Category Archives: Pre-Law

New Law Student Guide to the First Weeks of Class

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

It’s that time of year when law schools are preparing to welcome new students to Orientation and their first semester of classes. As a new law student, you have probably received numerous communications from your law school, providing a variety of instructions regarding your 1L year. You may have read some books which describe the law school experience, and you may have current or former law students giving you advice. There are a wealth of articles on this blog to help you during your transition to law school, but I thought that I would highlight some that may be particularly useful in the first few weeks. Here they are:

First, a couple of articles explaining one of the common approaches to the law school classroom, Socratic Method:

Here are some articles about reading and briefing cases for law school:

Next, a couple of articles about taking notes in your law school classes:

Finally, here’s an article about how to create a good study schedule while in law school:

 

More posts about how to be a successful law student coming in the future. In the meantime, does anyone have any specific questions or concerns about starting law school? Feel free to put your questions in the comments section for this post.

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A New Culture, a New Language: Welcome to Law School!

I’ve talked about this subject previously, but it bears repeating as new students are getting ready to head off to law school for the first time this month. The first weeks of law school can be intimidating for new law students. For many students, it can be like you’ve been dropped into a foreign country–one where you don’t speak the language, don’t really understand the culture, and really wish you could figure out what happened to your tour guide. This experience can be stressful, but remember you are not alone in the process–many law students have traveled the path before you, and there really are many resources (the equivalent of guide books, foreign language dictionaries, and those tour guides) to help you along the way.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

So what makes law school so different? First, you will most likely find the culture of law school very different from what you’ve experienced in undergrad and graduate school programs. There are new expectations for professional behavior, and you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to your education. Many of your classes will be taught using Socratic method, with the professor guiding your learning by asking you questions rather than lecturing. If you are not prepared for class, you will quickly be left behind. Second, class assignments will require more time and effort than you have had to put into your studies in the past. And especially in the first several weeks of the semester, as you read course assignments, there will be many words you don’t understand; much of the law that you will study has a context that you won’t have learned yet.

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. 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. 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 books you can read “for fun” and still learn some legal language and context. 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. Other state and federal court websites may provide additional helpful information.

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. You will have your equivalent of “tour guides” in law school–your professors, law school administrators and staff, Academic Support professionals, and upper level students who have gone through what you are going through. But a little research before the first day will make you feel less like a tourist wandering in a foreign land.

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

Stay tuned for more advice for new law students in the coming weeks! We will explore a number of topics, including Socratic Method, law school grades, reading and briefing cases, and numerous other subjects of interest to incoming students.

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The Most Frustrating Phrase in Law School: “It Depends”

For those of you beginning law school this month, welcome to the world of uncertainty! From childhood, we have all been taught that there are rules—absolute truths, if you will–that guide our understanding of the subjects we have studied. We memorized dates, names, and other important facts for history class: World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. George Washington was the first President of the United States. We learned in math class that 8 + 2 = 10, and 8 x 2 = 16. If you memorized the rules and applied them in your homework assignments and exams, you were ok.

On the surface, it would seem that law school should work the same way: Memorize the law and apply it on exams. After all, laws are really rules. Why shouldn’t you be able to approach law school in the same way that you approached those multiplication tables in elementary school or the periodic table of elements in Chemistry class? Although you will have to memorize a lot of rules in law school (legal tests, elements of legal claims, definitions of legal terms, etc.), law school learning doesn’t end there. Instead, the rules are merely the starting point to answering questions in law school. You will learn that the rules that you are memorizing apply in certain circumstances—unless they don’t. The result: As you immerse yourself in your studies, you will discover that one of the most common phrases in law school is “it depends.”

For example, in your Torts class you will soon learn about the tort of battery. Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) defines the tort of battery as “[a]n intentional and offensive touching of another without lawful justification.” This definition seems pretty straightforward. A new law student might assume that, if she applies this definition on the exam, she will be able to answer the question: Did Bob (the defendant in the hypothetical) commit the tort of battery? In reality, the answer is not as simple as it seems. A seasoned law student will know from experience that the real answer is, “It depends.” Specific facts in the hypothetical will have an effect on a law student’s analysis. For example, what if Bob intended instead to commit an assault (another type of tort), but caused a battery—will he be liable for battery when he didn’t intend that act? What if we don’t know what Bob’s intent was? What if Bob only touched the plaintiff’s purse, which was hanging from her arm, rather than part of her body? These types of facts may have an effect on your answer.

Your answer may also depend on whether there are other legal rules that intersect with the rules regarding battery. You will learn that Bob’s actions may not be a tort if he is able to assert a defense. For example, Bob may argue that he is not liable for battery because the plaintiff consented to his actions. Or maybe Bob is a police officer, acting under authority of law. Maybe Bob will argue that he was acting in self-defense. There are numerous possible defenses that Bob may attempt to assert, and those defenses may change your analysis.

The lack of absolute answers in law is one of the reasons why law students tend to find their first-year experience so stressful. Every time that you feel like you are beginning to understand a legal rule, your professor will introduce another possible exception to that rule. The law sometimes feels like a moving target—and you are trying to hit it while wearing a blindfold!

In reality, mastering the “it depends” moments in law school is one of the keys to academic success. The uncertainties create opportunities for a more in-depth exploration of the law. Wrestling with the ambiguities will improve your legal reasoning skills, making you a better law student and, ultimately, a better lawyer. It is also important to understand that those areas where you can identify uncertainties are prime areas for testing—if you identify them and plan for them as you study, you will be better prepared for your law school exams.

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Case Briefing Shortcuts

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past several posts, we’ve explored how to read and brief cases for your law school classes. As you’ve read those posts, you’ve probably started to realize what a time-consuming process law school studying really is! All that reading and briefing takes a lot of time, actually—and that’s why I think a cautionary note is appropriate at this point. As you read and prepare for class, resist the urge to take shortcuts. The reading and note-taking process I’ve described in my previous posts is really what you need to do to understand the material when you are a new law student.

You may hear upper-level students talking about “book briefing”—in other words, just underlining or highlighting material in the casebook and jotting a few notes in the casebook margins, without actually completing a case brief. Some students may eventually get comfortable enough with their reading that they can book brief and get by, but book briefing is not a sound approach to studying during your first year of law school for sure, and for most students it doesn’t work well even after the first year. You will get more and more efficient in your reading and case briefing over time, but you still need to do the things that give you a deeper understanding of the assigned reading and organize material in a way that will be helpful to you later, as we’ve talked about before.

You should also avoid the temptation to rely upon other students’ case briefs or commercially prepared briefs—it may seem easier and quicker to take this approach in the short term, but you will not know the material as well and will not remember it as much when you are studying later for the exam. When you rely too much upon commercially prepared materials, you are not thinking about the subject in the way that your professor has organized your course. Commercial materials can be valuable, but as a supplement—not your primary source of information for the course. Don’t forget who will be grading your exams–it’s rarely the person who created those commercial briefs.

Moreover, don’t forget that many of the courses that you are taking in law school, including all of the first-year courses, are on the bar exam. The harder you work to really understand the law in each of these courses now, the better foundation you will have when you start studying for the bar exam after you graduate.

The bottom line: there is no real shortcut to law school success—if you cut corners with your studies now, you will find it harder to be successful on your law school exams—and on the bar exam. Shortcuts are really a dead end when it comes to learning.

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Making the Case Brief Yours: Utilizing Preferred Learning Styles

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past several days, we have explored how to read and brief cases for your law school classes. I’ve explained the various components that make up a judicial opinion, and as well as the various types of judicial opinions you may encounter in your reading. Today, I want to focus on how you make the case brief yours—how you can personalize the case brief and use it to prepare for class by drawing from your preferred learning style. (If you don’t know what your preferred learning style is yet, read about how to find out what your learning style is here).

Case Brief Formats: The first way to customize your case brief is to make a conscious choice about its format. Your learning preferences may influence your formatting choices. For example, reading and writing learners may prefer a more traditional case brief format, with Roman numerals, bullet points, or bolded or underlined headings and subheadings. In contrast, if you are a visual learner, you may color-code different parts of your case brief, draw diagrams, or create mind maps. Don’t forget that the majority of learners are multimodal learners—they may draw from a variety of these approaches, rather than settling on one standard format for all situations.

You also want to think about how you will use the case brief in the future. Although a reading and writing learner may prefer to handwrite their case briefs, other students find that an electronic copy of their brief allows for the insertion of class notes and makes it easier to transition to outlining later. Some students create two columns on each page—one column with the case brief information, and the other column for taking notes in class. There is no one way to approach your case brief—ultimately, you must decide what works best for you.

Using Your Case Brief to Prepare for Class: Even after you’ve created your case brief, you may use it to prepare for class in other ways. Once again, your preferred learning style can come in handy. For example, if you are an aural learner, you may find it helpful to talk through your case brief with other students prior to class. Kinesthetic learners can also utilize this approach, even going so far as acting out parts of the case or even acting out the Socratic Method experience they expect to have in class, having other students quiz them about the case. (In fact, even if you are not a kinesthetic learner, you may find that practicing your responses to Socratic questions may reduce your anxiety about being called on in class!)

Experiment with the form of your case brief in the first few weeks of law school, and see what works best for you. Law students often have assumptions about what format they should use, but as they go through the semester they may find that another approach works better. Be flexible and figure out what seems most helpful both during class and as you continue studying the topic later after class has ended.

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Reading Cases: A Short Explanation of Different Types of Judicial Opinions

This week we’ve spent some time exploring some tips for reading and briefing cases in law school. In many of the cases you will read, all of the judges in the case will agree with the court’s holding and reasoning. In some cases, however, the judges are not in agreement. A case where the judges have reached different conclusions regarding the holding and the reasoning will have multiple judicial opinions. Today’s post explores the various types of judicial opinions that may be written when the judges are not all in agreement. Click on the short animated video below for more information:

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Key Components of a Case Brief

Now that we’ve explored how to approach reading cases in law school, let’s focus on what should be included in your case brief: the key components of the case.

The Parties: First, look at the preliminary information found above the case and ask: Who are the parties? One way to identify the parties is by their names. Thus, in the case Smith v. Jones, the parties would be “Smith” and “Jones.” But the parties are also given titles, based upon their roles in the case. At the trial level, parties are usually known as “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In an appellate case, the parties may be known as “appellant” and “appellee,” or “petitioner” and “respondent,” depending on the court. (At the trial level, the plaintiff is the party who brought the case into court. At the appellate level, the appellant or petitioner brought the case into court.) Your brief should note both the names of the parties and their roles in the case.

The Court: The preliminary information also tells you which court heard the case. Sometimes the court is a state court, and other times it is a federal court. It may be a supreme court, or an intermediate appellate court. Include the court that decided the case in your case brief.

The Citation: The preliminary information tells you where the case was published, in other words, the citation. The cases in your casebook were originally published in bound volumes known as reporters. The citation creates a quick way of finding that original version of the case. For example, one citation might be 347 U.S. 483. The case would be found in the United States Reporter, which publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The volume number would be 347, and the first page of the case would be page 483. (Don’t panic if you don’t always know what the citation means at this point—you will learn a lot more about citations in your legal research and writing classes.)

The Date: The final important piece of preliminary information is the date, which is found in parentheses after the citation. It’s important to make note of the date that the case was decided. In many classes, you will trace how legal issues developed over time, and the dates will help you relate multiple cases to each other.

Now that we’ve covered the preliminary information, let’s take a look at the various components found in the text of the case.

Procedural History: The procedural history is the history of the case. Include in the procedural history (1) what courts the case has traveled through, (2) what happened in previous court proceedings, and (3) how the case ended up in the current court.

The Issues: One way to find the issues is to ask: “What are the big legal questions that the court is considering? What has to be resolved or answered?” Sometimes the court states explicitly what the issues are. The court may say something like, “On appeal, the appellant asks us to consider whether . . . ” Or, the court may say, “The first issue is whether . . . ” In other cases, the court may not be as explicit—you’ll have to dig a little deeper to identify the issues. Keep in mind that issues are related to the law. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what the issues are, you can often use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.

Facts: There are really two types of important facts: “necessary” facts and “context” facts. Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues. In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case. This is why you should sift through the facts before creating your case brief.

The Holding: The holding is the answer to the question, “How did the court resolve the issue(s)?” In other words, it is the answer to the legal questions that were asked in the case. Sometimes courts will label something as the “holding” in the case. Be cautious about these types of labels. Often, what the court calls the “holding” is actually the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of its holding.

The Reasoning: The most important component of your case brief is the court’s reasoning, or its rationale, for the holding. To determine what the court’s reasoning was, ask: “How did the court arrive at the holding? How did the court explain the answer to the legal questions asked in the case?” You can identify the court’s reasoning by looking for the places where the court is applying law (statutes, regulations, or other cases) to the facts. In your case brief, make note of the law that the court used to answer the legal question(s). Put this law into your own words rather than writing it out word for word—you will understand and remember it better in the future. After identifying the relevant law from the case, look closer at how the court applied that law to the facts. Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?

Sometimes the court also applies policies in their analysis of the law and facts. When a court considers policy arguments, it is weighing the potential effects on society of different approaches to the issues. If the court discusses policy arguments in its reasoning, you should note those policies and how the court applied them.

The Judgment: Finally, make note of the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of the holding. The judgment refers to how the appellate court resolved the case on appeal, and it may provide instructions to the trial court. Look for words such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “reversed and remanded.”

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A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

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What Is a Case Brief?

As we discussed last week, incoming law students are now receiving letters and emails regarding first-day assignments from their law schools. This week, I am posting a series of blog posts giving you more advice about how to tackle those first-day assignments—specifically, how to read and brief cases.

Most of the reading that you’ll do during your first year of law school (and beyond!) will be cases. In fact, those expensive books that you have to buy for law school are usually called casebooks, rather than textbooks, for that very reason. Reading a case is very different from other types of reading that you have done—there’s a lot crammed into one case that you will have to unpack in order to make use of your reading in class and on exams. That is why one of the most useful tools you will have in your law school classes is your case briefs.

So, what is a case brief, and why should you create them? A case brief is a document created by and used by a law student. Your case briefs will summarize the important parts of the case in your own words. The way that the court wrote the opinion in the case may not be the most helpful approach for you to use it in class, and creating a case brief allows you to focus your attention on key aspects that will be helpful both immediately and in the future.

Case Briefs and Class: The initial reason why a law student briefs a case is to prepare for class. Cases in law school textbooks vary in length, and it is helpful to have all important information from the case summarized and organized in a way that that you can easily refer to in class. Briefing cases can also help you to process what you are reading in a case. If the professor calls on you in class, you will have thought about the case in advance in a way that will help you to respond to the professor’s questions and hypotheticals. If your professor uses Socratic Method in the classroom, your case briefs can be especially important reference materials if you are called upon.

Case Briefs and Legal Research and Writing: Another reason why a student may brief cases is to pull out important information for legal writing. You may brief cases as you are completing research or writing assignments for your Legal Research and Writing class. In this context, case briefing helps you to identify important information that you will need from cases to complete your legal analysis and arguments.

Case Briefs and Outlines: Finally, case briefs also create the foundation for further study. As you read and brief additional cases and take notes in class, you will begin to synthesize these course materials and develop a more comprehensive understanding of that subject’s law, a process that many law student refer to as outlining. We will talk more about the outlining process in the coming weeks and months, but, for the meantime, it is important to know that good case briefs continue to have value long after the initial class on that case is over.

Stay tuned this week as I continue providing advice for how to read and brief cases. Next up tomorrow: some specific tips for reading cases.

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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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