Category Archives: Study Tips

A Road Map to Success on Law School Exams

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The most common way to study for law school exams is to create an outline for each subject, synthesizing everything from the course (case briefs, class notes, etc.) into a single coherent document. Outlining is an effective way to study, as it forces you to consider how cases, statutes, and hypotheticals fit together. A good outline identifies the key legal issues from the course, pulls the rules, definitions, and explanations from the cases related to those issues, and organizes the material in such a way that the student can predict how to use that material on the exam.

Although outlining is a solid approach to your law school studies, some subjects benefit from an even more focused approach – a technique that I’ll call “road mapping.” A road map takes the material related to a legal issue from your outline and turns it into an action plan for how you will analyze that issue on an exam. If you take this approach, each legal issue should have its own road map. When you identify that legal issue in a fact pattern on the exam, you will know exactly how to tackle that issue.

So how do you create a road map?

  • First, start with identifying the issue. The issue is the starting point on your road map. You may want to think about what types of facts may signal that this issue is “in play” in the question. For example, if you are taking a Torts exam, and the defendant is identified as an employee, you may ask yourself: “Could there be a vicarious liability issue here?” Usually, you’ve identified all possible issues for a subject in that subject’s outline, so this step is usually easy.
  • Second, ask yourself: “What should I do first?” Generally, the first thing that you want to do is identify the appropriate rule for the issue. Does this issue have two or more possible rules? In many subjects, there may both majority rules and minority rules. Some professors may assign jurisdiction-specific reading based on the state your law school is in. And in Contracts, for example, you must determine if you should apply the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) or the common law. As soon as you realize that there is more than one possible rule, you know you must answer a preliminary question. For example: “What jurisdiction are we in?” or “Is this a contract for the sale of goods?” Identify what the steps are for determining the applicable rule. Then based on which rule is chosen, determine what the actual rule statement should be.
  • Third, ask yourself: “What should I do next?” Answering this question requires you to think about how the rule should be explained or defined further. Does the rule include a series of elements that must be met? If so, how would you work through those elements in an essay exam? Keep repeating this process until you reach the end of your rule analysis portion of your road map.
  • Fourth, ask yourself: “Are there exceptions to the rule that I’ve identified and explained?” Those exceptions should be included in the process as well – after determining if the rule would otherwise be met, you will want to work through the possible exceptions.
  • Fifth, ask yourself: “Have courts applied public policy to their analysis of this issue?” If so, you will want to identify and explain what public policies may be applied to the issue, and determine when you would want to go into that policy discussion.
  • Sixth, having gone through this process, identify at which points you would want to include facts from the exam hypothetical in the analysis. Note in your road map the places where you would apply the legal rule to the hypothetical facts.
  • Finally, note how you would approach the conclusion to any analysis of this issue.

As you can see from the steps above, the key to a good road map is being intentional. Don’t just memorize rules – think about how you would apply those rules to a new set of facts. Your road map should be an action plan for how you would tackle each issue on the exam.

The last month before finals is the perfect time to create road maps. Much of your outlining should be completed by this stage, and you should be focused on reviewing material and taking practice exams as finals approach. An additional benefit to road mapping: you will identify aspects of  legal issues that you don’t yet understand, and you have the time at this point to work through those legal issues and go to your professors’ office hours to refine your understanding of the material.

(Want more information about how to effectively outline for law school exams? I’ve previously explored this topic here, here, here, and here.)

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Filed under Law School Exams, Outlines, Study Tips

5 Tips for Surviving (and Thriving) during Law School Final Exams

image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

As law students head into final exams, here are 5 tips for surviving (and thriving) during the final exam period:

(1) Take care of yourself. Law school exams are not a sprint but a marathon. Make sure that you get plenty of sleep each night – if you stay up late (or all night) trying to get ahead on your studies, your brain will not function as well afterwards. The next day, it will take you longer to accomplish tasks that would normally be easy, and lack of sleep also has a negative effect on memory. A tired brain does not contribute to academic success in law school. It’s also important to not skip meals – brains need food too! And make sure that you take regular breaks from your studies. Take a walk, or do something else that gets you up out of your chair. After each break, you will go back to your studies refreshed and ready to tackle your outlines!

(2) Create a study plan. Students commonly spend most of their study time on the first exam or two, and then they run out of steam before the end of the exam period. Print out a blank calendar, and divide up your days so that each class gets a reasonable portion of the remaining study time. You will realize that you need to rotate your schedule to give each class its due. For some students, maybe assigning one subject per day makes most sense; for other students, studying two subjects a day may work better. The important thing is to be intentional – if you have a study plan, you know exactly what you should be doing each day to stay on track and maximize your studying.

(3) Identify your priorities. Students often study for exams by going through their outlines over and over again, from cover to cover. Although that approach may work for reviewing course material throughout the semester, it is usually not the most efficient way to study in the days leading up to your final exams. Instead, create a checklist of issues for each subject (instructions for creating a checklist can be found here). Once you’ve created your checklists, start each day by printing out the checklist(s) for that day’s study subject(s). Go through the checklist, evaluating if you can comfortably discuss the law for each issue.

(4) Develop road maps. After you’ve created your outline, think about how you would actually use the information on an exam. If you identify a particular legal issue in an essay exam question, what would you do first? What would you do next? Some students create a flow chart that shows the analytical process they would use in their essays, while other students list a series of steps (kind of like following a recipe). The form is up to you, but try to do much of the thinking about how you would organize your analysis for each legal issue before you get into the exam. If you do, you will spend more time writing during the exam, and less time thinking. And your essays are likely to be more focused and better organized. The process of developing a road map also helps you to identify topics that may need more review.

(5) Take practice exams. Sometimes your professors have released old exams or practice questions. If they have, there’s an opportunity to better understand what your professors are looking for in the exam answers. One way to use a practice exam is to simulate the actual exam experience. Find a quiet, distraction-free place to take the practice exam. Time yourself, so that you write for the amount of time that the professor would allow for that question during an actual exam. If the exam is closed book, don’t look at your notes. Taking an exam, even if you only do one essay, can be a great way of assessing how prepared you are for the exam. You can then spend more time reviewing the areas of the law that seemed too vague or fuzzy. If you feel that you don’t have enough time to write out complete essays, you can still use a professor’s old exams to test your ability to spot legal issues and make sure that you know the law for those issues.

Following these tips can help you make the best use of limited time in the days leading up to final exams. Good luck on your exams!

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Filed under Law School Exams, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

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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Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

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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Filed under Pre-Law, Study Tips

Last Minute Bar Prep: Using Checklists

Image courtesy of lordjiew at freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of lordjiew at freedigitalphotos.net.

In a previous post I talked about how to create checklists to study for final exams in law school. Many of the techniques that work in law school are also helpful on the bar exam. In the final days before the bar exam, you are most likely reviewing your commercial outlines and taking practice exams. Maybe you have created some flow charts or flashcards to help you learn the material better. A checklist is a simple, quick way to focus your studies even more.

So how should you create bar prep checklists? You will create one checklist for each subject. Go through the outline, creating a quick list of all topics and subtopics—if the outline has a table of contents, this process can be even quicker. Don’t include any details–your checklist should be made up of key words and phrases, not tests, definitions, or other detailed information. Try to fit your outline on one or two pages. (You can create columns if necessary.) It shouldn’t take very long to create the checklist for each subject.

Now, what can you do with this checklist? Here are three good ideas for how to use checklists as you study and take the bar exam:

(1) Use your checklists to evaluate what issues you need to focus on during your final days of bar prep. For each item on the list, ask yourself: Do I know the law related to this issue? If I see this issue on the exam, am I prepared to analyze it? If yes, cross it off the list. Bar studiers often study by reading through the entire outline over and over again, but this is an inefficient way to study. You want to focus your attention on the issues that you aren’t as comfortable with, and the checklist helps you to do that. The next day, print out a new copy of the checklist and go through this process again. You should be able to focus your attention on fewer issues each day.

(2) Use your checklist to think about the relationship between legal issues. Sometimes when you are studying from an outline, it is difficult to see how issues relate to each other. But one of the keys to spotting issues in an essay question is understanding those relationships. Because a checklist strips everything away except for the key issues and sub-issues, it is easier to identify those relationships.

(3) If you commit the checklist to memory, you can use it on the exam to spot issues. It may not be possible to memorize every checklist, but usually bar studiers have trouble identifying issues for some subjects more than others. For those more difficult subjects, a memorized checklist can help you stay focused if you get an essay question on that subject during the bar exam.

Checklists are a quick and easy tool for focusing your studies in the final days before the bar exam. I wish you the best as you study for the bar!

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Filed under Bar Exam, Study Tips

Using Study Groups to Develop Hypothetical Practice Questions

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday, we explored some of the dos and don’ts for effective law school study groups. Today, I want to take that discussion a step further and explain how the members of your study group can develop your own hypothetical practice questions as you prepare for final exams.

One way to test your understanding of course material in law school is to go through hypothetical questions, but your casebooks and commercial study aids often have a limited number of practice questions. Students often ask me where they can find more practice questions, and I always explain that it is possible to create your own hypotheticals. This approach is particularly effective if you participate in a study group. For the best results, you should first complete your outline of the legal issue(s) you want to practice.

Here are 5 steps for creating hypothetical practice questions:

  1. Identify specific legal issues that you want to practice. The best issues for this purpose are complex issues—the kind that you might have some difficulty with on an exam. For example, in Civil Procedure you might want to practice how you would apply the law to fact patterns where the Erie Doctrine or Subject Matter Jurisdiction was at issue. For Constitutional Law, you might choose to focus on Equal Protection or Due Process issues. For Evidence, maybe you want to explore some of the hearsay exceptions.
  2. Assign each member of your study group a time period or jurisdiction for their hypotheticals. Taking this approach ensures that two people do not bring the same hypothetical to the next group meeting. For example, if your group is going to study the Erie Doctrine, maybe one person looks for Erie cases from the Second Circuit, another looks for cases from the First Circuit, and the third looks for cases from the Third Circuit. Just make sure that, if the law has changed in recent years, you do not assign time periods prior to any changes in the law.
  3. Each person will look for cases on Westlaw, LexisNexis, or other legal search platforms that focus on the legal issue your group has chosen. You may choose to create your own search terms or may look to see what other cases have cited the cases you studied in class. Just make sure that any cases you choose are still good law! (An added benefit to this process is that you practice your research skills as well!)
  4. Look for cases that have a well-developed but concisely worded set of facts and good explanations of the legal outcomes. The statements of facts from your cases will become the foundation for your hypotheticals, and the court’s explanations are your answer keys for the hypotheticals.
  5. Have each member of the study group bring 3 to 5 hypotheticals to your group’s next meeting. Take turns having each person present one of their hypotheticals. The other members of the group should talk through their legal analysis for that hypothetical, based upon their outlining and studying prior to the group meeting. After the group’s analysis is complete, the person who brought the hypothetical should explain how the court actually resolved the legal issue(s) in the underlying case.

Taking this approach, your study group can create an endless number of hypothetical questions. The process of talking through the legal analysis for these hypotheticals, as well as explaining how the court actually resolved the legal issues in this case, will improve your understanding of important legal issues and provide practice for how you should analyze similar fact patterns in your exams.

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Outlines, Study Tips

Using Study Groups to Study for Final Exams

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With final exams coming up soon, I’ve had a number of law students ask me about how to use study groups to study for final exams. Study groups can be very helpful as you are preparing for finals—if you take the right approach. But it’s important to avoid some common pitfalls associated with study groups if you want to maximize their value in the upcoming weeks. Today, we will explore some of the Dos and Don’ts associated with law school study groups.

Don’t use study groups to divide up the work. Sometimes law students think that study groups can provide a shortcut for creating an outline. They will divide up the course materials among the members of the group, with each person only creating one part of the outline. The problem with this approach is that outlining is about synthesis. Some of the most important parts of law school learning take place as you weave together the course materials and figure out how everything fits together. Students who take the “divide and conquer” approach to outlining only fully understand the material that they have outlined on their own—if they are tested on the legal issues that others outlined, they do not tend to perform as well.

Instead, do use the study group to reinforce your own outlining. Some of the best study group meetings take place when everyone in the group has already tackled his or her own outline. Set a specific goal for what legal issues everyone must outline prior to the study group meeting. When the group comes together, you can compare what each person has done. If you have identified something you don’t understand, maybe another member of the group has figured that issue out and can explain it to you. You will be better off as you begin to see how others have interpreted the course materials, and you can clarify your own understanding of the legal issues. Even students who are teaching other members of the group benefit in this environment, as the process of teaching the material helps the teacher to understand it even better as well.

Don’t let study groups become a time drain. Sometimes study groups meet for long periods of time without really accomplishing anything. Law students usually have limited time available to study, and it’s important that your group study sessions do not degenerate into a gossip fest or otherwise not accomplish its goals.

Instead, do create an agenda for each study group meeting. Get the members of your study group to set goals for what you want to accomplish at each meeting, and create a plan for how you will accomplish those goals. Make sure that the study group stays on track at each meeting so that your goals are accomplished and your time is used effectively.

Don’t schedule so many study group meetings that you don’t have time to study on your own. Study groups can be one effective way to study, but as I talked about before, it is important to have the time to work on your own outlines as well.

Instead, do schedule study group meetings to ensure that you maximize both your personal study time and the benefits of the group. If properly spaced out, study group meetings can provide additional motivation for your studies and a system of accountability. There is nothing like knowing that someone else expects you to have something done to help you stay on track with your personal study plans.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post, when I will explain how a study group can be used to create and explore hypothetical practice questions! And happy studying!

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Outlines, Study Tips

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

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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