Tag Archives: law school success

6 Ways that Law School is Different than Undergrad

Most students find the transition from undergraduate student to law student challenging because law school is unlike anything they have previously experienced. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways that law school is different than undergrad. In all, there are 6 major differences related to your academic success as a law student.

1. Your law professor is not just going to stand up in front of the class and lecture while you take notes. It’s rare that law professors lecture to their classes. Instead, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks you questions about the assigned cases, and you must be prepared to answer. Many of the questions are in the form of hypotheticals that require you to think about what you have read and apply it to new fact patterns. There’s a lot to be learned in class, but you must be an active participant in the learning process. Even if you aren’t the one the professor is calling on, you need to be thinking through what your answers to the questions would be, and identifying the things you don’t understand and need to explore further.

2. Reading 20 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer to complete your reading! One reason for this difference is that the language of law is different from that of other disciplines, and it takes a while to learn it. You will have to look up a lot of words and phrases in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and many cases may take three (or even more) reads before you understand the important stuff. You cannot skim what you read in law school; instead, you must think about the meaning behind everything that you read to make sure that you understand enough to be able to answer those questions during class and apply what you are learning to solve new legal problems.

3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you often have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many law school grades are based upon a single exam! What is the potential problem with this? If you do not adopt other methods for self-assessment of your understanding of course materials, you may not realize that you don’t understand until you’ve already received your final grade. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful. But if you pay attention to the strategies I discuss in this blog, you will develop tools for self-assessment that help you take control over your learning process and reduce those feelings of stress.

4. In law school, you are in charge of your own learning. For the most part, if you are not called on during class, no one will know if you don’t do the reading on any given day. In many cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK or if you have caught up on the material. No one forces you to review material after class is over, and your professors won’t follow up to make sure that you are outlining course materials in preparation for final exams. Instead, it will be up to you to motivate yourself and remain disciplined in your approach to your studies and classes. If you don’t, you will find yourself in academic danger by the end of the course. If you slack off for a few weeks during the semester, you may never get caught back up again—and that is your responsibility, no one else’s.

5. In law school, professional expectations begin the first day of Orientation. These expectations actually contribute to your academic success, but they also contribute to your professional reputation as a future lawyer. What am I talking about here? As a law student, you are expected to be timely (both in terms of your presence and completion of assignments), prepared for class, willing to contribute to class discussions, and respectful (even when you disagree with someone else). In reality, these are not necessarily different expectations than existed in your undergraduate classes, but the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be much greater in law school.

6. Everyone is smart, and they are used to getting good grades. People who choose to go to law school have usually been pretty successful in undergrad. The result: law schools are filled with smart students who are accustomed to getting good grades. Many students find it hard to adjust to this difference, as they go from being praised by their undergraduate professors, earning the top grades, and generally being successful in everything they do, to being the “average” student in law school. Moreover, many law schools have mandatory grade distributions, which means that only a small percentage of each class will earn an A for the course. Your identity as a successful may be challenged by this new environment, and it may take some time to figure out who you are as a law student and future lawyer.

Although these six differences mean that the first weeks and months of law school are a challenging transition period, there are things that you can do to take control of your learning process in this new environment and set yourself up for academic and professional success. In the next several weeks, I’ll be posting more articles about what new students can expect in their first several weeks in law school, as well as strategies for success.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

Should Law Students Join Study Groups?

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First-year law students always ask me if they should join a study group, and the answer that I always give them is “It depends.” What works best for one student may not work as well for another. For example, your preferred learning style may influence your decision to join a study group. Students who are aural learners or kinesthetic learners may find study groups particularly beneficial if the study group talks through legal issues or acts them out, while a study group that creates diagrams or outlines on a whiteboard may be more appealing to visual learners or reading and writing learners. How members of a study group approach their group studies may also affect how productive it is.

Here are some tips for making a study group a successful part of your learning strategy in law school:

(1) Accountability: The best study groups create a system of accountability for participants. Have members of the group create a set of ground rules at the first meeting. For example, what happens if someone is not prepared for the meeting? How will the group handle disagreements? Each member of the group will know what is expected, and there will be a predetermined way to handle any disagreements.

(2) Make a Plan: Also related to accountability, it is important for the study group to have a plan. If the group does not set goals for what it wants to accomplish and has no plan for each meeting, group meetings are likely to be less productive—in fact, a group meeting without a plan is often a complete waste of time. There’s nothing more frustrating than showing up for a group study session and having it turn into a social occasion instead, especially if time is at a premium (as it so often is in law school!).

(3) Optimum Size: Not every study group will be the same size, but it is important not to let a group get too large. A study group is not a workshop or seminar, but an opportunity for every member to actively participate and contribute. Some study groups only have two members; others may have as many as four or five. Much more than that and it will be difficult for everyone to benefit from the group. You will start having private conversations taking place on the periphery of the group, detracting from the study group’s larger purpose.

(4) Diversity of Membership: Law students often are drawn to people like themselves, but it is good to have diversity in a study group. What do I mean by diversity? Consider studying with people who are different than you—when people come at their studies from different perspectives and experiences, it benefits everyone involved. Invite people of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or sexes to join the group. If you are from a rural area, study with someone from a city. Invite a law student with a disability to join your group. It can be good to have group members of different ages, with different work experiences. Even recruiting students with different learning styles can be good—sometimes it helps to change up the way that you study periodically. If you study with a diverse group of students, their perspectives may help you to have a better understanding of legal issues than you would have had on your own.

(5) No Shortcuts!: Finally, a cautionary word about study groups. Students sometimes view study groups as a shortcut. They may try to divide up the work among members of the group in an attempt to reduce their individual study loads. For example, a group might decide that its members will take turns creating case briefs for class reading assignments or will each create part of an outline for one of their courses. This approach is a recipe for disaster. If you take this approach, you will not understand the course material at the level that you need to know it for success in class discussion, the final exam, or the bar exam. Resist any temptation to turn your study group into a shortcut, as you will regret it in the end.

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Making the Best Use of Study Aids

Study aids come in a variety of forms, such as treatises, hornbooks, commercial outlines, and study guides. Sometimes your professors will assign study aids as either required or suggested reading for a course. Often, the professor has selected this additional material because it supplements the reading from the casebook in some way. Many law students also purchase study aids on their own, without a professor’s recommendation, or they may check them out of the law school library.

So what is the value of a study aid? If used properly, study aids can enhance your understanding of what you are studying. The key is to do your assigned reading first, and then, after you have created your case brief, refer to any supplemental materials to clarify things that you didn’t understand. Or, if you are in the process of synthesizing course materials and creating an outline, you might use a study aid as a way of checking your understanding of the law. Some study aids contain practice multiple choice and essay questions that can be used as you are studying for your exams.

Where problems arise is when law students attempt to rely upon study aids as their primary way of learning new material. Keep in mind that you need to know what your professor expects you to know. Exams are based upon assigned course materials, and the study aids will have information that is presented differently or has not even been covered in your course. Learning is a process in law school—you gain more and more understanding of the law by going through various layers of studying and learning—reading cases, creating case briefs, taking notes in class, reviewing and updating your case briefs and notes, and synthesizing course materials by outlining or some equivalent process. If you skip multiple steps in the learning process, you will not know the law at the level that you need to know it for your law school exams or the bar exam. As with other areas of the law school experience, attempts to take shortcuts will backfire.

Another problem that law students have is that they are overwhelmed by the number of study aids out there and don’t know which one(s) to choose for each class. Costs add up and, for many law students, purchasing very many study aids is just not an option. Not all study aids will be equally valuable—they vary in format, and what works for one class may not work for another. Before buying any study aids, talk to your law professors and see what they recommend for your classes. If your law school library has study aids, look through them first to see what you find most helpful. Academic Support offices also often have study aids that you can look through or borrow.

The bottom line is that study aids can complement your other study efforts, but they can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work.

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Asking Good Questions in Law School

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One skill that law students should develop is the ability to ask good questions. I’m talking about “big” questions here, not questions about small details of the cases that you’ve read. There are going to be many times in law school where you don’t understand something that you read or that was addressed in class. As a law student, you want to develop the ability to ask good questions.

Asking good questions is a way to give your professors the tools that they need to help you understand the law better. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most law students start their Civil Procedure course by learning about personal jurisdiction. In the first few several weeks of the course, you will read multiple cases about personal jurisdiction, and your professor will use numerous hypotheticals to expand your understanding of that legal issue. It doesn’t help you or your professor if you raise your hand in class, or go to his office during office hours, and say, “I don’t understand personal jurisdiction. Can you explain it again?” It would take a really long time for your professor to reteach several weeks of material to you a second time, and it is probably just a part of the issue that you don’t understand, not the entire subject.

Your questions (and your professor’s answers) will be more helpful if you do some preliminary work first. Here are two important tips for developing good questions:

(1) If you don’t understand a particular legal issue that you are studying, trying to reason your way through it first. Reread your case brief and class notes, and even go back to the cases and read the relevant parts.

(2) Take the time to figure out what you do know, and then ask yourself, “What do I actually not know?” Maybe a particular legal test has four elements. You determine that you actually do understand elements 1, 3, and 4, and it is just element 2 that is giving you problems. By narrowing down what you don’t understand about the issue, you will be able to craft good questions.

If you take the time to do a little advance work and tailor narrow questions, you will give your professor the tools he or she needs to be able to help you.

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5 Tips for Maximizing Your Casebook Reading in Law School

Sometimes students get so focused on the case that they’re reading that they miss other information that could help them to understand the case and put it in context. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for maximizing your casebook reading in law school:

(1) Pay attention to the table of contents and chapter and section headings. If you look at where the case falls in the table of contents and use chapter and section headings as a guide, you’ll know more about the legal issue in the case, even before you start reading it.

(2) Read the introduction. Sometimes casebooks have introductions at the beginning of chapters or just prior to the case that provide more context for the case.

(3) Pay close attention to the notes that follow the case to gain more context for what you are reading. Professors often assign the notes at the end of the case as well. Don’t be tempted to treat these notes as less important than the case—the notes often offer additional insight into the case that you just read.

(4) Work through questions and hypotheticals before class. The notes after the case may also contain questions and hypotheticals—working through those questions and hypotheticals before you go into class may help you answer your professor’s questions if you’re called on in class. If you are an introvert or find the prospect of being called out in class stressful, you can use these note questions and hypotheticals to practice how you will approach your professor’s questions during class. Sometime just the process of practicing something in advance can help you feel more comfortable about how to handle being called on in class. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you may find the questions and hypotheticals particularly helpful as you study.

(5) Look for new cases in the notes that develop a more nuanced approach to the law that you’re studying. If you find new cases mentioned in the notes, think carefully about what those cases add to your understanding of the law. Ask yourself: How does this case relate to the case that came before it? Does it take a similar approach to the law? Does it further develop some element of the law that was introduced in the previous case? Or, does it illustrate a different approach to that law? Does it demonstrate the effect of different facts on how the law is applied? These types of questions not only help you to understand that particular note case but may also shed additional light on the larger case that you’ve just read.

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What to Include in Your Law School Notes

Yesterday, we explored some basic strategies to taking effective notes in law school. Sometimes law students have a hard time determining what they should include in their class notes. Today, I will focus specifically on what good notes include. Although what you should take notes of can differ depending on the subject and the professor, here are some good general strategies for taking notes in your law school classes.

First, pay attention to what the professor says in class. If a professor says that something is important, you want to make a note of that. If the professor states that there is a 3-part test for some legal concept, make sure that you write down what those 3 steps are. If the professor talks about overarching themes or compares two cases to each other, note that as well. In other words, your best guide for what you should be taking notes about, what is important from assigned readings, and what might be tested on the exam is your professor. This is one reason why taking good notes in law school is so important. Students who take few if any notes won’t have this important information later when they start synthesizing course materials and studying for exams. In contrast, students who create a transcript of what happens in class won’t be able to differentiate between important information and unimportant information.

Second, remember that in the long term what the professor says in class is much more important than what your fellow students say. Sometimes students struggle with how to take notes when the professor uses Socratic Method. When taking notes in this situation, focus your notes on what the professor has asked and what the hypotheticals are about. Keep in mind that student answers may not always be accurate and on-point. Depending on what is going on in class, the professor may not take the time to point out a student’s inaccurate statements and provide the correct answer. There is also another benefit to this approach—rather than transcribing the student’s response to the professor’s questions, you can be engaged in that discussion yourself. Follow along mentally with the discussion, answering the questions in your head and comparing your answers to the other student’s answers. Make note of things that you can’t answer on your own, so that you can go back and review that material later.

Third, make careful note of any hypotheticals. Professors use hypotheticals as a way of helping students learn the nuances of the law. Maybe you have read two cases that illustrate differences in how courts resolve a legal issue. The professor may use additional hypotheticals, involving the same legal issue but different facts, to help the class better understand how courts apply the law to resolve that particular legal issue. Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations, and the more practice you have with them, the more comfortable you will be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when it’s time to take your exams.

Finally, sometimes professors begin class by summarizing what was covered in previous class sessions, or they may spend a little time creating a context for the current day’s reading assignment. Professors also may summarize important points from class materials at the end of class. Make sure that you take notes from these summaries, as they provide additional insight into what your professor views as important.

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Taking Effective Notes in Law School

When most people think of taking notes, they think of sitting in a classroom and taking notes while the professor lectures. In undergrad, note-taking is often a pretty passive task—students write down what the professor is saying without really processing what is going on in class. Once class has ended, the note-taking process has ended. Some students don’t take notes in class at all, instead relying upon other course materials when they study for exams.

Your approach to taking notes in law school should be very different. The first thing that new law students need to understand is that effective note-taking is a cyclical process. Your case briefs are the foundation for your class notes—by creating case briefs, you are creating a set of notes that you can rely upon in class. Then, when you go into class, you should take additional notes about what happens during class. Many law students stop at this point, but there is still a third step to creating good notes. After class is over, you should spend a little time reviewing your notes from class, elaborating upon things you didn’t have enough time to jot down during class and correcting any errors in your notes. You should also use your class notes to clarify your case briefs. Complete this review of your class notes as soon as possible after class has ended because your memory of what happened in class will still be fresh.

Should you take notes by hand or on your computer? There’s an ongoing debate over whether law students should take notes by hand or on their computers. Some professors don’t allow computers in the classroom, and in those circumstances your decision is simple—you will take notes by hand. Most professors do allow computers in the classroom, however, and that means you will have to make the choice about what is right for you.

There are studies that have found that students who take notes by hand are able to remember lectures better than those who type their notes. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that, when you handwrite notes, you are required to think more about what you are going to write—the cognitive process is different. Because most people cannot write as fast as they type, it isn’t possible to create a transcript of everything that is said during class. Instead, someone who handwrites has to process information differently so that they can write down the important things that were said in class.

Students who take notes on their computers have a tendency to try to write down every word. When you create a literal transcript of what happens in class, you are not really processing that information. Thus, if you choose to take notes on your computer, you will need to take a disciplined approach to your note-taking. Students who use computers also have to resist the urge to be distracted, as there is always the temptation to check social media sites, surf the internet, and message friends.

Check back in tomorrow for another blog post on this topic—I will be talking about what law students should include in their course notes!

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4 Tips for Handling Criticism

Receiving criticism can be a difficult experience. As a law student and future lawyer, you will receive criticism on a regular basis–and it won’t always be presented in a positive way. One form of criticism you may receive happens in the classroom when the professor is not satisfied with a response you gave to a question. You also receive criticism in the form of feedback you get from judges after moot court or trial competitions, or, most commonly, in comments on graded assignments.

It is easy to react negatively when we receive criticism. Often, criticism can make us feel defensive–we may feel that we are under attack. Some people respond to criticism by shutting down emotionally–but it really is an opportunity for growth. The time spent in law school can be an opportunity to learn how to handle criticism in a productive way. If you approach it with the right attitude, you will grow even more as a law student and attorney. You will also find getting feedback less stressful.

Here are some tips for turning criticism into opportunities for positive growth:

Recognize that criticism is almost never personal. You may say, “Of course it’s personal! It’s directed towards me!” That’s true, but criticism is rarely about who you are as a person. Instead, criticism is usually related to your actions (or inactions), things that relate to your interactions or communications with others.  Recognizing that criticism is not meant to be a personal attack is the first step in learning how to handle criticism.

Don’t immediately react–instead, listen. Resist the urge to react defensively when you first receive criticism. Instead, listen to what the other person is saying. When we immediately start thinking of our response to what someone else is saying, we quit listening. If you listen, you will identify more opportunities for growth.

Reframe criticism as something positive. If you make the conscious choice to reframe criticism as a tool for further improvement, you will take away some of its sting. Changing how you think about criticism may not be easy, but, if you reframe how you think about it every time you catch yourself having a negative response, you will be open to those opportunities for growth.

View criticism as a communication of the other person’s needs. When you receive criticism, it may be because what you have provided to the other person doesn’t entirely meet their requirements or needs. If you listen closely to criticism in those situations, you will be able to tailor your responses to the situation in a way that is most helpful to that other person.

Learning how to handle criticism in the right way helps you to not make the same mistakes twice. When you begin to view criticism as an opportunity for growth rather than a negative experience, you will change how others view you as well. You will gain a reputation for being a good listener (a critical skill in the legal profession), and your professors, supervisors, and bosses will come to rely on your positive responses when they give you feedback. Truly, learning how to handle criticism in one of the keys to success in law school–and in the legal profession!

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Time Management and Law School Success

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One quality that successful law students have is effective time management skills. Time management is important not only because you have to be able to manage your time in order to get everything done in law school but also because it can help to reduce your stress and keep your priorities (both academic and personal) in focus.

Regardless of whether you are a full-time or part-time student, you should approach law school as a job with regular hours. Create a schedule for yourself. The schedule should allow you to see what you need to be doing hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and month by month, throughout the entire semester. Some students choose to keep an electronic planner, accessible on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Others use hardbound organizer or academic calendar.

Whether you choose an electronic calendar or hard copy organizer, here are some things to keep in mind as you create your schedule:

  • Set aside time for everything you need to do during the day: your classes, work schedule, and any other commitments that you have outside of law school. Don’t forget about time traveling to and from school as well, especially if you have a significant commute.
  • Block out study time for each of your classes. The general rule of thumb is that you should spend approximately three hours outside of class studying for each hour that you spend in class. For example, if you have Torts on Mondays for one and a half hours, you will then need to schedule at least four and a half hours to read and brief cases for that class. As a new law student, you may find that it takes you even longer at first to get through your assignments, as you are still learning some of the foundational things you need to be successful in each of your classes. This is very different from most students’ experience in undergrad, where assignments could usually be completed in much less time. If you do not schedule enough time to prepare for each of your classes, you will fall behind in your studies, and it will be difficult to catch back up.
  • As you schedule time to study, ask yourself: “When is my brain most alert? Do I remember things better first thing in the morning, or am I rejuvenated and ready to tackle difficult reading for several hours in the evening after I go running or go to the gym?” Schedule your most difficult tasks for the times that you are freshest, and you will maximize your use of your time.
  • Don’t forget to set aside time in your schedule to take good care of yourself. Set aside time for meals, exercise, and breaks. You will come back to your studies refreshed and much more ready to tackle the difficult cases if you schedule this type of time into your day.

Make sure that you periodically reassess your schedule. You may find that your reading in certain classes goes faster than others, or that there are weeks when you need to schedule in more time to work on a Legal Writing assignment. Tweaking your schedule will maximize its effectiveness.

 

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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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