Monthly Archives: March 2015

Scheduling for Success

It’s that time of year when law students start thinking about what classes they will take during the next school year. The registrar’s office is sending out instructions for course enrollment, and you may be exploring the law school course schedule and course descriptions as you consider what classes you want to enroll in. I often have students ask me for advice about scheduling courses. Some students are overwhelmed by the options available to upper-level students, especially after having had no choice in their schedule during their first year of law school. These students may not even know where to start in creating a schedule for the upcoming year. Other students want to do too much—they see so many courses that sound interesting, and they are trying to cram them all into the Fall semester. Sometimes students have not done as well as they would like during their first year of law school, and they are concerned about creating a schedule that helps them be more successful and improve their GPA. You may have many concerns about how to create the best class schedule for you.

Here are some tips for choosing next year’s classes:

Start with the required courses. The first thing that you should do is figure out what classes are required for graduation. Law schools usually have a set of core required (or highly recommended) courses for graduation. Most, if not all, of those courses are also covered on the bar exam. Depending on your law school and state, these courses may include subjects such as Business Organizations, Administrative Law, Evidence, Wills and Trusts, Secured Transactions, Federal Taxation, etc. Every law student in the United States takes Professional Responsibility. You will also usually have upper-level writing requirements—and possibly other skills requirements. Some schools require certain courses to be taken in the second year and other courses in the third year. You should determine what specific requirements you will need to graduate and create a plan for when you will fulfill each of those requirements.

Don’t try to cram all required courses into one or two semesters though. It is good to be able to check off your requirements, but it won’t leave you time to explore new areas of the law if all you do is take required courses. Similarly, don’t wait until your final year of law school to try to take all required courses. Pushing off too many required courses until the end could reduce your options, make your schedule unwieldy, or even prevent you from graduating on time if you assume that a class will be offered and it isn’t in the schedule.

Ask yourself what academic experiences you want to have as a law student. If you are interested in participating in a clinic, you may first want to take some foundational classes that will help you get more out of the clinic experience. Some clinics may even have prerequisites. For example, Evidence and Criminal Procedure would be helpful and may be required for clinics focusing on criminal law issues, while Immigration Law would be beneficial for a student wanting to participate in an immigration law clinic. Similarly, if you are interested in pursuing a particular type of externship or internship, determine what courses provide a good background for that opportunity.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Look for classes that relate to your professional goals. If you are interested in labor and employment law, take classes related to those interests. If Environmental Law intrigues you, take not only classes specifically covering that topic but also related courses, such as Administrative Law. If you are interested in a judicial clerkship, you may want to take more writing courses because writing is so important in clerking. If you aren’t sure which courses might be helpful for your chosen career path, reach out to alumni practitioners. It’s a good opportunity to network, and you might be surprised about the courses that those attorneys think are important.

Take a class that inspires you and reminds you why you came to law school in the first place. If you are interested in litigation, taking Trial Practice, a Clinic, or some other course that allows you to apply what you are learning may reinvigorate your learning. If you’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, maybe a Law and Literature class is for you. Maybe you had a professor during your first year of law school who inspired you because of his or her enthusiasm for the course materials—see what other courses that professor offers.

Create a schedule that has balance. Think about what you need to be an effective learner. Schedule classes to maximize the way you study and the schedule that works best for you. Law schools will often post the final exam schedule before it is time to schedule your courses—check that schedule to see if you are choosing courses that have exams back-to-back, and find out what your law school’s policy is for rescheduling exams that are too close together. Even if you love writing, don’t sign up for too many writing courses at the same time. A student who is taking multiple seminar courses may find that the due dates are very close together or that the total amount of writing is hard to accomplish when taking into account the rest of his or her schedule.

If you make thoughtful choices about your course schedule, you will take the first step towards academic success in the upcoming school year. Just as important, you are likely to enjoy your law school experience much more as well.

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Filed under General, Grades, Stress and Mental Health

Learning from Mistakes: Editing Tips for Legal Writing

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We’ve all had that experience—you drafted an assignment for a legal writing class or upper-level writing course, or maybe a project for a legal internship or job. When you got the assignment back from your professor or supervisor, it was covered in corrections and comments. The real question: What did you do next? If you were required to revise the assignment, you probably made the corrections and submitted the final version. But did you take any steps to learn from your mistakes so that you won’t repeat them in future assignments?

Successful law students and lawyers constantly strive to improve their writing. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to learn from past mistakes. But learning from mistakes requires some conscious effort—simply making corrections to an existing document is usually not enough to reinforce how you should approach your writing in the future. Instead, one way to learn from your mistakes is to create your own customized editing checklist. You may already have an editing checklist that a professor or supervisor has given you. If so, you should continue to use that checklist as well. The customized checklist should supplement any more general checklist, focusing on specific issues that you personally have had trouble with in the past.

Here are some tips for creating and using a customized editing checklist:

  1. Divide a large piece of paper into five columns. At the top of each column, put one of the following headings: (a) grammar errors; (b) citation/Bluebook errors; (c) analytical issues; (4) writing style issues; and (5) formatting problems.
  2. Pull out old assignments that contain corrections and comments from a professor or supervisor. Go through each of those assignments, placing each error in one of the five columns you’ve created. For example, maybe your professor commented that you improperly used a comma to separate two independent clauses. That issue would go in the “grammar errors” column. Maybe you find a comment about your analysis being too conclusory. You would place that feedback in the “analytical issues” column. Maybe you keep forgetting to italicize “Id.” Put that error in your citation/Bluebook errors column.
  3. Each time that you see a comment or correction that relates to an issue you’ve already put in your checklist, add a star by that issue in the checklist. Making the same error multiple times is a sign that you want to focus on that issue more.
  4. For grammar and citation errors in particular, look up the appropriate rule in a grammar guide or the Bluebook. Make a note of the proper rule(s) that relate to that issue, as well as where that rule is found. When you edit documents in the future, you will then have easy access to the rule as well as the cross-reference for where to find further information if necessary.
  5. After completing a draft of a new assignment, use your customized checklist to make sure that you do not repeat old mistakes. Go through the paper focusing on one column at a time so that you don’t miss anything in the editing process.
  6. As you get feedback on new assignments, go through the same process. Add any new editing issues to your checklist. Regularly update your checklist to reflect your editing priorities. And, as you improve your writing, analysis, and citations you may remove old issues that are no longer a problem for you.

Creating a customized editing checklist is one of the best ways to learn from your past mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. Take an intentional approach to your editing, and your legal writing will continue to improve more and more over time.

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments

Tackling Legal Writing Assignments (and Other Law School Projects)

Image courtesy of ratch0013 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ratch0013 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just when you think you have everything under control, it happens: You’re making progress on your outlines, and you’re keeping up-to-date with your assigned reading for each class. You think you may even have some time next weekend to meet up with some friends from undergrad or catch up on the new episodes of your favorite series on Netflix. You think you have developed a study schedule that is working for you, and then your legal writing professor gives your class a new major writing assignment. Or maybe you are an upper-level law student, and you have a seminar paper, draft of a law review note, moot court brief, or some other project coming due soon. How can you maintain your study plan, complete this new major project, and still maintain some semblance of a balanced life? The key to your success in this instance is going to be developing a strong plan of attack.

Law students tend to have problems with these types of big assignments for three main reasons. First, they may be intimidated by the size of the project from the beginning, viewing it as one colossal mountain that must be conquered. Second, students often underestimate the amount of time it requires to do a good job on a writing assignment. They may remember how long it took to write a paper in undergrad and assume that the new writing task is similar in its time demands. Finally, law students often procrastinate in starting a new project, either because they are intimidated by its size or because they underestimate its requirements. By the time that they actually start the project, they may not have left enough time to do a good job on it—and in the meantime, they let their other studies slide.

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So how can you approach these types of major projects in a way that will maximize your opportunity to successfully complete them and prevent an increase in stress? Here is a step-by-step method for tackling your big law school projects:

  1. Develop a “project plan” as soon as your professor assigns the project. One key to successful planning is to avoid delay.
  2. Break major projects up into several smaller components. Dividing the project into smaller pieces will help you to not be intimidated by the project’s size. It will also help you to better evaluate what needs to be accomplished and how much time the project will take. Make a list of the “tasks” that have to be accomplished and estimate how long each task will take. For example, maybe you have to draft an appellate brief for a class. Some of the tasks that you might list for this assignment include: reading and taking notes from the case record; researching the applicable standard of review and relevant legal issues (treat each legal issue as a separate task); drafting the brief (treat each section of the brief—for example, statement of the issues, statement of the facts, statement of the case, jurisdictional statement, argument/analysis of each legal issue, conclusion, etc.—as a separate task); formatting (i.e., creating case caption, signature block, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities); and editing. Even editing might be broken up into separate tasks. For example, one editing task might be to edit argument and analysis. Another editing task might be to edit for grammar, typographical errors, and spelling. A third edit might focus solely on citations and Bluebooking.
  3. Set a separate deadline for each task you’ve identified—create a place for each task in your study schedule. Spread out the tasks so that you are able to maintain your other studies as well. Make conscious choices about scheduling—some tasks will require less brain power than others. Schedule difficult tasks for times that your brain is fresher, and easy tasks for times that you may be more tired. These types of conscious decisions allow you to make the best use of your time.
  4. Hold yourself accountable—don’t become complacent because it seems like the deadline is far away. Thinking “I have plenty of time” results in procrastination and less successful outcomes.
  5. Don’t forget time for editing. Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and most students don’t give it the time that it deserves. Schedule tasks early enough to give yourself plenty of time for editing. The quality of your work will be much better, and your grades will reflect the extra effort.

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