Monthly Archives: February 2015

Making the Best Use of Spring Break in Law School

Law students the world over look forward to breaks from law school. Some students view these breaks as a holiday—a time to get away from the intense daily demands of their studies, travel, and visit with family and friends. Other students have ambitious plans for catching up or getting ahead in their studies. Regardless of which approach you take, you are probably pretty happy when you see Spring Break finally approaching. There is nothing wrong to either approach to Spring break, at least in the abstract. In fact, the best Spring Break plans should probably include some of both. The key is to come back to law school after the break in a better place than you were before—and accomplishing this task takes just a little advance planning.

Here are a few tips for making the best use of your Spring Break or other holidays:

Set reasonable goals for studying during the break. I often have law students tell me that they are going to outline for all of their classes during the break, do practice exams for each class, get ahead in their reading assignments, and read a bunch of supplements. Spring break can be the perfect time to work on getting caught up in your studies, but it is important to set realistic goals. After all, Spring Break usually only lasts a week. You aren’t superhuman, and you can’t do everything. When you set unrealistic goals for yourself, it is easy to get defeated and give up when you realize that you can’t get everything done. Instead, decide what your highest priority items are, and focus on those first. Create a study schedule for yourself during the break, and set reasonable goals for what you intend to accomplish during each of those study sessions. You will be focused and productive, and your efforts will build momentum for the weeks leading up to final exams.

Image courtesy of smokesalmon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of smokesalmon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Give yourself permission to take some time off. Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to work on getting caught up on your studies during Spring Break. In fact, I encourage you to do so. But it isn’t particularly healthy to work long days every day during the break, including weekends. There is still a lot of time before the end of the semester, and you don’t want to burn yourself out. If you take a little time off from your studies, you will come back refreshed and ready to tackle the hard stuff. At the minimum, give yourself a couple of days off entirely. Do something fun. Get out of the house. See your friends and family. Read that book (for fun) that everyone has been talking about. Go see a movie. Do something entirely unrelated to law. On the days that you study, take regular breaks. Maybe you will decide to get up and do your studying from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm each day, and then take the rest of the day off. (You can even accomplish this if you travel on vacation during the break—just make sure your goals and study schedule are reasonable!) If you set realistic study goals for yourself and create a study plan to achieve those goals, you will be able to build in some time to relax as well. Your studies will be more productive, and you will return to law school ready to tackle the remainder of the semester.

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Make vacation plans that recharge your batteries, not leave you even more tired. Maybe you are caught up on your law school studies, and you’ve decided to go on vacation during Spring Break. (Or you are making it a combination study/travel break!) It’s important to make sure that your vacation plans don’t leave you exhausted as you are heading back to classes. It’s still a long uphill climb to final exams, and you won’t be setting yourself up for success if you have run full speed the entire break. It’s best to avoid the type of Spring Break plans that were popular in undergrad, where everyone partied hard and drank heavily every night. Think about what you need to do for yourself to recharge your batteries while you on vacation, and following through on those things will help you in the long term. I also recommend that you not plan to come home at the very last minute—it’s good to give yourself the time to get sorted about before classes resume, and you will have reading to do for your upcoming classes.

Above all, think balance. As with everything in law school, taking a balanced approach to Spring Break and other holidays will help to keep you on the right path to academic and personal success.

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Filed under General, Outlines, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

Taking an Intentional Approach to Reading in Law School

Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here is a common scenario in law school: Classes are over for the day, and you head to the law school library to get started on your assigned reading for tomorrow. You set down with the casebook and pull out the class syllabus to find out what you need to read. Next to tomorrow’s date, the syllabus states, “Read Casebook pp. 243-97.” You open the casebook to page 243 and begin to read, highlighting as you go and jotting a few notes in the margin. Two or three hours later you repeat this process with the next class’s assignment, and then again with your third class. You go into class the next day having read the assigned readings but not remembering exactly what you read and why you’ve read it (beyond the fear of being unprepared if you are called on in class!).

So what is the problem with this scenario? Law students are often not intentional in how they prepare for class. Don’t get me wrong—you may be doing the assigned reading and make some effort to brief the cases for class (even if briefing only involves highlighting and making notes in the margins). But you may not be thinking about why you are reading the assignment. Instead, you are just trying to get assignments done so that you can cross them off your list and move on to the next thing. But when you approach your reading in this way you are not receiving the full benefit of your efforts. You may not see the connections between cases you’ve read on different days, and you may not anticipate the types of questions your professor will ask during class. You haven’t started the process of synthesizing material to make outlining more productive and efficient in the future.

A better approach to reading is to make intentional choices about how you read and how you connect each reading assignment to what came before and what will come after. Here are some suggestions for how you can take an intentional approach to your law school reading:

  • Identify the legal topic prior to doing the reading assignment. Look for clues in the Course Syllabus, the casebook Table of Contents, and any headings that come before the cases. Ask yourself: are you starting a new topic in this reading, or is this a continuation of a topic that you’ve previously explored in other readings? The answer to this question can start to create a context for the case.
  • Ask yourself as you read: Why this case now? Situate each case in the context of what came before and what may be coming after it. If it’s the first assignment for a new topic, the cases may be setting out the foundational rules for that new legal issue. If the previous reading has already set out those rules, you want to ask how this new case relates to that earlier reading—in other words, does it provide a definition or other further explanation of one of the elements of a legal test? Does it set up a competing rule, such as a minority jurisdiction approach to that issue? Maybe the new case introduces an exception to the general rule. Or it may demonstrate how competing public policy considerations affect a court’s application of the rule. The casebook editors were very deliberate about why they chose that particular case for inclusion in their book, and they often leave clues regarding their motives. Headings, subheadings, introductory paragraphs and even notes after cases can help you determine why you’re reading this particular case.
  • Make a few quick notes about any relationships you see among cases in the reading. Professors often ask students to compare different cases that they’ve read, or explain why the outcomes in two cases are different. If you’ve already started thinking about the relationships between those cases, you will be able to anticipate those types of questions. This type of notes will also be helpful later, once your class has finished covering that particular legal issue and you sit down to start working on that part of your outline. Your notes will help you organize your outline so that the relationships between the cases (more particularly, the relationships between the legal rules and explanations of those rules explored in those cases) are the main focus.

Taking an intentional approach to each day’s reading helps you to get more out of the cases. Your reading will more effectively prepare you for class discussions, and you will also have a stronger foundation for outlining and studying for exams.

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Filed under General, Study Tips

5 Tips for Reading Statutes

Law students must develop a number of important skills to be successful in their legal writing assignments and exams. Those same skills are equally important for success on the bar exam and in legal practice. One skill every law student needs is the ability to read statutes. Because statutes are a primary source of law, the ability to read, understand, and apply a statute can be critical to academic success in many law school classes. As an attorney, your ability to read and interpret statutes will enable you to provide better legal advice to your clients and predict legal outcomes. But reading statutes is not always as easy as it seems on the surface.

Here are some suggestions for how to be more effective in reading statutes:

(1) Slow down! Don’t read too fast. Statutory provisions are often pretty short, and it is easy to let yourself skim the statutes without really seeing the important details. Take the time to read the statute carefully, and you will understand it better.

(2) Put the statute in its proper context. Law students (and lawyers) often try to read statutes without putting them in context. But statutory provisions do not exist in a vacuum. Statutory codes often contain tools to help you interpret their provisions, if you take the time to look for them.

It can often be helpful to look at related statutes. For example, in criminal law, there can be different degrees of felonies or misdemeanors, each set out in a separate statute, for the same general criminal act (such as drug possession or drug dealing). Comparing the differences between these related statutes can help you understand how a court might interpret them and apply them.

You should also look for statutes that provide definitions for key terms. Sometimes definitions are included as provisions in the statute at issue, but often there is a separate statute that provides definitions for key words. You don’t want to make assumptions about what a word means when the legislature defined it for you.

In some cases, the legislature may have even provided specific interpretive instructions. For example, sections 15.15 and 15.10 of the New York Penal Law provide specific interpretive rules for interpreting culpability requirements for state criminal offenses.

If you look at the table of contents surrounding the statute at issue, you are more likely to find these context clues.

(3) Pay attention to the details. Every word in a statute has a specific purpose. Certain types of words are signals. For example, if you see a list of requirements for a legal test that are connected by the word “and,” you then know that all of the requirements must be proven in order for the test to be met. In contrast, if you see a list connected by the word “or,” then the test may be met without proving all requirements. Other signals include words such as “unless,” “except,” “shall,” and “may,” but this is not an exclusive list. Specific areas of the law may have their own signal words as well. So, for example, words specifying mens rea (such as intent, knowledge, recklessness, etc.) can be signal words for criminal law statutes.

You also want to pay attention to punctuation. Where a comma is placed can affect the meaning of a statute, as can the use and placement of other forms of punctuation.

(4) Break the statute down into smaller pieces. If the statute is complex, it can help to chart or diagram the statute so that you force yourself to identify the key components. Maybe the statute sets out specific elements for a legal test—identify the parts of the test and see if you can define what each of those elements mean, using those context clues I mentioned earlier. Ask yourself what the statute is meant to do. Understanding its purpose can also help you to separate out the parts of a more complex statute.

(5) Use cases to inform your understanding of the statute. You can often find cases where the court analyzes the meaning of a statute. If you are having difficulty understanding a statute, try Keyciting or Shepardizing the statute to find cases that interpret and apply the statute. Case law can further your understanding of a statute’s meaning. (In some cases, you may also find a government agency’s interpretation of a statute helpful—you may want to look for administrative code provisions, administrative law rulings, and advisory letters if you are reading statutes in areas of law with agency oversight, such as tax, immigration, employment discrimination, securities, etc.)

The key to reading statutes is to go below the surface—take the time to get to know the statute and its context, and you will have a better understanding of its meaning and application.

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Study Tips