not just in the days and weeks leading up to the exam, but also throughout the semester. Professors often give clues about what they will test, how they will test it, and how they will grade. With that advice in mind, if your professor spends a lot of time stressing policy arguments in class, you should look for opportunities to include those policy arguments in your essay. If you professor uses terminology or terms of art that vary from what the assigned readings use, make sure you use the terms that your professor has used. If you don’t see a topic on the exam that your professor spent a significant amount of time on in class or stressed as particularly important, look close to make sure you aren’t missing that issue. There is no guarantee that the exam covers that topic, but it is likely to be tested.

You also want to familiarize yourself with your professor’s approach to testing. If your professor provides access to past exams, take the time to look them over. Use them as practice exams to test your ability to answer essay questions in the amount of time allowed. (And, as I explained in a previous post, there are many other benefits to practice exams as well!)

The best way to make efficient use of your study time is to use what your professor has assigned or discussed in class as a guide. You’re less likely to focus your energies on information that won’t be tested, and you will be able to better anticipate the types of questions you will see on the exam.

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