Tag Archives: 1L

An Introduction to Law School Grades for New Law Students

In a previous post, I mentioned that the law school grading system is very different from the one that students experienced in undergrad. In reality, one of the least understood and most feared aspects of the law school experience is the grading system. Misunderstandings and fear primarily occur for 3 reasons: (1) law school grades are calculated much differently than your grades were in undergrad; (2) students expect that the same amount of work that it took to get an “A” in undergrad will work to get an “A” in law school; and (3) many law students believe that the only acceptable grade in any course is an “A.”

The Grading System: Let’s start with a discussion of how the grading system works at many law schools. Although not all law schools follow this approach to grades, the majority take an approach similar to what I will describe. Many law schools have a policy for how grades are distributed in each course—in other words, how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs that a professor should assign, and what the median grade should be for each course. For example, the grading policy at Law School X might direct the professor to assign approximately 15-20% As, 35-40% Bs, 30-35% Cs, and 5-10% Ds and Fs. Not all law schools have the same grade distribution, and the policy may be different for 1L classes than it is for upper-level classes. Regardless, the end result is that not everyone will get an “A”—or even a “B”—in each law school class.

Student Expectations: New law students’ expectations about grades are generally based upon their experiences in undergrad. If you’ve been successful in the past and earned high grades, you generally expect that you will earn similar grades in law school. Some law students view the grade system I’ve just described as unfair because they believe that they’re being penalized by the limits on how many high grades can be earned in a particular class. In reality, the requirements for earning an “A” are much greater in law school, and the same amount of work—or quality of work—that you did in undergrad to get an “A” does not get you as far in law school. It is much more difficult to perform at an “A” level in law school classes, and the grade distribution is usually a pretty fair estimate of how students actually perform. The end result: you will have to recalibrate your expectations about what is required of you for “A” work as a law student.

Although High Grades Have Value, They Should Not Be Your Most Important Goal in Law School: Don’t get me wrong. Grades are important. There are certain types of jobs that require high grades, like judicial clerkships and associate attorney positions at BigLaw firms. But even the people who ultimately obtain those positions have generally not made straight As, and the vast majority of legal jobs do not require that you graduate in the top 10 percent of your class. Instead of obsessing over grades, you will be better served by focusing your attention on learning the law to become the best lawyer you can be. (In fact, there are studies that show that people who have these kinds of internal motivations tend to be more successful than those who are motivated by external goals such as grades, money, and fame.)

Finally, You’re Not Defined by the First Grades You Earn in Law School: Sometimes, students believe that if they earn a “C” in a law school class their first semester, they’re just not cut out to be a lawyer and should quit law school. Although a “C” may indicate that you don’t understand the material as well as you should or don’t yet have exam skills required for long-term success, a “C” grade does not usually signal that you can’t be successful in law school and the practice of law. As I’ve discussed before here and here, grades provide helpful information that you can use to improve your performance in law school in the future. Even if you don’t earn the grades you hope to receive in your first semester, you can improve your performance in subsequent semesters, especially if you work with the academic support professionals at your law school. Sometimes it just takes students longer to perfect their personal approach to learning in law school—if you’re disciplined in your approach to your studies in the long-term and strive to constantly improve, you have the ability to reach your full potential as a law student and future lawyer.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

Introduction to Socratic Method for New Law Students

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week we explored some ways that law school is different than undergrad. In that post, I explained that what happens in the law school classroom can be different than a new student’s previous learning experiences. Today, I want to talk more about Socratic Method, one of the most common (and most feared!) approaches to teaching in law school.

So what is so different about Socratic Method? In most undergraduate classes, here’s what happens: The professor stands in front of the class and lectures. He may use powerpoint slides to keep the lecture focused and provide important information for students, or maybe he writes ideas on a blackboard or whiteboard. Most students sit in their seats and take notes, either by hand or on a computer. A few students may be texting, talking to a classmate, or reading the school newspaper. If a student has a question, she may raise her hand to get the professor’s attention. In most classes, students don’t face much pressure to absorb assigned readings before coming to class; the classroom is not a stressful environment until it’s time to take an exam.

This type of description does not apply to most law school classes. Instead of lecturing, the law professor often will use Socratic Method. Students complete assigned readings before coming to each class. Once class begins, the law professor asks students questions about the law, and the students answer. Often, the professor asks students to apply what they have learned from one case to a new hypothetical situation. This question and answer process creates a dialogue about the law at issue in that particular class. So why is this approach so scary and stressful for law students?

First, many professors who use Socratic Method “cold call” on students. A cold call is where the student does not know in advance that she will be on the hot seat. The professor calls on students in a random order, and you must be prepared to answer any question if your name is called. This can be stressful for students who are shy and do not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. If you didn’t understand that day’s reading assignment, you may particularly dread being called on by the professor. On the flip side, being called on can build your confidence as you learn to articulate your understanding of the law, and it can help you to develop strategies to manage your fear of public speaking. It also makes students feel more accountable for the reading, as you never know when you may be called on and need to come to class prepared.

Second, Socratic Method does not necessarily create bright-line answers to legal questions. A professor who uses Socratic Method may not resolve legal issues or tell students what the “right answer” is at the end of class. In fact, sometimes students feel more confused by the class dialogue than they did going into class that day. Although students may find this approach frustrating, it helps them to understand that the answers to legal questions often depend on specific factual circumstances. As you continue to process the course materials and think about what was discussed during class, you will begin to synthesize that information and create your own understanding of the law.

Third, some students feel humiliated if they don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. There is nothing worse than that feeling of dread and humiliation when you are called upon and don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. You may be accused of not doing the reading, or the professor may be able to talk you in circles because you don’t have confidence in your answers. Every law student has had those days when, even if she has read the assigned reading three or four times, she just doesn’t quite understand the material yet. Having the professor call on you can be stressful in those circumstances.

Fourth, students often don’t know how to take good notes in classes that use Socratic Method. How do you keep from creating a transcript of what happens in class and instead focus on distilling the important information out of a class discussion? This is something that is difficult to do at first, and the uncertainty can leave students either writing way too much down or missing important information from class.

Law students can find classes taught by Socratic Method stressful, but there are things that you can do to reduce the stress and get the most out of this type of learning experience. Stay tuned over the next several weeks as I talk more about this topic and other topics for new and returning law students!

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Learning the Language of Law: Tips for Incoming Law Students

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The first weeks of law school can feel a lot like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t know the language. As you read your course assignments, there will be many words you don’t understand. Additionally, much of the law that you will study has a context that you won’t have learned yet. Even the culture of law school is different from what you’ve experienced in the past—many courses taught by Socratic method, with the professor asking you questions rather than lecturing; new expectations for professional behavior; and class assignments that require much more time and effort than you likely have experience with.

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. 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 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. Often state and federal court websites provide helpful information as well. 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.

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. But a little research before the first day will make you feel less like an alien wandering in a foreign land.

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Keeping Priorities in Focus When Starting Law School

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In only a couple more months, many of you will be heading off to law school for the first time. As we have discussed previously, your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience. When we are extremely busy, it can be easy to lose sight of the things that are our greatest priorities—especially if we have not made conscious decisions regarding what our priorities actually are. Regardless of your background and experiences, the summer before you start law school can be a great time to evaluate your priorities and make sure that they are front and foremost in your mind as law school begins.

So what do I mean when I talk about “priorities”? Priorities are the things that we value the most. They can include personal goals we have, such as financial goals, educational goals, or other things we want to achieve. They can include relationships—friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Priorities may include things like our physical and mental health, religious beliefs, or other tangible or intangible things that have value to us. Priorities are very personal—the things that are most important to you may not be the same for someone else.

While we may have a number of general priorities, usually there are four or five priorities that are most important to us. Moreover, sometimes priorities change over time, and it is a good idea to evaluate priorities periodically to make sure that they still reflect what is most important to you. This summer, take the time to decide what your highest priorities are.

Once you have made deliberate decisions about what your priorities are, keep them in mind as you start law school. When you are creating a schedule of what you want to accomplish, make sure that your highest priorities are not edged out by activities that don’t contribute to those priorities or are less important. When you are deciding whether you should commit to something else in your busy day, such as a club or other extracurricular activity, measure it against your priorities to see if it will support them. Make sure that one priority does not eclipse other things that are important in your life.

If you have consciously identified your most important priorities, you can use them as a compass to keep you on the right path when life gets busy. Keep your priorities in focus as you get ready for law school in the fall!

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On Academic Probation?: Advice for Struggling Law Students

Now that the school year is over, grades are trickling in from those 1L classes. Hopefully, your hard work this past year has paid off, and you have successfully completed all of your classes. Sometimes students aren’t happy with their grades though, and they may find themselves on academic probation, or at least in the lower portion of their class, at the end of that first year. If you find yourself in this position, where do you go from here? It’s important to take law school grades seriously because they can be an important indicator of future success on the bar exam.

Law students may receive low grades for a number of reasons, as explained below. Many of these reasons may not apply to you, but it is important to honestly evaluate yourself and decide what you need to do moving forward.

First, you need to make sure that law school is where you want to be. For some students, lower grades are a sign of lack of passion. Maybe they went to law school because that’s what everyone told them they should do, or maybe they just didn’t know what else to do after they graduated from college. Others thought they wanted to be a lawyer, but the reality of law school wasn’t what they expected or wanted. Take stock of your own personal goals, and make sure that law school is really where you want to be. If you have decided that it really isn’t for you, then you should devote your energies to something that you can get excited about doing instead. If law school is really where you want to be, then consider the advice below.

Second, you need to honestly evaluate your efforts during your 1L year. Sometimes, when students are honest with themselves, they really didn’t put in the time and effort required to be successful in law school. Maybe they had other things distracting them during their first year, or they thought that their approach to college would be enough to get them by in law school as well. If you decide that you really want to be in law school but you fall into this camp, you will need to commit yourself to working harder next year. You may want to talk to a dean, academic support professional, or professor about how to create a study plan for next year that will improve your discipline and lead to greater academic success.

Third, you should evaluate whether a learning disability or other physical or mental condition is interfering with your success on exams. Some students figure out during their first year of law school that they have an undiagnosed learning disability such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). If you are concerned that you have a disability that may be affecting your ability to perform well on exams, you should talk to the academic support professionals at your law school. They may recommend that you see a medical professional for testing and diagnosis. Sometimes students who have disabilities need accommodations on exams, such as additional time or a distraction-free environment, so that they can fully show their understanding of the legal principles and skills being tested.

Finally, you may just need to work with the academic support professionals at your law school to develop your academic skills a little further. For many students, the transition to law school is just not a smooth experience. Maybe you’ve come from a degree program that has emphasized other types of skills, and you just need to work on your analytical skills or writing skills more. Maybe you have been out of school for a number of years, and you just need some help developing the type of study skills that will put you on the right track to academic success. Or maybe you are just the type of person that taken a little longer to have things click for you. There are people at your law school who can be tremendous resources in your efforts to improve your academic performance in your second year of law school, and I urge you to take advantage of their willingness to work with you.

The key to your ultimate success is to take control of your academic performance–honestly assess your position and seek help when necessary.

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What Should You Do the Summer Before Starting Law School?

Congratulations on being admitted to law school! The next few years will be a time of challenges, opportunities, frustrations, and successes. Law school will be hard work, but, if you approach it the right way, it will also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. So, what should you do this summer before you enter law school? Here are a few suggestions:

Learn more about what to expect during your first year in law school. For many law students, the first semester of law school can be a real shock. Law school is like nothing you have ever experienced. Talk to current law students and lawyers about what to expect during the first week, month, and semester in law school. Ask them what they wished they had known as a new 1L. There are also a number of good books out there for new law students. These books can provide more information about what it is like to be a law student, what skills you need to develop (and even some suggestions about how to develop those skills), and what the language of law school means. You don’t need to read every book out there though—one or two is probably sufficient to get you started.

Some books that you may find helpful (in no particular order):

Starting Off Right in Law School (2nd ed.), by Carolyn J. Nygren. This book is an interesting read, as it uses a fictional case to introduce students to the vocabulary and skills of law school and legal practice.

Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul. This book discusses the differences between undergrad and law school approaches to studying, explains how legal reasoning works and how to apply legal reasoning to class and exam preparation. Much of the focus is on how to perform well on law school exams, and it may be most helpful to read once you are part way through your first semester.

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (3rd ed.), by Andrew J. McClurg. This book provides a straightforward explanation of what to expect during the first year of law school, including suggestions and comments from former law students.

Expert Learning for Law Students (2nd ed.), by Michael Hunter Schwartz. This book provides a lot of useful advice about how to tackle the various skills you need to develop and tasks that you must accomplish as a law student. It also helps you to understand more about how you learn, and how you can approach law school based upon your learning preferences.

Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert (2nd ed.), by Ruth Ann McKinney. This book focuses specifically on how you can develop the reading skills you need to effectively and efficiently read for law school.

Learning Outside the Box: A Handbook for Law Students Who Learn Differently, by Leah M. Christensen. This book is a great resource for students who learn differently from the average student, including those who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities that affect the way they learn.

This is not an exclusive list—there are certainly other books out there that may be helpful in introducing you to what to expect in your first year of law school. Ask law students you know about any books or other resources they have found particularly helpful.

Make your health a priority. There are a lot of studies out there that demonstrate links between taking good care of yourself—eating healthy foods, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep—and cognitive skills and stress management. Make lifestyle changes that improve your health even before law school begins, and continue those new habits into the school year. You will be better off for making your health a priority in the long run.

Finally, take some time to relax and recharge your batteries before law school begins this fall. Some people try to do too much during the summer before law school—reading every book about being a successful law student, trying to get a head start on first-year law school course materials, etc. Your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience, and it is important to go into it feeling rested and ready to tackle the challenge. Read for fun. Go on long walks. Spend time with friends and family. Do the things that make you happy and renew your spirit!

Stay tuned to this blog over the next couple of months–I will be adding additional posts on this topic!

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Pre-Law, Study Tips

Why Law Review?: Five Ways that Serving on a Law Review Contributes to Academic Success

It’s that time of year in law school when 1Ls (now rising 2Ls) are completing law review writing competitions, hoping for the invitation to join the journal of their choice. Sure, working on a law review staff is a lot of work, but there are also many benefits. For those of you who are on the fence about whether to join a law review, I thought I would put together a list of five ways that serving on a law review can contribute to your overall academic success in law school. Here it is:

1. You will gain an in-depth understanding of the BlueBook. No longer will you hesitate when trying to remember how to abbreviate case names, when there is a space after a period in a citation versus when there is not, or when it is proper to use “see” as a signal. Your newfound confidence in your Bluebooking expertise will serve you throughout the remainder of your law school days, as well as in law practice afterwards.

2. Working with good (and bad) writing helps to make you a better writer. The more writing that you read and critique, the better your own writing skills get. As you read and edit other people’s writing, you will become more conscious of your own writing. Of course, you will learn more about grammar through this process, but you will also learn about what it takes to write effectively—in other words, to communicate precisely, clearly, and concisely.

3. You will learn how to manage your time more efficiently. It is no secret that working on the staff of a law review requires significant time. And time is already in short supply in law school, as you discovered during your first year as a student. Juggling your journal work with your studies will inspire you to develop even better time management skills.

4. You will find new mentors. One of the greatest benefits to working on a law review is that you will develop new relationships with upper-level law students. During your 1L year, you take all of your classes with the same people, who are all 1Ls as well. Once you are a 2L, your classmates will be more diverse. Working with upper-level students on law review is a great way to make connections with some of those new classmates. They can be great resources for you, as they have more experience.

5. You will learn how to collaborate better with others. The law school environment tends to be pretty competitive, but law review is one place where you quickly learn the benefits of collaboration. The people skills you learn by working on a journal will help you not only in getting issues to press but also in classes where teamwork and cooperation is often essential, such as Negotiations, Mediation, and Trial Practice.

Only you know if working on a law review is the right thing for you—but, as you can see, there are a lot of hidden benefits to journal service!

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

Perfecting the Law School Outline

It may sound crazy to talk about how to outline when we are already three quarters of the way through the school year, but outlining is a skill that you can constantly improve—whether you are a 1L, 2L, or 3L. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss “best practices” for outlining. Maybe after reading this post, you will discover something that strengthens your outlining skills and make your outline do more work for you.

Of course, we use the word “outline,” but a law school outline can be so much more than a document organized by Roman numerals. While it is certainly possible to organize information from course materials using the traditional Roman numeral format, outlines can utilize many forms. Some students use bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information, while others use the tables function in Microsoft Word to create organized sections. Still others find Mind Mapping a useful technique. Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. You also may discover that what works for one class may not work as well for another. Outlines are personal and should support your understanding of how the course material comes together.

One reason why the outline is so important is that it really is the place where you learn the law. By synthesizing various course materials (case briefs, class notes, other assigned reading, etc.), you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and see connections among legal concepts. You also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

So what should your outline contain? Regardless of format, all strong outlines contain the same basic types of information. The first step is to make sure that your outline is organized around legal issues rather than cases. For each section, start with the legal issue that you are going to focus on. Make sure each section has the following parts, as applicable: (1) history/development of the legal issue over time (For example, when you studied personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law); (2) any rules/tests/factors relevant to the legal issue, along with any definitions of key legal terms; (3) policy arguments relevant to how courts decide this legal issue; (4) competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); (5) cases and hypotheticals illustrating components of the outline described above (in very brief form, focusing on facts relevant to understanding the legal issue that is the focus of this part of the outline); and (6) any observations about how this legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).

If your outline contains this information, it will be the only thing that you need to study for purposes of the final exam.  And, most importantly, you will gain a deeper understanding of legal concepts that will stay with you–not only for the final exam but for the bar exam and the practice of law.

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Filed under General, Outlines, Study Tips

The End of the World

About this time in the semester, law students get back a legal writing assignment, seminar paper draft, or other assignment from a professor. Sometimes, you may get a lower grade than you expected or hoped for, and it may be covered in red ink or its equivalent. At this point, you may be asking yourself if the decision to go to law school was really a good idea after all. There’s a temptation to start beating yourself up, to view this one grade as the summation of your current and future abilities as a law student, and to feel defeatist about how you will end up doing in the class at issue. Although it may feel like the end of the world at the time, a graded assignment–even if the grade is not what you hoped for–is actually an opportunity. I’m not saying that you are not entitled to feel disappointed or frustrated when you get it back, but don’t let those feelings prevent you from gaining the benefit of feedback.

Here’s how to get the most out of a graded assignment:

  1.  Carefully read over the assignment, focusing specifically on any feedback provided by the Professor. Go carefully through: (a) any notes and editing suggestions written in the assignment’s margins or text; (b) any additional comments/suggestions written at the end of the assignment; (c) any grading rubrics or grading-related handouts provided by the professor; and (d) any notes that you took when the professor discussed the assignment in class.
  2. Go back through the assignment a second time. This time, take notes about the feedback. Divide the notes into different categories, such as: (a) criticisms related to legal argument; (b) criticisms related to organization; (c) criticisms related to formatting; (d) criticisms related to grammar and punctuation; (e) criticisms related to strength of research; and (f) criticisms related to citations and Bluebooking. Make a list of questions that you have about the feedback.
  3. Make an appointment to see the professor about the assignment. Don’t argue about your grade. Instead, focus the appointment on understanding what you need to do better in the future. Come to the meeting with specific questions for the professor about things that you don’t understand or need further clarification about. If you are prepared for the appointment, you will get more out of it.
  4. You may also want to set up an appointment with the academic success office at your law school to work further on developing specific skills.
  5. Finally, create an action list from what you’ve learned from this entire process. When you do the next assignment, use that action list as a guide for writing and editing your work. Focus on not making the same mistakes twice.

Just remember: a graded assignment is an opportunity to learn important information and make progress towards your future academic and professional goals. If you approach it with that mindset, even when the grade is not what you hoped for, you will seize the opportunity for further growth!

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Filed under General, Grades, Law School Exams

Making it work

I have to confess that I’m a fan of Project Runway–or more accurately, I’m a fan of Tim Gunn’s approach to mentoring the fashion designers on the show. He walks around the workroom as the show’s contestants are in the midst of various design crises, providing insightful guidance and instructing them to “make it work.” That advice is just as applicable to law students, but how to “make it work” is not always clear.

The demands of law school can feel overwhelming at times, as students struggle to juggle many competing priorities. At this point in the semester, 1Ls have deadlines approaching for major assignments in legal writing, but at the same time they must keep up with the reading for their other classes.  Depending on the law school, there may be midterms looming, and outlining for torts or contracts or civil procedure or any other subject (or all of the above) may be falling further and further behind. What seems like the last straw may be that email from Career Services reminding you that applications for externships are due before spring break, or the realization that Summer is only two months away and you still don’t have any plan for what you are going to do.

It’s not like things are easier for 2Ls. Everyone assumes that you have everything figured out, but there is always that class (or sometimes more than one) that is more of a struggle. You may be juggling the demands of your classes with a part-time job or externship. The winter seems to be dragging on forever, and you also have the sudden realization that summer is not far away. If you haven’t sorted out your summer plans at this point, you may be feeling a sense of panic.

And let’s not forget the 3Ls. You are approaching the end of your law school experience, but that doesn’t mean that the challenges are over. Fine-tuning your approach to law school, even at this late date, could improve your chances of success on the bar exam.

This blog is for you–law students at every stage of the law school experience. The goal is to explore how to “make it work” for you–in other words, how to improve your level of academic success in law school.

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